The significance of Passover during the ministry years of Jesus may have more to it than its typological fulfillment in Messiah’s sacrifice. For example, a case can be made that the first Passover in his ministry locates a key date in the famed prophecy of ‘Daniels 70 Weeks.’ Also, his last Passover may provide a final answer to the elusive date of his crucifixion.
Understanding the chronological details of Passover during this period not only nails dates, but enables us to stand in awe as we witness fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. Our awe turns to amazement as we contemplate extraordinary mathematical patterns of seven, climaxing in the final atonement.
In times past, scholars searching these subjects realized the answers lay in finding the phases of the moon. Inquiries were made to national observatories and astronomical societies but information had to be eked out, a question at a time. Today however, highly accurate lunar software is available to layman and specialist alike. So it should be easy to find Passover dates in any given year, because Passover always arrived on the 14th day of the first moon of each year. (Exodus 12:6)
However, here is where the problems begin:
First. How can we date the Passover of Christ’s crucifixion if we don’t know the year? What we do know is that Pilate governed Judea from AD 26 to AD 36, so it must have been somewhere in-between – but when?
**Second. **Was Jesus crucified on the 14th day when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, or was it on the following day, the 15th after the meal had been eaten? The Synoptic Gospels indicate the latter, but St. John seems to say the former. (John 18:28)
Third. Which day of the week did Jesus die? Tradition says it was Friday, but Wednesday or Thursday seems to better fit his 3 days and 3 nights in the grave? (Matt. 12:40)
So, although lunar cycles are very reliable, they are not much good if we do not know the year or the day of the month. Moreover, modern calculation of ‘new moon’ isn’t the same as those observed in ancient time. Modern astronomers equate the first day of the month with the day following ‘lunar conjunction,’ that is, the middle of the dark moon period when the moon and sun are in conjunction with each other.
Originally ‘new moon’ referred to the crescent on the first night it became visible, typically one or two days after conjunction. In 1st century Judea, if the crescent moon appeared during the night, it could be seen about 18 hours after conjunction. However, if it developed during daylight hours, the observer had to wait till nightfall to see it. That might have stretched to two days. Then, when he saw the faint lunar sliver, he ran to the priest and reported his sighting. (He would have been an authorised person such as a shepherd, who got paid a few shekels for his service) Then the priest would declare the ‘new moon’ and the 1st day of the month would be deemed to have started at 6pm of the same night that it was reported.
In the case of our modern Jewish calendar, it still uses the first visible crescent rather than lunar conjunction to start the month. However, it is no longer identified by a physical sighting. Rather, it is mathematically estimated, and offset from the conjunction.
With these problems hindering a simple fixing of Jesus’ last Passover date; I have worked out a chart that shows the alternative possibilities between AD 26 and AD 36. My method was to find the lunar conjunction preceding Nisan, and then step through each hour until a likely sighting could have been made. Having determined ‘new moon,’ the days were then stepped through the month until Passover.
So, my initial goal, is to narrow down the possible crucifixion dates to those that have a valid astronomical basis. As the chart shows, AD 29, AD 32 and AD 35 do not meet the criteria. The brown cross icons on the chart below represent theoretical execution dates where the astronomical criteria have been met. For example, the popular AD 33 date of Jesus’ death is shown, based on the assumption that it occurred on the 14th of Nisan, simultaneous with Passover lambs being slaughtered in the temple.