It seems appropriate to just happen to be reading through John’s account of the crucifixion at this time of year, but that is where I happened to be in my reading when I came across some verses that got me curious. So I have been doing some research and have made some interesting discoveries and resolved – at least in my mind – a problem that has bothered me for years.
That problem is what Jesus said in Matthew 12:40 (ESV – here and throughout); “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.” Three days AND three nights? What three days and three nights? Let’s see, Friday night and Saturday night – that’s two nights . . . where’s the third?
Anyway, back to my reading. The first verse that caught my eye was John 19:4, “Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He [Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!'” This is when Jesus was before Pilate just before being sent to the cross. What interested me in this verse was that it specifically mentions that it was the “Day of Preparation of the Passover” not the preparation day for the Sabbath.
The second verse that got my attention was verse 31, “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.” Here it calls the next day a Sabbath, a “high Sabbath”.
And finally in verses 41 and 42 it again mentions the Day of Preparation; “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.” Three times we are specifically told that this was the “Day of Preparation”, and once we are told it is not a normal Friday , but the Day of Preparation for a High Day, specifically the Passover, in other words the next day was not a normal weekly Sabbath, but a Feast Day.
In Leviticus 23: 5-8 God tells the Israelites, “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. But you shall present a food offering to the Lord for seven days. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work.” On the Jewish religious calendar, the first month was the month of Nisan. So after sundown on the 14th of Nisan was Passover and the next day, the 15th, was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This Feast was celebrated for seven days, with a special day of assembly on the first and last days of the Feast. These days were known as High Days or Special Holy Days and were also considered Sabbaths.
To confuse things just a bit, when the Jews look at the daily cycle, night comes first, and is followed by the day, so Passover night – which, as God commanded, comes after sunset on the 14th – is actually on the 15th. It is the celebration of Passover that opens the Feast of Unleavened Bread. However, the actual celebration of the Feast itself doesn’t start until the next morning.
Something that a lot of people may not realize today is that there were more than 52 Sabbaths in a year for the Jews. There were the 52 weekly Sabbaths, but there were also New Moon Festivals every month that were also Sabbaths. If these did not fall on a weekly Sabbath, then there would be an extra Sabbath that week, so there could be an additional 12 Sabbaths for them. Then there were the Seven Yearly Feasts. Passover with the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Feast of First Fruits could add two more Sabbaths. (The Feast of First Fruits was celebrated on the day after the Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. There is a lot of disagreement about what this meant – was it Sunday or was it the 17th of Nisan? Either way, it was not a Sabbath.) Then there were the fall Feasts. The Feast of Weeks, The Day of Atonement, and The Feast of Trumpets could each add another Sabbath. The Feast of Booths started with a Sabbath, was celebrated for seven days and closed with a Sabbath on the eight day, so it could add another two Sabbaths.
Following the instructions on the seven yearly feasts Leviticus 23:37-38 says, “These are the appointed feasts of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as times of holy convocation, for presenting to the Lord food offerings, burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on its proper day, besides the Lord’s Sabbaths and besides your gifts and besides all your vow offerings and besides all your freewill offerings, which you give to the Lord.” So these Feast days were in addition to the normal weekly Sabbaths. That means it was entirely possible for there to be a total of up to 71 Sabbaths in any given year – 52 weekly Sabbaths, 12 New Moon Festivals, and 7 Holy Feast Days.
So, what does this have to do with what I read in John? Well, it means that it is possible, even likely that the 14th of Nisan – the day Jesus was crucified – was not a Friday after all. And that means that just maybe we can believe Jesus when He said that He was going to spend “three days and three nights” in the tomb.
One of the things that has bothered me for years is how to get our traditional observation of Crucifixion Week to mesh with what Jesus said about how much time would pass between His death and resurrection. No matter what I tried I just could not do it, nor could I find anyone who could. Was Jesus mistaken? or are we?
Is it possible to resolve this? I believe it is. To do so we will use the Jewish way of looking at the daily cycle to count the days because Jesus was a Jew and His statement was made to a Jewish audience. Remember, sundown to sundown – night first then day.
If Jesus died and was buried on Friday, you could say He was in the tomb on for a little bit of Friday, Saturday night, Saturday, and Sunday night, and maybe a little bit of Sunday but that is iffy as the Bible says He had already risen when the women arrived very early in the morning, possibly at or even before sunrise. But even if you do count it you only get two nights no matter what do with Sunday morning. You can maybe, sort of, if you really stretch things, get three days, but you CANNOT get three nights. So, either Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about, OR we have been wrong about the Crucifixion Week time line and personally, I will go with the latter.
In order to get the required three nights, Jesus would have had to die earlier in the week. So let’s consider that. If the crucifixion was on Thursday instead of Friday, you would have Friday night, Saturday night and at least part of Sunday night in the tomb, that gives you possibly three nights so we are sort of OK there. For the days you would have a little bit of Thursday afternoon, all day Friday, all day Saturday, and again the same problems with Sunday morning. So we are better off, but we only really have two full days and a part of one day, so maybe three days. You can make the argument that it satisfies Jesus’ prophecy, and while that is probably technically true it still doesn’t “feel” right, and I for one don’t buy it.
Well, what if we move one more day? What if the crucifixion was on Wednesday? If Jesus died on Wednesday afternoon, he would have been buried by that evening, so He would have spent Thursday night in the tomb, Friday night, and Saturday night as well. So we easily have our three nights without even counting Sunday night. He would have also spent all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in the tomb easily giving us the three days as well. That way we are not trying to argue for any partial days or nights on either end counting as a full day or night. That also means that the resurrection could have occurred anytime after sundown on Sunday night (our Saturday evening) without causing any problems.
So, the question is, Is there any way to know what day of the week the Feast of Unleavened Bread started on way back then? Surprisingly I found a website (http://stevemorse.org/jcal/jcal.html) that has the Jewish calendar going back much farther than what we need (actually more than 5700 years back and over 4000 years into the future) so, yes we can see when Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread occurred for any year we would like. That lead me to several interesting discoveries.
A side note: Because Passover occurs after sundown, it is a bit confusing to talk about what day it is on so I will be using the Feast of Unleavened Bread for our discussion. The celebration of the Feast started in the morning on the 15th of Nisan so it is less confusing to us. Remember the Jewish day starts at sundown, goes through the night and then the day and ends at sundown. So the Jewish calendar will show both the Feast and Passover on the 15th, while on the Gregorian calendar – the one we use – Passover would be on our equivalent of the 14th while the Feast would be on the 15th.
The very first thing I found was that according to the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Unleavened Bread NEVER started on a Monday, Wednesday, or a Friday. So that means that we can unequivocally say that the crucifixion did not happen on a Sunday, Tuesday, or a Thursday as those days could not have been Preparation Days.
Biblical scholars usually give a date for Jesus’ death as having occurred somewhere between 27 snd 33 CE, so that is the time frame we will look into using the calendar I found. Between the years 22 and 40 CE – just to be safe, the 15th of Nisan fell on either a Tuesday (7 times) or a Sunday (2 times) so we can eliminate those years as they in no way fit with Jesus’ prophecy of His time in the tomb. So the years 22, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 34, 35, and 38 CE are all out.
The next thing we need to ask is, “Did the Feast of Unleavened Bread ever start on Saturday?” In other words, Is it even possible for the traditional timeline to be correct? And the answer is . . . yes it did, and maybe. The years that the 15th was on a Saturday so that the Friday before could be described as it is in John 19:14 only happened in 21, 33, and 36 CE. The years 21 and 36 are clearly out of the range cited by the scholars, but 33 CE is a possibility, but it has other problems and they have to do with Biblical prophecy and how people interpret it.
Before we get into the prophecy in question, I need to say something about my beliefs about Biblical prophecy and its interpretation. The Bible was written for the common man so ALL prophecies were written in language that the common man could understand. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone could interpret them, it just means they could understand what was said. And I believe that is especially true with Daniel’s prophecies (one of which we will be looking into here). While his readers could easily understand what he wrote, they might not understand what the prophecies meant, especially when some of them were “sealed until the end days”. In fact when Daniel himself asked for an explanation of one of his visions, he was told not to worry about it because it was about a time in the distant future and didn’t concern him – that when the time came for people to need to understand the vision, the necessary knowledge to understand it would be made available to them.
And that brings us to one of the problems with many of the interpretations of Daniel’s prophecies – so many writers argue over what he “really” wrote before they even start trying to explain what the prophecy is all about – and of course they can’t agree on that either. My personal belief is that if the common man could understand what he wrote, then the simplest reading of the text is the correct one. There is no need to go into an elaborate explanation of how it “really says this . . . ” when the clear and simple reading says something different. And if that messes up your theory, maybe you need to rethink things a bit.
So, that being said, let’s get back to our discussion of the year 33 CE and why it doesn’t work for the crucifixion. There are those who argue for this year, and believe that it fulfills Daniel’s prophecy outlined in Daniel 9 (also known as “The 70 Weeks” prophecy). As the many books that disagree on not only what Daniel said, but how to get to the year 33 in interpreting Daniel’s prophecy of the 70 weeks show, there are problems with that choice. The problems with those interpretations seem to involve creating a gap in the timeline to get to the year 33 in some way, and many of them cannot even agree on when to start counting the timeline. If you just take a straight forward approach to the prophecy and say it starts here so it must end there you cannot get to the year 33 CE. You have to have the prophecy mysteriously go into suspended animation for some predetermined time – depending on your pet theory – and then just as mysteriously resume. I have come across a lot of those theories over the years and what they have in common is that they all disagree. And I guess I should add that some, while using the same interpretive techniques, don’t even end up in the year 33 CE, but in various other years as well. Personally, I have problems with doing that much violence to a prophecy to force it to bend to my beliefs. I would rather say, “I must not understand it yet” and start over. So, with that much difficulty reaching the year 33 CE, maybe we should set it aside for now and try and see if something else works better, especially with the problems we have already seen with a Saturday Feast Day not fulfilling Jesus’ own prophecy about His death and resurrection.
So what about Thursday? What are the options there? Well, we have removed Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and now Saturday, so Thursday is the only option left! And the years that the 15th fell on Thursday were 23, 24, 27, 30 and then not again until 37 CE. With all the other years we have already removed gone, and if we remove the ones clearly out of the range given to us by the scholars we are left with two possibilities, 27 or 30 CE.
With our only real choice left of a start day of Thursday for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, we now know that the crucifixion was really on a Wednesday. Is it possible to know the year? That I’m not so sure about. However, I do know which year I believe it is. And that involves Daniel’s 70 week prophecy found in Daniel 9 starting in verse 24 and going to the end of the chapter. I won’t include it here as it is a bit long and how it reads varies a bit from translation to translation. So rather than trying to pick a single translation or saying why the one I use doesn’t have it quite right, I will just give a very brief synopsis of what it says based on several translations, and then go from there.
I don’t claim to be an expert on interpreting prophecy, but I do think I can understand what Daniel said in this case. It seems rather convoluted and there are as many interpretations for what it says and for what it means as there are commentators on the book of Daniel. However, if you read it is several versions of the Bible it is easier to understand, and the basic gist of it is that a heavenly messenger tells Daniel that the Jewish People and Jerusalem have been given 70 “weeks” of years or 490 years. The time will start when a decree goes out to rebuild Jerusalem. After 69 weeks of years (483 years) a prince will come to establish righteousness, and a covenant, and put an end to sin and sacrifices, and in the middle of the last week (3 1/2 years later) he would be cut off. And at the end of the time period an abomination would occur and desolation would be poured out. So the most basic interpretation is that the Messiah would come 483 years after the decree went out to rebuild Jerusalem and after 3 and 1/2 years He would be cut off or killed. And 3 1/2 years later something abominable would happen that would cause desolation to be poured out on those that caused the abomination. That is the easiest and most direct way to read what was written. You can make it more complicated if you choose, and by putting those mysterious gaps in it make it apply to most anything you want, but I prefer the simplest approach – it means just what it says and has as many gags in it as it says it has – none. That means it starts when it says it starts and runs continuously until it ends.
King Artaxerxes wrote a letter and gave it to Ezra the priest. In it he decreed that Ezra was to establish a Jewish rule over Jerusalem for the first time since Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city. The king gave Ezra money to buy animals for sacrifices and he could “do as he saw fit” with the rest of the money. It is clear that this was considered an OK to start rebuilding the city because 13 years later, Nehemiah hears that the gates and walls of the city have been torn down and burned, implying that they had already been rebuilt earlier. If reconstruction on Jerusalem had not already started there would have been nothing to be upset about, the city would have been as the city had been all his life. Therefore the rebuilding of Jerusalem had already started sometime in the past.
The decree that Ezra had was delivered in the fall of 458 BCE. (See Ezra 8 – The king wrote the decree in the spring but it didn’t “go forth” until Ezra, et al, delivered it to the governors when they got to Jerusalem in the fall.) (Those who use 457 BCE make the mistake of using the Babylonian method – i.e., the Ascension Year, then Year One in counting the King’s reign rather than the Jewish way of Year One and the Ascension Year being the same year. The Bible clearly uses the latter – see 1 Kings 16:8-10.) A Google search found many dates for this but the arguments for the other dates did not meet the requirements of Daniel’s vision like this one did (most of them actually apply to the rebuilding of the Temple not Jerusalem). This is the year 3304 on the Jewish calendar so it is easy to calculate when the end of the 69 1/2 weeks are. Turns out to be the year 3790 or the modern equivalent of 30 CE, so that gives us a date for the Feast of Unleavened Bread of Thursday, Nisan 15, 3790. That means the crucifixion was on Preparation Day, Wednesday the 14th. The modern equivalent of that date is April 3, 30 CE.
And given that the Feast of Unleavened Bread started on the 15th of Nisan 3790 on the Jewish calendar, you can come up with the decree being delivered to the governors of Jerusalem 486 1/2 years earlier on or about the 18th of Tishri 3304 or the modern equivalent of 14 Sep 458 BCE, which would have been during the Feast of Booths. (1/2 year = 180 days – the Jewish calendar had 360 days at the time with extra days added as needed between the “years” to keep the calendar in sync with the solar year. Now extra days are added to certain months on a 19 year cycle to do the same thing and account for leap years.) (NOTE: If you want to see why I use the term: “modern equivalent”, look up the Gregorian calendar on Wikipedia sometime.)
There is something else I find interesting in all this. Matthew records the following, “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise.” Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.” (Matthew 27:62-66)
What I find strange is that this was not only a Sabbath but a High Sabbath and by having a meeting with Pilate, going through the city with a Roman guard, and especially touching a tomb to set the seal in place, they were defiling themselves and therefore could not participate in the celebration of the Feast. They would have had to go through a ritual purification and would not have been “clean” until sundown – in other words, they would not be pure until after the High Sabbath was over. And these were the people who were supposed to be leading the celebration! The chief priests should have been at the temple offering the sacrifices or at the very least overseeing things and leading the people in the singing, prayers and Scripture reading associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Pharisees should have been there to teach the people what everything meant and answer questions, after all the reason they were Pharisees was their devotion to the Torah and its observances and teaching others to follow it as well.
If the crucifixion was on a Friday, the chief priests and Pharisees would have simultaneously desecrated both a normal Sabbath and a High Sabbath by going to see Pilate. I find it really strange that the two groups so determined to keep to the Law would so blatantly violate it. I can find no fault in the way this verse is translated, but I wonder if we might be misunderstanding what Matthew really meant. Could he have meant the next preparation day, i.e., “On the morrow of the following Preparation day” (based on the wording of the KJV)? With Thursday being a Sabbath that would leave Friday open to be a preparation day as well. If they waited until Friday, they could have gone to Pilate and requested the guard and still gone through the purification rituals in time for the Sabbath with no problems at all. That way they would have been ceremonially clean for the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, done their business with Pilate and again been ceremonially clean for the normal weekly Sabbath thereby keeping to the Law they held so dear.
Matthew doesn’t say anything about any disruption of the Feast due to the Jewish leaders not celebrating the Feast as normal, but if they were to follow the Law and do as we normally translate what he wrote, they either celebrated the Feast while they were ceremonially unclean or they left the people with no one to lead them in the celebration. And it seems to me that either way would have generated at least some sort of a commotion. I am left with the following three choices: either we misunderstand what Matthew wrote, we believe that the Jewish leaders were willing to abandon their posts at a major Feast they were commanded to attend by God, or we believe that the Jewish leaders were so far gone in their hatred for Jesus that they were willing to totally abandon the Torah and celebrate the Feast not only knowing they were unclean but knowing that the people knew they were unclean as well, because visiting Pilate and taking the guard to the tomb and sealing it, was not something they could have done in private so the people would have known they were unclean.
I don’t have any answers to these questions. Not being a Greek or Hebrew scholar, Matthew leaves me with more problems than solutions. However, if it is possible that we have misunderstood what Matthew actually meant, then there is an easy way to describe what went on during Crucifixion Week in a way that fits with what we know from history, prophecy, and the Gospel narratives and we can even include the characteristics of the Jewish leaders of the day without doing violence to any of them. Jesus died on Wednesday afternoon about 3:00, was buried and spent Passover – Thursday night, Thursday – the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Friday night, Friday, Sabbath night, and the Sabbath in the tomb. He rose from the dead sometime after sundown on Sunday night as He was already gone when the women arrived “toward the dawn of the first day of the week” which was before sunrise. (See Matthew 28:1 the Hebrew literally says they arrived “as it was growing light”.)
Matthew also records something else that is very interesting. When the women arrive at the tomb there is a great earthquake and an angel “rolls away the stone and sits on it”. He then tells the women that Jesus is ALREADY risen and gone. The implication is that the tomb was empty before he rolled away the stone as the guards were still there when the women arrived and fell as dead men at the angel’s appearance. Here is how Matthew lays it out: It is not yet sunup. The women arrive at the tomb – all is normal, the guards are still in place and the tomb is still sealed. While they are standing there, a great earthquake occurs, an angel appears causing the guards to faint. The angel rolls the stone away and sits down on it. He then tells the women that Jesus is already risen and gone and invites them to take a look in the tomb. They take a look and leave to tell the other disciples. Then Jesus meets with them on their way back.
So Matthew clearly believed that Jesus rose from the dead well before sunrise so we couldn’t have counted any part of Sunday after dawn at all. And as the resurrection occurred sometime during the night, we could not count Sunday night as it was not a complete night either. That means we really do need to move the crucifixion to earlier in the week. As we have seen, Friday just doesn’t work, nor does Thursday. So, I guess it really should be Good Wednesday after all!