The Cast of Characters

This coming Sunday is the Second Sunday of Advent in lectionary cycle C, the year when the Gospel of Luke is the primary source of our gospels for the coming 12 months. The gospel is taken from a section in which Jesus is preparing for public ministry. Luke these six verses of the Sunday gospel, Luke places the story of Jesus in continuity with the biblical history of God’s dealings with humanity found in the Old Testament. As well, he places the story in the context of human history and begins with the familiar “In the fifthteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.”  Verses 1 and 2 need a “playbill” so you  might familiarize yourself with the “actors.”

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…

  • In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar: Tiberius succeeded Augustus as emperor in 14 CE and reigned until 37 CE. The fifteenth year of his reign, depending on the method of calculating his first regnal year, would have fallen between 27 and 29 CE.
  • Pontius Pilate: prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 CE. The Jewish historian Josephus describes him as a greedy and ruthless prefect who had little regard for the local Jewish population and their religious practices (see Luke 13:1).
  • Herod: i.e., Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. He ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 BCE. to 39 CE. His official title tetrarch means literally, “ruler of a quarter,” but came to designate any subordinate prince. The gospels report Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great.
  • Philip: also a son of Herod the Great, tetrarch of the territory to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee from 4 B.C. to A.D. 34. Only two small areas of this territory are mentioned by Luke.
  • Ituraea: a short-lived principality located in the Biqâ valley of Lebanon.
  • Trachonitis was a region in the North Transjordan over which Herod Philip was tetrarch.
  • Lysanias: nothing is known about this Lysanias who is said here to have been tetrarch of Abilene, a tetrarchy named after its chief town, Abila, which is located 18 miles northwest of Damascus

4 thoughts on “The Cast of Characters

  1. Hi Father George, quick question. Why do you often use BCE/CE in dating events. I’m not sure of the origins of this system, but thought it’s main purpose was to remove Christ from the picture in BC/AD? I really enjoy your musings and appreciate your scholarship and insights. Thank you.

    • Two part reply: the meaning of the acronyms are: BCE (before the Christian era) and CE (Christian era). So I don’t see there use removing Christ from the nomenclature. The designation BC/AD itself is not biblical but arose in the 5th century when Christianity was well established in the Mediterranean basin.

      In c. 525 CE, a new dating standard was introduced by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus which provided the groundwork for the later dating system of BC/AD. Dionysius invented the concept of Anno Domini (“in the year of our Lord”) in an attempt to stabilize the date of the celebration of Easter. At the time he was working on this problem, Christians of the influential church of Alexandria were dating events from the beginning of the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian (284 CE) who persecuted members of the new faith. Dionysius was seeking to bring the eastern and western churches into agreement on a single day on which all Christians would celebrate Easter. Dionysius made no claim to knowing Jesus’ year of birth, no did he leave any indication how he reached his conclusion.

      In Dionysius’ work, events after Jesus’ incarnation occur in the “year of the Lord” and events prior were not considered. The use of BC/AD to distinguish time periods came later following the publication of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 CE by Bede. The designations of BC/AD appeared in earlier works but Bede’s book popularized them and, afterwards, other writers followed suit.

      By the 17th century, as more and better source document arose, especially Greek manuscripts, German scholars recognizing that we don’t actually know the year in which Jesus was born and wanting to work more closely with Jewish scholars began the use of BCE/CE – keeping Christ in the meaning, but satisfying scholars of other faith traditions. Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. Jewish and Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist, scholars could retain their calendar but refer to events using the Gregorian Calendar as BCE and CE without compromising their own beliefs about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth

      The use of BCE/CE appeared in English in the 18th a first among scholars and then more widely. The use of this designation in dating has never had anything to do with removing Christ from the calendar. It arose to address accuracy when dealing with historical events and including people of all faiths in discussions of history.

      The claim of purpose to remove Christ is a history harder to trace. It seems to be mostly rooted in the late 19th century rise of Evangelicals who had a very strong bias against science. They seemed to consider regularizing calendar dating as “scientific.” But the net effect is that the move allowed BCE/CE to become the international standard date reference.

      • Thanks, Father. My hazy recollection was that BCE was shorthand for “before the common era” and didn’t involve our Lord. Appreciate the info. God bless, have a meaningful advent and happy Christmas. John.

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