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Did The Apostle Paul Witness Christ’s Crucifixion?


Why do Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, instead of, for example, in the tooth fairy? Because of an historical event interpreted from a salvation-seeking perspective. That history is based largely on gospel accounts and the Pauline epistles, the earliest of which—First Thessalonians—was written from Corinth about AD 51. One interesting question about Paul’s conversion involves whether he could have challenged early followers of Jesus about the body of their crucified leader.

Christianity bases its claims on an historical event: the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Before Saul converted into the apostle Paul, he scorned and hounded this nascent movement (1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13). Then, confronted by a vision on his trip to Damascus, he suddenly changed his mind (Acts 9:3-5, 22:6-8). The interesting question remains: Why? Tentative evidence based on chronological sequences hints that Paul became an unintended witness to Jesus. How do we establish this? By looking forward and backward along the timelines of Jesus and Paul.

Don’t Forget the Background Geopolitics

We start with Paul. According to Galatians 1:17, Paul departed Damascus shortly after accepting Christian membership and journeyed briefly into “Arabia,” presumably going south towards Nabatea to preach the new salvation. From there, he soon returned to Damascus (possibly due to hostile reception), where as per 1:18 he stayed three years.

Then suddenly, according to 2 Corinthians 11:33 (in response to the threat of arrest by Aretas IV Philopatris) and Acts 9:25, he escaped from Damascus when colleagues surreptitiously lowered him over the city’s defensive wall. From there, he journeyed to Jerusalem to meet with elders of the nascent church. We can ascertain when these events happened by examining the geopolitical background in the Levant.

Paul recognized the changing political landscape. Endangered by agents of Aretas, he fled Damascus in AD 37 after his three-year residence.

Why had Paul been in a hurry? Paul seemed to surmise that his excursion into Nabatea, where Aretas IV ruled from Petra, had provoked hostility, making his presence unwelcome. To understand why requires a geopolitical refresher. After Herod died in 4 BC, Caesar Augustus divided the kingdom among three of Herod’s sons: Archelaus as ethnarch of Judea (including Samaria and Idumea), Antipas as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Phillip as tetrarch of Ithurea and Trachonitis (southwestern Syria).

Rome deposed Archelaus in AD 6 and administered Judea as a province. Aretas IV ruled Nabatea from its capital at Petra—his daughter Phasaelis married Antipas. On a visit to Rome, Antipas met Herodias, his niece and then wife of Boethus (called Philip in Mark 6:17 and Matthew 14:3). They agreed to marry conditional on Antipas divorcing the Nabatean princess.

Upon learning of her marital repudiation, Phasaelis retreated to Machaerus (where John the Baptist was beheaded) and then escaped to Petra. (One could surmise that her father’s anger at the rude treatment Phasaelis received may have inflamed hostility to Jews and contributed to Paul’s unpleasant reception some years later.) In the winter of AD 36/37 following Philip’s death in AD 34, Aretas crushingly defeated Antipas over a border dispute in Gamalitis (present-day Golan), according to Josephus in “Antiquities” 18.113-115. Presumably, Aretas secured a trading mission in Damascus following his victory, possibly after the death of Tiberius in March AD 37.

Paul recognized the changing political landscape. Endangered by agents of Aretas, he fled Damascus in AD 37 after his three-year residence. Thus, counting back from that departure, Paul had encountered his epiphanous vision on the Damascus road in AD 34.

Triangulate with Dates in Christ’s History

Now we turn to Jesus. According to Luke 3:1-3, John (the Baptist) began preaching in Tiberius’ fifteenth year, dated to AD 29 (Matthew 3:13-15; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21). The gospel of John (the evangelist) mentions three separate Passover festivals during the public ministry of Jesus: John 2:13, 6:4, and 11:55, suggesting a ministry of about three years starting from his Johannine baptism. His critics at the earliest festival in John 2:20 mention a 46-year interval since completion of the temple’s inner sanctuary in 18/17 BC. This corresponds to AD 29/30 as that beginning.

All four gospels state that Jesus was crucified on Friday, before the Sabbath evening.

Jesus was crucified just before Passover while Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (AD 26-36), and Josephus Caiaphas was high priest (AD 18-37). Under the post-exilic official Jewish calendar, the New Year began following equinox after the first sighting of the new lunar crescent shortly after sunset. Passover would start 14 evenings later.

All four gospels (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; and John 19:31) state that Jesus was crucified on Friday, before the Sabbath evening. In John’s gospel at 19:14, Jesus is crucified during the preparation day for Passover. Astronomical calculations show that these both coincide with only two dates (on the Julian calendar): April 7, AD 30 and April 3, AD 33. Which one seems more likely?

Many if not most scholars favor the former. However, there are reasons to favor the later date. These include not only the duration of Jesus’ ministry, but astronomical factors also—see “The Jewish Calendar, a Lunar Eclipse and the Date of Christ’s Crucifixion” by Colin Humphreys and Graeme Waddington in Tyndale Bulletin (1992). Both Philo (“Legatio” 299-305) and Josephus (“Bellum” 2.169-174, “Antiquities” 18.55-59) separately allude to Pilate’s disregard of Jewish sensitivities.

Shortly after Pilate’s arrival, his soldiers brought either gilded shields or army standards to Jerusalem, provoking angry protest. (This incident may also have contributed to the animosity from Antipas in Luke 23:12.) While Pilate’s animus was likely exaggerated, the bloodshed in Galilee (Luke 13:1) and the massacre in Samaria (“Antiquities” 18:87-89) that resulted in his recall to Rome, nonetheless suggest a disagreeable temperament.

The Politics of Sentencing Christ to Death

Yet the gospel accounts describe Pilate’s response as passive when Jesus is presented for execution, in spite of the Sanhedrin’s accusation of sedition. In particular, John 19:12 declares that failure to judge Jesus harshly signals disloyalty to the emperor. This taunt hints at a threat by the Sanhedrin to send a delegation to Tiberius, which Pilate takes seriously. Why would such a warning induce Pilate to reconsider the decision by the Jewish religious authorities? Some background is in order.

We can reasonably conclude that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred on April 3, AD 33 on the Julian calendar.

When Tiberius retired to Capri in AD 26, he appointed Aelius Sejanus the control of Rome, as Tiberius’ son Drusus had died three years before. Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard, reviewed all communication to Tiberius and conferred with the Senate. Notoriously anti-Semitic, as noted by Philo (“Flaccus” 1, “Legatio” 159-161), Sejanus handled state affairs such as monitoring provincial administrations, including Pilate’s in Judea.

However, after receiving accusations that Sejanus had conspired to poison Drusus, Tiberius arranged Sejanus’ execution in October AD 31, as described by Cassius Dio in “Roman History” 58:11. Associates and family members were hunted and killed, as recorded by Tacitus (“Annals” 6:3-10) and Suetonius (“Lives: Tiberius” 61).

While Sejanus held power, Pilate could ignore the sensitivities of Judea’s religious spokesmen. But in the aftermath of Sejanus’ demise, Pilate showed more willingness to accommodate the chief priests. This observation effectively removes AD 30 from consideration, leaving AD 33 as the year of that fateful event.

As further confirmation, that April 3 witnessed a partial lunar eclipse in Jerusalem as “moon turned to blood” above the Mount of Olives at moon rise about 6:20 p.m., as mentioned by Peter in Acts 2:20 (reciting Joel 2:31). NASA provides the eclipse track from this date. Thus, we can reasonably conclude that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred on April 3, AD 33 on the Julian calendar. For cross-reference, this translates to April 1, 33 CE for the Gregorian calendar and Nisan 14, 3793 AH on the Hebrew calendar.

This all Brings Us to Paul

Okay, so what’s so significant about these dates? Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 required burial the same day, even for executed criminals. Acts 13:28 reports that the people of Jerusalem had condemned Jesus, then laid him in a tomb. The body would be placed on a stone bench in the sepulcher. After about a year, the flesh would decompose, leaving the bones, which would then be deposited in an ossuary—a limestone box. One could expect family members and possibly the disciples to determine the tomb’s whereabouts, especially in anticipation of moving the bones later. However, such knowledge eventually dissipates as persons involved relocate or die.

While persecuting them, what prevented Paul from confronting the early church to produce their savior’s remains? Inconveniently unavailable, perhaps?

Yet the crucifixion occurred in AD 33, followed by Paul’s epiphany the next year. Paul claimed to be a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5 and Acts 23:6) and attended Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58) in Jerusalem. While persecuting the followers of this new cult, what prevented Paul from confronting the early Christian church to produce their purported savior’s desiccated remains? Inconveniently unavailable, perhaps?

Why would this have been important anyway? Because on that road Paul encountered someone he had noticed before. As an observant Jew, Paul would likely have attended the Passover the previous year. Crucifixion was designed as a cruel and public spectacle. The macabre display of Jesus suffering just outside the northern walls of Jerusalem would stand as a poignant warning to avoid Roman displeasure.

Paul acknowledged his ignorance of Jesus in person (2 Corinthians 5:16). As Paul entered the city for the festival, he could not know who this contemporary was, but in that witness (“I preach Christ crucified!” 1 Corinthians 1:23), he would find out and recognize him again on that fateful road.

Christianity loses adherents for various reasons—restrictions on sexual activity, among others. But the emphasis on “belief” (John 20:29) without factual grounding reduces the ecclesia to a credulity-centered social club. Acceptance of Christ’s passion narrative is not irrational. Something extraordinary happened to convince many people that their messiah had risen. Persuading others shouldn’t be made more difficult due to our ignorance of history.