Was Jesus Crucified On A Thursday?
© 03.10.08 By D. Eric Williams
This article is based on the March 9, 2008 Sunday morning sermon transcript
Over the years there has been some controversy surrounding the timing of the Lord's supper and his crucifixion. Perhaps you've never heard of this and perhaps there are those who might think it would be best to leave well enough alone. However, I think that every Christian needs to wrestle with these questions. It is important to come to grips with these details in the text. The truth is that they are not minor at all. Indeed, a grasp of the text - perhaps especially these controversial passages - will serve to shape our attitudes, support our apologetic and nurture our assurance.
That being the case I want to cover these issues concerning the timing of our Lord's crucifixion and the timing of his Last Supper with the disciples.
If we look at each of the Gospel accounts concerning the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we see a consistency in the synoptic Gospels which seems to point to Thursday as the day of the week when the Lord's supper was held and Friday for his crucifixion. This is the traditional point of view. But the fact of the matter is this doesn't quite add up. Now, if you look at Matthew 26:17 we read "now on the first day of the feast of the unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying to him, 'where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?'"
Then in Mark 14:12, we read "now on the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, 'where do you want us to go and prepare, that you may eat the Passover?'"
Luke 22:7-8 says, "then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John saying, 'Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat.'"
Then in John 13:1 we read, "now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come that he should depart from this world to the father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." The text goes on to tell us that they had the supper. Then there is a lengthy account that only John provides concerning the activities at the supper and the prayers of Jesus Christ and finally of course his betrayal. But it is in 19:14 where he read that "it was the preparation day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he (Pilate), said the Jews behold your king!"
Now, do you see the problem here? Matthew, Mark and Luke all seem to say that the Last Supper took place on the first day of the Passover feast. Again as Matthew says it was the first day of the feast of the unleavened bread when the disciples came to Jesus and asked where they should prepare the Passover. The other two synoptics agree with Matthew at this point. However, John tells us that it was before the feast of the Passover when Jesus had the final supper with his disciples. Then he tells us that it was the preparation day of the Passover when the trial of Jesus Christ took place. In fact John takes great pains to tell us three times that Christ was crucified on preparation day, the same day when the Passover lamb was to be sacrificed. That fact is given as the explanation for the Jews' anxiousness concerning the three men executed that day. "Therefore because it was a preparation day, that the bodies should not remain in the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and they might be taken away" (John 19:31). Once again we see that he was the preparation day, the day on which the lamb was to be slaughtered and preparation made for the seven-day feast. The Sabbath that was about to began - that evening when the three stars could be seen - was a high day meaning a special feast day.
Now, this appears to be a conflict; is there any way that we can solve this problem?
Part of the answer is found in the way that the Jewish people reckon time. For the Jew a new day began in the evening. Let me explain; as far as we are concerned it will be Sunday until midnight tonight. At 12:01, it becomes very early Monday morning. For the Jew it is Sunday until three stars are visible in the night sky. At that point it becomes Monday. In other words the Jew would reckon Monday as beginning somewhere around six or seven o'clock. I guess with daylight-saving time it would be later but you get the idea. The Jewish day begins in our evening. Now, we shouldn't think of this as too strange. After all, we consider the day having begun in the middle of the night. Monday morning is 12:01 a.m. I don't know about you, but that is the middle of the night for me. Nonetheless, we call it Monday morning. It seems odd to us that the Jews would consider it Monday "morning," so to speak, when it is actually 6 or 7:00 p.m. on Sunday evening. But that's how the first century Jew reckoned time.
Keeping this in mind let's consider these different texts again. Matthew says that it was on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread that the disciples asked about preparing the Passover and then it was prepared and eaten. Mark says essentially the same thing in chapter 14 when he says that it was the first day of the unleavened bread, the day they killed the Passover lamb; that's when they asked when and where they should prepare the supper. Luke's account is slightly different but conveys the same information saying that "then came the day of unleavened bread when the Passover must be killed."
Now according to the law regarding the Passover celebration, the lamb would be sacrificed "between the evenings." In other words the lamb would be sacrificed at the close of the day on the 14th of Nisan. This means that the lamb was to be slaughtered late on the 14th day which was the actual night of Passover and then the Passover meal would be eaten that evening which would be actually the beginning of the 15th day, the first day of the feast of unleavened bread. According to the law, the 15th day should be observed as a special Sabbath - what we might call a high holy day. Now, this was true regardless of which day of the week it was. Remember the feast always took place on the 14th. If this happened to be on a Thursday then Friday would be a holy day, a Sabbath, and Saturday would be a Sabbath as well-because it is the normal Sabbath to begin with.
Hence, what we see is that Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that the disciple's preparation for the Passover took place on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread - the day which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. What we need to realize is that those preparations began in the early hours, dark hours of the 14th day - which of course begins in the evening of the 13th day by our reckoning.
Do you see what I mean? To our way of thinking the night of the 13th day is still the 13th day. But to the Jewish mode of reckoning, the 14th day begins in the evening of the 13th day. That's what Matthew, Mark and Luke are telling us; the disciples came to Jesus late in the 13th day possibly even after the night had fallen to make it the 14th day. They came to Jesus in the evening and asked where he wanted to prepare the Passover. It was the evening time, the beginning of the 14th day, and the 14th day is the day when the lamb is to be slaughtered-but not until very late in that day just prior to the beginning of the 15th day. Now follow me on this; it is night (by our reckoning) and the disciples go to prepare the Passover. They ate that final supper in anticipation of the actual Passover, eating the final supper in the dark hours of that 14th day - actually in the very early hours - the dark hours - of the 14th day, what we would call the evening of the 13th.
Now I know this might be confusing because we have a hard time thinking like a first century Jew would think about this. But when we understand Matthew, Mark and Luke in this fashion, we are able to harmonize their account with that of John. You see Matthew, Mark and Luke are somewhat vague here. They simply say these things were taking place some time on that first day. This meal, according to Matthew, Mark and Luke could have taken place at any point from about 6:00 p.m. in the early dark hours of the 14th (what we would call the evening of the 13th), until about 6:00 p.m. on the 14th. Therefore, in order to harmonize these accounts, we simply need to think like the Jews thought in the first century. Indeed we need to think as God thinks. Remember, in Genesis 1:5 we see that a day is described as "evening and morning." In other words, according to the way God reckons time, the day begins in the dark hours. Again, this is not altogether different than how we think. For us the day begins in the dark hours as well: 12:01 a.m.
Thus, Matthew, Mark and Luke are telling us that the disciples prepared a meal for Jesus and his entourage after darkness had fallen - which would make it the 14th day, the day of preparation - the day on which the lamb is sacrificed. This means that the Last Supper took place on what we would call Wednesday night rather than taking place on what we would call Thursday evening.
This is why John is able to say that it was before the feast of the Passover that Jesus and his disciples had the final supper together. Moreover, this is why John is able to say that it was the preparation day of the Passover when the trial of Jesus Christ is actually taking place. He says that the trial was just coming to its conclusion about noon on the 14th. This would be some hours before the end of the day of preparation and therefore just a few hours before the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. Frankly this seems to be the best way to reconcile the Gospel accounts. There is nothing incorrect about saying that it was the first day of the feast of unleavened bread when the Last Supper took place if we keep in mind that the supper took place at night. That much is obvious from the Gospel accounts. All of the events after the supper - Jesus' prayer in the garden, and his betrayal, his appearance before the Jewish Council - all took place at night. It also makes sense of John's account concerning the identification of the betrayer by Jesus during the supper. In John 13:27 we read "now after the piece of bread (was handed to Judas by Jesus), Satan entered Judas. Then Jesus said to him, 'what you do, do quickly.'" John goes on to tell us that no one knew why Jesus said this to him (Christ said this in reference to his act of betrayal). And some thought that because Judas had the money-box that Jesus was telling him to buy those things needed for the feast. In other words they thought that Judas was going to purchase the things necessary for the feast - such as the lamb. Which, by the way, none of the Gospels say a word about a lamb being consumed at the Last Supper. There is no mention of the Passover lamb. This is very strange if in fact this final supper was the typical Passover which the Jews celebrated on an annual basis. Instead of that, what we see here is that Jesus institutes the fulfillment of the Passover with a meal which was celebrated in the early, dark hours of the day of preparation.
Another important point to remember is that John's Gospel was the last Gospel account written. Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote their Gospels when the church was predominately Jewish. Thus, there was not the need for a detailed explanation of the timing of the events under our consideration. On the other hand, by the time John wrote his Gospel account, the Church was predominantly Gentile and a more careful explanation concerning the timing of the Lord's supper and his crucifixion was required.
So there is no real contradiction. And if we look at this carefully it seems strange that for centuries the Church has said that the Last Supper took place on Thursday evening rather than Wednesday evening.
Now, This reconciliation of the accounts makes more sense on a number of levels.
For instance, according to the law, the lamb was to be chosen on the 10th and held until the 14th. Now, if we understand that Jesus celebrated the Last Supper on Wednesday night - our Wednesday night, a dark hours of Thursday for the Jews-we also come to realize that the triumphal entry - Palm Sunday which we will celebrate next week - took place on the 10th day of the month. Do you see the significance here? The true Paschal lamb was chosen that day at the 10th. Recall the acclimation of the people as they cried out "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name the Lord. Blessed be the son of David!" They were, so to speak, choosing the Paschal lamb. They proclaimed their choice of the fulfillment of that sacrifice. So, a proper understanding of the timing here allows us to see that Christ fulfills this Passover sacrifice perfectly.
Not only that, if this timing is correct, then Jesus was crucified on the very day which the Paschal lamb should be sacrificed. The other view places the crucifixion of Jesus Christ after the lamb had already been sacrificed. That doesn't make sense on a number of fronts. It's not as if the Jewish leadership had no choice but to arrest Jesus at the particular time that they did. The arrest took place when it did because they had a window of opportunity just prior to the feast. If the feast had actually begun none of the things recorded in the Gospels would have taken place. Why? Because the Jewish leadership would not have been doing all of that on a high holy Day, the first day of the feast of unleavened bread. By the way, this view also explains the hurry to place Christ into the tomb. It was the day upon which the lamb was to be sacrificed. That would be taking place shortly. As soon as three stars were seen in the night sky, it would be the 15th and that would mean that he was a high holy day. A day of rest, a special Sabbath. So, there was a hurry to get Jesus into the tomb before the sacrifices began and before that high holy day, that special Sabbath day Began. The apostle John refers to this when he says of the late Jesus in a nearby tomb "because of the juice preparation day for the tomb was nearby" (John 19:42).
No, clearly Jesus ate his final supper with his disciples early in the same day of the Passover sacrifice. Therefore, Jesus died on the very day that the Passover lamb was to be slaughtered. Do you see how wonderfully this fulfills the type? Jesus the antitype, the fulfillment of the Passover feast, is crucified, sacrificed on the very day which the lamb was to be slaughtered to celebrate Israel's release from bondage. The very day upon which Israel would celebrate the creation of a new people. So, once again, we must reject the old idea that Jesus was crucified the day after the lamb had been slain.
There is another very important benefit - if you want to call it a benefit - of this reconciled view. And that is the obvious fact that if Jesus was crucified on Friday there is not enough time for him to be in the tomb three days and three nights. Jesus himself said that he would be in the tomb three days and three nights. No matter how hard we try we can't get three days and three nights out of a Friday to Sunday scenario. We only have two days and two nights. However, if we assume that this reconciliation of the accounts is correct, then we have Jesus Christ partaking of the Last Supper on what we call Wednesday evening and his crucifixion taking place on Thursday about noon. All of the Gospel accounts agree that darkness fell on the earth from about noon until 3:00 p.m. Jesus died not long after that. Hence we see that Christ died sometime after 3:00 p.m. on Thursday the 14th of Nisan. This means that Jesus was in the tomb from around 3:00 p.m. Thursday until sunup Sunday. So we have Thursday to Friday, one day. Friday to Saturday, two days. Saturday to Sunday the third day. Also, we have Thursday night for the first night, Friday night for the second and Saturday night for the third. Therefore, we have the three days and three nights. Jesus was in the tomb Thursday Friday Saturday rising at the beginning of the first day of the week.
Now I don't know about you but when I first came to this conclusion many years ago, I found it to be a far more satisfactory understanding of the Gospel accounts than the traditional point of view. It had bothered me for a long time that there really wasn't a three-day span (or so it appeared), in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also satisfying to see that Christ, the true Paschal lamb, was chosen on the appropriate day, the day of his triumphal entry. It is also gratifying to see that he died on the appropriate day - the day upon which the lamb was to be slain.
None of this would matter if we were not able to properly reconcile the accounts. Yet, when we understand the Jewish way of reckoning time, it is clear that Matthew, Mark and Luke are simply telling us that the preparations for the supper began in the dark hours of the 14th-what they would call the very early hours of the 14th of Nisan.
So to recap this introduction - and I apologize for this lengthy intro but I didn't know a better time to introduce this information to you - the Last Supper was prepared in the early hours of the 14th of Nisan which would be for us the darkness of Wednesday night. The events recorded in the Gospels leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, events we are told took place throughout the night and early morning hours, took place in the darkness of the 14th of Nisan. We would call this late Wednesday night early Thursday morning. Then the trial of Jesus Christ before Pilate (or I should say the sham trial), took place in the early daylight hours of the 14th of Nisan. What we call Thursday. The trial is over about mid day, and Jesus died sometime after three o'clock in the afternoon again on the 14th of Nisan. Just after that the slaughter of the Passover lambs would begin.
After spending three days and three nights in a tomb, Jesus rose from the dead in majesty and power on the third day, the first day of the week. This is what happened. This is why we celebrate.
Now let's look at the practical application of what we have discussed so far. If you want to turn in your Bible to Romans 12:1-2 you will read "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God."
Paul is telling us that it is our duty to present ourselves as living sacrifices to God. In other words everything that we do is supposed to be given over to our Lord Jesus Christ. He must be Lord of everything in our life. We must lose our life and allow him to be the absolute master of our life and our sphere of influence. This is characterized by our being holy - being set apart. In other words we are very different than the world around us. Paul says that this is what is acceptable to God. God is not happy with halfway measures. He doesn't want us to put him in a box and set him on the mantelpiece allowing him to come out only on Sunday. I know that's ridiculous; unfortunately there are plenty of folks who live that way. But Paul reminds us that it is only acceptable to God for us to be different, to be set apart, to be completely other than the world just as God is completely other than his creation. That's how we imitate God in this matter. We can't be completely other than this creation of course. But, we follow God's example in that he is completely other than, completely set apart from his creation. This is what the Scripture means when it says that we are in the world but not of it. So, we are supposed to be a living sacrifice that is holy, that is set apart.
Paul also says this is our reasonable service. In other words this isn't going above and beyond the call of duty by any means. It's not unlike what Jesus said to his disciples when he was talking to them about a servant who comes in from the field. Rather than sit down and expect to be served, that servant has the duty to serve his master. That's what Jesus says in Luke 17:10, "so likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'we are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.'"
Therefore, this call to sacrificial living is nothing more then the standard Christian lifestyle. We miss that today because we have dumbed down what it means to be a Christian. Today, all too often being a Christian means that you go to church and that's about it. Well that is unacceptable. to God. What is acceptable to him is a living sacrifice, a complete surrender of our life to our Lord Jesus Christ. Everything about our life must be given over to him.
How does this happen? What is it that we do that will set us apart in this fashion and thereby make us pleasing to God? Well, Paul says that we are not supposed to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. In other words, don't be shaped by the ways of the world. I've got to tell you, this happens all the time and it happens very easily. We listen to the radio, we read books, we watch the TV, we go to movies - whatever it is. Our friends around us, our coworkers. All of these things put pressure upon us and there is a certain elasticity to our life, to our soul which responds to that pressure. So Paul says don't be conformed to the world, don't be shaped by the world; instead be transformed into the image of Christ.
This transformation is (once again), nothing more than the cultivation of the new creation. Because of the pressures of the world, we have a tendency to think like the world. We have a tendency to be shaped according to the ways of the world. Paul says don't let that happen but be transformed, adjust the way that you think. Our attitudes must be reprogrammed along the lines of God's Word. When we do that we will be cultivating a new creation-that law that is written on our heart.
The purpose of this or maybe we should say the result of this mind which is transformed is an understanding and agreement with the will of God. This isn't to suggest that we stand in judgment of God's will, of God's Word. But when our mind is transformed we actually agree with the things of God. This is true from the very beginning of our new birth to a certain degree. If this were not the case, it would be impossible to agree with the need for salvation. Nevertheless, this process takes place throughout our entire life. This is simply the process of sanctification. As we grow ever more like Jesus Christ we will also grow ever more to see the wisdom and the reasonable nature, I suppose you could say of God's way of thinking.
Now, this cannot take place without an understanding of God's Word. And since Jesus was concerned with even the smallest mark of God's law, we should be as well. That's why we work through these apparent contradictions. That's why we want to see every little aspect of God's Word as it should be seen. To work through these kinds of things, to grow ever more like Jesus Christ as we learn to think like God thinks.
You remember those word problems you struggled with in mathematics or algebra? Well, the purpose behind those word problems was to get you to think in a particular way. Your teacher and the textbook were putting pressure on you to conform your mind, to think in a particular-shall we say-algebraic way. That is something like how the Word of God works on our mind.
You see, God gives us adequate information but not always obvious information. He wants us to carefully work through his Word so that we can have our mind conformed to the mind of Jesus Christ. The discovery of and the understanding of these details which are hidden in plain sight will cause our mind to develop along the lines of God's mind and we will grow in "God think."
So the first practical application we might make when we wonder why we should take time to work through these sorts of problems in Scripture is simply the fact that it will help transform our mind.
The second thing that we need to realize is that working through this kind of study will strengthen our apologetic. Now, the word apologetic comes from the Greek word aploogetikos and it simply means to defend a position. This is what Peter is talking about in his first epistle when he says that we should "sanctify the Lord in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you with meekness and fear" (1 Peter 3:15).
It's interesting that the defense of truth, the defense of the Gospel, begins with our sanctifying the Lord and our heart. In other words, our attitude must be one wherein we set apart the Lord Jesus Christ. He is not just one among many, not simply an alternative choice with all things being equal. No, Jesus Christ is more than simply an option that people choose a new trek through life. He is the Lord of lords and the King of Kings. He is the one to whom all authority in heaven and earth has been given. This is where the defense of the faith begins. "Christ as Lord" is the controlling issue and it is something we cannot be wishy-washy about, With that as our beginning we will be ready to give a defense concerning that hope that is within us.
So, if we are working our way through the kind of things we've looked at this morning, learning to see this as God sees it, we will be preparing ourselves to give an adequate defense of that hope which is within us. You see, it is important for us to understand God's Word as the product of a reasonable mind. It's not as if it was put together willy-nilly without any concern for errors. For instance, it's not like a Louis L'Amour novel: full of error and contradiction. No, the Word of God is free from error and free from contradiction. But if we don't work our way through this kind of thing then we won't be able to offer a defense for the hope that is within us.
Perhaps you have never had anyone try to pick apart what you believe. But this is the sort of thing that they will look at. Once they're through you may find that you don't have much hope left within you. At the very least, you won't be able to give a defense for the hope you do have if you are unable to answer their attacks. The idea is to present a reasonable defense to your questioner; you trust God because his Word is trustworthy. You trust God because his Word shows a keen rational mind and a superior intellect. Additionally this rational mind is clearly willing to lead you into a place of greater understanding.
Obviously this isn't the whole of a well-rounded apologetic. But it is important that we work through this kind of apparent contradiction in Scripture in order to show that there are no contradictions; to show that the Scripture is not a book of myths with little concern for accuracy. Indeed, this kind of study reveals the fact that it would be impossible for this fulfillment of Old Testament type to be a mere coincidence. A proper understanding of what initially appeared to be a contradiction provides strong evidence for the fact that Jesus is truly who he says he is: the Divine Messiah who is a sacrifice for our sins.
Finally, a right understanding of this kind of material provides us a strong assurance and strengthens our faith.
After Jesus had risen from the dead and he walked to the town of Emmaus with two of the disciples. They were complaining and moaning and groaning about the events that had taken place and finally Jesus said to them "'you foolish ones and slow of heart to believe in all the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?' And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures of things concerning himself" (Luke 24:26-27).
To know the Bible properly is to have a firm confidence in Jesus Christ for salvation. It is important for us to see how completely Jesus Christ fulfilled the Old Testament. In other words all the variety of detail, all of the nuance, all of the important facets of God's plan of redemption which were previously expressed in the old covenant types, the ritual and ceremony; all of this is fulfilled in Jesus. Moreover, it is important for us to understand the explanations of those types and ceremonies as they're given in the Old Testament and then to see how they find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. All of this is fulfilled and all of this is important but we will miss it if we do not know how to work our way through these types of difficulties. I don't know about you, but it is gratifying - no much more than gratifying - it is wonderful to me to see that Jesus Christ was truly the lamb chosen. There is wonderful assurance is seeing the various aspects of God's redemptive plan unfold before us in the New Testament. This perfect lamb, chosen from the beginning of time, is found as the perfect lamb by those sinful people for whom he was about to die. You see that's what's going on here; they cry out "hosanna" which means "save now." They cry out "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," which is a term demanding, I suppose we could say, God's righteous judgment. "Blessed is the son of David" a cry which is an acknowledgment that the true messianic kingdom is about to begin. Do you see what they're doing? We wouldn't understand what is going on if we miss the point that the triumphal entry of Jesus to place on the 10th of Nisan.
Without the work of study and coming to right conclusions we are going to miss (all too often), the depths of God's love, the strength of his mercy and grace, the deeply personal nature of his concern and care for us. Those who desperately need him cried out on that day when the lamb was to be chosen for sacrifice and, again, in effect, chose Jesus Christ as that sacrifice for sin.
We will miss all these things if we do not see the connections and if we are satisfied with halfway explanations. The popular explanations for these apparent contradictions are frankly pitiful. For the most part these problems are "explained" by an appeal to textual variations, a late date for the Gospels, a desire to address certain conflicts after the destruction of Jerusalem and so on. That's ridiculous. There is no assurance in that. Instead, it serves to undermine our faith as they cast a shadow of doubt upon God's Word.
Rather, the Scripture assures us as it proclaims to us in its consistency, that God was not making this up as he went along. Instead, the Bible portrays a perfectly performed cosmic drama with Jesus Christ as the central and primary figure. The wonder of it all is that we are invited to join him in this drama - to participate in the unfolding of God's story.
All of this, the eternal plan of God, perfectly unfolds and we are given the privilege of participation. Yet, if we don't understand the script then we will find that we have a truncated part to play in the story.
On the other hand, what an assurance it is to see God's mind at work as he brings all of the pieces together. What a blessed assurance it is to see how God works out his plan for his glory and for our benefit.
So, it is important for us to take the time to do this "nitpicking" kind of study. I am always saddened when I hear a fellow Christians say that "theology is not that important." Nothing could be further from the truth. Theology is always important because theology is everything. By that I mean our understanding of God's truth will obviously dictate how we live our lives. Every one of us should be a theologian. Because there is great profit in seeing even the little - supposedly inconsequential - details come together in perfect harmony.