Most believers assume that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon and resurrected on Sunday morning. This is the idea behind “Good Friday” and possibly other events on the Roman Catholic calendar. There are several problems with this view, beginning with the fact that Jesus himself prophesied that his body would be in the tomb three days and three nights. Here are his words: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). We know that he was raised early on the first day of the week. If he was buried on Friday, he could have been in the tomb parts of three days, but only two nights. In order to spend three nights in the grave, as he predicted he would, Jesus would have had to be executed and buried on Thursday. So let’s investigate this matter further. Our purpose here is not to claim that one has to know the day Jesus died in order to be saved, but simply to try to be as accurate as possible regarding Bible accounts.
If we accept that Jesus was in the tomb three days and three nights, we can simply do the arithmetic and place his crucifixion on Thursday afternoon. But this solution is doubted by many since the Bible clearly shows that Jesus died and was buried on the day before the Sabbath, or on the day of Preparation. The fact often overlooked, or misunderstood, is that the Preparation day was to prepare for a special “high day” Sabbath, in this case preparation for the Passover feast (John 19:31). The feast was established to commemorate the night that the Lord put to death the firstborn males in Egypt but “passed over” the Israelites and let their sons live. After that, the Passover was to be an annual observance, occurring in the first month of the year, then called “Abib” but later changed to “Nisan.” We’ll refer to it here as Nisan. In connection with the Passover, the people were to eat unleavened bread for seven days following the Passover feast. Detailed rules were given by the Lord for keeping the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, principally in Exodus 12:1-20. Bible scholars tell us that the entire feast period was often referred to by the Jews in a general way as “Passover” or “Unleavened Bread.”
Another factor we need to consider is the Jewish method of reckoning time. In their system, a day stretched from sunset to sunset. So, for example, what we call Friday night would be the beginning of their “Saturday.”
Now let’s look at some of those Passover rules. First, the observance was to begin on the 14th of Nisan and continue through the 21st. On the 14th, preparations were to be made for the Passover, including removing all leaven from the house and, in the afternoon, killing the Passover lamb. The lamb would be eaten later that evening, which would in fact be early on the 15th of Nisan. A sacred assembly, or holy convocation, was to be held on the 15th, which was to be treated as a “high” Sabbath (John 19:31, KJV; some translations say “special” instead of “high”). See Exodus 12:6; Leviticus 23:7-8 and Numbers 28:16-18, 25. Since the Feast was on the same day of Nisan every year, it was necessarily on a different day of the week each year, so this special Sabbath might fall on any day of the week. When the special Sabbath was on the sixth day of the week, the regular Sabbath was also observed, meaning that in those years there were two Sabbaths in a row, both observed as days of rest as prescribed under the law of Moses, with no laborious work by people or animals, no fires in homes, no leavening in food, restricted travel, and special offerings. New Testament chronology indicates that this would have been the case in the week when Jesus died.
The chronology is fairly clear regarding several days preceding the crucifixion. We know from John 12:1 that Jesus arrived at Bethany “six days before the Passover.” That evening he had dinner at the home of Simon the Leper (the name did not mean that Simon was a leper but that he had been one). Jesus’ disciples were present also (Matthew 26:6-13).
“The next day” (meaning the next morning) Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:12), and late that day he returned to Bethany with the disciples (Mark 11:11). Then, “the next day” they went back to Jerusalem; on the way Jesus put a curse on an unfruitful fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). When evening came, they “went out of the city” (Mark 11:19). Apparently they went back to Bethany, for “in the morning” of the next day they passed the same fig tree, now withered, that Jesus had cursed the day before (Mark 11:20).
Since Jesus arrived at Bethany six days before the Passover and the Passover was to be eaten in the evening that began the 15th day, we know that he arrived at Bethany on the 9th. That would have been on the Sabbath, Saturday to us. Apparently the dinner took place that evening, which would have been on Nisan 10, the first day of the week. It was during daylight of that same day, Nisan 10 (our Sunday) that Jesus entered Jerusalem to the praise of cheering crowds. So it was Nisan 11, the second day of the week (our Monday) when he went back to Jerusalem, placing a curse on an unfruitful fig tree on the way, and Nisan 12 (our Tuesday) when he went to Jerusalem, again passing the fig tree which had withered. Tuesday was a day of confrontation with Jerusalem’s religious leaders. Jesus also taught some parables and delivered a discourse on future events, and commented that the Passover was two days away (Matthew 26:1-3). Two days later would be Thursday, when the Passover lambs were to be killed, followed by eating the Passover feast.
Events of the next day are harder to pin down. Some commentators call Wednesday, Nisan 13, a day of rest or retirement for Jesus. But it seems uncharacteristic that in a week filled with teaching Jesus would be inactive for an entire day. We are told that Jesus was teaching every day at the temple, so we can be reasonably sure that he did that on Wednesday. And apparently it was on Wednesday that Jesus told his disciples to procure an upper room for their last meal together.
When Judas left that last supper to go and betray Jesus, no one at the table except him and Jesus knew where he was going. Since Judas had charge of the disciples’ money, “some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast” (John 13:29). This is a good indication that the Passover feast was still future, meaning that the supper Jesus and the disciples had just concluded was not the “real” feast.
Even more convincing is the statement in all four gospel accounts that Jesus was crucified on the day of Preparation (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42), which was the day the Passover lambs were to be killed. And John points out that when the Jews had Jesus taken to Pilate in the early morning (the morning after Jesus’ last meal with his disciples), they declined to go into Pilate’s palace for fear of ceremonial uncleanness, since “they wanted to be able to eat the Passover” (John 18:28), a sure indication that for them the Passover feast was still future.
Finally, there was a symbolism connected with the crucifixion that seemed to require that Jesus’ death occur on the day of Preparation. For on this day, during the afternoon when the Passover lambs were sacrificed, the Lamb of God, whom Paul referred to as “Christ our Passover” (1 Corinthians 5:7), was also slain. How ill-fitting that symbolism would have been if Christ had been killed on the wrong day!
But what about those references that seem to indicate the “last supper” was the actual Passover Feast? It is true that Jesus referred to his last meal with them as eating the Passover, when he sent them to make arrangements for the meal. One reason might be that the disciples used the word in asking him about preparing for it (Matthew 26:17-19; Mark 14:12-16). At any rate, it could be that the term was used in an accommodative sense because it was so close to the Passover feast day, which was on everyone’s mind. When the disciples brought up the matter, they apparently were thinking of the next evening, but Jesus explained, “My time is at hand” (Matthew 26:18). And at the meal, he told them how he had earnestly desired to eat “this Passover” with them since he would not eat it again with them (Luke 22:15-16). In that case “this Passover” could indicate “this year’s Passover feast,” not necessarily “this meal we’re having tonight.”
The weight of the evidence, then, appears to indicate that Jesus was crucified on Thursday, not Friday, and that both Friday and Saturday were treated as Sabbath days. To help clarify some of these points, I’ve prepared a possible chronology of that last week, which you can refer to by clicking here.
—Travis Allen, March 2013. (This article is essentially the same as one I wrote for Gospel Tidings a few years ago, with some revisions for clarification. I am indebted to F. LaGard Smith for his lucid discussion of this subject in The Daily Bible, which he compiled, and to Burton Coffman for points made in his commentaries on the Gospels.)