The “2-cleansings” debate has done us another favour as well. By resolving a superficial contradiction, the timeline of Jesus’ ministry comes into clear focus. Was it two years or three? Some have even asked if it lasted a mere one year, since the temple incidents were (they say) the same Passover.
The truth is, John’s gospel offers step by step, order-of-event information but, because its chronological integrity has been compromised by weak apologies, the 3½ year ministry and its significance has been obscured. Likewise its connection to ancient prophecy, speaking of a 3½ year messianic span has been obscured, although this aspect is beyond our scope here. For the sake of brevity we will limit this article to John’s dating from the first cleansing of the temple through to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
John begins by pinpointing his first Passover at April AD 27. As explained previously, it was forty-six years after Herod the Great began building the temple. (John 2:20) Now, this is about as reliable as dates get because Herod the Great began construction in 19/20 BC.
After this, John’s narrative continues in the order things happened. Yes, he omits things, selecting miracles that fit his theme (John 20:30-31) but not out of sequence as the temple story has been supposed. In chapter five Jesus went again to Jerusalem to the next public festival. It would have been the ‘feast of Tabernacles’ since that was in October AD 27, following in natural sequence from the Passover in April.
Then, in chapter six the second Passover, April AD 28, is referenced. Its context with the ‘feeding of the 5000’ anchors the middle of Jesus ministry to a solid date since this miracle was recorded by all four gospels.
The feast of Tabernacles comes around again in October AD 28. As we might expect, it is the subject of chapter seven. And it seems as if Jesus remained in Judea from October till December AD 28 because the narrative continues through to the winter festival of Hunukkah. (John 10:22) After that, Jesus went across the Jordan River and “here he stayed.” (John 10:40) Notice, he did not pass through this place but lodged and taught there, making the time early AD 29.
During this period, Jesus heard of the death of a friend and said, “Let us go back to Judea.” (John 11:7) So, when did Lazarus die? Was it before the AD 29 year Passover or after? We can’t say exactly, but what we do know is that after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he and his disciples left Judea again, changed house again, and resided in yet another village. (John 11:54) By this time Passover would have been and gone and it would have been about mid AD 29.
So, apparently Jesus did not go to the third Passover. He didn’t go to AD 29 Tabernacles either and the reason was this: the Jews were trying to kill him and he didn’t want to be killed … yet. The reason he didn’t want to be killed ‘yet’ was because it was not ‘time,’ as his death had to fulfil the 3½ years. (Compare John 7:6, Matt.26:18, Dan 9:27)
Then came the fourth Passover in April AD 30. This, of course, was his last supper and was recorded in detail from chapter twelve as well as by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Is the date right? It surely is. (See related article here) Did St. John contradict the synoptic writers? On the contrary! He provided the chronological framework for them, not the least of which included the timing of the first temple cleansing.