Bronson Davy, of Balclutha Primary School, asks :-

When did Jesus die?

Joan Taylor, of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King's College London, who is an Otago graduate and author of the book The Essenes, the Scrolls, and the Dead Sea, responded.

A quick answer to that question is about 2000 years ago. Our calendar is ordered on the idea that Jesus was born in the year 1, or AD 1 – AD stands for the Latin expression ‘Anno Domini’, which means ‘Year of Our Lord’. Confusingly, historians now think Jesus was really born a bit earlier than that but that is another topic! He died in his thirties, soon after he came to the city of Jerusalem with his followers, but narrowing the date down to an exact year isn’t easy.

Finding out exact dates for events of very long ago is often very difficult, and what usually happens is that historians try to work out when things happened by reference to important people mentioned in the ancient accounts, wars, earthquakes, comets, and various possible comments on the moon and stars. There are scientific historical calendars that match up years, days of the week and astronomical observations (though moons are always tricky because you have to rely on what people record as observations in different places).

All our accounts indicate that Jesus died at the time of a Jewish festival called Passover. In the Jewish calendar these kinds of festivals are determined by the moon, so Passover begins officially on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, when the full moon is seen, in the evening (Jewish days of the week always begin in the evening when the sun goes down rather than just after midnight).

We are given a few more clues in the Gospels, which record stories of the early church about Jesus. There are four Gospels in the Bible. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, on the one hand, tell a quite similar story about Jesus. The Gospel of John, on the other hand, has quite a few different events and a different chronology. That makes it hard for people to say just exactly on what day Jesus died.

In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (with some variants) Jesus eats the Passover meal in Jerusalem with his closest followers on the 15th of Nisan. After that he goes with them to a place called Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city, where he is arrested in the middle of the night, and taken to the house of the High Priest Caiaphas. Early in the morning he is condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and is crucified at 9 am (the third hour). He hangs on the cross until 3 pm (the ninth hour) when he dies. So Jesus dies on the 15th of Nisan. This is a Friday, because the 16th of Nisan is said to be a Sabbath (a Saturday).

In the Gospel of John, Jesus eats a meal with his followers, but this is on the evening before the Passover begins, the 14th of Nisan, that is the Day of Preparation (for Passover). He goes with his followers to a garden on the Mount of Olives and is arrested, and is taken to the house of a chief priest named Annas and then to Caiaphas, and then sent to Pilate early in the morning. He is condemned to death and then is crucified. This is a Friday because it is identified that the next day, the Passover (15th of Nisan), is a Sabbath (Saturday).

So in both versions Jesus dies on a Friday, but in one this is on the 15th of Nisan and in the other it is on the 14th of Nisan. This has caused a lot of problems, and some people suggest that two different calendars were being used.

Historians look at the possible years sometime before 36 (the year both Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas lost their positions of authority) and try to work out how to determine which year Jesus was killed.

Scientists have worked out astronomical observations in the past that can be correlated to our calendar, but it is not easy to create exact correspondences. The most popular dates that either the 14th or 15th of Nisan could have been a Friday are April 7 in the year 30 or else April 3 in the year 33.