On what day did Jesus die?


I’ve been ‘discussing’ with a commenter on Gary Matson’s Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog the incongruities between the synoptic gospels and John’s gospel in their accounts of the crucifixion. Specifically, the day on which it took place. While tradition has it on a Friday, it has long been debated whether this is the case; see Michael J. Alter’s The Resurrection: A Critical Enquiry for an excellent overview.

Scholarly consensus is, it has to be said, that Jesus did indeed die on a Friday. However, as discussed last time, one of the many problems surrounding the date of the crucifixion is that we don’t know the year in which it happened. We don’t therefore know the precise time of the Passover that the gospels say occurred around the time of the crucifixion. If we presume that it was during the month of Nisan in AD 33 (again, refer to Alter), then the monthly Passover was on the Thursday. The problem is, we do not know if Jesus died in AD33, or even in the month of Nisan. If the end of his life was in some other year or month (and there are good reasons for thinking it may have been), then the Passover would, in all probability, have fallen on a different day.

A Friday crucifixion creates significant problems. The first is that the synoptic gospels tell us that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb ‘in the evening’. The evening of Friday (our time) is, and was, the start of the Sabbath, which would have prohibited any activity, including those the synoptic gospels tell us took place during the evening that followed Jesus’ death. These include Mary Magdalene, who apparently could find a shop open on the Sabbath, buying and preparing spices to anoint Jesus’ corpse and Joseph of Arimathea purchasing linen in which to wrap it. It also involves Joseph visiting Pilate to persuade him to release the body and then taking it down from the cross himself. All of these activities qualified as work and were strictly forbidden.

How to get round the problem? The apologist on Escaping Chrsitian Fundamentalism  has been making the case that ‘evening’ in first century Palestine was between 3pm, when Jesus died, and 6pm or thereabouts, when the sun set and the Sabbath began. There is some evidence this period was indeed known as ‘early’ evening. However, the word used for ‘evening’ in the gospels – ὀψίας – always signifies ‘late’ evening (Alter, p98). My apologist, however, argues that people in first century Palestine went to bed early, once the light began to fade (even though the gospels themselves suggest otherwise), so when the gospel writers refer to ‘the evening’ they must actually be referring to ‘late afternoon’.

The second, and to my mind more significant, problem is that a Friday burial, even if before the Sabbath began, means that Jesus was in the tomb for, at most, thirty-six hours; Friday evening to (before) dawn on Sunday when Mary Magdalene and the other women visited the tomb and decided he had risen. Thirty-six hours is only half of the ‘three days and three nights’ Jesus is made to predict he would be buried (Matthew 12.40). The writers of the gospels must surely have known this, and yet they all choose to maintain Jesus’ prediction in one form or another. Perhaps it was too well known to exclude. Or perhaps Jesus wasn’t executed and buried on a Friday.

I have been arguing with my apologist that John’s gospel addresses these two problems by locating the crucifixion a day earlier, on the Thursday, and also by having Jesus die long before 3pm. While the synoptics all say (copying from Mark) that he was put on the cross at 9am and died six hours later, John suggests that the crucifixion took place at around noon and that Jesus died quickly. John’s alternative scenario gives those involved in the burial time to prepare for it (a problem in the synotics) and allows the interment to take place in the evening proper, late Thursday evening not being part of the Sabbath. It also grants a period much closer to the prophesied three days and nights for Jesus to remain in the tomb.

Most scholars, however, agree that all four gospels record the crucifixion as taking place on a Friday. So what is my evidence that John’s gospel suggests otherwise? I’m glad you asked…