What Day Did Jesus Die?

This post also  appears this morning at Conciliar Post.

When students are first introduced to the historical, as opposed to a devotional, study of the Bible, one of the first things they are forced to grapple with is that the biblical text, whether Old Testament or New Testament, is chock full of discrepancies, many of them irreconcilable…. In some cases seemingly trivial points of difference can actually have an enormous significance for the interpretation of a book or the reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel or the life of the historical Jesus.”—Bart D. Ehrman1

16018664585_580b37bc3a_oAs this statement from contemporary (and popular) New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman indicates, there those who study Christianity—its scriptures and history—who argue that the canonical gospels2 do not present a historically accurate account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Around Easter every year, scholars and journalists of this perspective often pen pieces on the ”Why the Resurrection Story is a Myth” or ”Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” In more nuanced versions of these discussions, the credibility of early Christian accounts of Christ’s passion and resurrection is called into question, even on facts as seemingly mundane as the day on which Jesus was crucified.3 Such is the position of Ehrman, who argues that the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Gospel of John portray Jesus as being killed on two different days, thus revealing their historical inaccuracy and untruthfulness.4 In this post, I will examine this claim and explain why the canonical gospels indicate that Jesus died on the same day, what has been historically called Good Friday.

Traditionally, the date of Jesus’ death has been derived from the dating given by the Synoptic Gospel accounts in relation to the Jewish festival of Passover. More recently, however, some scholars have argued that the Matthew, Mark, and Luke portray Jesus as being killed on Passover, whereas John’s Gospel shows Jesus being killed the day before Passover, on the so-called “Day of Preparation,” the day that the lamb was killed in preparation for the Passover meal.5 While some have attempted to explain this apparent contradiction away by suggesting that John changed his narrative to better fit his “Lamb of God” theology, this explanation remains unsatisfying. Does the Bible really say that Jesus was killed on two different days? To address this question, let us turn to what the gospels of Mark6 and John say about the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

Context

bloodoverdoor2Before trying to interpret these passages, we need to grasp their basic context. First, the events surrounding Jesus’ death occurred around the time of a Jewish festival called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. In today’s context, we call this festival “Passover” and then, as now, this holy day is a commemoration of the plague against the firstborns of Egypt recorded in Exodus 12-13.7 While the people of Israel were not always the more diligent in observing the Passover, the Jews of Jesus’ day were quite observant when it came to celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Second, we need to be aware of how the Jewish people understand a “day.” Notice how time is construed in Genesis 1:“God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day…. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day…. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.”8 Here we see the pattern of “evening and then morning” of the {number} day. Based on this passage, the Jewish people reckoned days as beginning at sundown and continuing (what is about 24 hours) until the next sundown. While we gauge days as beginning and ending at midnight, in the ancient world there were no atomic clocks to let you know when it was midnight and a new day had begun. Instead, they relied on the sun: when the sun goes down, the day is over and a new day begins. Therefore—and this is important—what we call Thursday night would actually be Friday evening for Second Temple Jews.

The Crucifixion according to Mark

The Gospel of MarkMark has the following to say about the chronology leading up to Jesus’ death:

“And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover? And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.”9

In Mark’s chronology (and Matthew and Luke’s as well), the sequence of events leading to the crucifixion chronology beings during the daylight hours of the “Day of Preparation” for the Passover, the day “when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” Now, the “Day of Preparation” includes the daytime hours of the 24-hour period during which Passover is eaten after dark. That is, if we are going to eat the Passover meal after the sun goes down today (April 2, 2015), today’s daylight hours are part of the “Day of Preparation” and tonight is the Passover feast. According to this chronology, Mark describes the Last Supper scene as the Passover meal, a celebration of the Old Covenant at which Jesus institutes the New Covenant. Therefore, using our chronology of days, Mark presents the passion of Christ in the following way: Last Supper (Passover) Thursday night, crucifixion during the day on Friday, burial Friday before sundown, and subsequent resurrection Sunday morning.

The Crucifixion according the John

The Gospel of JohnThere are a number of passages used to try and demonstrate the chronological differences between Mark and John, including John 13.1, 18.28, and 19.14. The starting point for the Johannine chronology of Christ’s death is 13.1, where some argue that John indicates the events which follow occur before Passover. Look at John 13.1-4, however:

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper.” (Bolding mine)

The reference to “supper” in verse two seems to be a direct reference to the previous verse, where John speaks of the “Feast of the Passover.” It would follow, then, that John is not speaking of a supper before the Passover, but rather that he is talking about the Passover itself (like Mark).

AlmsgivingThis interpretation is further reinforced by events which occur later at the supper. For example, following the departure of Judas, the remaining disciples wonder why he has left. John writes that, “Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, ‘Buy what we need for the feast,’ or that he should give something to the poor.10 This explanation only makes sense if they were celebrating the Passover feast for two reasons. First, if Jesus and his disciples are not eating the actual Passover meal, thinking that Judas is going to purchase materials for the duration of the feast makes no sense. They could purchase whatever they needed the next day—the Day of Preparation. If they are in the midst of a multi-day feast, however, going out for more supplies make more sense. Second, a traditional facet of the Passover celebration involved almsgiving. This explains the alternate explanation John provides, that some thought Judas departed in order to give money to the poor; but this too only works if the Passover had just been celebrated. Reading John 13 contextually thereby suggests that John writes of the Last Supper as happening the night of Passover, just like Mark’s Gospel.

Mel Gibson's Pontius Pilate

Mel Gibson’s Pontius Pilate

A second passage often used to argue for different chronologies of Jesus’ death comes from John 18.28, which reads: “Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” At face value the simple reference to the Passover seems to indicate that the Jews had not yet eaten the Passover meal.11 To fully understand this passage, however, we must consider the traditions of Passover week and Jewish ceremonial law. Leviticus 15.5-11—and the ceremonial laws derived from that passage—indicate that certain forms of ritual defilement end at sundown. According to this statute, any Jew who entered the home of a Gentile would be considered clean (and thus able to eat the Passover meal) that night. Therefore, the meal that the Jewish leaders are worried about being defiled for (and thus unable to eat) cannot be the Passover itself. What they could not have eaten if they were unclean was the hagigah, a ceremonial meal eaten at noon on the day of Passover. Remember, Passover starts in the evening and then continues until the next evening. Thus when John writes that the Jewish leaders would not enter Pilate’s headquarters because of Passover, he uses the term colloquially, to indicate that entering the house of a Gentile would make them unclean for the hagigah meal. This is much the same way that my wife and I will be busy on April 6 celebrating Easter; it will not actually be “Easter” on that day, but that’s when we are getting together with family to celebrate that holiday. Again, this interpretation suggests  a uniformity of chronology between John and Mark.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe third passage used to argue for differences between the Synoptics and Fourth Gospel is John 19.14: “Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’” Note the grammatical structure of this translation: is it the day of Preparation for the Passover? No. It’s the day of Preparation of the Passover.12 I point out this distinction because in the Jewish world, Friday is always—without exception—the day of Preparation for the Sabbath. Thus, for John to say that the day Jesus was being crucified was the “day of Preparation of the Passover” suggests to his readers that the day he is describing is in fact Friday—the day of Preparation, not for the Passover, but for the Sabbath. Indeed, if we keep reading, John makes this distinction clear in 19.31: “Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.” According to John 19 (as with John 13 and 18), Jesus was portrayed as crucified and buried the day before the Sabbath (Friday) during the week of Passover. This accords perfectly with the Markan account of the crucifixion, where Mark explains that Jesus was taken down from the cross and hastily buried because it was the Day of Preparation (though Mark here clarifies by noting it was the Day of Preparation for the Sabbath).13

Conclusions

Although these three passages from John may, at first glance, appear to contradict the chronology of the passion as outlined in the Synoptic Gospels, this article has shown that a contextual and historically informed approach to John’s Gospel indicates there are no such contradictions. This means several things. First, the four canonical Gospel accounts present the death (and resurrection) of Jesus following the same chronology; there is no internal canonical confusion on this matter. Second, we may infer that due to the theological construction of John’s gospel (namely, his portrayal of Jesus as the Lamb of God), his emphasis may be more theological rather than historical in nature. This does not mean that John is necessarily less accurate than the Synoptics, but rather helps explain why that Gospel employs obfuscating language where the others are more explicit. Third, we may conclude that the traditional Christian chronology of the passion, death, and resurrection finds no reason for historical unreliability. The implications of this historical exercise should call us toward a remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial suffering and death for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, lead us to celebrate (later this week) his defeat of death and resurrection from the death, and spur us on to the hope of his second coming and the future general resurrection of the dead.

Jesus IconTo step back from interpretation for a brief moment and offer some more practical conclusions, I make two suggestions. First, I hope this exercise has demonstrated something about the importance of context in understanding and interpreting a passage. The accounts recorded in the Bible were written in and about specific contexts, we must make context king in order to understanding the meaning of anything. This means that we need to read and understand the Old Testament before we can truly make sense of the New Testament. For without understanding the context of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, how can we fully understand the significance of those events? Second, if we think that Christian faith or the Bible are (in any way) important, we need to try and understand what the Bible says and how we can apply it to our lives. This does not mean forcing what we think to be true onto the Biblical text or reading a passage a certain way because it has “always been” read that way. Rather, this means we should spend time engaging the scriptures in order to continue growing in our faith. As we remember Christ’s death tomorrow and celebrate Easter this Sunday, remember that the canonical gospels present a unified account of Christ’s passion, an account which calls us to follow Christ ourselves.


Sources

1 Bart. D. Ehrman. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). San Francisco: HarperOne, 2010. 19.

2 Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

3 For a historic overview of this problem, see Massey H. Shepherd, “Are Both the Synoptics and John Correct About the Date of Jesus’ Death”, Journal of Biblical Literature 80, 2 (1961): 123-132. Available here.

4 Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, 19-61.

5 It should be noted that—theologically speaking at least—some have explained this apparent discrepancy away by arguing that the Fourth Gospel portrays Jesus as crucified on the Day of Preparation for the Passover in order to better fit his “Lamb of God” theology.

6 The Synoptic Gospels roughly follow the same outline in telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. For the sake of time (and my editor’s sanity), we will not look at all three of the Synoptics, only the Gospel According to Mark, which is often viewed as the earliest gospel written.

7 More specifically Exodus 13.3ff.

8 Genesis 1:5, 8

9 Mark 14:12-14, 16

10 John 13:29

11 In trying to make sense of what is going on and unify the gospel accounts, some commentators write that perhaps different sects of Judaism would celebrate Passover on different days. And in fact the historical record seems to indicate that this did occasionally occur. However, no record indicates that different celebratory days were observed in the same city, but that different days were used by when different sects of Judaism were in control. As all of the events being described are going on in Jerusalem, clearly this is not what is happening.

12 For those curious concerning the Greek in this passage, the word being translated here is tou, the genitive article governing the next word pascha (Passover). Genitives are often translated “of”. If John had used the dative form of the article (in this case tw), we could take his meaning to be “for.”

13 Mark 15:42

 

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “What Day Did Jesus Die?

  1. Pingback: ¿QUÉ DÍA MURIÓ JESÚS? | EL BLOG DEL APOLOGISTA CRISTIANO/ INGº. MARIO OLCESE SANGUINETI (LIMA/PERÚ)

  2. Pingback: Book Review: 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus (Pate) | Pursuing Veritas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s