When it comes to spreading the gospel, a very important point that must be made is the historical truth of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. We need to believe that Jesus was truly a human being who was also the Son of God. For many modern people the whole “Son of God” part will be quite a stretch. It would help if we could at least establish that Jesus did live among us. While it is not necessary for salvation, it would be good to be able to at least give people some historical date from his life or ministry to establish his historical existence.
The eyewitness accounts in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke provide many details about how and where he was born, though no date as such. They are very specific, however about the timing of his death and resurrection.
He died on Passover Day (Nisan 14 of the Jewish calendar) at about 3:00 p.m. and was resurrected the following Sunday just before dawn. Translating that into a date and year on our modern Gregorian Calendar, on the other hand, is quite a challenge.
The commonly accepted date for Jesus’ death (at least at the start of the 20th Century) of Friday, April 3, 33 A.D. was based on the work of Dionysus Exiguus in the Sixth Century. It was later discovered that he miscalculated the date of Jesus birth by placing it four years after the death of Herod the Great. Since Herod the great attempted to kill Jesus as an infant, this is understandably problematic. (I have noted other problems with the December 25th date for Jesus birth in a previous post.)
An advantage to A.D. 33 is that Passover is on a Friday, which works according to the “Good Friday/Easter Sunday tradition we have been taught in churches around the world.
Since I was raised by wolves theologically I find that I have to check almost everything for myself so that I can at least have a logical reason for what I believe. (It may not always be correct, but hope it is at least logical.) To this end I tried to apply logic to various clues in the Gospels, early Christian writers and even a bit of more modern scholarship about when Jesus died.
This post will approach the question of when Jesus died from scriptural clues about which day of the week Jesus died, and a later post will attempt a historical reconstruction of the year of his death. Both will be based on scriptural clues tied to historical events.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the members of Wascana Fellowship for their sharp critique of my original presentation. By no means do all agree with my reconstruction of the events of that week. Their incisive comments forced me to tighten up and modify at some points the argument They also caused me to remove extraneous, confusing ideas from this presentation.
1. What Weekday did Jesus Die?
Theory 1: The traditional view that Jesus died on Friday – with Saturday as First Day of Unleavened Bread
Inconsistencies between this theory and the Gospel accounts:
- You cannot fit three days & three nights into it as per Matt. 12:40. This objection is typically met with a statement to the effect that Jewish people at the time counted inclusively, that is, that even a part of a day counts as a day. Therefore part of Friday, all of Saturday and part of Sunday count as three days.
- Jewish days are not counted primarily in hours but rather in dark/light cycles as per Gen. 1:5
- Jewish days began when dusk turns to darkness, not at midnight.
- Even if only parts of days are counted, you can only get the day portion of Friday, plus the night and day of Saturday plus most of the night portion of Sunday – effectively “2 days and 2 nights” instead of even parts of 3 days and three nights.
- John 19:31 notes that the Sabbath in question is a “great Sabbath,” implying a feast day or annual Sabbath rather than a normal weekly Sabbath. Some posit that Saturday was also the First Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread to get around this.
- Another indicator that the week had two distinct Sabbaths is the plural form of “Sabbath” in the Greek version in Matthew 28:1, indicating that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb after “the Sabbaths” had passed. It seems unlikely that two Sabbaths compressed into one day (annual and weekly) would be referred to in the plural. It is still just one Sabbath.
Theory 2: Jesus died Wednesday – with Thursday as First Day of Unleavened Bread.
Inconsistencies between this traditional Worldwide Church of God theory that Jesus doed on Wednesday afternoon and the Gospel accounts:
- While this theory accounts for a full 72 hours, it leaves Jesus in the grave, alive, overnight (from before sunset on Saturday) before he is released near dawn on Sunday. Not impossible, but it seems to be a bit strange to leave Jesus “in the heart of the earth” for an extra half day.
- Even if Jesus had been released from the grave before sunset on Saturday, we are not told where he was or what he was doing until the women met him in the predawn of Sunday.
- Jewish days are not counted primarily in hours but rather in dark/light cycles as per Gen. 1:5. An insistence on a set number of hours is not necessarily a priority for people of that time.
- It is apparently true according to the best scholarship available today that Jews of that time counted days inclusively, so a portion of a day or a portion of a night might well have been legitimately counted as a day or night respectively. This makes the insistence upon a full 72 hours less necessary than those who hold this view may think.
- In addition to Jesus’ statement about being “3 days and three nights in the heart of the earth,” he also says he will rise “on the third day” as per Matt. 20:28; Mark 8:34; Luke 18:33. This implies that it could be somewhat less than a full 72 hours.
- It only took Nicodemus about 3 hours at most to purchase and prepare 100 lbs. of spices in time for Jesus’ burial as per John 19:38-40. Even assuming the women only started preparations on the Friday between the annual Sabbath and the weekly Sabbath, why didn’t the women visit the grave in good time on Friday? I do not believe that it would take experienced women 12 hours to prepare a smaller quantity of spices than it would take men only 3 hours to prepare. (Unlike Nicodemus, Mary and Martha had even “practiced” on their brother Lazarus just days before according to John 11:21, 39-44.)
- Luke 23:55-56 has the women following the Joseph and Nicodemus to see where they lay the body. They then went home to prepare the spices, but could not return before the “Sabbath.” There is no mention of a day in between following the men to the tomb and preparing their spices and ointments. This suggests that their preparation took place before dark on the day Jesus was buried. The earliest they could go was Sunday morning. Why not Friday morning?
- As noted above, this particular week seems to have had two distinct Sabbaths, judging from the plural form of “Sabbath” in the Greek version of Matthew 28:1. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb after “the Sabbaths” had passed. If they had been preparing spices all day Friday it would not have been necessary to indicate plural Sabbaths. They would have rested for only one Sabbath. It would make more sense to indicate a plural Sabbath if they had to wait for two Sabbaths back-to-back.
- Even if one assumes that the spice preparation took place on Friday between the Thursday and Saturday Sabbaths, there is still no explanation as to why the women literally took all day to buy and prepare spices and ointments when Nicodemus bought and prepared a far greater quantity in less than three hours in time to bury Jesus on the day he died. They should have been able to get to the tomb on Friday if this theory were correct.
Proposal: What if Friday was First Day of Unleavened Bread?
- Many commentators note that Jewish reckoning of time is inclusive, meaning that any portion of a day still counts as a day. Any portion of a night would also count as a night. Even so, his death on a Friday would count as too few days and too few nights.
- Jesus mentions that he will be “in the heart of the earth” three days and three nights. This is the reverse of the normal sequence of night followed by day by which Jewish days are reckoned. Assuming a literal intent on Jesus’ part, the three-day countdown would probably start during the daylight portion of the first day. It would end during the night-time portion of Sunday. Given the 3 day/ 3 night promise of Jesus the most likely time of his death would have been Thursday at 3:00 p.m.
- The daylight portion of Thursday would be the first day, followed by Thursday night as the first night.Dawn on Friday would have ended the first day, dawn on Saturday would have ended the second day and dawn on Sunday would end the third day.
- This is how there can be three days and three nights, and yet Jesus can say that he will rise on the third day (less than 72 hours later).
- It should be noted that the death sentence was delivered by the council before dawn of the day Jesus was crucified. He was handed over to the Gentiles first thing in the morning and the sentence was carried out the same morning. Jesus was on the cross well before noon. He was as good as dead the entire daylight portion of the first day.
- Having Friday as the First day of Unleavened Bread also accounts for the inability of the women to go to the grave until Sunday morning. Having two Sabbaths in a row would prevent them from going to the grave for two days. Luke notes, as above, that at least some of the spices and ointments of the women were already prepared before dark on the day Jesus was buried.
- If Luke and Mark are both correct, some of the spices were prepared on the day Jesus died, and the rest were bought and prepared “after the Sabbath.”
- While Theory 2 presupposes that the Sabbath they prepared spices after was the annual Sabbath, this theory suggests that the remainder was bought after the weekly Sabbath ended at dark on Saturday. Spices were bought and preparations were finished Saturday night. The women then brought their spices to the grave site Sunday before dawn to start as early as possible before too much decomposition occurred.
- As with Theory 2, this theory also explains why “after the Sabbath(s)” in Matthew 28:1 is pluralized in the Greek original. The women had to await two Sabbaths in a row to complete their mission to anoint Jesus for his death.
A further advantage to this theory is that it meshes quite well with another Old Testament type: setting apart the Passover lamb for special treatment on the 10th day of the first month, 4 days before the sacrifice, as per Exodus 12:1-6, 14. The Passover lamb was killed on the 14th of Nisan, after the lamb had been set apart on the 10th. They were to do this every year. If Jesus died on a Thursday, the Passover lambs would have been set apart on the previous Sunday.
We are told quite explicitly that Jesus arrived in Bethany from Galilee 6 days before Passover. Counting back from a Friday Passover, Jesus would have completed the long journey from Galilee with his disciples on the previous Sabbath (John 12:1). If Jesus’ disciples would not so much as prepare spices on the Sabbath, what is the likelihood is that he would have walked most of the day with his disciples on the Sabbath?
Counting back from Thursday, however, allows Jesus to arrive before the Sabbath, rest on the rest day (during the evening of which Mary anointed his feet), and be proclaimed Messiah on the Sunday we now refer to as Palm Sunday. In this scenario Palm Sunday also happens to occur on the 10th of the month – the very day the Passover lambs are set apart in preparation for the sacrifice.
I like the symmetry of Palm Sunday being the day that Jesus fulfils the type of the setting apart of the Passover Lamb. The following two references are by people who arrived at the same conclusion long before I did. Their reasoning will differ at some points from mine.
Christ our Passover: A Harmony of the Events at the Death of Christ with the Annual Passover By Jack W. Langford. In 1984 he made the connections with the Friday Passover and Christ’s death on Thursday, as well as noting the Palm Sunday connection with the separation of the Passover lambs on the 10th day of the first month. He even gratuitously offers a section about the significance of Jesus’ resurrection at about the time of the Wave Sheaf offering! The timeline chart on page 33 is worth reviewing.
The Day He Died, by Roger Rusk, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Tennessee, where he taught from 1943 to 1971. This article appeared in Christianity Today, March 29, 1974 .After positing a Thursday execution of Jesus and making a timeline of the events he makes this summary statement: “In this chronology, all the time is accounted for, all the requirements of the Law governing the Passover are met, and all the types of the Passover Lamb are fulfilled.”
The following two references are by people who rejected specific years as the year of Jesus’ death precisely because they would have met my criteria for a Thursday crucifixion.
It is my firm belief that the third theory best accounts for all the data about the day of the week of Jesus’ death. The next, related question needs to be answered next time to wrap it all up. What year did Jesus die?