Myth: The crucifixion actually took place on a Wednesday. For two thousand years, most Biblical historians and scholars have held to a Friday crucifixion. More recently, though, many evangelicals have begun to teach that Jesus died on a Wednesday or Thursday. At the heart of this matter is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:39–40:
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
For just 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.
—Matthew 12:39–40 ESV
For some reason, it’s hard for some folks to see how you can find three nights between Friday and Sunday! I’m going to first present the actual timeline (see also the first chart, above), as I see it, and then I’ll explain several important concepts:
As most Biblically educated people know, prophets often used the word “day” (Heb. yom) to indicate a long or indeterminate period of time, rather than a literal 24-hour solar day. The key to understanding the timing issue here lies in Hebrew idiom—figures of speech. Where there was a likelihood of confusion, ancient Hebrew writers used terms like “three days and three nights” and “the evening and the morning were the first day” to emphasize that true solar days or portions of literal days were in view, not a longer prophetic period of time.
In the Matthew 12 passage quoted above, Jesus was prophesying. Many of His listeners believed in a coming resurrection of the dead in the acharit hyamim, or end times, so it was necessary for Him to emphasize that He was speaking of something that He would personally experience, and that it would be of short duration. Paraphrased, He was saying, “In a little while, I’m outta’ here, but I’ll be back before you know it, on the third calendar day.”
In both spoken and written Hebrew, references to literal solar “days” or “days and nights” did not necessarily imply that complete 24-hour periods were meant. “Three days and three nights” meant “some part of one solar day, all of a second, and some part of a third.” On the first line of the second timeline chart above, “Day 1” was Friday. Recall that Jewish days last from evening twilight until the subsequent evening twilight (see the third chart, below). Jesus died around 3 PM and was entombed before twilight, so at most He was dead only around three hours on this day. He remained in the tomb all through the night and day of Saturday, “Day 2”. His resurrection was sometime on Sunday morning, “Day 3”, before His tomb was found open. The total period was thus composed of a little more than one full period of daylight and at most two full periods of dark. “Three days and three nights” by traditional Hebrew reckoning.
Many conservatives refuse to believe this non-literal interpretation of Jesus’ words and insist on exactly 72 hours, but the hermeneutic employed by me and many conservative, Evangelical scholars allows for a non-literal (but not random!) interpretation of various obvious (to those who understand Hebrew literary techniques) figures of speech.
Many well-meant attempts to rescue the Friday crucifixion tradition resort to various forms of Greek linguistic gymnastics, trying to prove that “in the heart of the earth” doesn’t really mean buried, but could, for example, mean the period from Jesus’ betrayal to His resurrection. I urge caution in using Greek to understand Hebrew concepts. Hebrew idiom does not always translate well into Greek.
Each Jewish day begins at nightfall and lasts until the following sundown. The twilight period between any two days technically does not belong exclusively to either day, or in another sense, it can be viewed as belonging to both days. The Seder supper always begins during this twilight period between Nisan 14 and Nisan 15 (see Lev 23:5). Note that the lambs are sacrificed on Nisan 14, before the Seder and thus before, not during, the traditional weeklong Feast of Passover.
Every Sabbath is preceded by a Day of Preparation, when meals are prepared, candles lit, and other chores performed that are unlawful on the Sabbath itself. Many arguments against a Friday crucifixion focus on misunderstandings of John 19:31 and its parallels:
Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would 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.
—John 19:31 ESV
The argument is that Friday was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so it could not have been the previous day of preparation. It is true that the first and last days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread are important Sabbaths. But in Jewish custom, the regular weekly Sabbath that occurs during the Passover week is the most important of all the 7th-day Sabbaths.
So, in that particular year, there was a Feast Day Sabbath on Friday and a weekly Sabbath the following day, on Saturday. Confusion arises because many non-Jewish scholars believe, incorrectly, that it was unlawful to ever cook or make other preparations on any Sabbath. In fact, Jewish law makes an exception when two successive days are Sabbaths. Preparations for each are permissible on the preceding day, whether or not it, too, is a Sabbath.
Some confusion also arises due to a failure to recognize that the “First day of unleavened bread” is one day prior to the first day of the Feast by that name.
Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.
So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.”
—Luke 22:7–8 ESV
On Nisan 14, the day of the sacrifices, all hametz (leaven) must be removed or destroyed so that none at all is present during the entire week of the Feast.
Another verse that leads to confusion about the timing is John 18:28:
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.
—John 18:28 ESV
To most, this seems to imply that Jesus’ trial and crucifixion came on the day before the Seder, implying that the Last Supper was something entirely different. Not so. Any ritual defilement caused by entering Pilate’s presence would only last until sundown, so it would have no effect on eating the Seder meal. Instead, this refers to the chagigah (festival sacrifice) which was eaten with much celebration and joy in the afternoon following the Seder.
You may ask how the Wednesday crucifixion proponents manage to get “three days and three nights” out of a Wednesday to Sunday entombment. Mostly, there are two schools of thought. Some actually place the resurrection on Saturday and justify this by misinterpreting the passages about the women at the tomb. Others say that while Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, he was not placed in the tomb until evening, which would be early Thursday on the Jewish calendar. In that case, a resurrection early Sunday (on our Saturday evening) would meet the requirement.
A less prevalent theory is that the crucifixion was on Thursday. I believe that there are severe problems reconciling Sabbaths, preparation days, and calendar days if this approach is taken, but I will not cover it here.
For a complete series on the Principle Jewish Feasts, as specified in Leviticus 23, please see The Jewish Feasts–The Back of My Mind.