The Chronology of the New Testament

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The aim of studying chronology is to discover the sequence of past events and how much time elapsed between them. It is an important branch of history because to determine the causes and effects of past events — as historians try to do — one must know which events come first and how far apart they are. Therefore assigning absolute dates is less important than knowing the sequence of events which may have influenced each other. This should keep us from being discouraged when we realize that, because we lack enough information, very few New Testament happenings can be given exact dates.

It is a remarkable testimony to the influence of Christianity that the entire Western world now divides history into B. C. (Before Christ) and A. D. (Anno Domini, ‘the year of our Lord’).  Before this method of dating became widespread in the middle ages, events were dated by their relation to other important events like the founding of Rome or the beginning of a king’s reign. When a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (6th century) invented our present method of dating with the birth of Christ dividing history, he made a mistake in his computations. The odd result is that we must now say Christ was born no later than four years “before Christ”!

The Birth of Jesus

According to Matthew 2:1, Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the King.” But we learn from the Jewish historian Josephus that Herod died in the spring of 4 B. C. (Antiquities XVII, 8, 1). So Jesus was born prior to 4 B. C. How much prior we are not sure. Luke 2:1–2 tells us that Jesus’ birth occurred when “Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the nation (This census was taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria).” This raises two questions: When was such a census taken and when was Quirinius governor of Syria? Neither question has received a completely satisfying answer.

Census documents discovered in Egypt together with earlier references suggest that such enrollments were held every 14 years. That would put a census roughly in 8 or 9 B. C. In view of how much time would be needed to carry out the census (which required a person to travel to his place of birth) the birth of Jesus may have been somewhat later than the actual year of the decree (perhaps 7 B. C.).

What about the question when Quirinius became governor of Syria? Josephus tells us that Quirinius became governor of Syria in A. D. 6 (Antiquities XVIII, 8, 1, 1 and 2, 1 with XVII, 13, 2). That would be much too late as a date for Jesus’ birth. But Sir William Ramsey argued strongly from ancient inscriptions that Quirinius had also served in Syria as a special legate of the emperor Augustus prior to 6 B. C. This would then be the time Luke was referring to in Luke 2:2. If we ask why Luke chose to cite Quirinius instead of the regular governor of Syria at that time, the answer may be that in so doing he provided a more exact date for the birth of Jesus since Quirinius did not have authority as long as the regular governor of Syria.

We may conclude then that Jesus was born about 7 B. C. This fits with Matthew 2:16 which seems to say Jesus was born at least two years prior to Herod’s death in 4 B. C. There is no clear evidence as to the day and month of his birth. The celebration of Christmas on December 25 originated in the fourth century and probably represented a Christian alternative to the pagan winter solstice festival.

The Beginning of Jesus’ Public Ministry

Luke 3:23 says, “Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his public ministry.” This is only approximate; he may have been two or three years older or younger (cf. Test XII Pat, Levi 2:2; 12:5). If we add 30 to the suggested date of birth we get A. D. 24. This cannot be right because Jesus’ ministry began after John the Baptist appeared. But Luke 3:1-3 dates John’s public appearance precisely in “the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberias Caesar” while Pilate was governor over Judea. Pilate was governor from A. D. 26 to A. D. 36 and the 15th year of Tiberias is most likely A. D. 27. Therefore Jesus did not enter his public ministry prior to A. D. 27. And if we assume that there was not a long time between the beginning of John’s ministry and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry then Jesus probably began in 27 or 28. He would have been then approximately 33 years old at the outset of His ministry.

The Death of Jesus

All four Gospels record implicitly that Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples on Thursday evening, was crucified on Friday and rose from the dead apparently early Sunday morning (cf. Matthew 28:1; Mark 14:42; Luke 24:1). The claim that Jesus rose on the third day, 1 Corinthians 15:4, is due to the Jewish custom of counting a part of a day as a day. According to Matthew 26:19, Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:15, the Last Supper was the Passover meal, a yearly celebration of Israel’s escape from Egypt (cf. Exodus 12-15). But according to John 18:28 and 19:14, the Passover meal had not yet been eaten on Friday so that the Last Supper in John is not the Passover meal (13:1).

There is no completely satisfying solution to this discrepancy but Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John, 785) suggests plausibly that it is due to the use of different calendars. “According to the calendar Jesus was following, the meal was the Passover. But the temple authorities followed another, according to which the sacrificial victims were slain the next day. John appears to make use of this to bring out the truth that Christ was slain as our Passover (cf. John 19:36; 1 Corinthians 5:7).”

To find out how long Jesus’ public ministry lasted and thus what year he died, we can refer to the time references in John’s Gospel. John refers to at least three Passovers (2:13, 6:4, 13:1) possibly four (5:1). Since the Passover is a yearly feast, the ministry of Jesus would then extend at least two and possibly three years. To this we can add the evidence from astronomy. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the Friday of Jesus’ death occurred on the 15th of the Jewish month Nisan (which overlaps with our own March and April). In John Jesus died on the 14th Nisan. So the question is: In which years from 26–36 (when Pilate was procurator in Judea) did 14th or 15th Nisan fall on a Friday? The answer is 27, 29, 30 and 33. Of these 27 is too early and 33 is probably too late. Our conclusion then is that Jesus was crucified in 29 or 30, and that his public ministry lasted two or three years, and that he was 35 or 36 years old when he died.

New Testament Events from A .D. 30 to A .D. 50

Acts is the only New Testament book which records how much time elapsed between Jesus’ death and his ascension: “During the forty days after his crucifixion he appeared to the apostles from time to time” (1:3). The next key event after the ascension of Jesus into heaven was Pentecost (Acts 2:1). Pentecost is the Greek word for fiftieth and referred to a celebration of the “feast of weeks” (cf. Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:9ff) fifty days after the Passover. Since Jesus was crucified during the Passover season, therefore the Pentecost of Acts 2:1, during which the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4), took place some fifty days after the crucifixion and about ten days after the ascension in A. D. 30.

After this the events of the early chapters of Acts are hard to date because no precise statements are made about the amount of time between the various events. Therefore the usual method for dating the events of the apostolic age is this: First we find at least one event that can be dated with relative certainty from sources outside the New Testament; then we try to date the events before and after this one event by figuring out how much time elapsed between them. Sometimes Acts tells us how much time passed between two events; usually it does not. So our dating can only be approximate.

We will take as our pivotal starting point the “great famine” that was prophesied by Agabus and which befell Palestine during the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius (Acts 11:28-29).  Josephus, a Jewish historian alive at the time, gives us enough information so that we can locate the famine sometime between the years 46 and 48 (Antiquities XX, 5, 2). We also know from the Mishnah (Sotah vii, 8) that from the autumn of 47 to the autumn of 48 was a sabbatical year when the Jews let the land rest and harvested nothing (Leviticus 25:2-7).  This may well have aggravated and prolonged the famine. But there is no way to be sure how soon the famine started; some scholars say 46 and some say 47.

It seems peculiar at first that Luke, the author of Acts, should record this famine (Acts 11:28f) before he records the death of Herod Agrippa in Acts 12:20-23. From facts reported by Josephus (Antiquities XVIII, 6, 10 and 7, 2; XIX 5, 1 and 8, 2) we can date the death of Herod (a grandson of Herod the Great who died in 4 B. C.) in 44 B. C., probably in the spring. That means Herod died several years before the famine which Luke records earlier. Some scholars think Luke got his chronological facts wrong here. But others have urged that Acts 12:1-24 is a kind of flashback to bring the history of the church in Jerusalem up to date. W. L. Knox argues that “Luke is merely following the normal practice of the ancient compiler of history in carrying on one source to a suitable stopping point before going on to another source. . . to suppose that Luke can be charged with inaccuracy in his dating here is to show a complete ignorance of the methods of ancient historians” (The Acts of the Apostles, 36f).

Since Herod died in 44 (Acts 12:23) we may say that the apostle James, whom Herod put to death with the sword (Acts 12:2), died soon before 44, perhaps during the Passover season of 43 (Acts 12:3). The imprisonment of Peter and his miraculous escape (Acts 12:3-17) also belong to this period.

We turn back now to the pivotal famine of Acts 11:28f. The Christian disciples of Antioch decided to send relief to the Christians in Jerusalem who were in the midst of the great famine (Acts 11:29). Barnabas and Saul were appointed to carry the relief to Jerusalem. This was Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem since his conversion. The first visit was recorded in Acts 9:26–30. The third comes in Acts 15 when Paul and Barnabas are sent to discuss with the apostles and elders whether Gentile converts to Christianity have to be circumcised. How we date the first and third visits to Jerusalem as well as Paul’s conversion depends on how we relate these Jerusalem visits to those reported in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

The basic problem, which still divides New Testament scholars, is this: In Galatians 1:15–2:10, Paul recounts his conversion followed by two visits to Jerusalem, one three years after his conversion (1:18) and one fourteen years after that (2:1-10). All scholars agree that this first visit three years after his conversion is the same as the first visit recorded in Acts 9:26-30. But the big question is, does Galatians 2:1-10 refer to the second (famine) visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11:30 in which case the third visit of Acts 15 would have been omitted from Galatians? Or does Galatians 2:1-10 refer to the visit in Acts 15, in which case the second (famine) visit would have been omitted from Galatians? These two alternative reconstructions of what happened can be tabularized as follows:










= 1:18



= 1:18


= 2:1-10



= omitted


= omitted



= 2:1-10

Let us summarize the main arguments for each of these ways of relating Galatians and Acts. First the arguments for "Reconstruction I" above:

1) The reason Paul gives such a rigorous account of his comings and goings in Galatians 1:15–24 is to show that he “did not get his gospel from men, nor was he taught it” (1:12). In other words he wants to show that his visits to the Jerusalem apostles were all open and above board and were not for the purpose of receiving his gospel. If this is so, then for Paul to omit the second Jerusalem visit as "Reconstruction II" says he did would jeopardize his integrity and his authority with the Galatians. "Column I" avoids this difficulty by equating Galatians 2:1–10 with the second Jerusalem visit. The omission of a third Jerusalem visit in "Reconstruction I" may be due to the fact that it had not yet happened when Galatians was written.

2) Galatians 2:1–10 pictures a private meeting between Paul and Barnabas on the one hand and the “pillar” apostles on the other. But the meeting in Acts 15 is public before the whole church. So Galatians 2:1–10 more likely refers to a private meeting at the same time as Acts 11:30 which Acts does not record.

3) Paul’s eagerness to give to the poor mentioned in Galatians 2:10 connects naturally with the second Jerusalem visit when Paul was in fact delivering relief to the poor (Acts 11:30).

4) If Galatians 2:1–10 = Acts 15:1–29, it is surprising that there is no mention at all of the decision which the Jerusalem Council reached, especially since the decision related directly to the problem of circumcision which Paul was handling in his letter to the Galatians.

5) If Galatians 2:1-10 = Acts 15:1-29, then the Jerusalem Council preceded the event of Galatians 2:11ff when Peter was rebuked by Paul for withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentile believers. Could this incident have happened so soon after the issue of Gentile status in the church had been settled in Jerusalem?

6) According to Galatians 1:6 the letter was written “quickly” after Paul had established the Galatian churches. This makes good sense if Galatians was written soon after the first missionary journey and just before the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. That would make Galatians Paul’s first letter.

Now we turn to summarize the main arguments in favor of reconstruction in "Reconstruction II" above (Galatians 2:1–10 = Acts 15:1–29).

1) The main purpose of Paul’s visit in Galatians 2:1–10 appears to be the same as that found in Acts 15:1–29: Both deal with the issue of whether circumcision should be required of Gentile converts (Galatians 2:3–5; Acts 15:1, 5). Since this similarity is obvious and there is no such explicit similarity between Galatians 2:1–10 and Acts 11:30, therefore "Reconstruction II" is more probable than "Reconstruction I."

2) On the basis of form and content Galatians is similar to Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians and would thus seem to come from the same period — a good deal later than the Jerusalem Council. If this is so then would not Paul surely include a reference to the Jerusalem Council (namely Galatians 2:1–10) in his recollections since its outcome supported his own stance on circumcision in the letter to the Galatians?

3) Acts 11:30 pictures Barnabas as the leader of the Barnabas/Paul team since his name is first (as in 12:25, 13:1–2, 7 cf. 11:26). But in the description Paul gives of the visit in Galatians 2:1–10, he sees himself as the leader of the team. Since Acts does picture Paul as the leader from the time of the first missionary journey (13:9, 13, 43, 46, 50) including the third Jerusalem visit (15:2), it is more likely that Galatians 2:1–10 = Acts 15:1–29.

4) Finally, in Galatians 2:7–8 Paul is recognized as an apostle to the Gentiles with a standing equal to that of Peter’s. But if Galatians 2:1–10 = Acts 11:30 and the first missionary journey had not yet occurred, on what basis would the “pillar” apostles have recognized Paul’s authority as apostle to the Gentiles? Is it not more likely that Galatians 2:1-10 follows the first missionary journey just as Acts 15:1–29 follows the first missionary journey in Acts and that both refer to the same event?

The significance of all this for chronology is that according to "Reconstruction I" Paul’s conversion is 17 years (cf. Galatians 1:18 and 2:1) prior to the famine visit of Acts 11:30.  But according to "Reconstruction II," his conversion is 17 years prior to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Before we tabularize these two possible chronologies, it will be helpful to consider one more date which we can fix with high probability, namely Paul’s arrival in Corinth on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1). On the second missionary journey (Acts 15:40–18:22), Paul and Silas set out on land through Syria and Cilicia and Phrygia and Galatia visiting the churches founded on the first missionary journey. They come to Troas, then pass over to Philippi and continue down the coast through Thessalonica and Berea. Paul goes on to Athens and then arrives at Corinth in Acts 18:1. From Acts 18:12 we know that Gallio was a proconsul in Corinth while Paul was there. An inscription discovered at nearby Delphi informs us that in all likelihood Gallio’s term of office was from mid-51 to mid-52. The incident recorded in Acts 18:12–17 probably occurred at the beginning of Gallio’s term since the Jews hoped to get a ruling against Paul from their new proconsul. Not long after that Paul left Corinth, probably in the summer or autumn of 52. According to Acts 18:11, Paul had spent 18 months in Corinth, which means he probably arrived in the early months of 50 or the end of 49. This arrival date is confirmed by Acts 18:2 which says that Aquila and Priscilla had only recently been exiled from Rome when Paul came to Corinth. The fifth century historian Orosius (VII, 6, 15) dates the edict of Claudius to expel the Jews from Rome in 49. Therefore Paul and Aquila and Priscilla probably arrived close together late in 49 or early in 50. Early in this eighteen month stay Paul wrote his first and second letters to the Thessalonians.

The two fixed dates with which we have to work now are 46 or 47 for the famine visit in Acts 11:30 and late 49 or early 50 for Paul’s arrival in Corinth in Acts 18:1. Taking into account now the time gaps mentioned in Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 as well as the supposition that the first missionary journey lasted about a year, we can tabularize "Reconstructions I and II" as follows if we keep in mind that these are approximations:




31 or 32

Paul’s Conversion
Acts 9:3-19

32 or 33

33 or 34

First Jerusalem visit
Acts 9:26-30

34 or 35

46 or 47

Famine visit
Acts 11:30

46 or 47


First Missionary Journey
Acts 13:4-14:28



Jerusalem Council
Acts 15:1-29


Late 49
or early 50

Paul’s arrival in Corinth on Second Missionary Journey Acts 18:1

Late 49
or early 50

Autumn 51

Paul leaves Corinth
Acts 18:18

Autumn 51

(The computations here reflect the ancient custom of counting part of a year as a year.)

New Testament Events from A .D. 50 to A .D. 70

Acts 24:27 describes an event which helps us date the events in the rest of the book of Acts. Porcius Festus replaces Felix as the procurator of Judea. A careful analysis of the evidence given by the historian Eusebius (fourth century) leads to the probable conclusion that this took place in the summer of 59. Working backwards from this date, we may say that Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21:33) occurred in 57, some two years (Acts 24:27) before the coming of Festus. More precisely Paul’s arrest probably occurred in the late spring or summer of 57 since we know that Paul’s goal in Acts 20:16 was to arrive in Jerusalem by Pentecost of that year, and Pentecost occurred at the end of May. Paul was not long in the city before he was arrested.

The Passover festival, 50 days before Pentecost, Paul celebrated with the church in Philippi (Acts 20:6). This would have been April 7–14, 57. Only after this did he continue his hurried journey to Caesarea and Jerusalem (Acts 20:6–21:16).  Before his Passover visit to Philippi, Paul had spent three months in Greece (Acts 20:3). Allowing some time for Paul to travel through Macedonia (Acts 20:3) and visit the Thessalonians and Bereans, these three months were probably the winter months of 56–57 (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:6). They were no doubt spent in the one main church of Greece, Corinth, and were used in part for the writing of the letter to the Romans.

Between Paul’s departure from Corinth on the second missionary journey (Acts 18:18) in the autumn of 51 and his arrival in Corinth on the third missionary journey (Acts 20:2) in the late winter of 56, there are five years of activity which cannot be given exact dates. Paul says in Acts 20:31 that he worked three of these years in Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:1–20:1). If we allow enough time for the travels before and after this stay at Ephesus, then it lasted from 52 or 53 to the summer of 55 or 56 (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:8). During his long stay in Ephesus, Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Then on his way to Corinth in 56 he wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia.

That brings our chronology now back up to the arrival of Festus (Acts 24:27) in the summer of 59 after Paul had been in prison in Caesarea for two years. Within a matter of days Paul was tried before Festus (Acts 25:1–12). Not wanting to be given over to the Jewish authorities Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:12), which meant he would soon be bound for Rome. The account in Acts gives no hint of a delay so that we may assume the voyage (Acts 27:2) began in the summer or fall of 59.

Luke reports that when Paul the prisoner got to Fair Havens on the island of Crete (Acts 27:8) the weather had become dangerous for sea travel “because the Fast had already gone by” (Acts 27:9). One ancient writer says that sailing became dangerous between mid-September and mid-November, and after that impossible until spring. The Fast referred to was no doubt the one in preparation for The Great Day of Atonement which fell on October 5 in 59. So it is not surprising that 14 days after leaving Fair Havens the ship in which Paul was traveling wrecked on the coast of Malta, south of Sicily (Acts 27:27–44). Three months later Paul set sail for Rome again in a ship that had spent the winter on Malta (Acts 28:11).  Soon he was welcomed into Rome by the Christians who came out to meet him (Acts 28:15). Thus Paul arrived in Rome in the early part of 60. The book of Acts closes with the remark that, “Paul lived for the next two years in his rented house.” The New Testament does not report the outcome of his trial. During this period, according to the traditional view, Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon.

One church historian of the fourth century, Eusebius, writes, “Tradition has it that after defending himself the Apostle was again sent on the ministry of preaching, and coming a second time to the same city suffered martyrdom under Nero” (Ecclesiastical History II, 22). Nero, who was the Roman emperor from 54–68, put to death a multitude of Christians in Rome soon after the Great Fire of July 64 according to the historian Tacitus (Annals XV, 44). A number of early Christian writers (e.g. 1 Clement) lead us to believe that Peter and Paul were killed in Rome during this savage persecution. If so, and if Eusebius is right, then Paul may have spent two years from 62 to 64 freely ministering back in the east. Many conservative scholars date Paul’s first letter to Timothy and his letter to Titus from this period. Second Timothy is probably Paul’s last letter written from Rome shortly before his martyrdom in 64.

Back in Jerusalem within three years after Paul had been carried away to Rome, James, the Lord’s brother, was stoned to death by the Jewish authorities. According to Josephus (Antiquities XX, 9, 197-203) this occurred in 62. Not long afterwards, according to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History III, 5, 3), the church in Jerusalem received an oracle warning them to leave that doomed city and settle in Pella, one of the cities of the Decapolis east of the Jordan. Thus when war broke out between the Jews and the Romans in 66 the Christians were for the most part not involved. The war ended in 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (cf. Mark 13:2; Luke 21:24).

It may be helpful now to summarize our results in a table of key events with the approximate dates when they happened.



Birth of Jesus (Matthew 2:1)

7 B. C.

Beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 3:23)

A. D. 27

Death of Jesus (Mark 15:37)


Pentecost (Acts 2:1ff)


Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-19)


Paul’s first Jerusalem visit (Acts 9:26-30)


Death of James the Apostle (Acts 12:2)


Paul’s second (famine) visit to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30)


Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:4-14:28)


Paul’s third Jerusalem visit (Jerusalem Council) (Acts 15:1-29)


Paul’s second (famine) visit to Jerusalem (Acts 11:30)

Early 50

Paul leaves Corinth (Acts 18:18)

Autumn 51

Paul’s stay in Ephesus on third missionary journey


Paul winters in Corinth (Acts 20:3; I Corinthians 16:6)


Paul celebrates Passover at Philippi (Acts 20:6)


Paul arrives in Jerusalem and is imprisoned (Acts 21:15ff)


Paul is sent to Rome after two years in prison in Caesarea (Acts 24:27, 27:2)


Paul arrives in Rome (Acts 28:14)

Early 60

Paul lives two years in Rome (Acts 28:30)


Paul’s final ministry in the east?


Martyrdom of James, Jesus’ brother


Martyrdom of Peter and Paul under Nero


The destruction of Jerusalem