Did Jesus die on a Friday and rise from the dead on a Sunday? Or did he die on a Wednesday or Thursday? And did he rise from the dead on a Saturday?
Various Christian groups have objected that the traditional Friday-to-Sunday timing is wrong. In particular, the offshoots of Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God have tried to argue this point, mostly because they worship on Saturdays instead of Sundays, and if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead on a Sunday, then Sunday observance is pointless. Their arguments are lengthy, but they can be refuted with a few simple explanations.
It is important to note here that in the Bible, days begin at sunset. This is most relevant here in the crucifixion narratives, which show the sabbath about to begin as sunset approached on the day Jesus died.
The key verse in the crucifixion/resurrection timing debate is this:
Matt 12:40 (KJV) – 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.
Objection 1. It would seem that “three days and three nights” is a phrase that must be taken literally, and therefore Jesus spent 72 hours in the tomb in order for his words in Matthew to be true. The Bible does not count inclusively, and if Jesus was in the tomb for three days, that too means a 72 hour time period. If Jesus was buried shortly before sunset (John 19:42) then he must have risen shortly before sunset 72 hours later. Since Jesus rested in the tomb on the sabbath, and was risen by the next morning, he must have risen from the dead on the sabbath, shortly before sunset. 72 hours before the sunset that ends the sabbath is the sunset on Wednesday evening. Therefore Jesus was crucified on Wednesday and rose as the sabbath ended 72 hours later.
Objection 2. Further, there were two sabbaths in the week Jesus was crucified. One was the Passover day, 15 Nisan, which occurred on Thursday. The next was the weekly sabbath, which occurred on Saturday. Wednesday 14 Nisan was the preparation day mentioned in John 19:31,42, the preparation for the Passover.
Objection 3. Further, Jesus was typified by the wave sheaf offering, which took place on the day after the weekly sabbath during Passover week. This is not when Jesus rose from the dead, for he had risen from the dead 12 hours previously at the end of the weekly sabbath, but rather when he came out of the tomb.
Objection 4. Further, the above objections are confirmed by the two distinct rest periods when the women rested between buying and preparing spices and going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. The women had no time to purchase spices on Wednesday between Jesus’ burial and sunset. They rested on the sabbath that was Passover day on Thursday, and then on Friday they purchased (Mark 16:1) and prepared the spices (Luke 23:56). Then they rested on the weekly sabbath (Luke 23:56), and went to the tomb early on Sunday morning (Luke 24:1, Mark 16:2).
On the contrary, it is written – Jesus rose on the third day (Luke 24:46) and Sunday was the third day (Luke 24:21). Therefore he died on Friday, the first day of three in a series.
I answer that Jesus died on the day of preparation (John 19:31,42), which was a name for the day before the weekly sabbath. The weekly sabbath was Saturday, and so Jesus died on Friday. Furthermore, Jesus rose on the third day, counting inclusively, at the same time the wave sheaf offering was performed, on the morning after Passover day (Lev 23:11).
Reply to objection 1
“Three days and three nights” is an idiomatic expression that, if taken literally, contradicts other passages in Scripture. It stands in contrast with multiple mentions of “the third day” in the New Testament. If “the third day” is used in the Bible to refer to a day 72 hours from the start of counting, only then can “three days and three nights” be taken literally. Luke 13:32 shows Jesus speaking of “today, tomorrow, and the third day” – so the third day is the day after tomorrow, if we start counting today. If today is Friday, tomorrow is Saturday, then the third day is Sunday. Similarly in Exodus 19:10-11, God tells Moses to sanctify the people “today and tomorrow” and to be ready on “the third day“. If today is Friday, tomorrow is Saturday, then the third day is Sunday. Luke 23:21 confirms that the third day after Jesus died was Sunday.
Furthermore, Scripture shows that if Jesus had died on Wednesday, then Sunday would have been the fifth day, and if Jesus had died on a Thursday, Sunday would have been the fourth day. Scripture shows us such a 72 hour period, lasting from the morning of one day, through the next day, and the day after that, and ending on the morning of the fourth day. Beginning in Acts 10:3, Cornelius has a vision at the ninth hour. In verse 9, it is the next day, “on the morrow“. Verse 23 shows us the day after that, “on the morrow“. Verse 24 shows us the day after that, again “the morrow“. And on this day, in verse 30, Cornelius tells us that his vision was four days ago – “Four days ago I was fasting until this hour“. Cornelius counted this way: today, tomorrow, the next day, and then the fourth day. If Jesus had been crucified on a Thursday, Sunday would have been the fourth day, but Luke 24:21 and Luke 24:46 tell us that Sunday was the third day. If Jesus had been crucified on a Wednesday, Sunday would have been the fifth day, not the third. [Note: see further discussion of Acts 10’s four days in the comments.]
Therefore, following the way the authors of the Bible counted of three or four days, we can be certain that if Jesus rose on Sunday, then he had to have been crucified on Friday. “Three days and three nights” is an idiomatic expression that emphasises three days, but not the number of hours involved. Esther 4:16-5:1 confirms this.
Reply to objection 2
Nowhere does the Bible state clearly that there were two sabbaths that week. This needs to be inferred after much convoluted rearrangement of Scripture. In each of the Gospels we see a three day sequence presented – preparation, the sabbath, and the third day. We see this in Matt 27:62-28:1; again in Mark 15:42-16:2; again in Luke 23:54-24:1; and finally in John 19:31,42-20:1.
The “preparation” day meant only the day before the weekly sabbath, not some preparation day for the Passover not called this in the Bible. The Greek word on the New Testament is “παρασκευή“. The word is used six times in the New Testament, all referring to the day Jesus was crucified, and it is defined in Mark 15:42 as “the day before the sabbath“. By the time of the New Testament, “sabbath” specifically referred to the 7th day of the week. In the Greek of the time, the term παρασκευή had become, for the Jews, a synonym for the day before the weekly sabbath. No textual evidence to the contrary exists. The Didache, a Christian document written between 70 and 120 AD, confirms that παρασκευή is a day of the week used for fasting. The longer (and more recent) version of St Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Trallians (dating to about 300 AD) refers to three consecutive days – preparation, the sabbath, and the first day – as being the days on which Jesus died, rested, and rose.
Knowing that παρασκευή was the name of the 6th day of the week in the Greek spoken at the time, just as sabbaton was the name of the 7th, the only way to interpret “preparation of the passover” was the way all Christians of the era interpreted it – the Friday associated with the passover. So call the day before passover “preparation of the passover” on a Thursday would literally sound like “Thursday is the Friday of passover“.
Reply to objection 3
The wave sheaf offering after Passover represented Jesus’ rising from the dead, and instruction is given in Lev 23:11. In keeping with the usage of the word at the time Leviticus was written, “sabbath” could refer to the weekly sabbath or to Passover in this verse. However, we know it took place on the day after Passover, on 16 Nisan, whichever day of the week it occurred. The first century AD historian Josephus confirms that this was the Jewish interpretation of Lev 23:11, which states that the wave sheaf offering is to take place after the sabbath day, i.e. Passover day (Josephus, Antiquities 3.250–251), as does the Targum of Jonathan from the previous century (Targum of Jonathan, XXXI). Since 16 Nisan was therefore Sunday, 15 Nisan was on the weekly sabbath, and therefore Passover and the weekly sabbath were on the same day that year.
Furthermore, the argument that Jesus rose from the dead at the end of the sabbath but didn’t exit the tomb until the next morning requires that, if a 72 hour period is used, Jesus spent about 12 hours more than 72 hours in the tomb, even though he was only dead for 72 of those hours. This would be in conflict with Matt 12:40, the verse being interpreted by the objectors as being a literal time period.
Reply to objection 4
There are no two distinct rest periods for these women any more than there are two distinct sabbaths that week. Luke 23:56 states clearly that the women prepared the spices on the same day Jesus died, and then rested on the sabbath. The verse immediately following, Luke 24:1, shows that on the first day of the week they took these prepared spices to the tomb. There is no indication that there is an entire unmentioned day between Luke 23:55 and Luke 23:56; in fact the text prevents this interpretation. Mark 16:1 causes confusion for the objectors, but it can be clarified by looking at the tenses. The objectors split Mark 16:1 and Mark 16:2 into two events taking place on two separate days (Friday and Sunday) with an unmentioned day in between. This is not the case. The purchasing (ηγορασαν) is an act that took place in the past. When the sabbath was past, the women had already bought the spices. This was not a case of the women buying the spices once the sabbath had ended – it was a case of the sabbath ending with the spices already bought (prepared, in fact, the day Jesus died, as per Luke 23:56.) They didn’t venture out at night, and so the next verse, Mark 16:2, follows immediately without a day between verses 1 and 2. The women arrived at the tomb, spices already bought and prepared.
- Jesus died on preparation day, which can only mean Friday (Matt 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14,31,42
- “On the third day” means that the first day was the day before yesterday (Luke 13:32, Exodus 19:10-11)
- Because “the third day” was Sunday, the day Jesus died was Friday
- Had Jesus been in the tomb since Thursday, Sunday would have been the fourth day (Acts 10:30)
- The women prepared the spices on the same day Jesus died (Luke 23:56)
- Jesus was in the tomb on the sabbath
- Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, Sunday (Luke 24:21,46)
- The day after Passover was the wave sheaf offering (Lev 23:11), the day Jesus rose from the dead (Luke 24:21,46)
- The women arrived on Sunday morning to find the tomb empty