I remain struck by the closeness in time between the historical Jesus and the earliest evidence about him.
Even for the important people like emperors the lead time tended to be much longer. It is likely that fifty years elapsed before Tacitus wrote his account of Nero’s assault. . . .
Paul R. Barnett, The Birth of Christianity, 21
Caveat lector: This is a post about the dating of events, and about historically attested evidence. It is “academic,” but it is far from academic in its ramifications. It takes determination to work through the details in this post. If you’re not interested in details, just re-read the quotes above, and skip to the paragraph near the bottom with the bold sentence in it.
I’ve been impressed with Paul Barnett’s 1st-century chronologies that grew out of his ardent study of Christian origins. I borrowed Barnett’s book from my dad’s shelf once and, convinced of its value, promptly bought a used copy myself. From that volume come these chronological notes.
Barnett suggests the following in his investigation of the timeline. First, Acts firmly fixes two dates (details in Barnett, p. 24-25) within world history:
- A.D. 29 (15th year of reign of Tiberius): initial prophesying of John the Immerser¹
- A.D. 50: Paul’s arrival in Corinth
(1) above also fixes A.D. 29 as the earliest possible year for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But in what year is the endpoint for Jesus’s life — the year of the crucifixion? (This answer will also be the earliest possible year for Saul’s conversion.)
Astronomical considerations relating to Passover have resulted in only two generally accepted possibilities for the last year of Jesus’ life on earth: A.D. 30 or 33. I don’t know of anyone who would hold that Jesus’ ministry proper started in 29 and was completed in 30, i.e., was only one year in duration. Rather, the duration of the recorded ministry is much more rationally set at 3-4 years, starting in ca. 29. So, the crucifixion and ascension must have been in 33.
Now, about Paul’s conversion … what happened after Damascus Road for Paul, and when? Both Paul and Luke, whom Barnett finds to be “independent authorities” (i.e., neither copied from the other), have the same sequence for Paul’s life, albeit with less detail in Luke’s accounting (this info from p. 18):
|Paul’s sequence (Galatians)||Luke’s sequence (Acts)|
|P. attempted to destroy God’s church||P. ravaged church in Jerusalem|
|God revealed His Son to Paul||“light from heaven … voice”|
- For sake of discussion, let’s set Paul’s conversion at 34. (The earliest it could have been would be 33, the same year of the crucifixion.)
- Gal. 1:18 has Paul’s return to Jerusalem 3 years after the Damascus call. (The Damascus-Arabia-Damascus phase would then be a total of 3 years.) The earliest possible date for Paul re-entering Jerusalem is 36, but let’s say it was 37 (arithmetic: 34+3=37).
- Gal. 2:1 has another return to Jerusalem 14 years “after.”
- Scholars differ on whether the 14 incorporates the prior 3 or not. See * below.
- Details of Paul’s flight from Damascus (2 Cor. 11:32-33) follow:
- The escape immediately precedes Paul’s first return to Jerusalem, which in turn was at least three years after his conversion.
- The king was the Nabatean ruler Aretas IV, who died in A.D. 40.
- The earliest plausible date for the first return to Jerusalem is 37, and the latest possible date is 40 (the year of Aretas’s death).
Again, then: Paul’s conversion and call would have been between 34 and 37, in order to have the first return to Jerusalem between 37 and 40.
* Now, looking back to the third bullet above . . . if Paul’s second return to Jerusalem were 14 years after his first return, the arithmetic becomes 34+3+14, which adds up to the year 51, which is a year later than Acts has Paul arriving in Corinth. Impossible. (Backstep for a minute. We could consider that Paul could have been converted as early as 33, the same year of Jesus’ crucifixion, and not 34. The math here would then be 33+3+14=50 for the year of the 2nd return to Jerusalem and the arrival in Corinth. But, the likelihood that the two arrivals occurred in the same year seems unlikely or even impossible.) Whether Paul was converted in 33 or 34, the preferable option for dating his second return to Jerusalem is 14 years after the crucifixion, leaving the math at 34+14=48. The possible time window between Jerusalem and Corinth would therefore have been approximately two years. In other words, this timetable works; Paul would have arrived at Corinth approximately 2 years a) after visiting Jerusalem the second time, and b) after a mission to Cyprus and southern Galatia.
Aside: if Paul were converted as late as the year 35, the first return to Jerusalem could have been in 38, and then the second return in 49 (14 years after 35). It is conceivable, but less likely, that Paul would come to Jerusalem in 49, and make it to Corinth by the next year.
The net effect of Barnett’s reasoning is a sort of chronological “crushing backward”: the most plausible time frame suggests that key events of Paul’s life occurred a) earlier than is sometimes thought, and b) closer to one another.
Barnett asserts, “On the hypothesis that the crucifixion occurred in 33 we conclude that Saul the Pharisee was converted about a year later, in 34, and that he fled from Damascus to Jerusalem in 38 (Gal. 1:18)” (PB … or, possibly in 37 -bc). The import of this hypothesis is that Paul was then quite an early convert, having come to faith in Jesus about a year after His ascension.
Barnett again: “The ramifications are considerable. Paul the early convert is chronologically the first (extant) Christian theological writer, and his christology is as advanced and developed as any. . . .” “… The christology he articulates was formulated within that brief span between the crucifixion of Jesus and the conversion of Paul.” (cf. Gal. 1:11-12,17) (PB, p. 26). In other words, Jesus’ identity as Messiah was already being set forth by 34, the likely year of Paul’s conversion. Paul then continued said expounding in his missionary preaching, documented to have begun by 37, after the first return to Jerusalem. (Of course, any preaching in Damascus [see Gal. 1:17 and Acts 9:22] and Arabia would also have been presenting Jesus as Christ, but we have no canonical documents that offer any further details of Paul’s 3 earliest years.)
An approximate, resultant timeline is as follows:
- 29: ministries of John the Immerser and Jesus of Nazareth begin
- 33: Jesus crucified
- 34: Saul converted
- 34-37: Saul-Paul’s Damascus-Arabia-Damascus phase
- 37-38: Saul-Paul escapes from Damascus and returns to Jerusalem [37-48: various churches established]
- 48: Saul returns to Jerusalem
- 48-49: letter to Galatians
- 48-49: visit to Thessalonika
- 49-50: 1st letter to Thessalonians
- 50-51: visit to Corinth
The evidence points solidly to a firm christology established very soon after Jesus’ death. Incidentally, scholars differ on which was written first — the letter to Galatia or the first one to Thessalonika, but Barnett tends to think Galatians was written ca. 48-49, just prior to Paul’s visit to Thessalonika in ca. 49. Whether 1 Thessalonians or Galatians was penned first, it is difficult for any rational mind to deny that
- in the years immediately following his historically attested life, Jesus was proclaimed as Messiah/Christ
- within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion, the people of the nearer of the two Antiochs labeled the disciples as a movement
Christian faith is attested historically and undergirded solidly.
¹ In these confused days, for sake of clarity, “John the Baptist” is best rendered “John the Immerser.”
Let us often be reminded that “baptize” did not originally suggest anything other than dipping/submerging/immersing. Pretty much every language scholar agrees that that is what the word “baptizo” means. What they differ on is whether humans in later centuries have the right to alter the “mode” to include pouring or sprinkling. I assert that the antecedent word dictates the mode — leaving no safety for adjustments based on convenience. Further, even if the word “baptizo” had a range of meanings that included sprinkling, the symbolism of identifying with Jesus’ burial and resurrection is far too strong to accede to a method other than immersion.