Case for a Friday Crucifixion
Four arguments prove that Jesus died on a Friday.
- Good Friday observance dates from antiquity. There is no evidence that Christians ever placed Jesus’ death on another day. If Jesus did not die on Friday, how likely is it that the church could have completely forgotten the real day, allowing church leaders to substitute another that would gain universal acceptance?
- A central theme of the New Testament is that Jesus rose on the third day. Jesus’ own prediction that He would rise on the third day is noted eight times in the Gospels (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 9:31; 10:34; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7). Wary of what this prediction might provoke, the authorities resolved to set a guard at His tomb until the third day (Matt. 27:64). That He in fact rose on the third day is asserted once in the Gospels (Luke 24:46), once in Acts (Acts 10:40), and once in the Epistles (1 Cor. 15:4).
The Jews used inclusive reckoning. When measuring the number of days between two events, they counted calendar days including the partial days at both ends. For example, in fulfillment of the law mandating circumcision of a male child when he is eight days old (Gen. 17:12), the Jews have always performed the rite one week after birth. The day a week later is eighth on the calendar if the day of birth is first (1).
All Biblical references to the third day also assume inclusive reckoning. If the interval starts when someone is speaking, today is the first day, tomorrow is the second, and the day after tomorrow is the third.
10 And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes,
11 And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.
And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.
The Gospel writers affirm that Jesus rose on a Sunday, the first day of the week (Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). Mark says,
Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
For two reasons it is indisputable that the day of His burial was the same as the day of His death.
- In the afternoon of the day when Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples on the road to Emmaus stated that it was then the third day since Jesus was condemned and crucified (Luke 24:20-21).
- Joseph of Arimathaea took the body of Jesus in the "even" (literally, "lateness" (2)) on the day of His death (Matt. 27:50-60) and finished burying the body before the new day began at nightfall (Luke 23:50-54).
The foregoing evidence establishes that Jesus died and was buried between the evenings of Thursday and Friday. Since the Synoptic Gospels make it plain that He died in the afternoon (Matt. 27:46–50; Mark 15:34–37; Luke 23:44–46), the only possible day was Friday.
- All four Gospels concur that Jesus was buried on the "day of preparation" (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42). This expression refers to Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath (3). Ancient literature supplies no evidence that this expression ever referred to any day but Friday. Thus, Friday was the day of Jesus' death.
- Several Gospel writers say clearly that the next day after Jesus' death and burial was a Sabbath; that is, Saturday. Luke's chronology for the period of the entombment is the most explicit.
53 And he [Joseph of Arimathaea] took it [Jesus' body] down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.
54 And that day was the preparation, and the sabbath drew on.
55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid.
56 And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
Rebuttal of Contrary Arguments
The argument that the First Day of Unleavened Bread was by law a Sabbath
In the modern world, many Bible teachers especially in fundamental churches have refused to accept that Friday was the day of the Crucifixion. Instead, they locate the Crucifixion either on Wednesday or Thursday. To justify placing the Crucifixion earlier in the week, they may resort to the law governing the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
4 These are the feasts of the LORD, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons
5 In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD’s passover.
6 And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the LORD: seven days ye must eat unleavened bread.
7 In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.
8 But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the LORD seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.
9 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
10 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come into the land which I give unto you, and shall reap the harvest thereof, then ye shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest unto the priest:
11 And he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted for you: on the morrow after the sabbath the priest shall wave it. . . .
15 And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete:
16 Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD.
In this passage, God ordains the time and attendant ceremonies of four Jewish feasts: Passover (v. 5), the Feast of Unleavened Bread (vv. 6–8), the Feast of First Fruits (vv. 10–14), and the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost (vv. 15–16).
The Feast of First Fruits is placed on "the morrow after the sabbath" (v. 11). The intended day has been a matter of dispute since ancient times. It is evident from the context that this Sabbath must be one of the days of Unleavened Bread. But which day? Because the first day of Unleavened Bread (Nisan 15, one day after Passover sacrifices on the fourteenth) was to be a day of rest (v. 7), the Pharisaic party within ancient Judaism believed that "the morrow after the sabbath" means the next day after Nisan 15. They therefore celebrated the Feast of First Fruits on Nisan 16 (4).
Some who reject placement of the Crucifixion on Friday take shelter in the same interpretation of Leviticus 23. In defense of their position, they side with the Pharisees in equating the "sabbath" in verses 11 and 15 with the first day of Unleavened Bread. They assert that this is the Sabbath which all four Gospels set after the Crucifixion. Therefore, it could have fallen on a Thursday or Friday. Three observations can be made in rejoinder:
- The Pharisaic interpretation of Leviticus 23 was faulty. Although the law of Moses required rest and worship on the first day of Unleavened Bread, it did not call this day a Sabbath. The feast day explicitly so named (vv. 11, 15) must be simply an ordinary seventh day, for reckoning inclusively from the next day to the day following seven more ordinary Sabbaths produces a total of fifty days (vv. 15–16). In keeping with correct exegesis, both the Sadducees and the Samaritans presented the wave offering on Sunday of Passover week (5). It is unlikely that the Gospel writers viewed the fifteenth as a Sabbath if it is not the Sabbath of Leviticus 23:11, 15.
- The church believed that the yearly Passover established by Moses pictured the sacrificial death of the coming Redeemer. Paul proclaimed, "Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (1 Cor. 5:7). The connection between the type and the antitype was made unmistakable by the timing of Jesus’ death. In like manner, the church believed that the yearly Feast of First Fruits pictured Christ’s resurrection. Paul proclaimed, "Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept" (1 Cor. 15:20). It is therefore reasonable to suppose that, in satisfaction of the type, the Resurrection fell on the Feast of First Fruits. The events indeed coincided if the Sadducees and Samaritans were correct in celebrating the feast on Sunday of Passover week. But if, in accordance with the Pharisaic interpretation of Leviticus 23, the feast in the year of Jesus’ death should have been observed before Sunday, the Resurrection came one or more days too late.
- The passage in Luke says that the women rested on this Sabbath according to "the commandment" (v. 56). The writer evidently assumes that the commandment needs no further identification. For most readers, the commandment forbidding work on the first day of Unleavened Bread would be obscure, but the fourth commandment of the Decalogue—the commandment forbidding work on Saturday—would be well known. There are many allusions to it earlier in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 6:2, 7; 13:14; etc.).
The argument that the First Day of Unleavened Bread was by custom a Sabbath
Some who place the Crucifixion before Friday do not go so far as to equate "sabbath" in Leviticus 23 with the first day of Unleavened Bread. Yet they argue that since this was a day of rest (v. 7), it was generally known as a Sabbath, and the Gospel writers followed conventional usage. Here we raise three objections.
- The term "Sabbath" ordinarily refers to the seventh day of the week: Saturday. Thus, the idea that Christ was crucified earlier than Friday is untenable without unambiguous evidence in the Gospel accounts themselves that the Sabbath beginning a few hours after His death was not a Saturday. Some advocates of this idea claim support in Matthew 28:1.
In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
- John identifies the next day after the Crucifixion in a manner strongly suggesting that the day was actually Saturday. He says, literally, "That Sabbath day was great" (John 19:31) (9). Since the Jews were encumbered with fewer restrictions on the first day of Unleavened Bread than on a weekly Sabbath (10), the term "great" hardly seems fitting for a Sabbath that was the inaugural feast day only. The term does, however, seem fitting if it was simultaneously the inaugural feast day and the weekly Sabbath.
- The narrative in Luke 23:53-24:1 passes directly from what happened on the Sabbath to what happened on the first day of the week, on Sunday, as if the two days were consecutive. There is no hint of any time between.
All these considerations forbid us from construing either Thursday or Friday of Passion week as the Sabbath following the Crucifixion. Yet another consideration specifically invalidates the theory that Nisan 14 and 15 fell on Wednesday and Thursday. Of critical importance is Luke’s observation that after the women prepared materials for treating the body, they rested on the Sabbath (Luke 23:56). He is obviously explaining why they did not attend to the body immediately, but instead waited until Sunday. If the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and the day following, which Luke calls a Sabbath, were a Wednesday and Thursday, his explanation for delay is insufficient. Why did the women do nothing on Friday, the next ordinary week day? Why, despite earlier opportunities, did they not come to work on the body until Sunday, after it had begun to decay and stink? If this theory is correct, we have no alternative but to view the behavior of the women as bizarre.
The argument that Jesus predicted His resurrection "after three days"
In two places the Gospels represent Jesus as predicting that His resurrection would occur "after three days" (Matt. 27:63; Mark 8:31). "After" is a poor translation, however. The Greek preposition is meta, normally used to show that one thing accompanies another (11). The phrase in question suggests that the Resurrection would accompany the end of three days. Within virtually the same passage, Mark places the Resurrection both "after three days" (Mark 8:31) and on "the third day" (Mark 9:31), showing that he regarded the expressions as interchangeable.
The argument that Jesus said He would be buried three days and nights
When the Pharisees requested a sign, Jesus said,
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
To underscore the parallel between Jonah's experience and His own, Jesus fitted both to the measure given in Jonah 1:17: three days and three nights. Yet how was this prediction concerning His own experience fulfilled if He went into His tomb on Friday night and rose on Sunday morning? He was buried only two nights, the nights of Friday and Saturday.
There are two possible explanations. Many commentators have argued that Jewish idiom allowed any part of a day to be considered a whole day-and-night period. But this is doubtful (12).
Another possible explanation assumes that Jesus was giving the duration not of His entombment, but of His death. Scripture teaches that when Jesus died, His soul descended to Sheol, or Hades (Ps. 16:10; Acts 2:27, 31; 1 Pet. 3:18-20), and that His descent to Hades took Him to "the lower parts of the earth" (Eph. 4:9). Therefore, when Jesus spoke of His stay in "the heart of the earth," He was referring to His soul's stay in Hades. His tomb was just a small hole in the side of a hill. To refer to it as the heart of the earth would have been poetic extravagance indeed.
If the three days and nights started when Jesus died, the sum "three days" creates no difficulty. He was dead during part of the day on Friday and all of the day on Saturday. Christian tradition has always imagined that He did not rise until the first light of Sunday. The three nights are more problematic, however. Yet Jesus' death indeed continued for three nights if the first night by His reckoning was the supernatural darkness that enveloped the world during His final hours on the cross (Luke 23:44-45) (13). The first night was the darkest of all, for it was the earth's only taste of absolute night, enfolding in its shroud the entire planet. We may reasonably infer that this universal night, this most real of all nights, did not relent until it had provided the setting for the world's blackest event, the death of Christ. It was therefore another night in His soul's experience of Hades.
Some have argued that the darkness was caused by a mammoth dust storm of a kind common in some Middle Eastern countries, a so-called khamsin dust storm. For a rebuttal of this theory, see our lesson on the darkness at the Crucifixion.