The Crucifixion: Wednesday or Friday?

There has been some talk recently about a new book by Cambridge University professor Colin Humphreys that proposes the Last Supper was held on Wednesday of Holy Week (GET IT HERE), rather than on Thursday as it has been traditionally commemorated. I haven’t had a chance to review his arguments yet, but there is room for discussion here. In fact, in his recent, second volume of Jesus of Nazareth (GET IT HERE!), Pope Benedict wrestles with the subject of the Last Supper without coming to a definite conclusion.

Regardless of when precisely the Last Supper took place in Holy Week, one thing both the Cambridge professor and the pontiff are agreed upon is that the Crucifixion took place on Friday. There are, however, people who dispute this.

In some Protestant churches, especially Fundamentalist ones, every year at Easter time there are sermons explaining that Jesus didn’t really die on a Friday but on a Wednesday. This claim is based 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.”

“If Jesus rose from the dead on Saturday night,” the argument goes, “then he couldn’t have been crucified and died on Friday afternoon, because there aren’t three days in there. There’s only one, so we need to back up his death from Friday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon.” This is often accompanied by the claim that Easter is based on a pagan holiday; the “moving” of Jesus death to Good Friday is explained as the result of some unspecified pagan cause.

None of this is true. Easter is not based on a pagan holiday but on a Jewish one: Passover. Easter originated as the first Sunday following Passover, when Jesus was crucified.

Neither is the name Easter derived from the pagan goddess Ishtar. Ishtar was a Mesopotamian goddess who was worshiped over in Iraq, centuries before Christ, not in Medieval England where the English language was born.

In two languages—English and German—the name for Easter may be connected with a Germanic goddess of spring, but this is unclear since her name (Eostre) had already become the name of a whole month on the calendar and there may have been no more pagan significance to the name to Medieval Christians than terms like “Wednesday” (Odin’s Day) or “Thursday” (Thor’s Day) or “January” (Janus’s Month) or “March” (Mars’s Month) have to us. The Medieval English Christian scholar the Venerable Bede, for example, is reported to have observed that pagan feasts for Eostre had died out by his time, even though the name of the month remained, and Christians were now celebrating the resurrection of Christ as a paschal feast in the manner of other Christian countries.

Which brings up an interesting point: Only a speaker of English or German (where the holiday is called Ostern) would even think the holiday has a pagan origin.

In virtually every other language, the name of Easter is derived from the Jewish word Pesach or “Passover.” Thus in Greek the term for Easter is Pascha; in Latin the term is also Pascha. From there it passed into the Romance languages, and so in Spanish it is Pascua, in Italian Pasqua, in French Paques, and in Portugese Pascoa. It also passed into the non-Romance languages, such as the Germanic languages Dutch, where it is Pasen, and Danish, where it is Paaske.

Also, because of the way Christianity spread (from Jerusalem, then around the Mediterranean basin, arriving in far-flung places like England and Germany later on), Christians had long been celebrating Easter—under Passover-derived names—long before English or German came into existence. If, in a couple of countries, new languages happened to use words that had pre-Christian etymologies for the day then that in no way shows that it has pagan roots. Its roots are well known and predate these languages. The holiday was celebrated all over the Christian world long before the names were attached to it in England and Germany.

If Easter is free of pagan origins, so is Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday. The premise of the “three days and three nights” argument — that Jesus rose from the dead on what we would call Saturday night — might well be true. In Jesus’ day, the Jews reckoned the day as beginning at sunset.

When Scripture indicates that Jesus rose on the first day of the week, therefore, it means that he rose on the day that began at sunset on Saturday and lasted until sunset on Sunday. Since we are told his tomb was found empty “after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1), he must have risen between sunset Saturday and dawn Sunday. Whether this was before or after midnight Scripture does not say. He might have risen either Saturday night or Sunday morning before dawn, though, for purposes of determining when he was crucified, it doesn’t matter.

In the Bible, parts of time units were frequently counted as wholes. Thus a king might be said to have reigned for two years, even if he reigned for only 14 months. In the same way, a day and a night does not mean a period of 24 hours. It can refer to any portion of a day coupled with any portion of a night. The expression “three days and three nights” could be used as 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” (Matthew, 213).

Similarly, D. A. Carson, another highly esteemed conservative Protestant Bible scholar, explains: “In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole. . . . 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, 8:296).

If Jesus was crucified and died Friday afternoon, that would be the first day; at sundown on Friday the second day would begin; then at sundown on Saturday the third day would begin. So Jesus was indeed “raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:19).

Scripture repeatedly tells us 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. This is why the women were not able to anoint his body before he was buried — because Jesus was hurriedly buried late in the afternoon, just as the Sabbath was beginning. The women thus had to rest until the Sabbath was over (Luke 23:56).

We are also told that the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to order the legs of the crucifixion victims 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).

Some advocates of a Wednesday crucifixion concede that Jesus was crucified on the day before a Sabbath, but deny that this was the regular, weekly Sabbath. In later times, the phrase “day of preparation” came to be used to refer to the day before Passover and, this argument goes, Passover counted as a Sabbath in the sense that it was a day of rest, even though it usually did not fall on the weekly Sabbath. Thus Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover and had to be buried hurriedly on that account.

But this explanation will not do. For a start, I am unaware of anything in biblical or post-biblical Jewish tradition that regards Passover as a “sabbath.” Indeed, later rabbinic tradition held that if Passover fell on a Saturday that it overrode the Sabbath laws (so you could do the work needed to kill and eat the Passover lamb, e.g.). However that may be, in the first century, “the day of preparation” referred to Friday, not the day before Passover. Further, we know from Scripture that the Sabbath following Jesus’ crucifixion was the regular, weekly Sabbath, the seventh day of the week: “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).

We can thus reconstruct the chronology of the crucifixion, death and Resurrection of Christ as follows:

Friday, the Day of Preparation: Jesus is crucified with two thieves. From noon to three in the afternoon, a darkness covers the land (Matthew 27:45). Then, “[s]ince it was the Day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath ... the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31). Then Joseph of Arimathea obtains Jesus’ body and buries it: “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).

Saturday, the Sabbath: “On the Sabbath they [the women] rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56b). Also on this day, “that is, after the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate” and asked for a guard to be placed on the tomb (Matthew 27:62).

Sunday, the first day of the week: “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” and found that Jesus had risen from the dead (Matthew 28:1).

The time of Christ’s death is indeed Good Friday, not a hypothetical Crucifixion Wednesday.