When did Jesus die? That’s a question that’s been hotly debated for centuries in the Christian church. As we like to say, “it’s complicated.”
That’s too bad. If we’d asked our Jewish friends about this a long time ago, we could have not only gotten a good grasp of the timeline … we could have understood much more about the crucifixion itself.
Though Christian tradition holds to a “Good Friday” remembrance of the crucifixion, the Bible does not specifically say that Jesus died on Friday. Or does it? Consider what we do know:
Jesus died during the week of Passover preparation and celebration. The Passover celebration is mentioned more than 20 times in the Gospels’ account of the Week of Passion.
Jesus was raised from the dead on “the first day of the week,” or Sunday (John 20:1).
Jesus spoke of his coming death and resurrection on at least 12 occasions. Of these that are recorded for us, he spoke of his resurrection coming “on the third day” 11 times. He used an analogy of Jonah once, referring to the reluctant prophet being in the belly of a fish “three days and three nights.” (Matthew 12:40)
Part of a day is considered a full day in matters of birth and death, both in ancient and modern cultures. Even if a person dies one minute before midnight in our culture, living only one minute of a day, the day of death will be recorded as if it is a full day. That being the case, the opportunity exists for a time line of a Friday death and “third-day” Sunday resurrection.
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathia were in a rush to place Jesus’ body in tomb (John 19:38-42). On any day other than Friday, their work would not have been so frantic. The work of burial would not have been permitted once sundown (and Shabbat) arrived.
The Gospels record on six different occasions that the day of Jesus’ death was the “day of preparation.” (Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54 and John 19:14, 31, 42). Every Friday is the “day of preparation” in Jewish life. Keeping Shabbat is hard work and requires much preparation. This is clearly not the day of preparing for Passover, since Jesus, his disciples had enjoyed the Passover meal the evening before. All of Jerusalem had celebrated the Passover on the same evening. However, the Passover holiday was continuing, and the Shabbat of Passover week was, indeed, a special one (John 19:31).
More important than the particular day of the week is the concept that Jesus died during the 24-hours of Passover. When the sun set on Thursday (assuming a Friday crucifixion), the entire Jewish community celebrated the Passover meal, including Jesus and his disciples. Though sunrise would have brought the psychological introduction of a new day, in Jewish thinking, “Friday” had actually begun the evening before, when they began the Passover meal. This being the case, Jesus actually died on the very 24-hour day when the entire Jewish nation was remembering that God delivered his people from bondage and death through the blood of the Passover lamb. (Refresh your memory by reading Exodus 12.)
In the end, debate over the exact date of Jesus’ death is an example of how clearly we’ve misunderstood the differences between Eastern and Western cultures, and modern and ancient life. The writers of the Gospels give us an amazing amount of information about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, but they are not modern-day news reporters. Comprehending the vast differences of cultures is one of the most important elements to fully understanding the Bible.
Even so, they told us in no uncertain terms: Jesus was crucified on Friday.