Easter is coming. I can tell from the Cadbury Bunny’s sudden appearance in TV ads. In addition to the mythical egg-laying leporid, we can look forward in a few days to hidden colored eggs, abundant candy and new spring outfits. The time is awash in pastel hopes for sunshine and the promise of warm days. Easter-tide is a sweet-toothed springtime celebration of the cyclical nature of the rebirth of the world after the cruel winter that seems more like a fairy tale than history.
Perhaps, lost in all the fun is a horrific historical event. Friday, next, April 3, 2015 Anno Domini, is “Good” Friday. A day when Christians of the western tradition (Roman Catholics and Protestants, for example) will observe the anniversary of the crucifixion of Jesus called the Christ. Those of the eastern tradition (Eastern or Greek Orthodox for example) will wait a week more, due to a difference of opinion that dates back centuries about fixing the annual celebration of Easter relative to the full moon in spring. Many may assume that with all this calendric shuffling, we cannot know when the first Good Friday or Easter happened. Indeed, some even assume that the holiday is merely a cultural relic from a more pious era that has no relevance to our time or any basis in a real event that happened on a particular day in history.
Was Jesus an Actual Historical Person?
There are a few who might claim that the date of the crucifixion is moot because they are skeptical of even the reality of a historical person called Jesus (Yeshuah in Hebrew, a variant of the first century common name that has also come into English as “Joshua”) of Nazareth, called the Messiah (Meshiach in Hebrew) or the Christ (Christos in Greek). I found both fascinating and accessible an article written by Lawrence Mykytiuk in Biblical Archaeology Review1 dealing with extra-Biblical historical evidence for the existence of this remarkable person.
Mykytuik concludes that there is ample secular textual evidence to persuade most scholars that there was indeed a Jesus called the Christ, who lived in the Roman province of Judea in the days of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius, and was executed on a Friday that was also the eve of the Jewish Passover festival. Jesus suffered crucifixion because he was a threat to the Pax Romana, as was customary in such cases. This travesty of justice was perpetrated by Pontius Pilate, who was governor or, more precisely, prefect of Judea in the period 26-36 AD. These details are so familiar to those who have heard the story repeatedly that we risk the events seeming to be folk lore set adrift from the grim realities.
Eyewitnesses to History
History has witnessed other violent deaths of public figures. I will never forget another Friday, November 22, 1963, where I was and what I felt. That was 52 years ago. Nevertheless, many are alive today that were there in Dealy Plaza in Dallas to witness the event. I was in my algebra class, three states away, but I experienced it too. The public address system crackled to life with my high school Principal’s voice: “My apologies teachers, we interrupt your class for this important announcement.” Then we heard Walter Cronkite’s familiar and trusted voice, “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: ‘President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.’ (a pause as he glanced up at clock) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”
The very public death of our president recalled a similar incident that occurred 150 years ago this month. On April 14, 1865, just days after the end of the great American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the very public venue of Ford’s Theater by the well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln died the following morning. We know these facts because of eye witness accounts. Yet, this event seems already so ancient and out of touch. Can we know anything with reliability? Indeed we can. In fact, the last witness to the terrifying event, Samuel J. Seymour, himself died April 12, 1956, when I was nine2. Even a century and a half after the events there are individuals of my generation who could have chatted with living witnesses.
But what of an event that is reported to have occurred almost two millennia ago? We have treasured documents that purport to share eyewitness testimony. One history written in the Greek language of the day begins “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses [emphasis added] and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” (Luke 1:1) The work, called the Gospel According to Luke, is traditionally ascribed to Luke, the companion of the Apostle Paul, although the document itself does not identify directly its author. Scholarly opinion variously dates the writing of this document to between 80-90 AD or 90-110 AD, that is, as early as fifty years or as late as eighty years from the events it details. What is impressive to me is the claim of reporting eyewitness testimony of the events.
This document and its volume two, The Acts of the Apostles, that are attributed to and generally agreed to be by the same hand, provide wonderful insight and detail that can help fix the chronology of the final days of the remarkable individual called Jesus Christ. According to the author of the gospel, whom we will call without further apology “Luke,” Jesus began his ministry in “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea . . . .” (Luke 3:1) Scholars have variously understood the 15th year of Tiberius to be 26 A.D. (assuming one counts from Tiberius’ regency while Augustus was in semi-retirement) or 28-29 A.D. (assuming one counts from the Caesar’s death on August 19, 14 A.D.). Depending on how one interprets the gospels Jesus’ ministry lasted from one to four years. Thus, the crucifixion of Jesus must have occurred in the time period of from about 27 A.D. to 34 A.D.
Humphreys and Waddington date Crucifixion to 3 April 33 AD
In 1983, I read an article in Nature by Humphreys and Waddington3 that argued very persuasively (to my mind) that the most probable date for Jesus’ crucifixion was April 3, 33 A.D. I subsequently corroborated their calculations myself using an astronomical ephemeris program with up-to-date corrections for changes in the rotation and orbits of the earth-moon system. The authors have revisited the topic both in a festschrift book3 and a decade later, successfully answering all of the credible criticism.4
They argue, in essence, that–on examination of the dates of Passovers that began on Friday evening during the period Pilate was prefect–only two dates emerge as calendrically possible: 7 April 30 A.D. and 3 April 33 A.D. Citing much historical evidence, they declare that the later date is significantly more likely than the earlier.
Moreover, it is especially moving that Good Friday 2015 also occurs on April 3 and that a very special celestial event will reoccur that recalls one of 33 A.D. I refer to what Peter alluded to in his Pentecost sermon, fifty days after that first Easter, in which he quoted the prophet Joel:
“In those days I will pour out my Spirit . . . I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood . . . . Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. . . .This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.” (Acts 2:19, 20, 22, 32)
Thus, Luke reports a “Blood Moon,” that is, a lunar eclipse. Humphreys and Waddington point out that just such a celestial event occurred April 3, 33 A.D. at sunset. This year on April 4, 2015 A.D. the morning of Holy Saturday, just before sunrise (from about 6:00-7:00 am CDT) the moon will be “turned to blood” on the western horizon. If you are an early riser you, too, can witness this celestial reminder (weather permitting) of that fateful day 1982 years ago.
[Please note that contrary to what some have posted on-line, Humphreys and Waddington do not claim the darkness at noon is due to an eclipse. Lunar eclipses do not cause a darkness at noon. It was Thallus the Samaritan, in a first century history now lost, who was quoted and refuted by Julianus Africanus as dismissing the darkness as due to a solar eclipse. As Julianus correctly point out, no solar eclipse is possible at Passover when the moon is full.]
First Century Eyewitnesses Accounts Confirmed by Astroastronomy
I find it noteworthy that a reporter (Luke) of eyewitness testimony recounts a confirmed event (a blood moon) that did, indeed, occur as reported. This is indirect but compelling evidence that Luke shared eyewitness testimony, not folk tales.
For a self-identified calendar-and-history-nerd who loves a good mystery like me, the topic is fascinating. However, the historical debate can obscure the most important point: the gospel is a report of historical events that changed the lives of the people who experienced them and that have continued to impact people who subsequently listened to the news. We are the recipients of that good news story. In John’s gospel we read that Jesus, after his resurrection, said to “doubting” Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
What is more, the Apostle Paul reported
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that we was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, [emphasis added] although some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15: 3-8)
Thus, if the witnesses are to be believed, Easter is, indeed, a day to celebrate, after all. It is a day to dye eggs, a sign of new life, to revel in the vernal rebirth of the earth, and to put on new bright clothes—in short, to party. We do not celebrate the deaths of Presidents Kennedy or Lincoln. Too many hopes died with them. The good news that Paul delivers to us is echoed in the Easter greeting of the Orthodox tradition: Christos Anesti! Christ is risen! Alithos Anesti! He is risen indeed!
In that historical truth, hope is reborn—reason enough to party large.
- Lawrence Mykytiuk in BAR On-line:
- Wikipedia Samuel J. Seymour
- J. Humphreys and W.J. Waddington, ‘Dating the Crucifixion’, Nature 306 (1983) 743-6; idem, in Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan, J. Vardaman and E.M. Yamauchi (eds.), (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns 1989) 172-81.
- Humphreys and Waddington Tyndal Bulletin