Day of the Week
Four arguments prove that Jesus died on a Friday.
1. 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 forgotten the real day, allowing church leaders to substitute another and gain universal acceptance for it?
2. 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 and included 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 the eighth on the calendar if the day of birth is the 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.
In both cases, we would have said "two days from now," or "after two days," counting tomorrow as the first. But the Bible says "the third day." It counts today as the first because today frames the beginning of the interval. Other texts exhibiting the same way of reckoning the third day include Leviticus 7:15-17, Leviticus 19:6, and Acts 27:14-19.
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.
Because it was the day of the Resurrection, Sunday became known as the Lord's day (Rev. 1:10). Among the Jews, the first day of the week extended from Saturday evening to Sunday evening. Therefore, in its proclamation that Jesus rose on the third day, the early church was placing the beginning of the interval on the day extending from Thursday evening to Friday evening. Saturday-Sunday was the third day if the first was Thursday-Friday. Thursday-Friday was therefore the day of His burial, the event defining the beginning of the interval.
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 synoptic Gospels make it plain that Jesus died in the afternoon (Matt. 27:46-50; Mark 15:34-37; Luke 23:44-46). Hence, the foregoing evidence that He died and was buried between the evenings of Thursday and Friday leads inexorably to the conclusion that Friday was the day of His death.
3. 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.
4. 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.
Mark and John also affirm that the Sabbath was the day after (Mark 15:42; John 19:31). It follows that Jesus died on Friday.
Some have argued that the Sabbath mentioned in the narratives of these Gospel writers is not Saturday, but the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was also a day of rest (Lev. 23:6-7). The following considerations furnish sufficient rebuttal:
- 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 narrative 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.
Yet many people believe that Jesus died on Wednesday or Thursday, not Friday. Of critical importance is Luke's observation that after the women prepared materials for treating the body, they rested on the Sabbath. He is obviously explaining why they did not attend to the body immediately, but instead waited until Sunday. If Jesus died on Thursday, the explanation is insufficient, unless both Friday and Saturday were Sabbaths. Yet, as we have just shown, the Sabbath mentioned in the narratives appears to be Saturday. These provide no evidence of another Sabbath on Friday. If Jesus died on Wednesday, Luke's explanation for delay is insufficient even if the days between included a second Sabbath. Moreover, the behavior of the women was bizarre. Why did they do nothing on the ordinary week day? Why, despite earlier opportunities, did they not come to work on the body until it had begun to decay and stink?
The case for a burial sometime before Friday rests primarily on two arguments.
- 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 (4). 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.
- 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, 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 (5).
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 (Psa. 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 problematical, 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) (6). The third 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 the third night in His soul's experience of Hades.
Recognizing the limitations on our knowledge, we will refrain from dogmatizing our interpretation of the perplexing utterance in Matthew 12:40. Yet we can assert with confidence that to use this utterance as the main argument against a Friday crucifixion is bad hermeneutics. The doubtful interpretation of a difficult text does not overturn the plain meaning of many simple texts. Much good evidence demands the conclusion that Jesus died on a Friday.
Month and Calendar Day
As we noted earlier, the Jewish calendar was similar to the Babylonian. Each was made up of lunar months, and the names for the months were nearly the same. The main difference was that by the first century AD, the Babylonian calendar had become standardized. The duration of each month and the addition of extra months followed a fixed plan. But the Jews still made decisions as they went along. They did not begin a new month until after they actually sighted a new moon. At the end of each year, the Sanhedrin decided whether to insert a thirteenth month based on the state of crops and the readiness of lambs for sacrifice at Passover (7).
The Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus died in the month Nisan, the first month of the year, which started in March or April. The law of Moses prescribed two festivals during this month. The first was Passover, which came on the fourteenth, and the second was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which came on the fifteenth and lasted to the twenty-first (Lev. 23:5-6). The main event celebrating Passover was a meal that small companies of Jews shared in the evening. In preparation for the meal, many thousands of lambs were slaughtered in the Temple during the preceding afternoon. The day of the sacrifices was Nisan the fourteenth. But since the Jews reckoned twilight as the beginning of a new day, the Passover meal itself was observed at the outset of Nisan the fifteenth.
The fourth Gospel places Jesus' trial in the early hours of the morning before the Passover meal.
Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover.
Since Jesus died about 3 p.m. on the day of His trial, John's disclosure that the trial fell on the fourteenth of Nisan implies the same date for the Crucifixion.
Yet the synoptic Gospels state clearly that the Last Supper was held on the first day of Unleavened Bread. The Gospel of Mark, for example, testifies,
And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?
Mark seems to place the Last Supper at the time of the Passover meal. If the Last Supper fell in the evening at the beginning of the fifteenth, Jesus' death in the following afternoon was on the fifteenth also. A cursory reading of Mark and the other Synoptics might therefore suggest that Nisan the fifteenth, not the fourteenth, was the date of the Crucifixion.
The explanation for the apparent contradiction between John and the Synoptics is very simple. In Jesus' time, the Jews regarded the fourteenth of Nisan as the first day of Unleavened Bread. The meaning of Mark 14:12 and of the corresponding passages in Matthew and Luke is that the Last Supper was prepared and eaten in the evening at the beginning of the fourteenth. Thus, by implication, the Synoptics place the Crucifixion on Nisan the fourteenth, not the fifteenth.
Several ancient sources agree that the Jews regarded the fourteenth as the first day of the feast.
- Josephus in one passage speaks of Passover as a festival lasting eight days (8), and elsewhere he states explicitly that the festival began on the fourteenth (9).
- The Talmud says that the rabbis considered the fourteenth as the first day of Unleavened Bread (10)
- In Mark 14:12, the writer removes any possible confusion by explaining what he means. He defines the first day of the feast as the day when the lambs were killed. They were killed in the afternoon of the fourteenth, between three and five o'clock (11).
The Synoptics explicitly identify the Last Supper as a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:8-15), but its character does not constrain us to place it on the evening of the fifteenth. The Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8) is also Lord of the Passover. Thus, if Jesus so desired, He could change the day of the Passover meal so that He might share it once more with His beloved disciples. There are hints that the meal was scheduled earlier than usual. When He sent His disciples away to make preparations, He gave them a message for the owner of the upper room:
My time is at hand: I will keep the passover at thy house with my disciples.
The apparent disconnectedness of the two thoughts is dispelled if Jesus meant that His death would prevent Him from keeping the feast on the customary day. He said later to His disciples,
With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof until the kingdom of God shall come.
No explanation for eating the Passover with His disciples was necessary if the meal were to be celebrated at the usual time and in the usual manner. Something out of the ordinary is clearly indicated.
Jesus died on the day of Passover sacrifices, probably during the hours when the sacrificial lambs were being killed in the Temple. These lambs and all the lambs previously slain in the yearly Passover ritual were a picture of the Messiah to come.
The Passover ritual originated about 1500 years earlier, at the time of Israel's exodus from Egypt (Ex. 12:1-30). The last plague which God sent upon Egypt to persuade Pharaoh that he should release Israel from bondage was the death of all the firstborn. God promised each family in Israel that they could escape this plague merely by sprinkling the blood of a lamb on the door posts and lintel of their house. Just as the lambs of the first Passover bled and died so that those who believed God might escape death, so the coming Messiah would shed His blood and die so that all who believed in Him might escape death. The Messiah's role as a dying lamb is foretold most clearly by the prophet Isaiah.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
By calling Jesus the Lamb of God, John the Baptist revealed that His death would be the redemptive act prefigured by the Passover ritual (John 1:29). Jesus was "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). It was therefore not by chance that the Crucifixion fell on Passover Eve. God ordained the coincidence to underscore that Jesus was the promised Redeemer.
Based on astronomical calculations taking into account all factors determining the visibility of a new moon in Jerusalem, two British physicists, Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, have shown that in only two of the years framed by AD 29 and AD 36 could the fourteenth of Nisan have fallen on a Friday: in AD 30 and 33 (12). Yet their reconstruction of the Jewish calendar makes a questionable assumption. They accept Emil Schürer's dictum in his standard work on ancient Jewish culture that the main object of intercalation was to prevent Passover from arriving before the vernal equinox (13). Roger Beckwith, arguing that Palestinian Jews in the first century AD were more concerned with other factors, has discovered another possible year for the Crucifixion. The fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Friday also in AD 36 if the Jews decided against adding a thirteenth month to the previous year (14). Although the twelfth fell short of the vernal equinox, perhaps they left out an extra month because the crops were unusually early.
Finding the correct year of the Crucifixion must therefore be a process of elimination. The year 30 is impossible for two reasons.
1. Luke says that John the Baptist began to preach in Tiberius's fifteenth year (Luke 3:1-3). By official Roman reckoning, Tiberius's fifteenth year ran from January 1, AD 29, to January 1, AD 30 (15). Therefore, the first Passover in Jesus' ministry (the one recorded in John 2:13-25) could not have preceded the Passover of 29. Placing it in 29 crowds the beginning of John's ministry, however. If the first was actually in 30, this cannot be the year of the Crucifixion. We reach the same conclusion even if the first Passover was in 29, since the remainder of Jesus' ministry extended beyond another year.
A hundred years ago, many scholars and Bible teachers nevertheless favored 30 as the year of the Crucifixion because they thought that any later year, especially 33, left too little time for events in the book of Acts. They supposed that Luke was reckoning the years of Tiberius by some special method, perhaps including the years when Tiberius held high authority under Augustus before the emperor's death in AD 14. But a century of new discoveries has discredited this view. No trace of any special method of reckoning appears in any of the papyri, coins, and inscriptions that have come to light. The unanimous testimony of these varied sources is that the same enumeration of the emperor's years was used throughout the empire, and by that enumeration the fifteenth year of Tiberius was AD 29. Since Luke obviously expected his date to be understood by readers everywhere, it is inconceivable that he used some obscure method of reckoning (16).
2. In 26, when Pilate was given his post in Judaea (17), the emperor Tiberius relied heavily upon a certain Sejanus to manage the everyday affairs of government (18). It is therefore likely that Pilate was the choice of Sejanus. According to the Jewish writer Philo, this Sejanus was strongly anti-Jewish (19), so it is not surprising that his appointee Pilate was, during his earlier years in office, severely repressive of the Jews. On several occasions, Pilate deliberately offended Jewish religious scruples, and at least once he then severely punished those who protested (20).
But in the Gospels we see a different Pilate. Instead of standing firm in his desire to release Jesus, he meekly bows to pressure from the Jewish leaders to crucify Him. What accounts for his inconsistent behavior? The best explanation notices the political climate in Rome. In late 31, Sejanus was discovered plotting against the emperor and put to death (21). Afterward, any official associated with Sejanus was under suspicion and in danger of losing his job. Pilate was in particular danger because he had so frequently stirred up unrest among the people he was supposed to be governing, and because, after Sejanus's death, the emperor adopted a new policy toward the Jews, a policy of conciliation rather than repression (22). In fact, Pilate survived in office only until 36 (23). If the Crucifixion fell in 30, Pilate's behavior at the trial of Jesus is out of character. If it fell in 33, his behavior makes sense as a reflection of his precarious situation.
The year 36 is much too late for the Crucifixion.
1. A thorough analysis of chronological data in the Gospels finds that Jesus' ministry ended at the fourth Passover (24). If Jesus' ministry started in 29, not long after John the Baptist began preaching, the first was in 30 (John 2:13). The second, in 31, was the Passover when Jesus fed the 5000 (John 6:4). The last was when He was crucified. The Gospels mention no other Passover, but we find clear allusions to the Passover of 32 in Luke chapters 10 to 13. In chapter 10, Jesus is in Jerusalem (Luke 10:38). We know that it was His practice to go to Jerusalem for major feasts. In chapters 11 and 12, He is preaching before large crowds (Luke 11:29, 12:1). During Passover, the city was thronged with people. In chapter 13, there is mention of a recent atrocity in Jerusalem when many Galileans were in the Temple (Luke 13:1). The largest influx of Galileans to the city was at Passover time. Then in chapter 13 comes the extremely significant Parable of the Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9). The dresser of the vineyard is obviously Christ, and the fig tree is obviously Israel. Jesus says that after three years of ministry He has asked the Father for another year. Thus, we can connect the parable with the Passover of 32. His ministry has already lasted three years because, with the Jewish habit of inclusive reckoning, He is counting the partial year before His first Passover, in 30. The extension of His ministry another year would therefore carry it forward to the Passover of 33. No later year for the Crucifixion can be reconciled with this parable.
2. At least one date in the chronology of Paul's ministry is fairly certain. It is known that Gallio arrived in Corinth and took up his office as proconsul of Achaia in 51 (Acts 18:12) (25). Working backward from this date, we deduce that Paul arrived in the same city in 49 (Acts 18:1-11), and that in 49 or 48 he defended his ministry before the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-30) (26). The many agreements between the record of this council and Paul's reminiscences of a meeting with church leaders (Gal. 2:1-10) leave little doubt that they describe the same event. Paul sets this event fourteen years after his conversion (Gal. 2:1). Thus, his conversion was in 34, 35, or (by inclusive reckoning of the interval) 36, much too early to permit 36 as the date of the Crucifixion.
At last we are ready for a conclusion of prime importance. The only reasonable choice among the possible years when Jesus died is AD 33. Many scholars in the past shied away from this date, doubting that Christianity could become a worldwide movement already by the early 50s if the church in Jerusalem started only in 33. They pushed the date back to AD 30 to make the wildfire expansion of Christianity less miraculous. So, in recognizing that the starting date was really 33, we acknowledge how marvelous its expansion was, and we give full credit to the power of God.
Date of the Transfiguration Verified
Humphreys and Waddington have shown that the fourteenth of Nisan in AD 33 fell on April 3 (27). We affirm April 3, AD 33, to be the correct date of the Crucifixion. Having found this anchor for chronology, we can proceed to verify that the Transfiguration fell on December 14, AD 31. The verification will not be simple, yet it will produce many important insights. We must remember that God is under no obligation to make the treasures of His Word easy to find. If the evidences of His supernatural hand in prophecy were simple, they would force people to believe. But God never takes from the proud all their excuses for not believing. To attain compelling evidence that the Bible is true requires diligent searching motivated by faith.
The correct date of the Crucifixion generates three arguments supporting the date we have derived for the Transfiguration. The first shows that the latter date is approximately correct. The second and third show that it is exactly correct.
- The conventional view is that the Transfiguration fell in the last year of Jesus' ministry. But though the other Synoptic writers do not shed much light on how much time transpired between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion, Luke clearly puts the Transfiguration before the Passover of 32. In His Gospel, the account of Jesus' glory on the mountain comes several chapters before the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9), the parable which implied that Jesus had one year remaining in His ministry. In all the Synoptics, the Transfiguration comes after the feeding of the 5000, at the Passover of 31. So, the date we have derived for the Transfiguration, in December of 31, is reasonable.
- We find in Daniel 9:26 a prophecy specifying the interval between the Transfiguration and another key event before the Crucifixion. Given that the sixty-nine weeks ended on December 14/15, 31, we can compute the date of this intervening event. We can also date the same event by reference to the Jewish Talmud, which gives the interval between this event and the Crucifixion. The perfect agreement of these two independently derived dates, the one relying solely on Scripture, the other relying solely on secular history, provides external validation of our date for the Transfiguration.
- Daniel 9:25 contains an easily overlooked prophecy giving the interval between the Transfiguration (or, more precisely, the announcements a few days earlier) and the Resurrection. If, based on this prophecy, we use the established date of the Crucifixion to compute the date of the Transfiguration, we arrive at the same date we obtained from Daniel's prophecy of the sixty-nine weeks. The perfect agreement of these two dates independently derived from Scripture provides internal validation of our date for the Transfiguration.