The Apostle James the Less was martyred in Jerusalem, about the time of the Passover, in the spring of Nero's 10th year as emperor. The Evangelist, John Mark, was martyred in Alexandria, on March 30th, the day after Easter Sunday, in the spring of Nero's 11th year as emperor.
This chronology contradicts Saint Jerome's statement that James died in Nero's 7th year and Mark in Nero's 8th year. It also contradicts a common opinion among Biblical chronologists, that Mark died in Nero's 14th year (See Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, n. 558). However, there is considerable evidence for this revised chronology of the martrydoms of James and Mark.
1. Details of James the Less’ martyrdom are found in the writings of Josephus, Eusebius, and Jerome. When Festus, the governor of Judea, died, Nero replaced him with Albinus. About the same time, Herod Agrippa II replaced the Jewish high priest Joseph with Ananus. After Festus died and before Albinus had arrived in Judea to replace him, the new high priest decided to pressure James the Less to deny that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Ananus was taking advantage of a lapse in leadership at the end of Festus’ reign. Similar circumstances at the end of Pilate’s reign over Judea led to the stoning of Saint Stephen.
The Jewish high priest asked James to stand on the Temple wall and speak against Jesus to the crowds which had gathered in preparation for the Passover. James instead spoke in favor of Jesus as the Christ; many heard him and many were converted. So the Jewish religious leaders threw James down from the Temple wall. Yet he did not die from the fall, so they began to stone him. Still he did not die from the stoning, so a man took a fuller club (used to beat out clothing) and clubbed him to death. In this way died James the Less, one of the Twelve Apostles and the leader of the Church at Jerusalem for 30 years.
Albinus was on his way from Alexandria to Jerusalem when James the Less was killed. Upon his arrival, Albinus rebuked the Jewish high priest, Ananus, for killing James. When Herod Agrippa II heard of this killing, he promptly removed the high priest from office. At this time, the Roman government was not tolerant of the killing of Christians.
2. The burning of Rome occurred in the summer of Nero’s 10th year, beginning, according to Tacitus, on July 19. As the people began to suspect that Nero had ordered his soldiers to burn the city, Nero sought to deflect the blame. After several other strategies had failed, Nero hit upon the idea of accusing the Christians. He blamed the Christians for starting the fire and for other problems in society. In Rome at that time, Christians were an unpopular minority; their religious beliefs were considered strange; the Christian faith was not generally accepted by Roman society. So Nero began to torture and to put to death some of the Christians of Rome. When, after a time, he saw that this strategy worked to distract people from blaming him for the fire, he continued and increased his efforts to persecute and kill Christians in Rome.
Prior to this time, (the autumn of Nero's 10th year as emperor), Christians were not put to death without a trial. The Jews were not permitted to put Jesus to death themselves; they had to bring him before Pilate. St. Stephen was stoned to death by the Jews, but only because Pilate had left Judea for Rome and a new Procurator had not yet been appointed.
The circumstances of the martyrdom of James the Less clearly indicate that he was killed prior to the burning of Rome and prior to the persecution of Christians by Nero. When James was killed, the new Procurator, Albinus, objected strongly and Herod Agrippa II even removed the Jewish high priest from office, (though he had been high priest for only a few months). The killing of Christians was still unacceptable to the Roman government. Therefore, James was killed before the summer of Nero's 10th year.
3. By contrast, Mark the Evangelist was killed during a time period when the Roman government did not object to the killing of Christians.
Mark was the founder and leader of the Church in Alexandria. One year, on Easter Sunday, some of those who worshipped the pagan gods dragged Mark through the streets with a rope around his neck. They had him under their control and could have killed him that day, but they did not. They let Mark go free. The next day, they again dragged Mark through the streets with a rope around his neck, but this time they did not stop until he was dead.
The Roman government did not intervene on either day. The Roman government intervened in the killing of James the Less, but not in the killing of Mark the Evangelist. Before the emperor Nero began persecuting Christians, the killing of Christians without a trial was forbidden by the Roman government, because it was against Roman law. But, after Nero began persecuting Christians, Roman government officials were unwilling to intervene to protect Christians, lest they incur the wrath of the emperor. Mark was killed after Nero's 10th year, during a time when the Roman emperor was promoting the killing of Christians.
The political context of the martyrdom of Mark the Evangelist explains the strange behavior of those who killed him. Some of those who worshipped the pagan gods wanted to kill Mark for many years, because he was the founder and leader of the Christian church at Alexandria. Yet they did nothing against him because the Roman government would not permit it. When Nero began persecuting Christians, the people of Alexandria could not be certain how long this persecution would last and how extensive it would be.
In winter, the Mediterranean was essentially closed to travel by boat because of winter storms and unfavorable sailing conditions. So, it was not until the spring of Nero’s 11th year that the people of Alexandria received repeated and reliable reports that a sustained persecution of Christians was occurring in Rome with the instigation and full approval of the emperor. Once they realized that the emperor allowed and encouraged such treatment of Christians, they wondered if they could get away with the same.
Still, they could not be certain how the Roman government would react. So, to test the waters, they dragged Mark through the streets of Alexandria, in a very public display, but then let him go free. They then waited a day to see how the Roman government at Alexandria would react. (The Roman leaders at Alexandria were most likely afraid to do anything contrary to the example set by the emperor Nero.) When there was no reation, they concluded that they had the tacit approval of the Roman government to do as Nero was doing: to persecute and kill Christians. Thus, on the day after Easter Sunday they again dragged Mark through the streets of Alexandria until he was dead.
4. James was killed before, and Mark was killed after, Nero began persecuting Christians. There is significant evidence that James and Mark were killed in consecutive years, just before and just after Nero began persecuting Christians.
a. Those who killed Mark were still uncertain as to whether or not the Roman goverment would take action against them for killing a Christian leader. This uncertainty suggests that the persecution of Christians by Nero had just recently begun. It had been going on for long enough to embolden them to drag Mark through the streets of Alexandria, but not long enough for them to kill him outright on the first day. They had to wait a day to see if the Roman government would object.
b. St. Jerome places the martyrdoms of James and Mark in consecutive years (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, ch. 2, 8), the 7th and 8th of Nero's reign. These dates are too early to account for the implicit approval by the Roman government for the killing of Mark versus the strong objection to the killing of James. However, this does not refute Jerome's assertion that their martyrdoms occurred in consecutive years. Perhaps Jerome placed Mark's martyrdom in the 8th year of Nero's reign, not because he knew directly that he died in the 8th year, but because he knew that Mark died in the year after James died. (Jerome mistakenly thought that James died in Nero's 7th year).
c. The Christians of the early Church were more likely to remember that James and Mark died in consecutive years, than to remember in which year of Nero's reign they died. James was killed in Judea, while Albinus, the new Procurator, was en route from Alexandria. Since Albinus came from the city where Mark lived, to the city where James was killed, the deaths of these two martyrs became associated.
James and Mark were killed in consecutive years. But James was killed before, and Mark was killed after, Nero began the persecution of Christians. Nero began killing Christians in the autumn of his 10th year as emperor, not long after the burning of Rome. Therefore, the Apostle James the Less was martyred in the spring of the 10th year of Nero's reign (just before Passover), and Mark the Evangelist was martyred on the day after Easter (March 30th) in the 11th year of Nero's reign.
5. James and Mark were each killed about the time of Passover/Easter. Mark was killed on the day after Easter. The day and month of Mark's death therefore depends on the year. My revised date for the 11th year of Nero's reign is A.D. 50, which places Easter Sunday on March 29th and Mark's death on March 30th.
The exact date of the death of James the Less is difficult to determine. It was probably not yet the Passover, because the Jews did not want to put anyone to death during the holy days of Passover. When the Jewish leaders plotted against Christ, they preferred to accomplish their purpose before the Passover: "Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult among the people." (Mt 26:2-5). Similarly, when Herod Agrippa I beheaded James the Greater (before Passover), he soon after had Peter arrested and held in prison. But he did not put him to death immediately, because the Passover had now begun. Though Peter escaped with Divine assistance, Herod had likely planned to put Peter to death after the Passover (Acts 12:1-4).
My revised date for the 10th year of Nero's reign is A.D. 49, which places Nisan 14 on Friday, April 4th. James the Less was probably killed prior to April 4th. Crowds of people would begin to arrive for the Passover days in advance of its start. Those who killed James the Less did so publicly, perhaps expecting some support from the crowds arriving for Passover. Thus, James the Less was most likely martyred in early April.
James the Greater was also killed just before the Passover. Then Peter was arrested. "This was during the days of Unleavened Bread." (Acts 12:3). Scripture is referring to the arrest of Peter as having taken place during the Passover. The death of James the Greater occurred before Passover. Thus, Herod kept Peter in prison "intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people." (Acts 12:4). James the Greater was killed during the 2nd year of Claudius' reign; my revised date is A.D. 27. In that year, Nisan 14 fell on Wednesday, April 9th. James the Greater and James the Less were each martyred just before the Passover (22 years apart). Interestingly, Mark the Evangelist was martyred during the Passover (Nisan 14 = March 25 that year), because he was killed by pagans, not by Jews.
For more on this topic, see chapter 11 of the book.