Overview and Timeline
A general timeline for events described in the New Testament and affecting the New Testament writings is shown below:
In using ancient time references, it is important to count inclusively, that is, without a zero. For example, the year 1 B.C. was followed by the year 1 A.D., with no year 0. Sunday was the third day after Friday to the ancients, though in modern times it would reckoned as the second day.
Matthew and Luke both indicate that Jesus' birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus (27 B.C.- 14 A.D.) and Herod the Great (37 B.C. - 1 B.C.). Matthew places Herod's death when Jesus was a young child (Matt 2:19-20). Luke also dates Jesus birth during the census of Quirinius, governor of Syria (Luke 2:2), but the date of this event is disputed. We have used 1 B.C. as the date for the death of Herod, instead of the majority view that Herod died in 4 B.C. This does not affect the dating of New Testament books, but see here for a rationale for a 1 B.C. date.
All New Testament books assume the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus' public ministry began when Tiberius was Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor, and Caiaphas was the high priest (Luke 3:1). These three figures are known to history outside the Bible and their tenures can be dated as follows:
Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate are both involved in Jesus' trial, so the 36 A.D. date is the latest possible date for the crucifixion. John the Baptist began his ministry in 28-29 A.D., based on Luke 3:1. The ministry of Jesus began afterward. The gospel of John mentions three different Passover holidays during Jesus' ministry. Jesus was crucified during the Passover holiday, with the year usually placed at 33 A.D. Passover fell on Friday, April 3 in 33 A.D., so this would be consistent with John's timeline. This is the latest date generally suggested for the crucifixion. Some scholars date the crucifixion a few years earlier in 30, but that date tends to create more problems than it solves. We can use the date of 33 as the earliest possible date for any New Testament writing.
The chronology of Paul's public ministry is acknowledged within about two years. Three items are useful in dating Paul's life:
James, the brother of Jesus, the head of the Jerusalem church and probable author of the book of James, was executed in 62 A.D. The high priest Ananus was responsible for the execution, as he had it done when Judea was briefly in between Roman governors [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1]. James is mentioned multiple times in Acts and Galatians and once in Jude, but none of these books contains any mention of his death.
The great Roman-Judean war resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple occurred from 66-70 A.D. This event, with cataclysmic effects for both the Jewish people and the Christian church, is never mentioned in the New Testament, except for a few passages in the gospels where Jesus seems to foretell it. This is a uniquely important consideration in dating the books of the New Testament, and is discussed further in the section on the Destruction of Jerusalem.
The reign of Domitian from 81-96 is included because some scholars believe persecution of Christians under Domitian forms the background of the book of Revelation.