Church tradition states that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. This is why we call it “Good Friday.”
The main reason for this tradition, as far as I can tell, is that the disciples of Jesus were intent upon burying Jesus before the Sabbath arrived (Mark 15:42-43; Luke 23:54; John 19:31). As most people equate the Sabbath with Saturday, it is believed that Jesus was crucified on Friday.
The primary problem with this, however, is that Jesus said He would spend three days and three nights in the grave (Matt 12:40). Many historians rightfully point out that by Jewish reckoning, any portion of a day was considered the whole day, this explanation still does not get us to three days and three nights.
Day 1: Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday before the sunset.
Night 1: He stayed in the grave Friday night.
Day 2: Saturday.
Night 2: Saturday night.
But this is all we can get. John 20:1 says that Jesus rose before sunrise on Sunday, when it was still dark. This means we cannot get a third day, let alone a third night. Some scholars say that since Jewish days actually begin at sundown, then any portion of that twenty-four hour period from sundown to sundown counts as the entire “day and night.”
Only in this way can scholars have Jesus in the tomb for three “days and nights.” He was in the tomb before sundown on Friday, which counts as Thursday night (night 1) and Friday day (day 1). Then He spends Friday night (night 2) and all day Saturday (day 2) in the tomb. Finally He rises before sunrise on Sunday, which counts for both Saturday night (night 3) and Sunday day (day 3). So even though Jesus was not in the tomb for any portion of Thursday night or Sunday day, they still get counted.
This explanation seems highly unlikely, especially when a much simpler solution is available. What is that solution?
Jesus was crucified on Thursday
But if Jesus was crucified on Thursday, then the next day was not the Sabbath, right? Wrong. John 19:31 clearly tells us that this particular Sabbath was a High Day. In other words, it was not a weekly Saturday Sabbath, but was a special holiday Sabbath. There are two kinds of Sabbaths in Jewish years. There is the weekly Sabbath, which always begins on Friday night and continues all day Saturday until sunset. That is the Sabbath those most of us are aware of.
There is also a second type of Sabbath: the holiday Sabbath. It does not fall on a particular day of the week, but on a particular day of the year. Whichever day of the week this holiday falls on is treated like a Sabbath. Think of it like a Federal Holiday. While most Federal offices are closed every Sunday, they will also close on holidays like Christmas, on whichever day of the week it occurs.
This is what happened the year Jesus was crucified. It was the week of Passover, and the first day of Passover, which on the Jewish calendar is Nisan 15, is a holiday Sabbath, on whichever day of the week it occurs. That year, it fell on a Friday, which means that the holiday Sabbath of Passover began Thursday night.
This then, is the order of events:
Wednesday night: Last Supper in the Upper Room, and the arrest in Gethsemane
Thursday morning: Conclusion of Trials and Crucifixion
Thursday afternoon: Death and Burial. Counting of days now begins.
Thursday Day: Day 1
Thursday night: Night 1
Friday Day: Day 2
Friday Night: Night 2
Saturday Day: Day 3
Saturday Night: Night 3
Jesus rises before sunrise, so as not to start Day 4.
Three other points of evidence for this view:
- We no longer have a “Silent Wednesday.” Most chronologies of the final week of Jesus have a void on Wednesday, because the Gospels seem to say nothing about this day. But maybe it is not silent at all, and it is our order of events that is confused.
- Jesus was technically in the grave for two consecutive Sabbaths, the holiday Sabbath and then the regular, weekly Sabbath. This fits with Matthew 28:1 which says that the two women came to the tomb where Jesus was buried after the Sabbaths (Greek: sabbatōn) were over.
- Edit (From Matt Aznoe on my Facebook page): One other point of evidence that is interesting is Palm Sunday. If Jesus was crucified on Thursday (Nisan 14), that would place Palm Sunday on Nisan 10 which is the day set forth in the original Passover law as the day that the people chose their Passover Lamb. The imagery then is striking — on the day that the Passover Lamb is chosen, the people of Jerusalem cry “Hosanna” as the Lamb of God rides in on a donkey. (Thanks Matt!)
This still does not solve the problem of why Jesus celebrated the Passover a day early, but that is still a difficulty whether you believe Jesus died on Thursday or Friday (cf. Matt 26:17; Mark 14:12-16; Luke 22:1, 7-8; and John 18:29; 19:14).
For more on this issue, see these articles:
Here are other posts in this series on the death and resurrection of Jesus.
- Forget Christmas, It's Easter!
- The Physical Suffering of Jesus
- The Spiritual Suffering of Jesus
- The Love and Horror of the Cross
- Let this Cup Pass - Did Jesus Change His Mind?
- The Case for a Thursday Crucifixion
- Did Jesus Descend into Hell?
- Steps of Jesus our High Priest
- Good God, Bad God - On the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement
- Death Precedes Resurrection
- Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen?
- Does the resurrection of Jesus prove He is God?
- Bored with the Resurrection of Jesus
- The Resurrection of Jesus is the Answer
- Why Jesus Wasn't Saved
- When the Passover Meal Includes Meat Sacrificed to Idols
- Why Did Jesus Wait Three Days to Rise from the Dead?
- The Most Beautiful Words in the Gospels
- Jesus Uses Doubters Too
- What if Jesus Had Never Been Raised?