On which day of the week did Jesus die?

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The traditional day for the death of Jesus Christ is Friday, with him remaining in the tomb on Saturday before rising from the dead on Sunday morning. This seems to meet the requirement of several verses where Jesus Himself stated that he would rise “on the third day”: Matthew 16:21, 17:23, 20:19; Mark 9:31, 10:34; Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, & 21,46. Acts 10:40 & 1 Corinthians 15:4 also assert that He was raised “on the third day”. However, these dates do not satisfy Jesus’ own criteria in Matt.12:40 -

For 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.

The period of “three days” is also identified in Mark 8:31 and John 2:19, both being reported as the teaching of Jesus. Clearly the period of approximately 36 hours (sunset Friday to sunrise Sunday) does not satisfy the requirements of these last three passages. These notes are intended to help those interested in such details to understand the issues which are relevant to discerning the most probable day of Jesus’ death.

Hebrew & modern days

Those who want to understand the arguments for and against one potential day of the week over and above another need first to appreciate the difference between the Hebrew day of the gospels and the “clock” day of the modern western world. In Genesis 1 the days of creation started with sunset – by contrast we regard this as the beginning of the night. We are used to days which begin at midnight. Therefore, our clocks are offset from the Hebrew day by approximately six hours as illustrated below (exact difference varies with the sunset times):

This need not confuse anyone as long as they remember that the evening of any particular day to the Western mind is in fact the start of the new day in Jewish understanding.

Not as difficult to grasp, but also helpful to appreciate is the fact that the Hebrew names for the days of the week reflect the creation week:

Reasons for the tradition?

The next thing we need to think about is why the tradition of Jesus dying on the Friday might have developed. Whilst I have not been able to trace any records detailing this, it seems to me that it is based on the year of Jesus’ death traditionally being in 33AD. Why might that be the case? First, when the calendar was recalculated to start with the birth of Christ (in 525AD by Dionysius Exiguus) it was intended that the birth of Christ should occur in 1AD – the initials AD stand for Anno Domini which is Medieval Latin, and translates as “in the year of the Lord”. (N.B. The year before 1AD was designated 1BC, not 0BC/AD.) It is now however generally agreed that this was a miscalculation, and that Jesus was born somewhere between 6 and 4BC. As we shall see, this has relevance to determining the day on which He died (see below).

The fixing of what has become known as Holy Week, which includes the traditional names of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, seems to have arisen from the assumption that Jesus was born in 1AD plus two other things, the first being that He was thirty when He began his ministry, and this is based on Luke 3:23 -

Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli,

Further, it is generally thought that His ministry lasted about three years – although this is not stated per se in the New Testament, there are three separate Passovers mentioned in John’s gospel (Ch. 2, 6 & 11 to 19) which leads people to believe He had a three year period of ministry.

Believing that Jesus started His ministry when he was thirty and that it lasted for three years, it seems that the Church authorities decided that He died in the year 33AD. It is of course possible that He was thirty-one or thirty-two when He began His ministry – Luke said He was about thirty – and that it lasted slightly longer than three years.

Next we need to remember that Exodus 12, Leviticus 23 and Numbers 9 & 28 all state that the Passover should be eaten on the fourteenth day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar. That month is called Nissan and in 33AD 14th Nissan fell on the Sixth day, our Saturday. Whilst that was the start of the Passover week, the lambs were killed on the previous day, known as the Day of Preparation. It is this day which is identified as the day of Jesus’ death in Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54 and John 19:14, 31 & 42. It seems therefore to have been assumed that Jesus was killed on Friday, 13th Nissan in 33AD. This view is also apparently supported by the reference in John 19:31 which states that the next day was a Sabbath -

Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.

As stated in the introduction, this sequence of events appears to be in agreement with Jesus’ repeated predictions that He would rise from death “on the third day”, but not with those where He spoke of being in the grave for three days (and nights).

Alternative days for Jesus’ death

Spotting the failure of the traditional sequence to match the three days and three nights criteria, some have suggested the Wednesday or the Thursday as possible alternatives for the day of Christ’s death. Is there any way we can resolve which is the more likely? Included with these notes is a copy of a diagram by David Pawson which explains why he believes the Day of Preparation occurred on a Wednesday in the year in which Jesus died. Before considering his arguments, we need first to look at the restrictions which the Jewish calendar places on the possible year of His execution.

Source of Jewish calendar dates: www.cgsf.org/dbeattie/calendar

One difference not yet discussed between the Hebrew and Roman calendars is that the former is based on lunar cycles and the latter on solar years. This results in one important difference: in the Roman system dates occur on successive days of the week in subsequent years (with the exception of leap years), whilst in the Jewish calendar, dates change in a non-sequential manner. Thus if a date falls on a Tuesday in one particular year, it may fall on a Sunday, a Friday or indeed on a Tuesday in the following year! I illustrate this in the table to the right, but we need to consider one other detail before applying what it tells us.

Whilst there is some uncertainty about the year of Christ’s birth and His age at death, secular records do set parameters for the year in which He was killed. Pontius Pilate was the Roman Governor in Jerusalem from 26 to 36 AD. This information provides us with the earliest and the latest year in which Jesus might have died. The table therefore provides the Roman names for the days on which the Day of Preparation and the start of the Passover occurred during Pilate’s period of office.

In which year was Jesus born?

We cannot discuss the possible year of Jesus’ death without first considering the approximate year of His birth, as this also contributes to understanding in which one of the above eleven years He may have died. These days it is generally accepted that Herod the Great died in 4BC, and Jesus had to have been born before that event. Another limiting factor is the date of the census which took Joseph and Mary back to Bethlehem (Luke 2:2). There are no records of a census during Herod’s reign, though some think it was conducted during the time in which Publius Quinctilius Varus governed Syria. However, Luke names the Syrian Governor at the time of the census as Cyrenius or, as it is normally translated, Quirinius but according to Josephus [Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Ch.1] the census he conducted took place in 6 7AD which is too late to be the one referred to at the time of Jesus’ birth during the reign of Herod the Great. There are various arguments concerning this discrepancy which cannot be discussed here, but I refer to it so that readers are aware of the issue. If Publius Quinctilius Varus was the Cyrenius named by Luke (though as stated above there is no record of a census conducted by him) he took charge of Syria in 7BC, and this suggests that Jesus was born between 7 & 4BC.

In which years might He have died?

We can easily discount years on which 13th Nissan fell on either Monday (28 & 35AD) or Tuesday (32AD) as being too early in the week. Similarly the one where it occurred on the Saturday/Sabbath (29AD) is too close to the First day of the week for anyone’s criteria.

The traditional day of Friday allows only two possible years for His death under Pilate – 33AD as discussed above, with 36AD as a later alternative. If Jesus was killed on a Thursday, then it had to be in 26AD. If that is true then Jesus would have had to be born in 8BC, or earlier if He was 33 or older, and thus placing His death in 26AD is seemingly too soon.

To my mind this makes the best candidates the four years when the Day of Preparation occurred on a Wednesday. I consider the years 30 & 31AD as the more probable. If Jesus died in 27AD, it would mean that He was probably younger than 33 at His death. Similarly 34AD is too late given that Jesus was born before the death of Herod in 4BC, as this would make him 37 or older in that year – the same reasoning seems to exclude 36AD, the later of the two years with Friday 13th Nissan in them.

It is also worth noting that if Jesus was born in or before 4BC, this also suggests that He died before 33AD. The above table indicates His age when He died for each combination of birth years (8BC to 1AD) and year of His death, the highlighted sections being possible options, whilst the brightest background indicates the ones I think are the most probable combinations.

Is His death on a Wednesday Biblically credible?

As already stated, David Pawson prepared the diagram below, which I have digitised. I should acknowledge here that David favours 29AD as the year of His death, though I cannot find a Jewish calendar which has the Day of Preparation as occurring on the Wednesday of that year. However, my notes are intended to make the case for His death on a Wednesday rather than a Friday, and I am not concerned with the actual year.

The top line of David’s diagram lays out the order of events surrounding Passover according to the Jewish system for a year where Passover started on the Fifth day of the week. The lambs were killed on the afternoon of the Day of Preparation at 3pm – indicated by the black diamond on the diagram. It is important to note that the first day of Passover was considered as a special Sabbath (rest) day, along similar lines to our British Bank Holidays. The bottom line of David’s diagram lays out the same time period in the way in which we are familiar with it.

Between these is the dark blue section which sets out the possible sequence of events involved in Jesus’ death and resurrection. They start with Him being nailed up at 9am (Mark 15:25 - Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him). He gave up His spirit at 3pm (Mt. 27:45-46 Mk. 15:33-34 & Lk. 23:44) which coincided with the death of the Passover lambs. What happened next is important; Jesus was taken down and buried before the sun set – remember the Passover started then, not at midnight. The reason given in John 19:31 is that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)”. Because this special Sabbath started at sunset, the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to make sure that the bodies were taken down and disposed of before then. If this special (high day) Sabbath was on the Fifth day of the week (Thursday), then Jesus would have remained in the Grave for three full Jewish days – Fifth, Sixth & Sabbath (Thursday, Friday & Saturday). If the high day was on the Sixth day (Friday) and Jesus died on the Fifth (Thursday), then the most He could have been in the tomb was two and a half Jewish days (three nights and two days).

We are not told the time of Jesus’ resurrection, just that His disciples discovered the empty tomb shortly after sunrise on the First day of the week. It is tradition which places His resurrection on the Sunday morning in order to suggest that Jesus rose on the third day after his death – however Sunday is at best only the second day after a Friday. David Pawson argues that Biblically there is no reason why Jesus should not have been raised any time after the sunset which marked the start of the First day of the week – that is, on Saturday evening to our way of thinking. This would place His resurrection during the hours of darkness between sunset and sunrise on the First day. However, Pawson further suggests that the statements about rising “on the third day” should be understood as referring to the third day in Roman thinking; i.e. on the evening of the third day. If that is correct, then Jesus was raised between 6pm and midnight on the Saturday. I could be persuaded by this argument if those authors writing to Jewish readers wrote of “after three days” whilst those addressing Gentile ones used “on the third day”. The problem is that Matthew, Mark and Luke all quote Jesus as saying to a Jewish audience that He would rise “on the third day”. It is Matthew though who also records the three days and three nights comparison with Jonah, and it is Mark and John who are translated as writing “after three days”.

This is emphasised in Mark’s gospel where contrasting statements are found just one chapter apart:

8:31 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

9:31 For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.”

Both these are addressed to His Jewish disciples. In the Greek there are two significant differences; the first is the inclusion of the word “after” [Strong’s No. 3326] in 8:31, and the other is the use of “three” [5140] in the same verse and “third” [5154] in 9:31. Strong states that “third” [5154] is derived from “three” [5140]. I am not sufficiently skilled as to know whether the Greek tenses make a difference in these verses, but I suspect the contrast between the two may well be due to the difficulty of translation rather than the precise meaning of the text.

For me it has always been Jesus equating His time in the Grave with the three days Jonah spent inside the great fish which has caused me to discount the traditional timings of Jesus’ death and resurrection. My own research (as outlined above) convinces me that of the three possible options for the day of His death, Friday does not meet the Biblical criteria. Thursday is a possibility, though I see a Wednesday as the most probable. However, given that the Scriptures do not provide any specific detail about the date, we should be careful not to make it a matter of contention between believers.

I recommend downloading the PDF for the best view of this diagram.

© Randall Hardy – September 2014

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