By Bill Warren, NOBTS
Question: A friend said that Jesus’ ministry may have only been a year long, but I’ve always heard that it was three years long. How long did the ministry of Jesus last?
Bill Warren responds: Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the New Testament doesn’t have any explicit statements about how long Jesus’ ministry lasted. So the length is determined by looking at the various references to events in Jesus’ ministry, with special attention being given to Jesus’ trips to Jerusalem. Based on this information, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) only mention one trip to Jerusalem by Jesus during his ministry after his baptism and temptations. This is the basis that some use for talking of only a one-year ministry by Jesus.
But John mentions several trips to Jerusalem by Jesus. John 2:13 mentions Jesus going up to Jerusalem before the Passover, with the cleansing of the temple following. Then in John 6:4, the Passover is noted as being near, so that makes two Passover references. The third reference in John 11:55 highlights the crowds going to the Passover and hoping to see Jesus there. This is the final Passover that culminates in Jesus being arrested and crucified (and then gloriously raised from the dead!). These three clear references to different Passovers form the basis for seeing a three-year public ministry by Jesus.
How do we understand the differences between the Gospels on this? One possible solution involves the time periods of Jesus’ ministry that these Gospels cover. The Synoptic Gospels emphasize the ministry of Jesus after the capture of John the Baptist. But in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist is still active in his ministry at least through the end of chapter 3. So the time period being covered may be different, with the Gospel of John including a longer segment of Jesus’ ministry than the Synoptic Gospels.
Another explanation is based on the different organizational patterns used by the Synoptics versus John. Mark, for example, organized his Gospel according to the ministry of Jesus in Galilee, then in Galilee and the surrounding areas, and finally with Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem. History can be written in different ways (by topics, people, travel, places, etc.), and this is how Mark, Matthew, and Luke were inspired to write their accounts: The main emphasis was on Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem, with everything building up to the cross and resurrection. John, on the other hand, organized his Gospel in part around Jesus’ trips to the Jewish festivals and the themes of those festivals. So as John included more of Jesus’ trips, he gave us a better picture of how long Jesus’ ministry lasted, which was about three years.
Bill Warren, PhD is Professor of New Testament and Greek in the Landrum P. Leavell II Chair of New Testament Studies, and Founding Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies, at NOBTS.