“[the Passover].” The words, “the Passover” are in brackets because we believe they should not be in the text. We believe that the ministry of Jesus Christ was just over a year. He got holy spirit at his baptism, which was likely 2 to 4 months before the Passover in John 2, and died the next Passover. We are aware that the evidence for the year Jesus was born, the year he died, and the length of his ministry is not conclusive, and so at this time we cannot be 100% certain of them. Nevertheless, when it comes to the length of time of Jesus’ ministry, we believe the evidence weighs heavily in favor of a ministry that is just over a year.
Part of the evidence supporting the idea that Jesus’ ministry was just over a year is that if it was, then we can construct a basic overview of his ministry. It is well known that if Jesus had a 3-year ministry, then there is no way to do a harmony of the Gospels and construct where Jesus traveled during his ministry. Most theologians believe Jesus had a 3-year ministry and that there is no way to reconstruct his travels, and that is why there are no serious attempts to reconstruct the travels of Christ.
However, if the two Passovers in the Gospels mark out the vast majority of his ministry, then we can fit together all the other feasts mentioned in the Gospels and can map out his life and travels to a very good extent. For example, in the Four Gospels, there are two Passovers, one Feast of Tabernacles (John 7-8), one Feast of Dedication (John 10:22), etc. We know where Jesus was during those times, so we can quite accurately map his travels and learn from them.
The major obstacle to Jesus having a one-year ministry is John 6:4, which mentions a Passover. If John 6:4 is an accurate reference to a Passover at that time, then Jesus’ ministry was much longer than a year and a few months. However, there are a couple good reasons to believe that John 6:4 was altered and “Passover” was added. We have already seen one reason: it would make following Jesus’ travels during his ministry impossible, and we believe that the ministry of Jesus is important and that God would want us to know a lot about it rather than have it be a huge mystery.
Another reason to believe that John 6:4 was altered is that Jesus did not go to Jerusalem at that time, which means he would not have fulfilled the Law, which seems impossible. The Law of Moses made it clear that Jewish males were to go to Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover (Deut. 16:16). However, when we read John 6, Jesus is teaching and doing miracles in Galilee. In fact, John 6:4 seems out of place. Jesus went to a mountain in Galilee with his disciples in John 6:3. Then in John 6:5 he saw the crowd coming towards him. There is no hint that any of those people thought about going to Jerusalem, and Jesus did not go, so the reference in John 6:4 to a feast is not connected to anything in the context. At the other two Passovers, the one in John 2 and the one at the end of his ministry, there is a lot of detail about what Jesus did in Jerusalem at Passover. For John 6:4 to say there was a Passover, but for him not even to go is a huge incongruity in the text.
There is also some manuscript and evidence from the Church Fathers that “Passover” was added. There are a few manuscripts that omit the whole verse of John 6:4 (see Nestle and Aland; Novum Testamentum Graece, 26th edition, 1979, apparatus on John 6:4). That is entirely possible because the verse does not fit in the context. However, there is also evidence that the word “Passover” was not in the early manuscripts, which would mean that the original text read “Now the feast of the Jews was near.” Statements made by Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, and Irenaeus are consistent with the fact that they had manuscripts that did not have the Passover in John 6:4 (W. Cummins, The Acceptable Year of the Lord, Scripture Consulting, 2005, p. 66). If John 6:4 is just saying that “a feast of the Jews was near,” there were a number of smaller feasts in the Jewish calendar, and the Law did not require Jews to go to Jerusalem during those feasts.
There are a couple of different ways that the word “Passover” could have been added to the text. One is quite accidental. If the original text just said, “a feast of the Jews was near,” it would be entirely possible that a scribe who thought that feast was Passover wrote “Passover” in the margin of his manuscript. Scribes wrote notes in the margin of their manuscripts just as Christians today write in the margins of their Bibles. If that happened, then another scribe could have thought “Passover” was left out of the last copy, and so copied it into his next manuscript.
Another reason, less likely and less innocent, that John 6:4, or the word “Passover” might have been added was in the early centuries after Christ there were debates about the length of Jesus’ ministry. Anyone who studies the manuscripts knows that there were a number of topics that were hotly debated by the early Church, and it was not uncommon for one side to alter a manuscript to support their argument (cp. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture). Thankfully, today, especially with the help of computers that help textual critics to compare the over 5700 Greek manuscripts, it is usually easy to spot those intentional changes and expunge them from the modern Greek text, but a few manuscript discrepancies are still the subject of debate. The length of Jesus’ ministry was a topic of debate in the centuries after Christ, and John 6:4 could be one of the verses that was altered to support a position.
Some ancillary evidence that Jesus’ ministry was one year comes from Isaiah 61:1-2, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4:18-19. Isaiah mentions “the acceptable year of the Lord,” and we believe that the reference to a “year” is accurate. We know from Isaiah that the “acceptable year” is before the Day of Vengeance, which is the period of tribulation just prior to the Battle of Armageddon. The most likely candidate for an “acceptable year of the Lord” that occurs before the Day of Vengeance, is the year of Jesus’ ministry. That is especially true if we tie together the events of Isaiah 61:1 with Isaiah 61:2 and the events of Luke 4:18 with Luke 4:19, because Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18 refer to what Jesus would be doing during his time on earth—preaching the Gospel; healing; freeing captives—and this would certainly make that year “the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Tying the evidence together makes a strong case for the ministry of Jesus lasting just over a year, and there not being a “Passover” in John 6:4.