Was Jesus Crucified on Wednesday or Friday?

Q: Was Jesus crucified on Wednesday or Friday?

A:Jesus was crucified on Friday. However, some have denied this based on a simplistic reading of the gospels. The controversy focuses on Matthew 12:40, where Jesus states that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (RSV).

To understand the discussion in this area, one must have an understanding of how time was reckoned in the ancient Jewish world. The first thing one must understand is that Jews did not begin the reckoning of the day at midnight, like we do, but at the previous sundown. Thus Sunday, the first day of the week, would actually begin on what we would today call sundown on Saturday. One must keep this in mind to understand the discussion.

The Jewish reckoning of when the day began allows us to determine when Jesus rose from the dead. We are told that he arose “on the first day of the week” (Mark 16:9), which could be any time between sundown on Saturday of Holy Week and sundown on Easter Sunday. However, the time frame is narrowed by the fact that we are told that the women went to the tomb, “toward the dawn of the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1, cf. Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1) and found it empty. This means Jesus must have risen sometime during the evening portion of the first day of the week, which we would call Saturday night. Or at least he could have arisen no later than around dawn on Sunday.

Advocates of the Wednesday date argue that if we start with Jesus’ resurrection on the Jewish reckoning of Sunday evening (i.e., Saturday night in modern reckoning) and backtrack three full days (days and nights) we end up with Jesus being in the tomb (Jewish reckoning) Saturday, Friday, and Thursday, meaning he must have been crucified on Wednesday.

The problem is that this theory will simply not work given the rest of what the New Testament says about when Jesus was resurrected. The New Testament tells us that Jesus rose “on the third day” (Matt. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 24:46, Acts 10:40, 1 Cor. 15:4). But if he rose on the third day after the crucifixion then he could not have laid in the tomb for a full three days. If he had, the New Testament would have to say that he rose after the third day, not on the third day. Thus there is no way Jesus could have been crucified on Wednesday and risen on Sunday.

Thus we must bring into play a second factor in the ancient Jewish reckoning of time, namely, the fact that any portion of a day was referred to as a day. (This is a parallel for the fact, crucial to determining the years during which the biblical kings reigned, that any portion of a year was referred to as a year.) Thus Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday (Saturday evening) counts as one day, while Saturday day and Friday evening counts as a second day, and Friday day (Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion and burial) counts as the third day.

Some may scruple at the fact that, while the accounts for three days, it does not on the surface account for the “three nights” Matthew 12:40 refers to since Jesus would have only lain in the tomb Friday night and Saturday night (two nights). Some have postulated that the darkness that occurred during the afternoon of the crucifixion (Matt. 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44-45) should count as the third night, and this is possible, however, there is a simpler explanation.

This brings in the third factor that must be considered in the ancient Jewish way of reckoning time — that the expression “three days and three nights” is simply a slightly hyperbolic way of referring to “three days.” As Protestant Bible scholar R. T. France notes:

Three days and three nights was a Jewish idiom to a period covering only two nights (see my Jesus and the Old Testament, p. 81, n. 2)” (Matthew, p. 213).

Similarly, D. A. Carson, regarded as one of the deans of conservative Protestant Bible exegesis, notes:

“In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah, is as the whole (cf. Strach and Billerbeck: Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, 1:649, for references; cf. further 1 Sam 30:12-13, 2 Chron 10:5, 12, Esth 4:16, 5:1). Thus according to Jewish tradition, ‘three days and three nights’ need mean no more than ‘three days’ or the combination of any part of three separate days” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 296).

The fact that this is the mode of speech being used is confirmed in the gospels by several facts.

First, if Jesus rose Saturday night and was in the tomb for three days and three nights and no less then he would have had to go into the tomb during night time. If he rose at night, he must have gone into the tomb at night, but Jesus was buried in the late afternoon, hastily, just before the beginning of the sabbath at sundown, on which his buryers rested (Luke 23:56).

Second, we are told that the Jewish leaders asked Pilate that the legs of the crucifixion victims might be broken so they would die faster (from asphyxiation due to an inability to push themselves up on their crosses and take a breath) “in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath” (John 19:31). Thus the crucifixion occurred on Friday.

Third, we are repeatedly told that Jesus was crucified on “the Day of Preparation,” which was the first century Jewish way of referring to Friday, the day of preparation for the sabbath (Saturday):

Matthew 27:62 “Next day, that is, after the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate”
John 19:14 “Now it was the Day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!'”
John 19:31 “Since it was the Day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining 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.”
John 19:42 “So because of the Jewish Day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.”

The fact that the Day of Preparation is the day before the sabbath is not only attested outside the New Testament, but in the gospels as well. Luke tells us: “It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin” (Luke 23:54, NIV). And Mark is totally explicit: “And when evening had come, since it was the Day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea … took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:42-53).

Fourth, we know that the sabbath referred to in the preceding verses was the seventh day of the week (Saturday) because we are told that it was followed by the first day of the week (Sunday): “Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher” (Matt. 28:1). The sequence is thus:

Friday (Day of Preparation): “Since it was the Day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining 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” (John 19:31).
“It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body” (Mark 15:42-43, NIV).
“The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments” (Luke 23:55-56a)

Saturday (the sabbath): “On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56b)
“Next day, that is, after the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate” (Matthew 27:62).

Sunday (the first day of the week): “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mark 16:1).
“Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher” (Matthew 28:1).

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