On what day of the week did Jesus die?

third-day-risen-as-he-said 400pxThe most common belief is that Jesus died on Good Friday and rose again on the following Sunday. But some people think that He died on Wednesday or Thursday instead of on Friday. What does the Bible say about this topic?

Jewish festivals

The Jews celebrated seven annual religious festivals. Four were in the spring (Passover, Unleavened Bread, Firstfruits, and Weeks or Pentecost) and three in the Fall (Autumn) (Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles). The Passover was a celebration of the exodus from Egypt. As Jesus died near the Passover celebration, it’s instructive to list when the spring festivals were held:
– Passover – 14 Aviv (1st month)
– Unleavened bread – 15-21 Aviv
– Firstfruits – 16 Aviv or the next Sunday (see Appendix)
– Pentecost – 6 Sivan (3rd month) or the next Sunday (see Appendix)

On the first and last days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread they weren’t to do “regular (or ordinary or daily) work” (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 23:7-8NIV; Num. 28:18-25). Occupational work was prohibited on these days.

On the seventh day of the week (Sabbath day), they weren’t to do any work at all (Lev. 23:3). Whereas only occupational work was banned on the first and last days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. This means that food could be prepared on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, but not on the seventh day of the week (Ex. 12:16; 16:5).

Sequence of events

The sequence of events associated with Christ’s death are as follows. It is noted that the Jewish day begins and ends at sunset (Gen. 1:5; Lev. 23:32). This means it is night-time followed by day-time.

Last Supper celebrated – During an evening (Mt. 26:20; Mk. 14:17). This was one night before the Passover meal (Jn. 18:28).
Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane – In the middle of the night as the disciples fell asleep (Mt. 26:40; Mk. 14:27; Lk. 22:46).
Jesus arrested – Immediately afterwards (Mt. 26:47; Mk. 14:43; Lk. 22:47).
Religious trial of Jesus – In the darkness of the early morning. The last stage was at daybreak (Mt. 27:1; Mk. 15:1; Lk. 22:66).
Civil trial of Jesus – Began immediately afterwards in the early in the morning (Jn. 18:28).
Jesus crucified – Sometime later in the morning, between 9am and noon (Mk. 15:25, Jn. 19:14).
Jesus died – About 3pm (Mt. 27:45-50; Mk. 15:33-37).
Jesus buried – Before evening (Mt. 27:57). It was the day before the Sabbath (Mk. 16:42; Lk. 23:54). John called it a “special Sabbath” (Jn. 19:31, 42). The tomb was sealed on the next day (Mt. 27:62-66).
Jesus risen – His absence from the tomb was noticed at dawn on the morning of the first day of the week (Mt. 28:1; Mk. 16:1-6; Lk. 24:1-6; Jn. 20:1-2). The resurrection occurred during the previous night, which was the night of the Jewish first day of the week (Mt. 28:13).

The simplest explanation of these events is that the Last Supper was on Thursday evening (the evening of the Passover) and the crucifixion on Friday (the day of the Passover). This means that Christ died on the day of the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7) and rose on the day of Firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20). And that the Sabbath in between these days was special because it was also the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (when Jews weren’t to do occupational work).

However, what about:
– The day before the Last Supper seeming to be called “the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread” (Mt. 26:17; Mk. 14:12)? This is resolved if the conversation took place at sunset, which means it was the same day as the Last Supper. And it is a case where “Unleavened Bread” is interchanged with “Passover” (see below and Lk. 22:7-8).
– Jesus said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40)?

Which Sabbath day?

The Bible says that Jesus died about 3pm (Mt. 27:46, 50; Mk. 15:34, 37). But what day of the week was it?

The day Christ died was called the “Preparation Day (that is the day before the Sabbath)” (Mk. 15:42). And John called it “the day of Preparation of the Passover” (Jn. 19:14). This preparation is also mentioned elsewhere (Mt.27:62; Jn. 19:14, 31, 42; Lk, 23:54). And the next day was a “special Sabbath” (Jn. 19:31).

After Christ’s burial, the women “rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment” (Lk. 23:56). Which commandment? The Greek noun translated commandment entole (Strongs #1785) is also used by Luke to describe, the commands in the Pentateuch (Lk. 1:6), a father’s orders to his son (Lk. 15:29), and the ten commandments (Lk. 18:20). So in this case it probably means the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8-11). This indicates that the crucifixion was on a Friday.

“The day of Preparation of the Passover” (Jn. 19:14) was the day on which the Jews prepared to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread (called the Passover here, see “Naming Jewish Festivals). They had to remove all leaven (yeast) from the house in order to be ready for the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12:15). This meant that Friday was the annual Passover Day and Saturday was the first day of the annual Festival of Unleavened Bread. This made that Saturday a “special Sabbath” (being both a weekly Sabbath and the first day of the annual Festival of Unleavened Bread).

What about Matthew 12:40?

The following verses have been used to claim that Jesus must have been in the grave for three whole days (72 hours). Jesus said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40)? “Three days and three nights” was a Jewish expression (Jon. 1:17). He also said, “Destroy this temple (His body), and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn. 2:19). Also, He rose back to life “after three days” (Mt. 27:63; Mk. 8:31).

The Bible says that Jesus was resurrected on “the third day” after His death and burial (Mt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Jn. 2:19; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). The third day means the day after tomorrow (Lk. 13-31-33). Apparently the Jews counted parts of days as whole days. An example of this is saying “after eight days” when they mean from one Sunday to the next (i.e. “a week later”), which is 6 full days and 2 part days (Jn. 20:26).

This inclusive reckoning of time is also in the Old Testament (Gen. 40: 13, 20; 42:17-18; 1 Sam. 30:12-13; 1 Ki. 12:5, 12; 20:29; 2 Chr. 10:5, 12; Est. 4:16 – 5:1; Hos. 6:2). Two of these examples mention days and nights. “Three days and three nights” are equivalent to “three days ago” (1 Sam. 30:12-13) and “three days, night and day” are equivalent to “the third day” (Est. 4:16 – 5:1).

If it was three 24-hour periods (72 hours), then according to Jewish timing Jesus would have risen on the fourth day, instead of the third day. So Matthew 12:40 doesn’t mean that Jesus was in the grave for 72 hours. Note that the events of the three days seem to include the arrest and trial of Jesus as well (Mk. 9:31; Lk. 24:18 – 21). So, according to Jewish timing, the three days were part Friday (up to 18 hours), all Saturday and part Sunday (up to 12 hours).

Naming Jewish Festivals

The language in the gospels can be confusing because the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were so closely connected that they were often considered to be one festival. The celebrations were so close together that at times the names of both were used interchangeably. Sometimes the 8-day festival was called the Passover and on other times it’s called the Festival of Unleavened Bread (Mk. 14:12; Lk. 22:1). Also, the Passover meal was eaten on the evening of the first day of the festival of Unleavened Bread (Ex. 12:8).

What about Wednesday?

Some say that there were two separate Sabbath days. In this case they say that Christ was crucified on Wednesday (the Passover), so that Thursday was the First day of the festival of Unleaveedn Bread (a special Sabbath). According to John 19:31 the day after Christ died was a “special Sabbath” (or a high day or a special day). Although this may satisfy a literal interpretation of Matthew 12:40, it doesn’t satisfy the following:
– It would mean that Christ was resurrected on the fourth (Roman time) or fifth (Jewish timing) day after His death and burial and not “the third day”.
– It would mean that Christ rose on Saturday afternoon, and not on the first day of the week.

Some say there is a contradiction between Mark 16:1 and Luke 23:56. But what it says is that the women prepared spices and perfumes before the Sabbath day and then more were purchased after the Sabbath day. There is no need to postulate two Sabbaths. Instead the spices were prepared before the Sabbath commenced at sunset on Friday, and because more were needed these were purchased after sunset on Saturday when the Sabbath had finished.

What about Thursday?

Some say that Christ was crucified on Thursday (the Passover), and Friday was the First day of the festival of Unleavened Bread (a special Sabbath). However, this doesn’t satisfy the following:
– According to Jewish timing, it would mean that Christ was resurrected on the fourth day after His death and burial and not “the third day”.

Conclusion

The Bible seems to say that Jesus ate the Passover meal on the (Thursday) evening of the Passover. He was arrested later in the night and trialled throughout the night and early morning and crucified between 9am and noon on Friday. He died about 3pm on Friday (matching the Jewish Passover), was buried before sunset and rose again between sunset on Saturday and sunrise on Sunday (matching the Jewish Firstfruits). The day between these was Saturday (both the Jewish Sabbath and the first day of the Jewish Unleavened Bread).

The Bible says Jesus rose from the grave “on the third day” after He was arrested. According to Jewish timing, these three days were part Friday (up to 18 hours), all Saturday and part Sunday (up to 12 hours).

Appendix

The offering of the Firstfruits was on “the day after the Sabbath” during the festival of Unleavened Bread (Lev. 23:11, 15). There are two possible interpretations of this date: that it was a Sunday (after a regular Sabbath) or that it was 16 Aviv (assuming that the 15 Aviv was called a special Sabbath because they didn’t do occupational work on the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread). The NIV Zondervan Study Bible assumes the first interpretation and the NIV Study Bible the second one.

The first interpretation is based on the following reasoning. The Bible doesn’t specifically use the term “Sabbath” for the first and last days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The day of Pentecost (Festival of Weeks) is dated as follows “From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Lev. 23:15-16). So it occurs on the same day of the week as the offering of Firstfruits. Note that it is “the day after the seventh Sabbath”, which must be a regular Sabbath (there being seven regular Sabbaths in that seven-week period). Note, that there were no special annual Sabbaths (prohibitions of regular work) during this time period of the year. So both Pentecost and the offering of Firstfruits were on a Sunday. This is consistent with these being the only Jewish festivals that are not given specific dates in Scripture.

The second interpretation is based on the following reasoning. Occupational work was prohibited on the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement and the first and eighth days of the Festival of Tabernacles (Lev, 16:31; 23:24, 32, 39). These are all called “a day of Sabbath rest”. They are special Sabbaths which can occur on any day of the week. As occupational work was also prohibited on the first and last days of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, it is assumed that these were also called special Sabbaths and “the Sabbath” in Leviticus 23:11, 15 is one of these days. However, if the day before the Day of Pentecost can occur on any day of the week, why is it called “the seventh Sabbath” (Lev. 23:16)?

Written, April 2016

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