The works of the Hieromartyr Irenaeus of Lyons contain a statement according to which Christ died not at the age of 33, as it is commonly known, but in old age. Believing in this testimony would mean that the entire traditional dating of the events described in the Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, as well as those related to the missionary work of the Apostle Paul, must be revised. This statement has become a popular argument, sometimes used to promote anti-church theories. However, before drawing any conclusions, let us consider this evidence more closely.
In his work titled Against Heresies (Book 2, Chapter 22) St Irenaeus writes,
“… For He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God— infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety , righteousness, and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord. He was an old man for old men, that He might be a perfect Master for all, not merely as respects the setting forth of the truth, but also as regards age, sanctifying at the same time the aged also, and becoming an example to them likewise. Now, that the first stage of early life embraces thirty years, and that this extends onwards to the fortieth year, every one will admit; but from the fortieth and fiftieth year a man begins to decline towards old age, which our Lord possessed while He still fulfilled the office of a Teacher, even as the Gospel and all the elders testify; those who were conversant in Asia with John, the disciple of the Lord, [affirming] that John conveyed to them that information. And he remained among them up to the times of Trajan. Some of them, moreover, saw not only John, but the other apostles also, and heard the very same account from them, and bear testimony as to the [validity of] the statement. Whom then should we rather believe? Whether such men as these, or Ptolemaeus, who never saw the apostles, and who never even in his dreams attained to the slightest trace of an apostle.
But, besides this, those very Jews who then disputed with the Lord Jesus Christ have most clearly indicated the same thing. For when the Lord said to them, Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad, they answered Him, You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham? John 8:56-57 Now, such language is fittingly applied to one who has already passed the age of forty, without having as yet reached his fiftieth year, yet is not far from this latter period. But to one who is only thirty years old it would unquestionably be said, You are not yet forty years old. For those who wished to convict Him of falsehood would certainly not extend the number of His years far beyond the age which they saw He had attained; but they mentioned a period near His real age, whether they had truly ascertained this out of the entry in the public register, or simply made a conjecture from what they observed that He was above forty years old, and that He certainly was not one of only thirty years of age. For it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that they were mistaken by twenty years, when they wished to prove Him younger than the times of Abraham. For what they saw, that they also expressed; and He whom they beheld was not a mere phantasm, but an actual being of flesh and blood. He did not then want much of being fifty years old; and, in accordance with that fact, they said to Him, You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham? He did not therefore preach only for one year, nor did He suffer in the twelfth month of the year”.
Besides the opinion voiced by Irenaeus, there are two more views regarding the age of the Savior, known to have existed in antiquity. They are in fact not very different from each other. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Julius Africanus and many others adhered to the version according to which Christ died at the age of 31. This opinion was based on the fact that His ministry lasted only one year, supported by the Old Testament. “…because the Lord has anointed me … to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1).
St Melito of Sardis (†185) was the first to voice the opinion (now generally accepted) that Christ died at the age of 33. “For He is a living God, and also a perfect man. By His two natures He assured us in His divinity through the signs seen in the three years after his baptism; and in his humanity in the thirty years before baptism”.
St Melito was supported by St Hippolytus of Rome, who wrote in his interpretation of the Revelation of St John the Theologian, “And He suffered at the age of thirty-three”. Later this theory was also confirmed by Eusebius Pamphili in his Ecclesiastical History, pointing out that the period of Christ’s ministry lasted approximately three years, “In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius and in the fourth year of Pilate’s reign over Judea… Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in the thirtieth year of his life, came to be baptized in Jordan… And so, the teaching time of our Savior lasted less than four years”. The Gospel of John indicates that Jesus was in Jerusalem four times for the annual celebration of Passover, which also confirms His three-year ministry.
Notably, the dating of the Saviour’s death, according to which he was 33 years old, is also confirmed by some external evidence, such as the Babylonian Talmudical sources (e.g., Sanhedrin, 106b).
Modern research does not contradict the above dating. Based on the unanimous testimony of the evangelists that Jesus was crucified on Friday (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31), as well as St John’s words stating that the Passover lamb was to be slain on that day (John 18:28), J. Finegan, the author of a fundamental study on biblical chronology, concludes that the crucifixion occurred on April 7, 30 or April 3, 33. John Fotheringham’s astronomical studies name the year of the crucifixion as 27, while according to Parker-Dubberstein it is either 27 or 34.
If we adhere to the dating of the Saviour’s birth in the interval of 6-4 BC (commonly accepted by most biblical scholars) and rely on the above astronomical studies, then the age of Christ may vary between 40 and 31 years. This means that the modern scientific data confirms the ancient evidence of the age of Christ being 31 or 33 years.
St Irenaeus was the only one mentioning the advanced age of Christ. His point of view corresponds to neither ancient evidence nor modern historical research. In his opinion, Christ was crucified under the emperor Claudius and procurator Pontius Pilate. “Herod, king of the Jews, and Pontius Pilate, procurator of the emperor Claudius, came together and condemned Him to be crucified”. It is known however that Pontius Pilate reigned from 26 to 36, and Claudius from 41 to 54.
In the time of Irenaeus there was an assumption, according to which the Lord, in His incarnation, had to sanctify all ages of human life. It was likely under the influence of this theory that St Irenaeus changed the time of the Saviour’s death, aligning it with the time of the reign of Claudius.
Another reason for Irenaeus’s mistake could be the fact that he was a student of St Polycarp of Smyrna. Being still a very young man during his studies, he may have misinterpreted his teacher’s words.
Regarding the conversation with the Jews (John 8:56-57), it is also possible that Christ, in view of His difficult lifestyle of a wanderer (Matt. 8:20), looked much older than his years. Looking at the Saviour’s image on the Shroud of Turin, one can easily say that it belongs to a person in his forties.
Although the exact reason for the opinion voiced by Irenaeus cannot be established, the above evidence and studies allow us to say that he was clearly mistaken. After all, there is no Orthodox teaching about the infallibility of the holy fathers, and therefore there is nothing supernatural in the fact that Irenaeus was mistaken. Such errors are not critical for the Church as a whole, since it is guided by the principle of catholicity. This means that any particular view of its member remains an individual opinion until it is affirmed by a council.