THERE IS YET MORE TO THE DANCETHERE IS AN ENDING. And not a pleasant one. If Biblical clues have led us to the sky of Messiah's birth, they now lead to a celestial dirge floating over Jerusalem. The bookends of a life. If the Almighty did orchestrate these signs of Messiah's coming and those at his death, then we are seeing more than stars in the skies. We are seeing a poetry of terrible beauty, of silent awe...
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Dating the Crucifixion (top)
Yes, there is more in the sky which declares "Messiah has come." But to see these things, we must know when to look up. Peter used the sky as a proof that Messiah had come, but which sky did he use? A body of scholarly work addresses the date of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. This body of work, together with Roman and Jewish histories, archaeoastronomy and the words of the Bible allow us to identify the day and almost the moment of his death. That is an extraordinary claim. You must judge it for yourself. Consider the evidence.
What can we learn from the Jewish calendar?. Quite a lot, if we assemble the puzzle pieces. By law and custom, the Jewish people of Jesus' day took the Sabbath as a day of complete rest (1). Because no work could be done on the Sabbath, which we call Saturday, Friday came to be known as Preparation Day (2). It was a day when food and other things needed for Saturday were prepared in advance. This is our first clue to the date of the crucifixion, because all four Gospels state that Jesus was crucified on Preparation Day, a Friday (3). This is also the common consensus of the Church Fathers and scholars throughout church history (4).
The Gospels also record that the crucifixion occurred the day before the Passover festival (5). This is a second important clue, because it gives us a solid connection with the ancient Jewish calendar system. Passover always begins on the 14th day of the Jewish lunar month of Nisan. (Nisan 14 is in the Spring, which is why Easter is celebrated then). By Judean tradition, Passover begins at twilight, the dividing line between Nisan 14 and 15 (6).
On the Jewish calendar (and on ours) a numbered day of the month may fall on any day of the week. For example, in one year your birthday might fall on Tuesday, in the next year it might fall on Thursday. This "float" among days of the week is why this second clue is so powerful. Putting these two Biblical puzzle pieces together, we see that the crucifixion must have occurred in a year when Nisan 14 happened to fall on a Friday, Preparation Day. That narrows things down considerably.
The Year. Ancient non-Biblical historians record that Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate (7). Pilate was Roman procurator of Judea during the years 26 AD through 36 AD (8). This limits our search for a date to those years. In "Setting the Stage" we found that Jesus was born in 3/2 BC. And there are also important Biblical clues: the Book of Luke records that Jesus began his public ministry when he "was about 30 years old" (9), and the Book of John records three annual Passovers during Jesus' ministry (10). Taken together, these puzzle pieces add to a crucifixion date in the early 30's, AD. During those years, Nisan 14 fell on a Friday, Preparation Day, twice: on April 7 of 30 AD and April 3 of 33 AD (11). To help us chose between those two dates, there is ample and fascinating evidence.
Pilate and Sejanus (top)
The next clue comes from a surprising source: a dark tale of intrigue, hidden violence and vicious revenge in Rome. We go to the Imperial court...
By the time Tiberius Caesar (42 BC - 37 AD) reached his mid-sixties, he had wearied of daily Imperial duties. He entered semi-retirement on the Island of Capri in 26 AD. There, out of the public eye, he embraced a life of unmentionable depravity and cruelty. Still, even for a degraded and absentee emperor there were the problems of government. As his personal conduit for management of Rome from Capri, Tiberius left a regent in the capitol. This was Aelius Sejanus, who had been captain of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus had shown himself to be politically capable and apparently loyal to Tiberius, but he was a cunning and ruthless man.
During the 5 years that Sejanus administered the Empire, he artfully engineered the banishment, imprisonment, suicide or other elimination of many of his own opponents and Tiberius' potential successors. As chronicled extensively by the Roman senator and historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (12), Sejanus apparently expected that he might one day plot and murder his way to the throne. He very nearly did. Unfortunately for Sejanus, Tiberius had a trusted sister-in-law, Antonia. She was not a political player, which gave her opinions a certain weight. While nearly all communication from Rome filtered through Sejanus, Antonia managed to place a secret letter before Tiberius in which she described Sejanus' web of plots in convincing detail.
Tiberius responded by plotting his own surprise. He sent an emissary with a lengthy letter to be read before the Roman Senate with Sejanus present. In the turnabout ending of the missive, Tiberius loosed a scathing denunciation of Sejanus and demanded his arrest. The shocked mastermind was dragged out and executed the same day: October 18, 31 AD.
Why does this date matter? Because Roman and Biblical history intersect. During his glory days, Sejanus first influenced and then himself made appointments of many Imperial officials, including one Pontius Pilate. Pilate was made Prefect of Judea about the time that Tiberius gave up Rome for Capri. Sejanus was a notorious anti-Semite (13), and Pilate followed his benefactor's anti-Jewish policies as he governed Judea. A few examples will illustrate Pilate's treatment of the Jews.
The Romans were well aware that the Jews shunned all graven images. Tacitus, though himself disdainful of Jewry (14), accurately comments in The Histories, Book V:
"...the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples."
Of course, this rejection of graven images comes from the Ten Commandments, recorded in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20:
4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God..."
Knowing this, Pilate proceeded to install images of Tiberius in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem, a massive offense. From Josephus, Wars, Book II, Chapter 9:
"Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city. Nay, besides the indignation which the citizens had themselves at this procedure, a vast number of people came running out of the country. These came zealously to Pilate to Cesarea, and besought him to carry those ensigns out of Jerusalem, and to preserve them their ancient laws inviolable; but upon Pilate's denial of their request, they fell down prostrate upon the ground, and continued immovable in that posture for five days and as many nights. On the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal, in the open market-place, and called to him the multitude, as desirous to give them an answer; and then gave a signal to the soldiers, that they should all by agreement at once encompass the Jews with their weapons; so the band of soldiers stood round about the Jews in three ranks. The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar's images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords. Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed."
Other examples of Pilate's intentional mistreatment of the Jews have come down to us in ancient histories. Philo reports that Pilate also proposed to set up a colossal idol in the holy of holies itself, the most sacred part of the temple at Jerusalem (15). Josephus reports that Pilate seized religious offerings made by worshiping Jews to pay for Roman work projects (16). The Book of Luke tells us that Pilate killed Jewish worshipers, mingling his victims' blood with that of their religious sacrifices, a hideous desecration (17). And at the crucifixion, Pilate posted a notice on Christ's cross which declared him "The King of the Jews," thereby mocking the Jewish leadership even as he gave them their way (18).
But all this raises a large question about the execution of Jesus. Pilate's pattern was to avoid doing "anything which could be acceptable to his subjects" the Jews (19). So, why would he now give in to the clamor against Jesus? Why not release Jesus, if only to irritate the priests who called for his death? The Biblical record does reflect Pilate's intention to release Jesus, and that he almost did. But something had changed. Something made Pilate respond to the Jewish leaders, grudgingly, rather than treat them with his customary vicious disdain.
What had changed was Sejanus. He was dead. Even worse for Pilate, after the surprise execution in the Fall of 31 AD, Tiberius began to root out Sejanus's appointees and allies. Many were tried, tortured at length and executed in ways designed to maximize terror. In De Vita Caesarum: Tiberius, Suetonius describes treatment of Sejanus' allies with tortures unmentionable here. One of the milder descriptions from LXII:
"At Capri they still point out the scene of his executions, from which he used to order that those who had been condemned after long and exquisite tortures be cast headlong into the sea before his eyes, while a band of marines waited below for the bodies and broke their bones with boathooks and oars, to prevent any breath of life from remaining in them."
Tacitus records in The Annals, Book V:
"Executions were now a stimulus to [Tiberius'] fury, and he ordered the death of all who were lying in prison under accusation of complicity with Sejanus. There lay, singly or in heaps, the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure. Kinsfolk and friends were not allowed to be near them, to weep over them, or even to gaze on them too long. Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner and followed the rotting corpses, till they were dragged to the Tiber, where, floating or driven on the bank, no one dared to burn or to touch them. The force of terror had utterly extinguished the sense of human fellowship, and, with the growth of cruelty, pity was thrust aside."
Tiberius also issued countermands to Sejanus' orders and policies, including his anti-Semitic policies. The new official line was to "let the Jews alone" (20). But this was not a casual change of direction. The new mandate arrived amidst the vigorous extermination of many officials Sejanus had put in place. Officials like Pilate.
After October 18, 31 AD, Pilate lived in a lethal political context. If Jesus' "trial" happened after this date, Pilate's strange ambivalence toward Jesus and the Jewish leadership is not strange after allat this moment of history, his prejudices could cost him his life. Knowing this context, we can also understand why Pilate would genuinely dread the chant of those Jews who demanded Christ's execution. The Book of John, Chapter 19:
12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. "
Daniel's Prophecy (top)
It's becoming more clear that April 3, 33 AD is our date. An ancient and startling Jewish prophecy of the Messiah adds more evidence.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, a young Jew was taken prisoner. He was abducted from his homeland and all that he had known. Perhaps he went along stumbling, bloody-footed with other prisoners. More likely, he rode a camel or cart because of his high birth. History does not say. He journeyed months from Judea, which he would never again see. But, when uprooted from everything familiar, this young man did not forget. According to the Bible, he did not lose faith in his god. His name was Daniel.
It was 605 BC. The tiny state of Judah was overrun by the great army of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Judah had taken the wrong side in a regional conflict between Egypt and Babylon, and it paid the price (21). To ensure its submission as a vassal state, many from Judah's royal and aristocratic families were carried away in what is sometimes called the first Babylonian captivity. Daniel was among these.
The Bible records that Daniel was groomed for service in Nebuchadnezzar's court. He learned the Babylonian language, literature and customs. With time, he became a trusted advisor to the king, more accomplished than all the other royal advisors. The Bible says that his true strength was in his faith and his god, not his personal ability.
Though his success in the king's court was remarkable, and though he never returned to his homeland, still his heart must have remained in the land of his birth. The Bible records his prayersheartcries, really. Pleas of such passion that there must have been tears on his face (22). Daniel pleaded with God for his people, that their captivity might end, that the temple at Jerusalem might be rebuilt.
The Bible records that during such a time of passion, Daniel had a vision. The angel Gabriel appeared to him and spoke. The Book of Daniel, Chapter 9:
"21 while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. 22 He instructed me and said to me, "Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. 23 As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed...
25 "Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven `sevens', and sixty-two `sevens'... 26 After the sixty-two `sevens', the Anointed One will be cut off..."
The word "Christ" means "anointed one." For this and other reasons, most commentators conclude that Daniel received a prediction of Messiah's coming. More than that, Daniel was told the date of Messiah's death, the date he would be "cut off." That's the date we seek for our astronomical investigation. So, can the numeric symbolism of Daniel's "sevens" be deciphered? Perhaps it is not terribly complicated.
Taking a direct approach, let us assume that the "sevens" are seven years. Gabriel told Daniel that after the decree to rebuild, there would be "seven sevens" (which is 49), plus "sixty-two sevens" (which is 434). After these 483 years, the Anointed One would be cut off. If the prophecy is true, this would be the year of the crucifixion.
Remember that in ancient times, our modern calendar system was not in use. In other prophetic passages a year of 360 days is used (23). To convert to our modern system which uses the longer solar year, we must divide by the time it takes for Earth to orbit the Sun, which is 365.24 days. This yields 476 years on our calendar (24).
We now have a number of years, but when do we start the countdown? Gabriel said to count "[f]rom the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem." When was that? The prophet Nehemiah records such a decree, and he dates it as the twentieth year of Artaxerxes (25). On our calendar, that date is 444 BC (26). Counting 476 years from 444 BC, and remembering that there is no year numbered "zero" AD, we discover what Gabriel told Daniel: the Messiah would be cut off in 33 AD.
This stunning prophecy, made over 500 years before Christ was born, is consistent with all of the other evidence we have seen. So, we have increasing confidence that Jesus was crucified on April 3, 33 AD. But the "clincher," perhaps the most powerful evidence, is astronomical. Let's consider Peter's argument.
Peter's Argument (top)
We now leap beyond the crucifixion to add a last piece of evidence about the day of the cross. The Bible reports that the resurrected Messiah instructed his disciples not to leave Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit. They may have been confused, wondering if Jesus was talking about something political (27). But stay they did.
They were still there for the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, 50 days after the Passover Feast and the crucifixion. Jerusalem was full of worshipers from all over the Near East. The Bible reports sudden startling events during this celebration: the sound of a great rushing wind, something like flames hovering about the disciples. Just as strange, the disciples began to speak, but not in their native Aramaic or Hebrew. They spoke in languages they had not learned. They were understood by countless foreign visitors to the city (28).
There was pandemonium. A boisterous crowd jostled closer. Travelers heard their own languages spoken by Galileans and were bewildered. Hecklers shouted: "They're all drunk!" The apostle Peter jumped up amid the confusion. We can imagine his hand outstretched to still the crowd. He then boomed out his explanation of what was happening. Listen and consider as Peter argues from the words of the prophet Joel recorded circa 835 BC. From the Book of Acts, Chapter 2:
"14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 "`In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'"
Then Peter delivered the knockout punch. The Book of Acts, Chapter 2:
22 "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know."
Peter asserts that Joel's prophesy has been fulfilled and that his listeners know itthat they have seen the signs themselves. This is the same argument the apostle Paul made, as discussed in "Setting the Stage" on this web site. This argument would have had exactly no persuasive force unless Paul's and Peter's audiences knew that signs had occurred. Both men assumed that everybody knew about the signs. That's powerful evidence that they had occurred. Of particular interest for us: Joel said there would be astronomical signs. And now Peter says, "you've seen them." What were they?
"The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood..." The gospels do recount that the sun was darkened on the day of the crucifixion from noon until 3 in the afternoon (29). Ancient non-Biblical sources confirm this. Phlegon Trallianus records in his history, Olympiades (41):
"In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad [AD 32-33], a failure of the Sun took place greater than any previously known, and night came on at the sixth hour of the day [noon], so that stars actually appeared in the sky; and a great earthquake took place in Bithynia and overthrew the greater part of Niceaea," obviously not a simple astronomical event. (42)
But what about the bloody moon?
The Celestial Dirge (top)
The answer to that question fixes the date of the crucifixion with precision. Beyond reasonable doubt, in fact, because a "blood moon" has a specific meaning. In ancient literature, not only the Bible, it means a lunar eclipse. Why bloody? Because when the moon is in eclipse it is in the Earth's shadow. It receives no direct light from the sun, but is lit only by the dim light refracted and red-shifted by the Earth's atmosphere. The moon in eclipse does glow a dull red, as you know if you have seen it.
This matters, because with Kepler's equations we can determine exactly when historical eclipses occurred. Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that only one Passover lunar eclipse was visible from Jerusalem while Pilate was in office (30). It occurred on April 3, 33 AD, the Day of the Cross.
That day followed a night of horrors predicted by the prophet Isaiah. In place of sleep for Jesus there were torch-lit hours of interrogation and mockery, spittle in the face and beatings, barbed lashes tearing flesh from his back and thorns pressed into his scalp. Isaiah wrote that the messiah would be beaten until "marred beyond human likeness" (31). And so, Jesus was brutalized during multiple "trials" and retrials before priests Annas and Caiaphas (32), King Herod (33) and Roman prefect Pontius Pilate (34). In the end, his fate was decided by a mob (35). He was marched to Golgotha, the "place of the skull," and crucified. He would die within six hours.
The gospels tell the chronology. Hammers thudded spikes through Jesus and into the cross at 9 AM (36). He was raised up. At noon and for three hours the sky was darkened (29). In the Temple at Jerusalem, only priests were permitted to enter the presence of Goda thick curtain excluded common men. During the crucifixion, this veil was torn apart, top to bottom, as a shattering earthquake split rocks and broke open tombs (37). In the darkness and tumult of these signs, even the Roman guards regretted their part in the killing (38). Jesus died at 3 PM (39). He was removed from the cross before nightfall to preserve the sanctity of the impending Passover (40). But the signs and wonders did not end. When the moon rose that evening, it was blood red. We can imagine the wonder of those who were present through all of this, and their increasing dread as the signs kept coming.
But there is more which they could not see. Kepler's equations indicate that the moon rose already in eclipse, already bloody, fulfilling Joel's vision. Necessarily, this means that the eclipse commenced before moonrise. With software we can look below the horizon and see Earth's shadow begin the eclipse. When we do, we find that at 3 PM, as Jesus was breathing his last on the cross, the moon was going to blood.
The sky at Christ's birth can be viewed as a kind of visual poetry, with the new moon symbolically "birthed" at the foot of Virgo, the virgin. To complete that celestial poem, on the night of Jesus' death the moon had returned to the foot of the virgin. But now it was a full moon. A life fully lived, blotted out in blood.
Next...What Does this Mean?