Today, April 15, 2014, is the first day of Passover. The word “Passover” (Hebrew pesah) comes from the events mentioned in the book of Exodus, when the Lord visited the land of Egypt and spared Israel from the last plague that killed the firstborn of the Egyptians: “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13).
According to the Jewish calendar, the first day of Passover is celebrated on 15 Nisan. This means that the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, according to the book of Exodus, took place on the evening of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, that is, 14 Nisan.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Passover. The New Testament also says that Jesus was the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). It is in this context that Paul said: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7 ESV).
My friend and colleague Scot McKnight in his book Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory has devoted two chapters to the events related to the Last Supper and the death of Jesus. In Chapter 12, “Pesah in Jewish History” and Chapter 13, “Pesah and the Last Supper,” McKnight studies whether the Last Supper was a Pesah, a celebration of the Passover or a special meal that Jesus had with his disciples.
The reason for this lengthy discussion is because the New Testament seems to present two different views of what happened with Jesus and his disciples leading up to Jesus’ death.
For instance, Mark 14:12 says: “On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’” This means that if Jesus ate the meal with his disciples on the day when the Passover lamb was sacrificed (14 Nisan), as Mark writes, then Jesus died the next day, 15 Nisan, Passover day, which is very unlikely.
According to John 19:14, Jesus died on “the day of Preparation for the Passover.” The day of preparation for the Passover would be 14 Nisan. John then tells his readers: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed” (John 19:31).
This then, raises an important question: what day of the week did Jesus die? Before I answer this question, let us see how McKnight solves the problem raised by Mark and John. He wrote:
“What then are we to make of the problem left over from the discussion about the Synoptics—namely what to do with Mark 14:12, 14, 16? These texts and John 19:14, if the term pascha has the same meaning, seem to be historically irreconcilable. Either Jesus instructed his disciples to prepare Pesah during the time of the slaughter (Mark) or he died when the victims were being slaughtered (John)” (2005:271).
Scot then continues,
“I have argued above that Mark’s account is best not explained as a non-Pesah meal, and I have further argued that John’s text is best explained as indicating that Jesus died Nisan 14/15, when the lambs were being slaughtered in the temple. He was buried before the feast actually began” (2005:272).
It is important to emphasize that John’s view that Jesus died on 14 Nisan, the day of preparation for the Passover, is the best interpretation of the time when Jesus died. He died on the eve of the Passover.
Another clue that must be taken into consideration when deciding the day Jesus died is found in Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees when they asked him for a sign. Jesus said to them: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40).
The question then is whether we should take the “three days and three nights” literally or symbolically. If Jesus died on a Friday, then the three days and three nights must be taken symbolically, that is, counting the few hours after his death as a whole day, the sabbath as the second day, and the morning of the first week as the third day.
The symbolic interpretation of the days does not account for the three days and three nights that Jesus said he would be “in the heart of the earth.” So, there must be another way of deciding the day when Jesus died. I want to make a proposal, one that is based on the Jewish calendar.
In 2014, according to the Jewish calendar, the first day of Passover falls on Tuesday. According to the Christian calendar, Jesus’ death is always observed on a Friday, whether or not the day agrees with the Jewish Passover. In 2014 Good Friday will be on April 18.
According to the Jewish calendar, the first day of Passover, 15 Nissan, can only fall on four days of the week: Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. If Jesus died on 14 Nisan, then he died either on a Friday, Saturday, Monday, or Wednesday. Of these dates for Nisan 14, only two days can meet our quest for the day when Jesus died: Friday or Wednesday. Saturday and Monday are out of the question because they would not allow for the resurrection to occur on the first day of the week.
So, we are left with Friday and Wednesday. As I mentioned above, only if we accept a symbolic interpretation of the three days could Friday be the day when Jesus died.
However, if we take the three days that Jesus mentioned literally, then Wednesday would be the most acceptable day for the death of Jesus. He died on a Wednesday, 14 Nisan, just “before the feast actually began” as McKnight wrote. Then he was in the grave Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, Jesus arose from the grave.
This view finds tentative support in Matthew 28:1. The expression “as the first day of the week was dawning” in Greek is εἰς μίαν σαββάτων, an expression that could be translated “toward one of the sabbaths.”
What Matthew is saying is that the week when Jesus died there were two sabbaths: the first day of Passover was a sabbath and the seventh day of the week was also a sabbath.
Moses told the people of Israel: “On the first day [of the Passover] you shall hold a solemn assembly” (Exodus 12:16). Speaking of 15 Nisan, the day of the Passover, John wrote: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity” (John 19:31).
John clearly says that the day after the day of preparation, the first day of Passover, 15 Nisan, was a sabbath, a day of solemn rest, in the same way that today, 15 Nisan (April 15) is also a day of solemn rest for our Jewish brothers and sisters. Today, the first day of Passover is a sabbath, a day of solemn rest, even though in our calendar is just a Tuesday.
To say that Jesus died on a Wednesday does not take anything away from Holy Week or Good Friday. During Holy Week we remember the life, suffering, and death of Jesus. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ victory over death. The day he died is not as important as the day he arose from the grave. Our victory is based on what happened on that first day of the week.
Many people are reluctant to accept the fact that Jesus died on a Wednesday. They prefer the traditional day of Friday, even though Friday does not agree with what Jesus said about his time in the grave. There is nothing wrong in accepting the traditional day for Jesus’ death.
As for me, I would rather take Jesus at his word, that he, the Son of Man, would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. If I accept what Jesus said about himself, then I also must believe that he died on a Wednesday.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Scot McKnight. Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, and Atonement Theory. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005.