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How Old Was Jesus at His Baptism, Start of His Ministry & Death?

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?

Do we also know how old was Jesus was when he was baptized or when he died?

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 – 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.  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 – The Duration of Jesus’ 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 in 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.

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…

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Were the Disciples Martyred for Believing the Resurrection? A Blast From the Past
Explaining Jesus’ Apocalyptic Assumptions

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Stephen  October 12, 2017

    When Irenaeus refers to “the heretics who want to claim that Jesus ministered only for a year and died in his 30s” is he writing about some specific group we can identify or is this a generality?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2017

      He appears to have a specific group in mind, but he doesn’t identify it ad loc.

  2. Avatar
    caseyjunior  October 12, 2017

    This is fascinating! It’s something almost everybody takes for granted. Imagine all the great works of art that may have it wrong!

    • Avatar
      turbopro  October 13, 2017

      May I ask please, but do you think that “all the great works of art have it” right?

  3. Avatar
    jmmarine1  October 12, 2017

    Not only an 18 year ministry if Jesus lived on into his 50’s, but that would also mean that Mark’s gospel moves from about 35 years removed from the execution of Jesus to more like 15 to 17 years. Paul’s seeming disinterest in the life and teachings of Jesus if he ministered nearly 20 years would be all the more puzzling. You would think that an 18 year ministry would also have given Jesus plenty of time to establish the promised kingdom.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2017

      Only if you think he must have been born when Matthew and Luke say he was.

    • DestinationReign
      DestinationReign  October 14, 2017

      All of the discussion on this issue is much speculation about something that can never be definitively answered in this reality-dispensation, and is not meant to. An emphasis on strict historicity (speculating about the “authors” of the Gospels) must be transcended through an understanding of what the Author(s) of the Gospels have revealed through NON-historical implications. How old Jesus “really” was is not as important as the broadly accepted implications that He died at age 33.

      Why? (This will be lengthy but very much worth the read.)

      33 is a highly significant number in esotericism and numerology, and its significance can be seen in many ways in our present matrix-construct. This begins with the Bible itself! Of course, our “conventional” Bible has 66 books – 33 x 2. The Old Testament has 39 books. 3 times itself (3×3) is 9; therein we see 3-3 implicated in the 39. The New Testament has 27 books; so there we have 3 x 9 -39 – the number of books in the Old Testament! As for 27 – it is the product of 3 to the 3rd power. So again, we see 3-3 factored into the number of books of the New Testament, as well as the Old, and the Bible as a whole! None of this is an accident or coincidence. (The Bible is NOT what we have been conditioned to believe it is; it is far more esoteric than historical.)

      33 is also the highest degree in freemasonry, an organization widely speculated to be directly involved with the orchestrations of world affairs. Yet another organization that is involved in the same, the United Nations, has 33 sections that make up its official (circle) logo. And again, none of this is through happenstance.

      Also interesting – the number of vertebrae in the human spine is 33. (Our own bodies have not been directly designed by whom we have been taught; an entire subject in its own right.) In Kundalini, spiritual awakening is symbolized by the serpent uncoiling up the 33 vertebrae of the spine. Of course, .333… is regarded as “one-third.” In Revelation 12:4, the dragon – the old serpent – swipes one-third of the stars from the sky with its tail. Not coincidentally, medical science has divided our brains into three primary sections; one of those being the REPTILIAN section. One-third (.333…) of our brain is literally that of a reptile! (Refer again to Rev. 12:4.)

      All of this is intertwined.

      Furthermore, the 33rd parallel of North Latitude geographical coordinates is a highly enigmatic locale. In the West, history’s two most controversial “UFO sightings” both occurred within the 33rd parallel – the Roswell, NM incident in 1947, and the “Phoenix Lights” incident in 1997 (the latter of which was later admitted by government officials to be “covered up.)” And once again, “UFO’s” and “aliens” are NOT what we have been conditioned to believe; they are INTER-DIMENSIONAL entities as opposed to “nuts-and-bolts” and “flesh-and-blood” entities. This is an important fact as we move to the last point.

      Scholars generally conclude that the Transfiguration event occurred on Mount Hermon, which also “happens to be” located within the 33rd parallel! This event was likewise “inter-dimensional,” as Moses and Elijah, long deceased, were the two entities to appear with Christ there.

      So, with all of this established, it can be understood that the number 33 relates directly to the border between “this world” and the “next world.” Between what we can see and touch in this reality, and what lies just beyond. As such, Jesus’ passing from this world has esoteric implications with “33.” This is regardless of what age He “really” was when “really” died.

      All of this relates to the Bible’s true construct – a divinely crafted transmission showing man that he is entombed in a matrix, and showing him how to escape it.

  4. Avatar
    Eric  October 12, 2017

    Since we have a good idea as to when he was crucified, and since James, his (full) brother, was a living contemporary of Paul, it seems we can put some kind of upper limit on his age, can’t we?

  5. Avatar
    Pegill7  October 12, 2017

    For the mailbag

    While it is true that most Christian churches turned a blind eye toward the evils of slavery until the nineteenth century, Peter Brown, in a review of a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions, cites a letter of St.Augustine where the latter describes his efforts to block the slave trade out of the port of Hippo which he calls :this “evil of Africa.” Augustine called upon a friend to search the libraries of the city of Rome for copies of imperial laws that might be used to put an end to slavery in Africa. The church at Hippo had already ransomed 130 of these African slaves. Are there other examples of early Christian scholars and leaders who spoke out and acted against the evils of the slave trade?:

  6. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  October 12, 2017

    Professor, how does Irenaeus’ reasoning hold up against the work and writings of Paul (either in the epistles or in Acts)? If the chronology generally accepted by scholars for Paul’s ministry and his writings is valid, then Paul and Jesus very well could have crossed paths. Yet nothing I ever have read even suggests such a possibility.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2017

      I think the idea is that he was born much earlier than is normally thought, not that he died much later than thought.

  7. Avatar
    Evan  October 12, 2017

    John 2:20-21 is an obvious allusion to Jesus being 46 near the beginning of his public activities. There is no reason for anyone at that time to have imagined the temple was precisely 46 years in the making, so the number 46 appears for some other reason. The author writes as if his audience takes it for granted that Jesus was 46 at the time of this encounter. This combined with 8:56-57 that you cite makes it fairly apparent that the author of John viewed Jesus as being in his late forties. Luke’s account has no credibility at all and should be ignored.

  8. Avatar
    TBeard  October 13, 2017

    Would Jesus have to be born before the death of Herod, in or before 4 BC? If that was that case, his death was around or before 29 AD. I know the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew don’t jive. The only thing they had in common was Jesus being born in Bethlehem.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 13, 2017

      Yes, if he was born much earlier, both Luke and Matthew would be in error.

  9. Avatar
    meohanlon  October 13, 2017

    I would think that Jesus couldn’t have been that old (40+) when he was crucified, since, according to all the gospels, his mother (who was maybe around 15 years older) was supposedly still alive, and his (younger?) brother James was, according to Josephus, still around in the early 60s.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 14, 2017

      We’re told Mary was around for Jesus’s crucifixion by some sources, and I don’t believe it. I believe Mark when he mentions her as being alive at the start of her son’s ministry. That doesn’t prove she was around for the end of it. James is a fairly solid historical fact, attested by multiple sources. We don’t know how much younger he was than Jesus–he could have been the baby in the family.

      Although average life expectancy was fairly poor, some people lived longer, just as happens today. Mother of a friend of mine just turned 100. She’s not in the best of shape, but she’s still here. (And Jewish, albeit of eastern European extraction).

      I don’t believe Jesus was in his 50’s when he died, but I can believe he might have FELT like he was in his 50’s. Midlife crises would have happened sooner back then.

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  October 15, 2017

      Could Jesus and James have had the same father but different mothers? If Jesus was older than James, the mother mentioned in the gospels may have been James’s birth mother, Jesus’ stepmother.

      • Avatar
        godspell  October 16, 2017

        Anything’s possible, but there is no evidence at all of this. Mary seems to have been alive during Jesus’s ministry. People refer to Jesus as being the son of Joseph and Mary. That is how he was perceived by the people in his home village, which is why they had a hard time seeing him as some great teacher and prophet. He couldn’t change their old image of him, so he made few if any converts there.

        There is so much to indicate that Mary was Jesus’s birth mother, there really is no basis for doubting it. I would assume James was also the son of Joseph and Mary. Whether there were rumors of something unsavory about the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, that Mary had gotten pregnant before the marriage was officiated, we don’t know. Joseph seems to have died before Jesus started his ministry, which wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary, regardless of how old he was at the time Jesus was born.

        Until there’s strong evidence to the contrary, my assumption is that Jesus and all his siblings were the natural children of Joseph and Mary. I have a personal theory that Joseph and Mary were intimate while they were only betrothed to be married, she got pregnant out of wedlock, and this led to some minor scandal that could have been misinterpreted later on. I have never put any credibility in the whole Panthera thing. I mean, that sounds like something somebody made up. Panthera. Seriously.

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 13, 2017

    Wow! Very intriguing!

  11. JulieGraff
    JulieGraff  October 14, 2017

    I know that what I write is not historical, other than historically the Torah has influenced us subconsciously (ex the 7 day week) but since the Cohen’s (Israël’s priests) started their ministry at the age of 30 and that the number 3 is largly known as meaning “all or for ever” the 33 years of Jesus seam to be coming out of the collective consciousness as a Priesthood(30) for all or ever (3). Has this ever been talked about?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Not really — mainly because there aren’t any biblical accounts that state that he was 33 at the time.

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  October 15, 2017

        Come to think of it, I remember having thought at one time that there was supposed to be some mystical significance in the number 3! Three persons in the Trinity…Jesus’s having a three-year ministry…his having been alive (as I wrongly thought) for exactly three hours on the cross…and his rising from the dead on the third day.

      • JulieGraff
        JulieGraff  October 16, 2017

        Thank you for your answer, but I am not sure I understand the reasoning.

        This mainly would not have been talked about because there are no biblical accounts of Jesus’s 33 years old death… but yet, we are talking about it, since «Almost everyone who thinks about the matter thinks that Jesus was 33 years old when he died” … So people are thinking and or talking about it even though it is not a biblical account, even 2000 years later!

        I think the reason for the “30 (priesthood) + 3” has not been talked about is because most NT scholar (and I am not talking just about this era) do not study, I mean really study, the Torah, so many did not or would not know about the Cohen’s starting their ministry at 30… Maybe the Torah will become your other expertise… isent’ “Ehrman” a jewish name? (Well I sure hope so as I’d look forward to it).

        • Bart
          Bart  October 17, 2017

          I thought you were asking if there was some *reason* (mystical or otherwise) for the earliest Christians to think Jesus died when he was 33, not some reason that people in the 21st century do. I probably misunderstood!

  12. Avatar
    Robert1945  October 14, 2017

    Stop it!!! Now I have this picture of the apocalyptic preachers from “The Life of Brian” flashing through my head…Not very pretty…Funny…But not pretty…Seriously, an eighteen year ministry? Although Jesus may not have preached open rebellion against Rome, he was being recognized as a messianic figure by his followers no matter how small their numbers…Couple this with the growing unpopularity of Pilate with his superiors in Rome it seems that it would be in Pilate’s best interest to be rid of Jesus sooner not later to show that he was a staunch defender of Rome and its interests…Just saying.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      It’s a great scene in the movie — and the one I found THE most upsetting when I first saw it when it had come out in the theaters.

  13. Rick
    Rick  October 14, 2017

    Professor,
    Is there anything “wrong” with a short ministry for a 30ish year old apocalyptic? If we can safely surmise his ministry was popular (at least in rural Galilee), perhaps charismatic, it seems consistent with it being short – if for no other reason than part of the apocalyptic appeal being imminence. “Imminence” that that would seem to go stale the longer it was preached – and I know of nothing that indicated Jesus appeal diminished while he was alive.

  14. Avatar
    dragonfly  October 14, 2017

    I don’t see how any of the NT authors could have known anything about Jesus birth. He could have just as easily died at 20. Do we have any clues about the ages of anyone else? Peter? Paul? Mary Magdalene? Judas? John Baptist?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 15, 2017

      Not really — except that they must have been adults whenever Jesus was, and Jesus was killed sometime between 26 and 36 CE.

    • Avatar
      Tony  October 17, 2017

      “I’m not sure you will be very convincing by implying scholars don’t know what they’re talking about.”

      Only those unwilling or unable to admit the possibility/probability of a mythical Jesus!

      • Bart
        Bart  October 17, 2017

        Are there other things about the NT or early Christianity you’re interested in as well? We’re kind-a beating a dead horse with this one!

        • Avatar
          Tony  October 17, 2017

          I’m fascinated by all things NT and early Christianity. Particularly Paul and the (non-religious) nature of Jesus!
          Unfortunately, pretty well everything about the NT and early Xtians leads me to the same conclusion…

          • Bart
            Bart  October 18, 2017

            But that suggests that “the … conclusion” is the one thing everything is about. There is a lot going on in early Christianity that is highly interesting, whatever one makes of the historicity of Jesus.

  15. Avatar
    jogon  April 15, 2019

    Hi Bart, odd questions but are the chapter titles in against heresies original to irenaeus or were they added by later scribes or translators?

    • Avatar
      jogon  April 16, 2019

      I’ve noticed something else super interesting too. In “Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching” Irenaeus says “For Herod the king of the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Claudius Caesar…”. Claudius Caesar didn’t become emperor until AD42 so Irenaeus must have thought Jesus died much later than the gospels indicate

    • Bart
      Bart  April 16, 2019

      Added later by translators/editors.

  16. Avatar
    tadmania  July 12, 2019

    I am not sure of the politic of commenting anew on older threads, friends. Please, forgive me if I come late to a matter that is settled among the longer-term participants – that of the lifespan of the historical Jesus.

    For me, I find it helpful to focus my thought on the writers of the Gospels, and not on its central characters. Given that the synoptics were authored generations after the purported events they describe and that the Pauline letters were somewhat established in circulation, it is tempting to muse that the stories of Jesus’s life and death were laminated by the writers onto historical ‘signposts’ of first century Palestine, and so might not qualify as reliable indications of the temporal ‘truths’ we have long come to accept.

    We strive with mists and rumors of mists on this subject, I know. We cling to the flotsam remains of what may have once been truly solid evidence one way or the other. I am a youTube scholar (which means I am no scholar at all) but I am becoming increasingly interested in the information available to me.

    Thanks for all you do, all of you. It is making a difference down here in the land of the unlearned.

  17. Avatar
    jogon  June 19, 2020

    Hi professor Ehrman, I have just tracked down the reference in this post – it’s actually in book 2 of Against Heresies not book 5! Where Irenaeus is talking about Jesus being 50 he says “…even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement.” Do you think Irenaeus really met people who met apostles? The dates don’t seem to work if he’s writing in 180 and born around 140? It seems likely they would all be dead? Did he really expect people to believe that!?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2020

      Yeah, the dates don’t work. No way John could be alive in the time of Trajan.

      • Avatar
        jogon  June 21, 2020

        What about the “other apostles” Irenaeus mentions in the quote?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 22, 2020

          Are you asking if any of Jesus’ disciples could have been alive around the year 100? They would have been adults in the 20s CE, so I’d say almost certainly not.

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