For the past 2,000 years Christians have generally understood that Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon and that He rose from the grave early the following Sunday morning. However, in recent years some Christians have adopted the view that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday afternoon and that He rose from the grave late on Sabbath afternoon.
In the June Signs last year, I responded to a reader’s question about this issue with the statement that “we at Signs of the Times® accept the view that Christ was crucified on Friday afternoon.” Several readers wrote insisting that the biblical evidence supports the Wednesday crucifixion theory.
In my response to these readers, I stated that a full explanation of this question is rather technical and quite beyond what can be published in the short answers given in the Bible Questions section of Signs. However, I promised to provide this explanation with an article in the following April issue, so please consider this article an extended Bible Questions response.
I will begin by saying that I respect the view of those who adopt the Wednesday crucifixion theory, even though I and the publishers of Signs of the Times® disagree with it. I should also point out that this is not a salvation issue—that is, no one’s eternal life depends on the acceptance of either of these views. What matters is that Jesus died and that He will save anyone who accepts Him as their Savior regardless of when they believe He was crucified.
Also, before beginning this discussion, it’s important to keep in mind that at Christ’s time the Jews began each day at sundown and ended it at sundown 24 hours later. Our practice of beginning and ending the day at midnight comes from the Roman way of calculating the day.
the Wednesday crucifixion
Advocates of the Wednesday crucifixion theory base their conclusion primarily on three texts. I will share with you their interpretation of each one.
Matthew 12:40: Jesus told some Pharisees that “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 [the grave].”
Proponents of the Wednesday crucifixion theory are adamant that “three days and three nights” must be understood to mean three full days and three full nights, that is, at least 72 hours. This would obviously make a Friday afternoon crucifixion impossible, because Friday afternoon to Sunday morning is only one full night (Friday), one full day (Sabbath), and parts of two days (Friday afternoon and Sunday morning). On the other hand, a Wednesday afternoon crucifixion, with Jesus rising from the grave late on Sabbath afternoon, would be three full days and three full nights.
John 19:14: This text says that Jesus was crucified on “the Preparation Day of the Passover.” Proponents of the Friday crucifixion view understand the expression preparation day to be a Jewish term that meant Friday, the day they prepared for the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. Those who adopt the Wednesday crucifixion view say that the annual feast days were also called sabbaths, and the text says, “Preparation Day of the Passover.” They argue further that in the year of Christ’s crucifixion, the Passover would have occurred on a Thursday, and therefore He would have been crucified on Wednesday, the preparation day for the Thursday Passover, not the Friday preparation day for the weekly Sabbath.
Matthew 28:1: Matthew says that “in the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher” (KJV). From this, proponents of the Wednesday crucifixion conclude that Jesus rose from the dead on Sabbath afternoon (“in the end of the Sabbath”) shortly before sundown (“as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week”). This would, of course, be a full 72 hours after Christ’s crucifixion on Wednesday afternoon.
the Friday crucifixion
The evidence for a Wednesday crucifixion is obviously quite significant, but so is the evidence for a Friday crucifixion, as I will now show. I will respond to each of the three texts cited by those who favor the Wednesday theory.
Matthew 12:40: When Jesus said that He would be in the heart of the earth “three days and three nights,” did He mean three full days? What would the Jews have understood Him to mean?
Proponents of the Friday crucifixion point out that the Jews sometimes spoke of “a day” when they meant only part of the day. For example, 1 Samuel 30:12 tells of an Egyptian who “had eaten no bread nor drunk water for three days and three nights.” However, in verse 13, the man told David that his master had left him behind “three days ago.” If “three days and three nights” meant a full 72 hours, the servant would have had to tell David that his master had abandoned him four days ago.
A similar situation exists in Esther 4:16, where Esther told her cousin Mordecai to have the Jews in Shushan “fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day,” after which she would appear before the king even though doing so might cost her her life. However, Esther 5:1 says that she went before the king “on the third day.” Again, if “three days, night or day” meant three full 24-hour periods, the text would have said that she went before the king on the fourth day.
Finally, Matthew 16:21 and Luke 9:22 both quote Jesus as saying He would rise “on the third day,” which would not require a full 72 hours (compare Mark 9:31 with Matthew 17:23 and Mark 10:34 with Matthew 20:19 and Luke 18:33).
The idea that “three days and three nights” could mean only part of the first and third days was apparently well understood at Christ’s time, because a rabbi by the name of Eleazar ben Azariah, who lived about AD. 100, said that “a day and a night are an Onah, and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it.” Similarly, The Jewish Encyclopedia says that “in Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day.”
Proponents of the Friday crucifixion argue that this is how Jesus’ statement that He would be in the grave “three days and three nights” should be understood.
John 19:14: Everyone agrees that the expression preparation day means the day when the Jews prepared for the Sabbath. The question is whether, in saying, “the Preparation Day of the Passover,” John meant the weekly Sabbath or the Passover sabbath.
Mark’s use of the expression preparation day helps us to understand the answer. He said that Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for permission to remove Jesus’ body from the cross on “the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath” (Mark 15:42). Note Mark’s precise definition of the preparation day as “the day before the Sabbath.” Verse 47 says that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses observed where He was laid.”
The very next verse, Mark 16:1, says, “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him.” This is obviously the seventh-day Sabbath. The fact that the Sabbath in 16:1 follows immediately after the account of Jesus’ removal from the cross and His burial on the preparation day is strong evidence that the preparation day in 15:42 was the Friday before the weekly Sabbath, not the Wednesday before the Passover sabbath.
Luke also gives good evidence that the preparation day was the Friday before the weekly Sabbath. He says that Jesus was buried “the [day of] Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near” (23:54). Verse 55 says that “the women who had come with Him from Galilee followed after, and they observed the tomb and how His body was laid.” Verse 56 says that “then they [the women] returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment.” The “Sabbath according to the commandment” has to refer to the seventh-day Sabbath of the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8–11), not a Passover sabbath. It’s difficult to suppose that the Sabbath following the preparation day in verse 54 is any different from the “Sabbath according to the commandment” two verses later.
Finally, the New Testament Greek word for “preparation” is paraskeu, and this is still the modern Greek word for Friday.
Matthew 28:1: says that “in the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulcher” (KJV). Proponents of the Wednesday crucifixion theory understand this to mean that the women came to the tomb shortly before sundown on Sabbath, which, if correct, would mean that Jesus rose from the grave on Sabbath before sundown, not early Sunday morning before sunrise.
The problem with this interpretation is that it flies in the face of Mark 16:1, 2, which says, “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.”
So should we understand that the women came to the tomb “in the end of the Sabbath [Sabbath afternoon], as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week [shortly before sundown]” (Matthew 28:1, KJV), or did they come to the tomb early on Sunday morning? Three details in Mark’s account make it quite clear that they came to the tomb on Sunday morning. First, Mark says that the women came “when the Sabbath was past,” not shortly before it ended. Second, they came “very early in the morning, on the first day of the week,” not late in the day on the sevnth. And third, they came when “the sun had risen,” not when it was about to set.
Some of the biblical evidence for the day of Christ’s crucifixion can be interpreted to mean that He was crucified on Wednesday and rose from the grave late on Sabbath afternoon. However, an examination of all the biblical evidence leads me and the publishers of Signs of the Times® to conclude that He was crucified on Friday afternoon and rose from the grave early on the first day of the week, Sunday morning.