Tomorrow is Good Friday, when Christendom commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But did he really die on a Friday? Or was it a Thursday? Or a Wednesday? A little google searching will turn up all sorts of passionate defenses of those other two possibilities. In fact I remember gospel tapes from early on my mission where the speaker would affirm the crucifixion definitely happened on a Thursday.
These other theories are driven largely by the statements in the NT, which are ubiquitous, that Jesus arose “on the third day.” That doesn’t seem to fit with a Friday crucifixion, as Sunday is only the second day after Friday. Also, the NT accounts mention a lot of stuff happening between the crucifixion and resurrection, and adding one or two more days makes it more comfortable to account for all of that activity.
Let’s start with what we know. Jesus arose early on a Sunday morning. The preceding Friday evening to Saturday evening was the weekly Sabbath day. Jesus died upon the cross at about 3 p.m., and he was buried on the same day that he died.
The clearest chronology of events is given in Luke 23:53-24:1:
53 And he took it down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a asepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.
54 And that day was the apreparation, and the sabbath drew on.
55 And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the asepulchre, and how his body was laid.
56 And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and arested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
1 Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the asepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
So Joseph of Arimethea buries the body of Jesus. He has to do so quickly, because nightfall is approaching. This is on the “day of preparation” (think of the Primary song: Saturday is a special day it’s the day we get ready for Sunday. Friday is the day of preparation for a Saturday sabbath). The women prepare spices, rest on the Sabbath, and then go Sunday morning to minister to the body of Jesus. So the plain meaning of this passage is that Jesus died and was buried on Friday, the “day of preparation,” after which was the Sabbath, followed by the resurrection Sunday morning.
So what about all of that talk about being raised “on the third day”? While it’s true that doesn’t work under our counting conventions, it works under the ancient Hebrew convention of inclusive counting. You count Friday, Saturday and Sunday for three days. Jews still do this to this day. When a male child is born, the bris is performed on the eighth day–i.e., a week after birth (because you count the day of birth as one of the days).
Another complication is that this was going on at Passover time. 15 Nisan, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, was a day on which work was restricted. So people have argued that Friday or Thursday was a special Sabbath, and the day of preparation was thus either Thursday or Wednesday. But the expression “day of preparation” is always used of the weekly Sabbath, and is unattested for a special sabbath day. Also, recall that the women rested “the sabbath day according to the commandment.” The most natural reading of that is that this was the sabbath observance of which was enjoined as part of the Ten Commandments, not the much more obscure provision for 15 Nisan in Leviticus 23:6-7. Also, the narrative passes directly from what happened on the Sabbath to Sunday morning, with no hint of an intervening day.
The Synoptics portray the Last Supper as a Seder. But most scholars today view it rather as a festive Passover meal, but not the Seder itself. It appears that John actually has the more accurate chronology, having Jesus die on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, at the same time that the paschal lambs were being roasted at the temple.
Probably the hardest thing to account for is Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The three days is not a difficulty, but the three nights is more difficult. I’ve seen various attempts to harmonize that, none of which strike me as compelling. I view the statement as simply paralleling the Jonah sign without worrying too much about conforming the statement precisely to the antitype.
So it seems to me that Jesus was killed on a Friday. This also matches very longstanding Christian tradition (these Thursday and Wednesday theories are of more recent vintage). 14 Nisan, Thursday night, was the Last Supper, followed by arrest and trial. Friday day was the crucifixion and burial. Friday night was 15 Nisan, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the beginning of a high double Sabbath day. And he arose early Sunday morning, 16 Nisan. Or at least that’s the way it appears to me.