How old was Jesus at his baptism, when he started his ministry, or when he died? You’ve probably seen the popular inspirational quote that goes something like this, “Jesus didn’t start his ministry until he was 30 years old, and yet he changed the world.”

I guess this is supposed to encourage people in their teens and twenties that haven’t accomplished much in their life.  (As if comparing their potential future to the accomplishments of the supposed “son of God” is supposed to make them feel better!  Ha!)

It also illustrates a common assumption (or perhaps misconception), that Jesus was 30 years old when he began his ministry.

Is that a fact?  If so, where does the Bible say so?

How Old Was Jesus When He Died?

This is not a slam dunk answer.

In fact, I ask all my students at Chapel Hill this question (many of whom answer incorrectly) on their first-day quiz.

Almost everyone who thinks about the matter thinks that Jesus was 33 years old when he died.  But the New Testament never says so and I bet most people don’t know how that age is calculated.  Moreover, I bet even more people don’t know that there was an early Christian tradition (attested in the second century) that he was much older than that!

Yesterday I was reading one of the most important proto-orthodox authors of the second century, Irenaeus, whose five-volume work “Against the Heresies” is a sustained attack against various Gnostics (and other Christians that he considers to be “heretics”).   In doing so I ran across a passage I had highlighted many years ago when I first read the text.  It involves Jesus’ age.  And it has a surprising view of the matter.

So let me start at the beginning.  Why do people always say that Jesus was 33 when he died if the New Testament never says so?

It is by combining two pieces of evidence that come to us from two different Gospels.

ONE – How Old Was Jesus? Jesus’ Age at His Baptism and Start of Ministry

According to Luke 3:23, Jesus was “about thirty” years old when he was baptized by John.  Now, let me say that, historically, there’s no way to know whether Luke had special information about this or if he was just guessing.

Mark gives no indication at all of Jesus’ age.  Either does Matthew or John.  How would Luke, writing so many decades after Jesus’ life, know?  Either he (a) had a reliable source unavailable to the others; (b) had an unreliable source, or (c) came up with it himself.  At what age was Jesus baptized? My guess is that it is the latter, but there’s no way to know for sure.

In any event, that is the starting point for the calculation.

TWO – How Old Was Jesus During His Ministry?

The second datum comes from the Gospel of John, where Jesus attends three separate Passover feasts during his public ministry.   Since this is an annual festival, it means that John his ministry must have lasted somewhat over two years.  But it is normally taken to be three years.

As to this second datum, I should point out that in the other Gospels there is only *one* Passover Feast mentioned, the one at the end, during which Jesus is executed.  In fact, Mark’s Gospel – where Jesus’ age is never mentioned – seems to take place only over the course of months.  It appears to start in the fall, when there is grain to be plucked in the fields (2:23; Or maybe it’s the spring harvest?)   And after that, everything happens “right away.”  Read Mark carefully.

One thing happens after the other.  One of Mark’s favorite words is “immediately.”  And then we come to the Spring Passover festival, and Jesus is arrested and executed.  It seems that the ministry lasted only a few months.

Jesus was 33 years old…..or was he? 

In any event, if you take the “about 30 years old” of Luke and the three Passovers of John, you come up with 33 years at the time of death.

But, as I indicated, there was a contrary tradition embraced rather emphatically by Irenaeus, who claims that it is the heretics who state Jesus ministered only for a year and died in his 30s.   In book 5, ch. 22 Irenaeus claims that since Jesus saves all people – infants, children, youths, and oldsters – he necessarily himself lived through each age of those whom he saved, setting an example of piety for people of every age.

Irenaeus claims that in fact, he has learned this from reputable sources – the disciples of John the son of Zebedee have indicated that Jesus grew to be an old man.  For Irenaeus (he says this explicitly) a person heads toward old age after 40, heading into 50.  And that’s how old Jesus was when he was executed – near 50 – so that his ministry lasted many years, not just one (or less).

Most intriguingly, Irenaeus cites Scriptural support for his view.   He looks specifically at John 8, where Jesus is having a controversy with his Jewish opponents in which he claims that the father of the Jews Abraham looked forward to his day. His opponents are highly skeptical and dubious, “You are not yet 50 years old, and have you seen Abraham?” (John 8:56-57).

How Old Is Jesus – Irenaeus Believes Just Short of 50

Irenaeus points out that Jesus’ opponents would not have said “you’re not yet 50” if, in fact, he was just 30.  They would have said something like “you’re not yet 35” or, at best “you’re not yet 40.”  The fact they explicitly say “not yet 50” indicates that they must have known (either from the “public register,” he suggests or based on Jesus’ appearance) that he was in his late 40s.  Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense.

As he says:  “He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age. For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham….  He did not then want much of being fifty years old.”

Wow. That would certainly change things.  Suppose Irenaeus is right.  (I can’t imagine he is, but just suppose…).  That would mean that if Luke is accurate that Jesus was baptized around the age of 30, and if he was executed around 48 or 49, he would have been engaged in his ministry – well you do the math.  That’s very different from what everyone thinks indeed!   An 18-year ministry?!?

My guess is that no one – Luke, John, Irenaeus, or any other surviving source – had any idea how old Jesus was.  And someone who *may* have had an idea (e.g., Paul, who personally knew Jesus’ brother James), doesn’t say anything about it.  How I wish we knew!