Monday, April 4, 2011
Every year about this time, news stories come out, magazine articles are published, and tv programs are produced that seek to capitalize on the popularity of the Easter Season, while at the same time trying to raise doubts about the validity of Christianity in the process.
These have taken the forms of the DaVinci Code, the Gospel of Judas, implying that Mary Magdalene was Jesus wife, digging up the so-called tomb of Jesus, etc. etc.
This is irksome to me not only as a Christian Pastor, but also as a student of history, geography, and archaeology as well.
We need to remember that the truth of the matter is that there is only one religion in the world that has the kind of historical, geographical, archaeological, (even astronomical) evidence for the truth of its claims - and that is the Christian faith.
We could spend all day talking about the evidence for the truth claims of Christianity, but this morning, this April 3rd, we will focus on only one. This morning we will make the case for the day Christ died.
Let's begin with the basics.
At the time of Jesus Jews observed the Sabbath as a day of complete rest.
No work could be done on the Sabbath, which was a Saturday, and so Friday came to be known as Preparation Day. It was a day when food and other things needed for the Sabbath were prepared for in advance. All four Gospels state that Jesus was crucified on Preparation Day, a Friday.
Of course we all know this as Good Friday.
The Gospels record that the crucifixion occurred the day before the Passover festival.
This is an important clue, because it gives us a solid connection with the ancient Jewish calendar system. We know from history that Passover always began on the 14th day of the first Jewish month of Nisan.
Putting these together, we see that the death of Jesus must have occurred in a year when Nisan 14 happened to fall on a Friday. That narrows things down considerably.
Scripture as well as ancient historians record that Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Roman prefect of Judea for 10 years - 26 AD through 36 AD.
Now Jesus was born around 5 BC. (He would have been born after the census decreed by Caesar Augustus in 6 BC and before the death of King Herod in 4 BC.) The Gospel of Luke records that John the Baptist began his public ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberias Caesar, 29 AD. And Jesus began his public ministry when he "was about 30 years old". We know He would have been older than 30, because traditionally a Jewish man had to be at least 30 years old in order to be a prophet or priest in the service to the Lord.
Also, the Gospel of John records that there were three annual Passovers during Jesus' ministry.
So taken together, these pieces add up to a crucifixion date in the early 30's AD.
And during those years, the beginning of Passover, Nisan 14, fell on a Friday twice:
on April 7 of 30 AD and April 3 of 33 AD. To help us chose between those two dates, there is more evidence to consider.
After Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor at the time Jesus was born, came Tiberius Caesar.
After a number of years in charge of the world, he became weary of his daily Imperial duties.
He entered semi-retirement on the Island of Capri. While there, out of the public eye, he embraced a life of depravity and cruelty. Still, even for a degraded and absentee emperor there were the problems of government. So Tiberius appointed one Aelius Sejanus to be in charge of day to day operations. Sejanus turned out to be quite a cunning and ruthless man himself. He tried to plot his way to the throne, but Tiberius Caesar managed to find out about it, and had Sejanus arrested and executed before he could carry it out in 31 AD.
Why does all of this matter? Because Roman and Biblical history intersect. Before he went rogue, Sejanus made appointments of many Imperial officials, including one Pontius Pilate.
Because of this we know that after 31 AD, Pilate lived in a pretty lethal political context.
If Jesus trial and sentencing took place after this date, then Pilate's ambivalence toward Jesus and the Jewish leadership is not so strange after all— at this point in his career, his decisions could cost him his life! Knowing this helps us understand why Pilate would have dreaded the chanting of the Jews who demanded Christ's execution.
The date of Jesus death is becoming more and more clear.
Now its time to look for a sign in the heavens.
Remember the day of Pentecost, when the disciples were speaking in tongues and everyone thought they were drunk? Here is how Peter responds in Acts ch. 2...
"Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "`In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, signs, and wonders, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know."
Peter asserts that Joel's prophesy has been fulfilled and his listeners know it — they have seen the signs themselves. Peter's argument would have had no force unless the audience knew that the signs had occurred. He assumes everybody knew about the signs. Of particular interest for us: Joel said there would be astronomical signs. And Peter says, "you've seen them." Well, what were they?
"The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood..." The gospels recount that the sun was darkened on the day of the crucifixion from noon until 3 in the afternoon. Ancient sources confirm this. Phlegon records in his history, Olympiades:
"In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [33 AD], a failure of the Sun took place greater than any previously known, and night came on at the sixth hour of the day [noon], so that stars actually appeared in the sky; and a great earthquake took place in Bithynia and overthrew the greater part of Niceaea."
The prophet Joel mentions the "moon turned to blood". This has a specific meaning, for in ancient literature this meant a lunar eclipse. Why a bloody moon? Because when the moon is in eclipse it is in the Earth's shadow. It receives no direct light from the sun, but is lit only by the dim light refracted by the Earth's atmosphere. The moon in eclipse has a dull red glow, as I'm sure some of you know if you've seen one.
This is a pretty big deal, because we can determine exactly when eclipses have occurred in history. And at this point it probably won't surprise you to learn that only one lunar eclipse happened on Passover visible from Jerusalem while Pontius Pilate was in office. It occurred on April 3, 33 AD.
At 9 AM that day, Jesus was nailed to the cross. At noon the sky was darkened for three hours.
In the Temple, the thick veil or curtain was torn apart, from top to bottom, and a shattering earthquake split rocks and broke open tombs.
At 3 pm on Friday, the day of preparation, at the very same time the lambs would have been slaughtered before the Passover, Jesus, the Lamb of God, died for the sins of all the world.
At 3pm, on April 3rd, 33 AD.
Jesus of Nazareth, son of God and son of Man, died for your sins and for mine.
It all really happened, it is all true, He did it for me, and He did it for you.
"For we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty... And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." (2 Peter 1)
(much of this information comes from Paul L. Maier, Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan)