Most of what we know about the two men comes from what is written in the Gospels. However, the Gospels don't give us dates just a few reference points.
Scholars point out that such uncertainty over the dates was of no concern to the early Christians. The Gospel authors were concerned with writing about God's revelation in and through Jesus not necessarily a historical account. Instead they were interested in writing a "big picture" record of the life and death of Jesus – the details were not a primary concern and, thus, were not recorded.
In fact, interest in the details of Jesus' life did not grow until the second century C. E. However, by the time this interest developed it was 200 years after the events of Jesus' life! Traditions developed and evolved, but they were not all the same.
Last month we addressed the issue of Jesus' birth – both the date and the year. (Click here to read that article.) The consensus among scholars is that Jesus was probably born between 6 and 4 B.C.E. Periodically, a scholar will argue for a date outside those parameters, but the vast majority of scholars accept that Jesus was probably born between 6-4 C. E.
John's Birth This brings us to the question of when John the Baptist was born. Most of what we know about John comes from the Gospels. In fact, it is only from Luke that we know anything about John's birth.
According to Luke, "In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to… a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you'" (Luke 1:27-28).
If this is accurate, then John was born six months before Jesus. If Jesus was born between 6-4 B.C.E., then John would have been born between 7-5 B.C.E. or sometime earlier in the year between 6-4 B.C.E., depending on what time of year Jesus was born.
According to Mark, John was arrested before Jesus began his ministry. The logical question is, "How old was Jesus when he began his ministry?" Luke (3:23) states that Jesus "was about thirty years old when he began his ministry." Interestingly, the Gospel of the Ebionites states that Jesus was thirty years old when he chose his disciples, which would have been at the beginning of his ministry. (Read more about the Ebionites in two articles Bible Overview: The Gospel of the Ebionites and the Hebrew Gospel and Bible Characters: The Ebionites.)
Josephus (a first-century historian) does mention John's arrest and attempts to describe his baptizing work. Josephus gave no hint as to when John was arrested or when he did his work. Thus, if Jesus was born between 6-4 B.C.E. and began when he was thirty, Jesus started his ministry in 24-26 C.E.
Length of Jesus' Ministry
This leads us to the question of the length of Jesus' ministry, which will help us determine when the two men were killed. According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus' ministry lasted only one year. However, the Gospel of John mentions three Passovers (with other festivals in between). This suggests a three-year ministry.
Also, a few venturesome scholars have suggested Jesus' ministry lasted much longer than we think – perhaps as long as a decade or so. Using different calendars and astrological charts, and even the prophecies of Daniel, one can come up with all sorts of different dates and variations. However, the majority of scholars accept the one-year timeline.
Jesus' Death and Resurrection, and John's Death
All the Gospel accounts state that John the Baptist was killed before Jesus. Scholars also know that Jesus was executed while Pilate was governor and Caiaphas was High Priest. Both of their terms in office ended in 36 C.E. Thus, 36 C.E. is the latest possible date for the end of Jesus' ministry.
However, if Jesus' birth was between 6-4 B.C.E. and his ministry only lasted one year, he was killed between 25-27 C.E. If the Gospel of John is right and Jesus' ministry lasted three years, then Jesus was killed between 27-29 C.E. Based on the estimates of Jesus' death and resurrection, we can estimate that John the Baptist was killed between 24-29 C.E.