The Time Period Of Jesus' Earthly Ministry

M S M Saifullah, Muhammad Ghoniem & ʿAbdullah David

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

First Composed: 7th March 2006

Last Updated: 26th April 2006

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Assalamu-ʿalaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:

1. Introduction

He will speak to people in his infancy [al-mahd] and in his adulthood [kahlan]. He will be one of the righteous. [Qur'an 3:46]

Then God will say, "Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour to you and to your mother: how I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you spoke to people in your infancy [al-mahd] and as a grown man [kahlan] ... [Qur'an 5:110]

On the basis of the above translated English verse, it has been claimed by the Christian missionaries that the Qur'an says Jesus taught people in his "old age". According to them:

The ministry of Jesus lasted until he was about 33. This is even admitted by Yusuf Ali in his comment no. 388 on Sura 3:46.

But Sura 5:110 says he taught the people in (up to his) old age. Can 33 years considered "old age" by any stretch of imagination?

The missionaries also add that the ministry of Jesus lasted until he was "about 33". According to them, one strand of evidence for this claim comes from Abdullah Yusuf Ali's (1872 – 1953 CE) commentary in the footnotes of his English translation of the Qur'an. In this paper we would like to examine the claim whether the Qur'an really says that Jesus preached when he was in his "old age". Is there any agreement amongst Judeo-Christian scholars concerning Jesus' age or other periods of time associated with his earthly life? All these issues will be the focus of our investigation, establishing beyond doubt whose "stretch of imagination" is in consonance with the lexical, exegetical and chronological data.

2. Does The Qur'an Say "Old Age"?: A Lexical Enquiry

It is quite strange that the Christian missionaries used Yusuf Ali's footnote concerning Jesus' earthly ministry to be of about 33 years and yet did not follow his translation of Qur'an 3:46. Instead they chose Shakir's translation which says that Jesus will speak to people "when in the cradle and when of old age". Yusuf Ali, on the other hand, correctly translates the verse as Jesus speaking to people "in childhood and in maturity", as we shall soon see.

While discussing the time when Jesus spoke to the people, the Qur'an in 3:46 as well as 5:110 uses the word al-mahdi and kahlan. The word mahd refers to a place smoothed out for a small child to sleep in. It does not refer to a piece of furniture such as a cradle,[1] although Shakir has translated it this way. What about kahlan? What age does it refer to? Christian missionaries following in the footsteps of the Qur'anic translator Shakir have claimed that it refers to "old age". On the contrary, Lisān al-ʿArab says concerning the word kahl:

Al-Kahl refer to one whose hair has gone gray and appears to be old or over 30 years or over 34 years up to 51 years. The plural takes various forms: kahlūn, kuhūl, kihāl, kuhlān and kuhhal. The feminine is kahlah.

Similar statements can also be found in Al-Qāmūs al-Muhīt. From the discussion in both Lisān al-ʿArab and Al-Qāmūs al-Muhīt, it is clear that a person who is a kahl can have an age anywhere between 30 to 50 years. This range of ages is commonly associated with peak physical strength and maturity of thought. Al-Razī discusses the issue of kahlan in detail in his Tafsīr al-Kabīr. He points out that kahl refers to what has become fully fledged and perfect. In the case of a person, it refers to someone who has reached the peak of his physical strength. In detail, al-Razī's tafsīr explains:

This raises three questions.

1. What is the meaning of kahlan ?

Linguistically speaking, kahl refers to a person being of full strength and youth. It is derived from the Arabic expression iktahala an-nabāt with regard to a plant becoming strong and fully fledged. For instance, al-A‘shā said:

yudāhiku ash-shamsa minhā kawkabu sharqin mu'azzarun bi-hamīmi an-nabti muktahili

....

He meant by muktahil, a plant of infinite beauty and perfection.

2. His speaking in al-mahd is a miracle, whereas speaking as a grown up person is not, why mention it ?

The answer bears on various considerations. Firstly, the intent was to emphasize the changes he went through from childhood to adulthood, while such changes are impossible for God Almighty. This came in reply to the delegation of Najrān who claimed that Jesus was a god. Secondly, that he spoke once in al-mahd to prove the innocence of his mother, and later when he was a kahl he spoke out of revelation and prophethood. Thirdly, Abū Muslim said that it meant he spoke in al-mahd and being a kahl in a similar fashion which is truly a miracle. Fourthly, al-Asam said that it meant he would reach the age of being a kahl.

3. It was reported that Jesus - peace be upon him - was 33 years and six months old when he was elevated. Under this assumption, he was not a kahl.

The answer is two fold. Firstly, we have explained earlier that, with regard to Arabic language, the word kahl refers to what has become fully fledged and perfect. The most perfect state of the human being is indeed between 30 and 40 years. It is, therefore, correct to refer to him as being a kahl. Secondly, according to al-Husayn ibn al-Fadl al-Bajlī, the expression wa kahlan refers to his being a kahl after his descent from heaven at the end of time; he will then speak to people and kill the Dajjal. Al-Husayn ibn al-Fadl said: This verse proves that he - peace be upon him - will come down on earth.

From a lexical and exegetical standpoint, it is clear that the word kahl or its derivative kahlan used in the Qur'anic verse does not refer in any way whatsoever to an "old age". It refers to a range of ages between 30 to 50 years when a person reaches his peak physical strength. Totally incapable of engaging with the original classical Arabic, it is evident the missionaries resorted to a ‘Pick n’ Mix’ strategy and purposefully conflated two English translations of the Qur'an, namely those of Shakir and Ali, using the translated verse of the former and the footnotes of the later, in order to generate a "contradiction" that has never existed. In fact, the translations by Yusuf Ali, Pickthal and others clearly refers to kahlan as an age of maturity/manhood – obviously clearly ignored by the missionaries at their peril, forcing them to adopt an untenable position, which, through scant investigation, can be summarily dismissed.

The age of Jesus in the Islamic literature comes from Christian sources. As far as we are aware, and Allah knows best, there is no authentic Prophetic tradition which mentions the length of Jesus' earthly ministry. The typical age which is usually cited in both Christian and Islamic literature for the duration of Jesus' ministry is about 33 years. The age of Jesus' earthly ministry has been a subject of intense dispute for nearly 2000 years and it is to this we will now turn our attention.

3. Jesus' Birth, Ministry And Alleged Crucifixion: Unresolved Chronological Controversy

The Christian missionaries have claimed that the ministry of Jesus lasted "until he was about 33" years old. To support their claim, they used Yusuf Ali's commentary in the footnotes of his English translation of the Qur'an.[2] This is rather strange. One would expect a scholar who specializes in New Testament chronology criticism to be mentioned in support of the dating. Although considered as a very able translator, Yusuf Ali is not known to be a chronologist of either the New Testament or the Old Testament.

Dating Jesus' birth and his alleged crucifixion is fraught with difficulties. These two dates were debated from very early times; from Irenaeus (c. 120 – c. 202 CE) until today there is no consensus whatsoever amongst the scholars. This is not surprising. The historical data mentioned in the Gospels have their own inconsistencies. Depending upon which data from the Gospels are used and which data are excluded, there is an enormous impact on dating certain time periods associated with the life of Jesus. Table I below lists the dating of Jesus' birth, his alleged crucifixion and in some cases his age as deduced by various scholars.

Author Date of Jesus' Birth Date of Jesus' Alleged Crucifixion Approximate Time Period of Jesus' Ministry (Years)
Irenaeus[3] 40 - 50
Theodor Keim[4] 35 CE
Robert Anderson[5] Autumn 4 BCE 32 CE 35
C. H. Turner[6] 7 or 6 BCE 29 CE 35 or 36
Alfred Loisy[7] 29 CE
Kirsopp Lake[8] 36 CE
Richard W. Husband[9] 6 or 5 BCE 33 CE 38 or 39
E. Power[10] 33 CE
Robert Eisler[11] 21 CE
J. K. Fotheringham[12] Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE
George Ogg[13] Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE
A. T. Olmstead[14] 20 BCE Friday, 7th April, 30 CE 50
T. Corbishley[15] 8 BCE 40
E. Bammel[16] 32 CE
Josef Blinzler[17] Friday, 7th April, 30 CE
Ethelbert Stauffer[18] 7 BCE 32 CE 40
Paul Winter[19] 28 CE
George Ogg[20] 8 or 7 BCE Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE 40 or 41
George Ogg[21] 11 or 10 or 9 BCE Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE 42 or 43 or 44
Jack Finegan[22] Winter 5 / 4 BCE Friday, 7th April, 30 CE 34
Eugen Ruckstuhl[23] Friday, 7th April, 30 CE
Joachim Jeremias[24] Friday, 7th April, 30 CE
Paul L. Maier[25] Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE
Bo Reicke[26] 33 CE
Hugh J. Schonfield[27] 36 CE
Harold W. Hoehner[28] Winter 5 / 4 BCE Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE 37
Armstrong & Finegan[29] 7 - 4 BCE Friday, 7th April, 30 CE 34 - 37
Eerdmans Bible Dictionary[30] 7 or 6 BCE Friday, 7th April, 30 CE 36 or 37
Nikos Kokkinos[31] 12 BCE 36 CE 48
Jerry Vardaman[32] 12 BCE 21 CE 33
Paul L. Maier[33] Winter 5 BCE Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE 37
Colin Humphreys & W. G. Waddington[34] Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE
Ernest L. Martin[35] 3 or 2 BCE
Douglas Johnson[36] ~ 4 BCE
Konradin Ferrari-D'Occhieppo[37] 7 BCE
Paul L. Maier[38] Winter 5 - 4 BCE Friday, 3rd April, 33 CE 37
John P. Meier[39] 7 or 6 BCE Friday, 7th April, 30 CE 36 or 37
E. Jerry Vardaman[40] 12 BCE 21 CE 33
Jack V. Scarola[41] 6 BCE

Table I: Dating of Jesus' birth and his alleged crucifixion as deduced from the time of Irenaeus until today. This is not a comprehensive list. Clearly, there is no consensus among the scholars about the dates. George Ogg is mentioned twice to highlight how quickly scholars can change their mind on matters of dating.

It is clear from Table I that Jesus' earthly ministry could have lasted from anywhere between 33 years to 50 years, depending upon the methodology used by the scholars to date the birth and alleged crucifixion. Statistically, it appears to be close to around 40 years.

We do not wish to enter into the less than edifying debate concerning the date of Jesus' birth, length of ministry and alleged crucifixion, but we would like to point out that perhaps the most comprehensive work in recent times comes from Nikos Kokkinos.[42] His work also appears to have been accepted by historians like Robert Lane Fox[43] and Fergus Millar.[44] According to him, John the Baptist's chronology is directly linked to the marriage of Antipas and Herodias. This marriage is connected to the dating of Agrippa I (Herodias' brother) and raises several interesting and crucial points. Therefore, any attempt at dating Jesus' alleged crucifixion becomes a matter of Herodian chronology. Herodian chronology prevents the Baptist's death occurring before 35 CE, and thus Jesus' alleged crucifixion before 36 CE. Kokkinos places the date of birth and the date of the alleged crucifixion of Jesus around 12 BCE and 36 CE respectively; thus giving Jesus' age around 48 years. The use of Herodian chronology to date the alleged crucifixion is not new. It was used by Theodor Keim, Kirsopp Lake and Hugh Schonfield to date Jesus' alleged crucifixion to 36 CE (see Table I). But it is the work of Nikos Kokkinos which brought it back to the fore.

4. Conclusions

It was claimed by the Christian missionaries that according to the Qur'an (Al-Maeda 5:110) Jesus taught the people "in (up to his) old age". They rhetorically asked, "Can 33 years considered "old age" by any stretch of imagination?" More important than the sarcastic rhetoric is whether or not the "facts" provided by the missionaries stand up to scrutiny in the face of lexical, exegetical and chronological evidence. An examination of the Qur'anic verse 5:110 along with 3:46 revealed that the word used for what has been translated as "old age" by Shakir, this English translation subsequently specifically adopted by the missionaries, is kahlan. The word kahl, from which kahlan is derived, signifies the age when a person has reached his peak physical strength – a range of ages anywhere between 30 and 50 years. Therefore, it is quite clear that kahl does not in any way whatsoever refer to "old age". The missionaries have resorted to a ‘Pick n’ Mix’ strategy and purposefully conflated two English translations of the Qur'an, namely those of Shakir and Yusuf Ali, using the translated verse of the former and the footnotes of the later, in order to generate a "contradiction" that has never existed.

It was also claimed by the Christian missionaries that the earthly ministry of Jesus lasted for about 33 years. To support their claim, they cited Yusuf Ali's commentary in the footnotes of his English translation of the Qur'an – clearly a non-specialist in the sphere of New Testament chronology criticism. The age of Jesus' earthly ministry has been the subject of intense dispute since the advent of Christianity. In modern times, there has been no consensus among the New Testament chronologists about the date of the birth and alleged crucifixion of Jesus. The discrepancy arises due to the fact that the historical data mentioned in the Gospels are inconsistent with each other. Depending upon which data from the Gospels are used and which data are excluded, there is an enormous impact on dating certain time periods associated with the life of Jesus. This is clearly reflected in the broad range of dates adduced for Jesus' earthly ministry – a time span that could have lasted from anywhere between 33 years to 50 years depending upon the methodology used by the scholars to date the birth and alleged crucifixion.

And Allah knows best!

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References & Notes

[1] M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, The Qur'an: A New Translation, 2005, Oxford University Press, p. 38, footnote a.

[2] Y. Ali, The Holy Qur'ān: English Translation Of The Meaning And Commentary, 1410 AH, King Fahd Holy Qur'ān Printing Complex: Al-Madinah al-Munawarah, p. 154, note 388.

[3] Rev. A. Roberts & J. Donaldson (Eds.), Ante-Nicene Christian Library: Translation of The Writings Of The Fathers Down To A.D. 325, 1868, Volume 5(I), Irenæus, T & T Clark: Edinburgh, pp. 200-202.

[4] T. Keim (Trans. A. Ransom), The History Of Jesus Of Nazara Freely Investigated In Its Connection With The National Life Of Israel And Related In Detail, 1879, Volume IV, Williams and Norgate: London & Edinburgh, pp. 222-223; T. Keim (Trans. A. Ransom), The History Of Jesus Of Nazara Freely Investigated In Its Connection With The National Life Of Israel And Related In Detail, 1883, Volume VI, Williams and Norgate: London & Edinburgh, pp. 234-244.

[5] R. Anderson, The Coming Prince: The Last Great Monarchy Of Christendom, 1882, Second Revised Edition, Hodder and Stoughton: London, pp. 88-105.

[6] C. H. Turner, "Chronology Of The New Testament" in J. Hastings (Ed.), A Dictionary Of The Bible Dealing With Its Language, Literature And Contents Including The Biblical Theology, 1898, Volume 1, pp. 403-415.

[7] A. Loisy, Les Évangiles Synoptiques, 1907, Volume 1, Chez l'Auteur: Ceffonds (Haute-Marne), pp. 386-389; A. Loisy, Les Évangiles Synoptiques, 1908, Volume 2, Chez l'Auteur: Ceffonds (Haute-Marne), p. 490.

[8] K. Lake, "The Date Of Herod's Marriage With Herodias And The Chronology Of The Gospels", The Expositor, 1912, Volume 4 (8th Series), pp. 462-477.

[9] R. W. Husband, "The Year Of The Crucifixion", Transactions Of The American Philological Association, 1915, Volume 46, pp. 5-27. Husband appears to accept the year of birth of Jesus to be 6 or 5 BCE.

[10] E. Power, "John 2, 20 And The Date Of The Crucifixion", Biblica, 1928, Volume 9, pp. 257-288.

[11] R. Eisler (English Edition by A. H. Krappe), The Messiah Jesus And John The Baptist According To Flavius Josephus' Recently Discovered 'Capture Of Jerusalem' And The Other Jewish And Christian Sources, 1931, Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London, pp. 16-20.

[12] J. K. Fotheringham, "The Evidence Of Astronomy And Technical Chronology For The Date Of The Crucifixion", Journal Of The Theological Studies, 1934, Volume 35, pp. 146-162.

[13] G. Ogg, The Chronology Of The Public Ministry Of Jesus, 1940, Cambridge At The University Press, p. 277.

[14] A. T. Olmstead, "The Chronology Of Jesus' Life", Anglican Theological Review, 1942, Volume 24, No. 1, pp. 1-26. For the critique of Olmstead's position see C. H. Kraeling, "Olmstead's Chronology Of The Life Of Jesus", Anglican Theological Review, 1942, Volume 24, No. 4, pp. 334-354.

[15] T. Corbishley, "The Date Of Our Lord's Birth", Scripture, 1946, Volume 1, No. 4, pp. 77-80.

[16] E. Bammel, "Filoz ton Kaisadoz", Theologische Literaturzeitung, 1952, Volume 77, No. 4, cols. 206-210.

[17] J. Blinzler (Trans. Isabel and Florence McHugh), The Trial Of Jesus: The Jewish And Roman Proceedings Against Jesus Christ Described And Assessed From The Oldest Accounts By Josef Blinzler, 1959, The Mercier Press Ltd.: Cork, pp. 72-80.

[18] E. Stauffer, Jesus And His Story, 1960, SCM Press Ltd: London, pp. 22-43 and pp. 91-110.

[19] P. Winter, On The Trial Of Jesus, 1961, Studia Judaica (Volume 1), Walter de Gruyter & Co.: Berlin, p. 175, note 5.

[20] G. Ogg, "Chronology Of The New Testament" in J. D. Douglas (Ed.), The New Bible Dictionary, 1962, The Intervarsity Fellowship: London, pp. 223-228.

In the second edition of this dictionary Ogg says that Jesus was born not later than 4 BCE and his ministry may have ended in 30 CE or 33 CE. See G. Ogg, "Chronology Of The New Testament" in J. D. Douglas (Organizing Editor), New Bible Dictionary, 1984, Second Edition, Inter-varsity Press: Leicester and Tyndale House Publishers: Wheaton (IL), pp. 201-202.

[21] G. Ogg, "Chronology Of The New Testament" in M. Black and H. H. Rowley (Eds.), Peake's Commentary On The Bible, 1962, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, pp. 728-730.

[22] J. Finegan, Handbook Of Biblical Chronology: Principles Of The Time Reckoning In The Ancient World And Problems Of Chronology In The Bible, 1964, Princeton University Press: Princeton (NJ), pp. 298-301. He considers that an earlier date of the Nativity around 6-7 BCE is also possible.

[23] E. Ruckstuhl (Trans. V. J. Drapela), Chronology Of The Last Days Of Jesus: A Critical Study, 1965, Desclee Company, Inc., pp. 1-12.

[24] J. Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words Of Jesus, 1966, SCM Press Ltd: London, pp. 36-41.

[25] P. L. Maier, "Sejanus, Pilate, And The Date Of The Crucifixion", Church History, 1968, Volume 37, pp. 3-13.

[26] B. Reicke (Trans. D. E. Green), The New Testament Era: The World Of The Bible From 500 B.C. To A.D. 100, 1968, Adams & Charles Black: London, pp. 183-184.

[27] H. J. Schonfield, The Pentecost Revolution: The Story Of The Jesus Party In Israel, A.D. 36-66, 1974, Macdonald and Jane's: London, pp. 46-47, pp. 51-53, p. 308.

[28] H. W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects Of The Life Of Christ, 1978, Zondervan Publishing House: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 27 and p. 114 for conclusions.

[29] W. P. Armstrong & J. Finegan, "Chronology Of The NT" in G. W. Bromiley (Gen. Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1979 (Fully Revised, Illustrated), Volume I, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids (MI), pp. 686-689.

[30] "Chronology, Biblical" in A. C. Myers (Ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids (MI), p. 214.

[31] N. Kokkinos, "Crucifixion in A.D. 36: The Keystone For Dating The Birth Of Jesus" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, Eisenbrauns: Winona Lake, pp. 133-163.

[32] J. Vardaman, "Jesus' Life: A New Chronology" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, op. cit., pp. 55-82.

[33] P. L. Maier, "The Date Of The Nativity And The Chronology of Jesus' Life" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, op. cit., pp. 113-130.

[34] C. J. Humphreys & W. G. Waddington, "Astronomy And The Date Of Crucifixion" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, op. cit., pp. 165-181.

[35] E. L. Martin, "The Nativity And Herod's Death" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, op. cit., pp. 85-92.

[36] D. Johnson, "And They Went Eight Stades Toward Herodeion" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, op. cit., pp. 93-99.

[37] K. Ferrari-D'Occhieppo, "The Star Of The Magi And Babylonian Astronomy" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, op. cit., pp. 41-53.

[38] P. L. Maier, In The Fullness Of Time: A Historian Looks At Christmas, Easter, And The Early Church, 1991, HarperSanFrancisco: New York, p. 25 and p. 153.

[39] J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking The Historical Jesus, 1991, Volume 1 (The Roots of the Problems and the Person), Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday: New York, pp. 372-409. The summary is in pp. 406-409.

[40] E. J. Vardaman, "A Provisional Chronology Of The New Testament: Jesus Through Paul's Early Years" in E. J. Vardaman (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos II: Chronological, Nativity, And Religious Studies In Memory Of Ray Summers, 1998, Mercer University Press: Macon (GA), pp. 313-320.

[41] J. V. Scarola, "A Chronology Of The Nativity Era " in E. J. Vardaman (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos II: Chronological, Nativity, And Religious Studies In Memory Of Ray Summers, 1998, op. cit., pp. 61-84.

[42] N. Kokkinos, "Crucifixion in A.D. 36: The Keystone For Dating The Birth Of Jesus" in J. Vardaman & E. M. Yamauchi (Ed.), Chronos Kairos Christos: Nativity And Chronological Studies Presented To Jack Finegan, 1989, op. cit., pp. 133-163.

[43] R. L. Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth And Fiction In The Bible, 1993, Vintage Books: New York, pp. 27-36 especially pp. 33-35. Also see notes on pp. 422-423.

[44] F. Millar, "Reflections On The Trials Of Jesus" in P. R. Davies & R. T. White, A Tribute To Geza Vermes: Essays On Jewish And Christian Literature And History, 1990, Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament Supplement Series 100, Sheffield Academic Press: Sheffield (UK), pp. 355-381, especially note 1 on p. 380.

For a contrary view see J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking The Historical Jesus, 1991, Volume 1 (The Roots of the Problems and the Person), Anchor Bible Reference Library, op. cit., pp. 419-420, note 57and pp. 430-431, note 111.

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