Isn’t there a possibility that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday or Thursday and not Friday?
Categories: Easter (Passion Week), Jesus
I want to thank one of our readers, Rev. Jim Jones, Director of Christian Education for the Southern Methodist Church, for encouraging me to dig deeper in my study of the Passion Week. He has brilliantly written about this week himself. We’ve shared a number of insights, but one in particular is his interest in the possibility of whether the crucifixion took place on Friday as most Christian churches record or might it have been Wednesday or Thursday. I pledged I would look into it more deeply for a 2014 posting. As I mentioned to Rev. Jones, it really isn’t a goal to agree or to disagree as much as to filter it all through scripture to support the overarching theme of eternal life – of the crucifixion leading to the resurrection, leading on to the ascension.
Through the years, I’ve asked myself, Is it really important to know what happened on each day? Or is it more important to examine Jesus’ movements that week as a model for living? Does the day he was crucified change my view of his unselfed love? Will his messages make me a better servant, Christian, teacher, family member, church member, citizen of the world? So as you study this dynamic week in our Master’s life, ask yourself what Jesus is teaching you about living.
I asked our resident Bible scholar, Mary Jane Chaignot, to research the possibility of a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion. Her answer is below.
Isn’t there a possibility that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday or Thursday and not Friday?
Back when things were simple, scholars who favored Mark’s telling of events argued that Jesus celebrated Passover with his disciples on Thursday evening; he was arrested after the meal and was crucified on Friday. Scholars who favored John’s telling of events argued that Jesus was crucified while the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, probably sometime Thursday afternoon. In an effort to harmonize the stories, scholars claimed the discrepancy arose because (1) John was using a different calendar, or (2) each evangelist worked the date to support his particular theological interpretation of the event. Still, it was difficult to harmonize because one argued Jesus was crucified while the lambs were being slaughtered while the other claimed Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover lamb. It seemed as though only one could be right.
But nothing is that simple anymore. In recent years, scholars have diligently tried to ferret out the timeline using other gospel verses with supporting prophecies from the Old Testament. That has led to no shortage of new theories.
One inexplicable problem with the Friday theory is that Jesus prophesied, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40; see also Luke 11:30). Scholars are happy to concede ground on the timeline regarding three days by agreeing that a portion of a day could count for a whole day. But Jesus is pretty specific about three nights as well. Since he arose on Sunday morning, he would be a night short if he wasn’t buried until Friday evening. According to his own words, Jesus would have had to be buried no later than Thursday in order to get to three nights.
But that is not the only problem. Mark 15:42-43 states, “It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea…went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.” Since the Sabbath is on Saturday, that seems to be an argument for moving it back to Friday. But that is not the whole story. Scholars have pointed out that “Sabbath” didn’t just refer to the weekly Sabbath day. Indeed, the word was also used to signify high holy days. And because they were high holy days, a “Day of Preparation” preceded each one. One of those “high holy days” was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which begins on the 15th of Nisan (see Lev. 23:6, 7). The evening before is Passover. Indeed, John 19:31 states, “Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)….” Scholars have generally concluded that John’s comment means the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread coincided with the weekly Sabbath that year, making it an especially significant Sabbath. [This has also been used by scholars to date Jesus’ death to the years 30BCE or 33BCE since those were the only years the dates would have coincided. But that, too, is subject to much discussion.] However, this is not the only option. The first “high day” of the feast could, literally, be any day of the week.
The month of Nisan started on the day that two witnesses confirmed the first crescent of the new moon. [Clearly, there is some variability here.] The lambs were killed on the afternoon of the 14th day of that month when the moon should have been full. Passover begins at sundown on the 15th and kicks off the 7-day Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Adding to the confusion, scholars have pointed out that in Matt 28:1, the word “Sabbath” is in plural form. It is typically translated, “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning…” Some, however, suggest it should simply read “after the Sabbaths…” suggesting that that week had two Sabbaths. Yet other scholars maintain that the plural is oftentimes meant as a singular. They do not even agree on that.
But if there had been two Sabbaths that week, other possibilities come to mind. It also helps to remember that Jewish days go from sundown to sundown, unlike today, where days are counted from midnight to midnight. For example, the 14th of Nisan would end at sundown, or roughly 6 p.m. The Passover meal would be eaten that evening, anytime after 6 p.m. The Feast of Unleavened Bread would be celebrated the next day, on Nisan 15. It also is very confusing to note that in the first century, people used the various terms quite loosely. “Passover” could refer to the meal or to the whole week. The “Day of Preparation” could refer to the day before a high holy day or the weekly Sabbath. Scholars have put forth arguments for all of the above.
So, let’s go back to Jesus’ statement about being in the earth for three days and three nights. It simply doesn’t work for a Friday death. But what if that year Nisan 14th was on a Wednesday (sundown Tuesday to sundown Wednesday)? The disciples made the arrangements for Passover in the afternoon on Tuesday. The meal was eaten that evening (Tues), Jesus was arrested that night, tried and crucified the following day. Mark 15:42-43 had him buried before sundown on Wednesday, still Nisan 14.
Day one of being in the tomb is from sundown Wed to sundown Thursday (the high holy Sabbath of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread). Day two is from sundown Thursday to sundown Friday. On this day, after the [high holy] Sabbath (Mark 16:1), the women went out and bought spices. Then, according to Luke 23:56, they rested on the [weekly] Sabbath. Day three is from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday (the weekly Sabbath). Sometime after sundown, Jesus rose from the dead. So when the women came early in the morning “after the Sabbaths,” Jesus was long gone from the tomb. A lot of scholars like this scenario because it satisfies Jesus’ prophesy about three nights in the earth and allows the women to buy and prepare the spices.
But it has its detractors. Most notably is John 18:28 that reads: “They led Jesus then from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s palace. It was early morning. They themselves didn’t enter the palace because they didn’t want to be disqualified from eating the Passover.” This, of course, raises the earlier issue of whether Jesus was killed while the lambs were slaughtered or if he and his disciples ate the Passover meal.
Those who argue for a Thursday death simply move everything back a day. That would mean that Friday was the high holy Sabbath and Saturday was the weekly Sabbath. It’s harder to explain the buying of the spices because it would entail waiting two days for back-to-back Sabbaths. But it could still work and it allows for a very early Sunday morning resurrection. The three nights would be Thursday-Saturday and the three days would be satisfied by partial days.
So, is it possible that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday or Thursday? Yes, it is. But what might not be possible is to make every verse across all the gospels fit perfectly with only one of the scenarios. Were that the case, scholars would have a lot less to research and write about. As it is, this is an ongoing discussion made more difficult by the fact that by the time these stories were written, the authors were thoroughly Christianized (mid 60s to mid 90s CE). Did they fully understand the Jewish traditions and words that were in place a generation or two earlier? How much did their theological perspectives color the facts of their stories? These and other elusive questions will keep the issue burning for many, many more seasons.
Rev. Jim Jones has added these additional comments:
While I believe for many reasons the crucifixion cannot be on Friday, and while I most definitely support Thursday, and while I recognize that many Biblical scholars hold to a Wednesday, it cannot have happened on a Wednesday. Consider the passage in Luke 24 of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
18 Then the one whose name was Cleopas answered and said to Him, “Are You the only stranger in Jerusalem, and have You not known the things which happened there in these days?” 19 And He said to them, “What things?” So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened.
We know from this passage that this occurred on the afternoon of Jesus' resurrection - Sunday). There is absolutely no way to get from Wednesday to Sunday in only three days. Three days must put the crucifixion on either a Friday (a part of three days) or a Thursday ( a literal three days). Friday has been ruled out for several reasons, some of which Ms. Chaignot noted in her reply. Wednesday must be ruled out from this one passage. That leaves only Thursday, which alone answers every aspect, including the proper amount of time for the type of the Passover Lamb as found in Exodus 12 and Leviticus 23: selected on the 10th, observed four days, and sacrificed on the 14th. If Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as the Passover Lamb (the same day the High Priest chose the National Lamb), then to fulfill the type, he died on the 14th (the day God established in Exodus and Leviticus), and the 14th would have been on Thursday.