Any timeline of Jesus’ life is speculative to some degree. None of the gospels present the life of Christ in chronological order. Rather, most of the material in the gospels is arranged in topical order according to those things that each individual author wanted to emphasize. Additionally, the writers include details that are important to their own themes, so in some instances it is difficult to tell whether a similar incident happened on two different occasions or if the same incident is simply told from a different perspective.
None of this should be a cause for concern regarding the trustworthiness of the gospels. None of the gospels claim to be comprehensive biographies, and in fact they are quite short given the amount of time they cover. The gospel writers were selective in their material. They give us a full understanding of who Jesus is, what He taught, and His significance for us today, but they do not give us a very good understanding of the order in which Jesus did things. That was not their purpose.
There are a number of New Testament reading plans that have the gospels intertwined “chronologically”—in the opinion of the editor of the plan. However, other editors might arrange the events in a different order.
Having said that, there are a few events that can be placed within a broad framework:
John starts with the pre-existent Jesus in 1:1–3.
Luke speaks of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds that very night (chapter 2).
Matthew 2 speaks of the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. We assume that this visit was at a later time than the shepherds’ because, by the time they arrived, Mary and Joseph were living in a house. Matthew 2 also speaks of the rage of Herod and the escape of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt where they stayed for an unspecified time. When the threat was over, they returned to Nazareth where Jesus grew up.
There is only one incident mentioned from Jesus’ childhood—the trip to Jerusalem where Jesus’ parents lost track of Him. When they finally found Him, He was in the temple listening and asking questions to the amazement of those who heard Him (Luke 2:41–52).
The next incident found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the baptism of Jesus immediately followed by His temptation in the desert. This seems to be the official beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. This is followed by the choosing of the disciples and the beginning of an itinerate ministry.
During Jesus’ life, He spent a lot of time in Galilee, which seems to have been where He was headquartered, but He often took trips to Jerusalem for feasts. (The assumption that Jesus’ ministry lasted approximately 3 years is based on the number of times Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover. However, even this is speculative, as there is no guarantee that every Passover that Jesus observed is recorded in the gospels.) It was during these visits to Jerusalem that He often came into conflict with the Jewish leadership. He performed many miracles of healing and feeding, but, again, the gospels arrange the material thematically without attempting to give a true chronology of events. All the while, Jesus is gradually revealing Himself to the disciples and also preparing them for His death.
After a ministry that ranged over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, Jesus finally sets out from Galilee at Passover time for what He knows will be His final trip to Jerusalem. All of the gospels give much attention to this final trip and the events that happen once Jesus arrives in the capital. From the triumphal entry to the resurrection, Matthew spends 8 out of 28 chapters; Mark, 6 out of 16 chapters; Luke, 5 ½ out of 28 chapters; and John, 9 out of 28 chapters. Basically, the gospels dedicate between one third and one half of their volume to the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
That final week can be outlined generally as follows:
The triumphal entry on “Palm Sunday.”
Extended teaching to the crowds and confrontation with the Jewish leadership, culminating in “cleansing the temple.”
Jesus observes a Passover meal with His disciples and institutes “the Lord’s Supper” followed by washing their feet. (Judas leaves during the meal to go tell the Jewish leadership where they can find Jesus in a secluded spot to arrest Him.)
Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while His disciples sleep.
Judas leads an armed guard who arrest Jesus.
Jesus has an informal “trial” before the Jewish leaders who condemn Him and take Him to Pilate, who must ratify their decision since they do not have the authority to carry out the death penalty.
Pilate tries to find a way out, so He sends Jesus to Herod since Jesus was a Galilean and Galilee was in Herod’s territory. (Herod was in Jerusalem for Passover.)
Herod questions Jesus, has his soldiers torment and mock Him, and sends Him back to Pilate.
Pilate tries again to appease the mob by having Jesus flogged, but they still cry out for crucifixion. He then offers to release to them either Jesus or the convicted murderer Barabbas. They choose Barabbas to be set free, and Pilate sentences Jesus to be crucified.
Jesus is crucified on Friday, according to the consensus of scholars, but this is not clearly spelled out in the gospels, and some scholars think the crucifixion must have been on Thursday.
By all accounts, Jesus rose from the dead the following Sunday.
Jesus appeared to various groups of disciples before finally ascending into heaven (Luke 24:50–51).
Reconstructing a detailed chronology of Jesus’ life might be interesting, and such a project would undoubtedly immerse the student in God’s Word, but it can also detract from the emphases of the inspired authors. Reading the gospels as they were written will allow us to better discern the inspired themes and emphases. An exact chronology of Jesus’ life was simply not something that the gospel authors (or Author) felt was important to communicate.