In the Christian gospels, the ministry of Jesus begins with his baptism in the countryside of Roman Judea and Transjordan, near the river Jordan, and ends in Jerusalem, following the Last Supper with his disciples. The Gospel of Luke (3:23) states that Jesus was “about 30 years of age” at the start of his ministry

Luke 3:23 states that Jesus was “about 30 years of age” at the start of his ministry. There have been different approaches to estimating the date of the start of the ministry of Jesus. One approach, based on combining information from the Gospel of Luke with historical data about Emperor Tiberius yields a date around 28-29 AD/CE, while a second independent approach based on statements in the Gospel of John along with historical information from Josephus about the Temple in Jerusalem leads to a date around AD 27–29

How long was Jesus’ ministry?”

According to Luke 3:1, John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign. Tiberius was appointed as co-regent with Augustus in AD 11, and 15 years later would be AD 26. Jesus began His ministry shortly thereafter at approximately the age of thirty (Luke 3:23). This gives us a basis upon which we can approximate what year Jesus began His public ministry: around AD 26. As for the end of His ministry, we know that it culminated with His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus attended at least three annual Feasts of Passover through the course of His ministry: one in John 2:13, another in 6:4, and then the Passover of His crucifixion in 11:55–57. Just based on that information, Jesus’ ministry lasted 2 years, at the very least.

Because of the amount of things that Jesus accomplished and the places He traveled during His ministry, many scholars believe there was another Passover, not mentioned in the Gospels, which fell between the Passovers of John 2 and John 6. This would lengthen Jesus’ ministry to at least 3 years.

We can add more time because of all that took place before the first Passover of Jesus’ ministry in John 2. By the time of that first Passover (in the spring of 27), Jesus had already traveled from the area of the Jordan to Cana to Capernaum to Jerusalem. He had been baptized by John (Matthew 3:13–17), been tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–2), began His preaching ministry (Matthew 4:17), called His first disciples (John 1:35–51), performed His first miracle (John 2:1–11), and made a trip to Capernaum with His family (John 2:12). All this would have taken several months, at least.

The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus ministry ,The Founder Of Christianity


The four canonical gospels are indispensable.

1.1 The lack of relevant evidence outside the gospels makes them the necessary starting-point of any investigation of the historical Jesus.

1.1.1 In the first century or so after the death of Jesus there are very few references to Jesus in non-Christian literature.

(a) The brief notice in Tacitus Annals xv.44 mentions only his title, Christus, and his execution in Judea by order of Pontius Pilatus. Nor is there any reason to believe that Tacitus bases this on independent information-it is what Christians would be saying in Rome in the early second century. Suetonius and Pliny, together with Tacitus, testify to the significant presence of Christians in Rome and other parts of the empire from the mid-sixties onwards, but add nothing to our knowledge of their founder. No other clear pagan references to Jesus can be dated before AD 150/1/, by which time the source of any information is more likely to be Christian propaganda than an independent record.

(b) The only clear non-Christian Jewish reference in this period is that of Josephus Antiquities XVIII.63-64, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum. Virtually all scholars are agreed that the received text is a Christian rewriting, but most are prepared to accept that in the original text a brief account of Jesus, perhaps in a less complimentary vein, stood at this point /2/. Josephus’ passing mention of ‘Jesus, the so-called Messiah’ in Antiquities XX.200 is hard to explain without some previous notice of this Jesus, especially since Josephus elsewhere makes no reference to Christianity, nor even uses the term Christos of any other figure. The different and less ‘committed’ version of the Testimonium preserved in a tenth-century Arabic quotation from Josephus/3/, while it is unlikely to represent the original text, does testify to the existence of an account of Jesus in Josephus’ work underlying the Christianized text. But reconstruction of what Josephus wrote is necessarily speculative.

(c) Rabbinic traditions about Jesus /4/ recall him as a sorcerer who gained a following and ‘led Israel astray’, and so ‘was hanged on the eve of the Passover’. Some of the relevant passages may date from the second century AD, but they are very obscure, and bear little relation to the Jesus his own followers remembered. Their polemical nature and their lack of interest in factual data does not create confidence in their potential as historical evidence for Jesus.

2. The acceptability of the gospels as historical sources.

2.1 The literary genre of the gospels.

2.1.1 It has long been an accepted dictum of New Testament scholars that the gospels are not biographies. In the sense that they do not set about their task in the way a modern biographer does this is undoubtedly true. Their records are highly selective, have only a loose chronological framework, focus one-sidedly on matters of theological significance, and tell us little or nothing about their subject’s psychology or personal development. In these ways, however, they are much closer to the type of ‘biography’ which was fashionable in the ancient world /12/. To commend the teaching and example of a great man by means of a selective and ‘moralizing’ anthology of his sayings and deeds was an accepted approach. Many such ‘biographies’ were of heroes long ago, and are largely mythical and valueless as historical sources; but in the case of a more recent figure there is no reason a priori why authentic historical reminiscences should not form the basis for such a ‘life’.

2.1.2 The primary cultural milieu for the gospels is Jewish, and prominent among Jewish literary techniques of the early Christian period is midrash /13/. This category has been applied to the gospels, with the suggestion that the source of much that they attribute to Jesus is a scripturally-inspired imagination rather than historical tradition. It must be insisted, however, (a) that ‘midrash’ (however that slippery word is defined) was far from being the dominant factor in Jewish writing about recent history, however strongly it may have influenced their retelling of ancient, sacred stories, and (b) that while the framework around which midrash was composed was a pre-existing sacred text, the framework of the gospels is a narrative about Jesus, into which scriptural elements may be introduced as the narrative suggests them, rather than vice versa. There may be much to be learned by comparing the gospel writers’ methods with those of midrashists, but there is no meaningful sense in which the gospels in themselves can be described in literary terms as midrash /14/.

2.2.4 A recent modification of this approach has been to compare the gospel traditions with the phenomena of informal tradition in a Middle Eastern peasant culture /20/. Here, while the formal controls of rabbinic tradition are lacking, and in some types of oral material a considerable degree of latitude may be allowed in the telling of a story, the main structure and key phrases, sayings, etc. are fixed by community memory to the extent that however often a story may be told in different circles with varying detail or coloring, it will still remain in all essentials the same story, with the same punchline etc., as when it started. Other material in such a culture will have a more unvarying form, where the exact words matter, as in proverbs or poems. This mixture, it is suggested, is closer to the phenomena of the gospels than either of the previously considered approaches, and encourages a strong confidence in the essential reliability of the gospels while allowing for a considerable variation in detail which gives full play to the individual personality and views of each gospel writer.

2.2.5 It should be noted that all these models assume an essentially or even entirely oral tradition for most of the period before the writing of the gospels. This is an assumption which should at least be questioned. There is no a priori reason why written records of Jesus’ teaching and actions may not have been preserved from shortly after the events themselves. Most scholars in fact speak of a written source or sources (in addition to Mark) used by Matthew and Luke. It is not clear why this lost ‘document’ (known for convenience as ‘Q’) should be the only or the earliest such record. May we not give more weight to Luke’s statement (Luke 1:1) that ‘many’ had already attempted to compile accounts of Jesus’ ministry?

2.3 The roots of scepticism as to the historical value of the gospels.

2.3.1 Problems in harmonizing with external data. A notorious case is Luke’s reference to a Roman census under the governorship of Quirinius at the time of Jesus’ birth. The historical problems are well known, and the case against Luke’s accuracy here is a strong one /21/. But such problems are few, because in the nature of the case the vast majority of the content of the gospels simply does not overlap with secular history. It should be pointed out, moreover, that the same Luke whose work is criticized on account of the census problem also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, where the overlap with recorded history is far greater, and in this area Luke’s accuracy in referring to the details of political institutions and appointments in Asia Minor and Greece was sufficient to cause the archeologist Sir William Ramsay to change from an inherited scepticism to a warm regard for Luke as a careful and responsible historian /22/. The bearing of external data on the historical reliability of the gospel writers is not all in one direction.

2.3.2 Problems in harmonization between the gospels. Perhaps the most notorious example here is that of the four gospels’ accounts of the finding of the empty tomb, and of Jesus’ subsequent appearances to selected disciples. It is well known that the details of these stories vary so widely that most scholars have declared any complete harmonization impossible. Be that as it may, it should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the essential story, the finding of an empty tomb early on the first day of the week by women who had reason to expect to find the body of Jesus there, is common to all the accounts. The same is true in general of discrepancies between the gospels: they concern details rather than the essential content (and in most cases the discrepancy in detail is far less than in the case of the resurrection stories). Often the discrepancy is over the apparent chronological order of the events- but it is questionable how far a chronological order is always what the writers intended in the first place. Generally the narrative discrepancies are of the type mentioned above in Middle Eastern story-telling, which leave the essential story-line unaffected. Problems of harmonization are the regular experience of any ancient historian who is fortunate enough to have two sources to compare, and do not in themselves lead him to question the integrity of his sources. Interpreters of the gospels will differ over the weight they assign to such discrepancies, but it would be hard to justify the view that they are sufficient to cast doubt on the essential portrait of Jesus which the gospels share.


2.3.4 The perspective of early Christianity. The belief that the gospel materials would have been significantly modified and expanded during the period between Jesus’ life and the writing of the gospels presupposes that primitive Christianity was unconcerned with the historicity of its traditions. It supposes that when a story or saying was presented in a significantly altered form, this would either not have been noticed, or would have been accepted and approved, and no-one would have objected ‘But it wasn’t like that’. Such a view fits well with a modern existentialist philosophy for which faith must be independent of history, and truth consists more in the effect on the hearer than in correspondence with the way things happened. But it is questionable how far such a view fits the concerns of early Christianity, as we can reconstruct them from the New Testament itself /23/. It may be suggested that the more immediately applicable models are those proposed above of the Jewish world of Jesus’ day and of the continuing values of Middle Eastern peasant culture. Here ‘getting the facts right’ is an essential part of good teaching and storytelling, and it must be proved rather than assumed that this was not also the case in the early Christian church.


If the argument sketched out above is valid, any responsible reconstruction of Christian origins must find its starting-point in the first- century gospel records, not in the hints of an alternative view of Jesus contained in second-century literature from the Gnostic wing of Christianity, nor in the attempt to assimilate Jesus to non-Christian parallels in the history of religions. The four canonical gospels will not answer all the questions we would like to ask about the founder of Christianity; but, sensitively interpreted, they do give us a rounded portrait of a Jesus who is sufficiently integrated into what we know of first-century Jewish culture to carry historical conviction, but at the same time sufficiently remarkable and distinctive to account for the growth of a new and potentially world-wide religious movement out of his life and teaching.












Christianity: an introduction by Alister E. McGrath 2006 ISBN 978-1-4051-0901-7 pages 16-22


The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament by Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum 2009 ISBN 978-0-8054-4365-3 page 140


Paul L. Maier “The Date of the Nativity and Chronology of Jesus” in Chronos, kairos, Christos: nativity and chronological studies by Jerry Vardaman, Edwin M. Yamauchi 1989 ISBN 0-931464-50-1 pages 113-129


Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times by Paul Barnett 2002 ISBN 0-8308-2699-8 pages 19-21


The Gospel according to Matthew by Leon Morris ISBN 0-85111-338-9 page 71


The Life and Ministry of Jesus: The Gospels by Douglas Redford 2007 ISBN 0-7847-1900-4 pages 117-130


A theology of the New Testament by George Eldon Ladd 1993ISBN page 324

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