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.
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 three festivals during this month. The third need not concern us here. 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 sundown 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 the ninth hour (3 P.M.) on the day of His trial (Mark 15:1-37), John's disclosure that the trial fell on the fourteenth of Nisan implies the same date for the Crucifixion. We may view John's account as early testimony to what happened, for in the opinion of the renowned scholar John A. T. Robinson, John's was the first Gospel written (8).
Another source of early testimony is Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, commonly dated about AD 55 (9). Paul said,
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
1 Corinthians 5:7
Paul is evidently presuming that Jesus died on Passover, the fourteenth of Nisan.
The same calendar day is attested by the Babylonian Talmud, a vast collection of rabbinical teachings and traditions reduced to writing in about AD 600 (10). This source hostile to Christianity says that Jesus "was hanged on the eve of Passover" (11).
It was no mere coincidence that Jesus died in the same afternoon when droves of lambs were being slain in the Temple. These lambs and all the other lambs previously sacrificed 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 its timing to underscore that Jesus was the promised Redeemer.
Our conclusion that Jesus died on Passover would be firmly settled except for the testimony of the synoptic Gospels. They 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?
The lambs were slain in the afternoon of the fourteenth, between three and five o'clock (12). Thus, 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.
There are two ways of resolving the dilemma that deserve serious attention. The first supposes that the Synoptic writers are using a different calendar. Some leading scholars have argued that it was customary in ancient Israel to treat the calendar day as sunrise to sunrise rather than as sundown to sundown (13); moreover, that the same mode of reckoning survived in Jesus' day among Galileans and other groups (14). Thus, from the perspective of first-century Jews holding on to the old ways, the Passover sacrifices and the Passover meal fell on the same day, the fourteenth, as they seem to do in one passage of the law (Ex. 12:6, 8, 18).
During Passover time, the Passover meal itself was the first subject to the law's requirement of unleavened bread. So, the foregoing interpretation of time markers in the Synoptics explains why they placed the first day of Unleavened Bread on the fourteenth. Yet it does not remove the seeming contradiction between their account and John's. He sets the Crucifixion on the fourteenth; they, on the fifteenth. To resolve the discrepancy, some scholars have supposed that the Synoptics used a calendar that laid out each month from an earlier starting point, so that its numbering ran ahead of the official Jewish calendar (15). One view is that the disciples, following an ancient calendar of Israel, offered a lamb for sacrifice on Wednesday the twelfth, which they regarded as the fourteenth, and ate the Passover meal with Jesus during the following evening (16).
For two reasons, this and similar attempts to reconcile John and the Synoptics are unacceptable.
- Reconsider Mark's choice of words in Mark 14:12. He states that the Last Supper was held on the day "when they killed the passover." The words "they killed" translate a single verb variously described as "indefinite plural and imperfect" (17) and "customary imperfect" (18). Authorities agree that the most appropriate translation of the whole phrase in question is, "when it was customary to kill the passover" (19). The day Mark intends cannot therefore be any sooner than the fourteenth on the official calendar, since that day alone was the customary time for Passover sacrifices.
- If we study Old Testament law, three principles stand out clearly. (1) God wanted His people to enjoy a full schedule of feasts as relief from everyday toil and care. (2) He wanted these feasts to have spiritual meaning. (3) To emphasize their meaning, He wanted them to be observed at exactly the right time. Looking backward, Passover remembered when the Israelites escaped from Egypt. Looking forward, it foreshadowed the Messiah's sacrificial death. In both instances, the timing was precise. We may assume that the dates of all the other feasts were likewise significant, though we may not fully understand why. The same God who shaped the experience of Israel also created the church and designed the church calendar. It is thus inconceivable that He would have allowed the Gospel writers to mislead us about the timing of key events in redemption history. With minor dissent, the church has always believed that the Last Supper fell on Thursday of Nisan the thirteenth (by modern midnight to midnight reckoning), the Crucifixion on Friday of Nisan the fourteenth, and the Resurrection on Sunday of Nisan the sixteenth.
The correct explanation for the apparent contradiction between John and the Synoptics is very simple. In Jesus' time, many 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.
Technically, as the law prescribed, Passover fell on the fourteenth, and the seven days of Unleavened Bread spanned the fifteenth to the twenty-first. But it was natural and inevitable that consecutive feasts celebrated by the nation during the same break from daily life would have become known by a single name. In the Babylonian Talmud, for instance, the last seven days are called Passover, and the preceding day, when the sacrifices were made, is called Passover eve (20).
Another name for the whole festival was Unleavened Bread. In his Wars, Josephus said,
As now the war abroad ceased for a while, the sedition within was revived; and on the feast of unleavened bread, which was now come, it being the fourteenth day of the month Xanthicus, [Nisan,] when it is believed the Jews were first freed from the Egyptians, Eleazar and his party opened the gates of this [inmost court of the] temple, and admitted such of the people as were desirous to worship God into it (21).
One scholar counters that the Zealots who controlled the Temple at this time did not accept the calendar considered official in Jesus' day; rather, based on sunrise to sunrise reckoning, that they viewed the fourteenth as the first day of Unleavened Bread; and that Josephus in his account takes their point of view simply to explain why they opened the Temple gates (22). Perhaps so, but we might have expected him to distance himself from their mode of reckoning if he followed another.
In Antiquities, without any constraint from the story he is telling, he affirms as his own outlook that the whole festival, from the fourteenth to the twenty-first, is properly called Unleavened Bread.
Hence, in memory of the scarcity at that time, we observe for eight days the festival, as it is called, of unleavened bread (23).
Yet elsewhere in Antiquities, he seems to contradict himself.
On the fifteenth the festival of unleavened bread, which lasts seven days, follows the pascha: during it they feed on unleavened bread, and on each day two bulls and one ram and seven lambs are slaughtered. These are sacrificed as whole burnt-offerings, with a goat also being added to them all for sins, as a feast each day for the priests. On the second day of the unleavened bread—this is the sixteenth—they partake of the crops that they have reaped, for they had not been touched before that time; and considering that it is proper first to honor God, from whom they chanced upon the abundance of these, they bring the first fruits of the barley to Him in the following manner (24).
We must consider the context, however. This passage is taken from Josephus' lengthy survey of Mosaic law. Throughout, he hews close to the language of Scripture. Here, his obvious sources are Leviticus 23:5-8 and Numbers 28:16-18.
So what may we conclude? We conclude that in the delightful manner of all humankind, the Jews in Jesus' day were inconsistent in their use of terms. They spoke one way when they were seeking to follow the language of Scripture. They lapsed into less formal language whenever it was convenient. We likewise may refer to the holidays at the end of December as Christmas, or we may distinguish Christmas and New Year's.
We must still explain why the Synoptic writers chose informal reckoning to pinpoint the day of the Last Supper. Why, as authors of Holy Writ, did they not identify the day in a manner closer to the precedent of Holy Writ in the era of Moses? We gain insight on this perplexing question by setting the parallel passages side-by-side.
|Matthew 26:17||Mark 14:12||Luke 22:7-8|
|Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?||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?||Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat.|
The striking correspondence of these passages, and of the surrounding narrative as well, suggests both a common meaning and a common source. To the basic information we find in Matthew, both Mark and Luke add comments that seem intended as clarification, lest we misunderstand which day was the first of Unleavened Bread. It appears, then, that Matthew's account was either the source of the others or closest to their source. This is exactly what we would expect, given that Matthew was the only one of the three who was an eyewitness and a member of the Twelve, given also that he was, according to tradition, the Twelve's secretary (25). But who was Matthew? Formerly a pious Pharisee steeped in the law? No, formerly a despised publican, a marginal Jew steeped in the popular culture of his day. He reckoned time like the man on the street. His Gospel shows that undoubtedly as one benefit of sitting under Jesus' instruction, he became an expert on Messianic prophecy, but he likely never forsook old habits of language that were of no moral significance.
Yet against our harmonization of John and the Synoptics, someone might protest that the Synoptics explicitly identify the Last Supper as a Passover meal (Matt. 26:17–19; Mark 14:12–16; Luke 22:8–15). Especially informative is Luke's account. He says that on the day of the Last Supper, Jesus sent Peter and John into the city "to prepare us the passover, that we may eat" (Luke 22:8). They were instructed how to find the right house and what to tell the house owner: "Where is the guest chamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples?" (Luke 22:11). In obedience, "they made ready the passover" (Luke 22:13). The obvious question is, why would the Synoptic writers call it a Passover meal if it were held a whole day before the proper time?
It is helpful to remember that 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 (26).
Matthew and Mark record that the disciples initiated preparations for the meal (Matt. 26:17 Mark 14:12). No doubt they supposed that they were getting ready for a meal together the following night, the scheduled time for Passover. Their desire to make arrangements ahead of time probably rested on the assumption that everyone would be too busy on Passover day itself. So, with Jesus' encouragement and according to His directions, they procured a meeting place, furnished the room, and assembled all the necessary tableware and foods, expecting to obtain the lamb on the following day. No mention of a lamb in their preparations is further evidence, incidentally, that it was the evening before Passover (27). When the disciples had everything in order, imagine their surprise when Jesus took them to share the meal right away.
The Gospel writers say nothing to contradict the casual reader's impression that the Last Supper was a strictly legal Passover meal. Why not? Probably for the simple reason that they do not wish to plant in this reader's mind any suspicion that Jesus was breaking the law. The Last Supper did not satisfy the law's requirements. But it was hardly a breach of the law to hold a Passover-like meal one day early, a meal Jesus intended as a device for teaching His disciples the true significance of the age-old Passover observance. Far from flouting the law, the meal on Thursday night actually protected the disciples from failure to participate in the feast in the customary fashion, according to the law. Jesus knew that on the next day, they would be in no state to observe Passover. Therefore, He let them know that they were fulfilling their duty by eating with Him the night before. By His divine authority He was designating it a true Passover meal.
Some might wonder how Jesus and the disciples could have viewed the Last Supper in this way if it was missing the most essential food—a lamb slain hours before at the Temple. But the main point Jesus was making at the Last Supper was that He was the Paschal lamb. He was the fulfillment of all the pictures engraved upon Mosaic ceremonial law. What need did they have for the type when the antitype was in their midst? He wanted them to understand, moreover, that they were in a profound sense complying even with the law's requirement to feast on the Paschal lamb, for when they partook of the bread, they were eating His body, and when they partook of the wine, they were drinking His blood.
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 26 and AD 36 (the years spanning all Passovers when Pilate was governor of Judea) could the fourteenth of Nisan have fallen on a Friday: in AD 30 and 33 (28). 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 (29). It is remotely possible that Luke is using a form of Jewish reckoning, treating Nisan in the spring or Tishri in the fall as the first month (30). Thus, by any reckoning, the earliest date for the beginning of John's ministry was Tishri of 28, and the first Passover in Jesus' ministry could not have preceded the Passover of 29.
Yet Luke's Gospel is addressed to the "most excellent Theophilus," doubtless a Roman official. It is probable for this and other reasons that the writer uses ordinary Roman reckoning in his dating of events (31). Thus, John's ministry began in 29. Placing Jesus' first Passover in the same year crowds the beginning of John's ministry, as well as the prior events in Jesus' own ministry. 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 century ago, many scholars and Bible teachers nevertheless favored 30 as the year of the Crucifixion. They supposed that Luke was reckoning the regnal years of Tiberius by some special method, perhaps including the term when he 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 (32).
2. In 26, when Pilate was given his post in Judaea (33), the emperor Tiberius relied heavily upon a certain Sejanus to manage the everyday affairs of government (34). It is therefore likely that Pilate was the choice of Sejanus. According to the Jewish writer Philo, this Sejanus was strongly anti-Jewish (35), 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 (36).
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 (37). 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 (38). In fact, Pilate survived in office only until 36 (39). 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.
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. A consensus that this was the actual year continues to build among conservative Bible scholars (40). Those who have now endorsed it include Jack Finegan, widely regarded as the doyen of Biblical chronology (41).
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.
Verifying the Date of the Transfiguration
Humphreys and Waddington have shown that the fourteenth of Nisan in AD 33 fell on April 3 (42). 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.
We will begin by showing that our date for the Transfiguration is in line with a sound chronology of Jesus' ministry. The conventional view is that the Transfiguration fell in the final year. 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.
Yet we need not be content with an approximately correct date. We can demonstrate in two ways that the date we have derived for the Transfiguration is exactly correct.
- 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.