On What Day Did Jesus Die on the Cross?

Though the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is one of the most witnessed events in history, and certainly the most important, there are some differences of opinion concerning the timeline of the resurrection. Admittedly, the exact timeline is less than perfectly clear in the Scripture, as attested by the fact that there is some (hopefully amiable) disagreement among Bible-loving brethren. The two basic timelines put forth are:

  1. Christ died on Friday at 3 pm and rose from the dead one and a half days (about 38 hours) later in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning. The counting for this timeline reckons “one day” as any part of a day in the Jewish time system. So, Christ died on Friday (one day) was in the grave on Saturday (one day) and rose on Sunday (one day). Thus, He rose on the “third day”.
  2. Christ died on Wednesday at 3 pm and rose from the dead 3 days (72 hours) later in the final hours of Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath, which ended at sundown). This timeline reckons three 24-hour periods from the death of our Lord on the cross based on Matt. 12:40.

This author believes that the correct timeline is second one listed above, simply because of the clarity of Matt. 12:40 and its unmistakable expression of the length of time Christ would be “in the heart of the earth.” This timeline is demonstrated, with little room for doubt, in the text of Scripture. First, though, several key agreed-upon truths must be established:

  1. Christ died on the preparation of the Passover (John 19:14).
  2. The preparation was the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42).
  3. The Jewish Passover began and ended with a special Sabbath (Lev. 23:7).
  4. The Passover occurred on the 14th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar (Lev. 23:5), and therefore could begin on any day of the week.
  5. Mary and the disciples came to Jesus’ tomb on the morning of the first day of the week (Sunday); that is, after a normal, weekly (Saturday) Sabbath (Matt.28:1).

The above facts are agreed upon by clear testimony in Scripture. The Lord Jesus died at about 3 pm (Luke 23:44-46; “ninth hour” reckoned from sunrise) and was taken from the cross, his body prepared, and buried in Joseph’s tomb before the start of the Sabbath (Luke 23:56). All of this occurred on the “preparation” (Luke 23:54) of the Passover (John 19:14), which was the day before the first day of the Passover, which was a Sabbath (Mark 15:42), though not necessarily on Saturday because the first day of the Passover occurred on the 14th day of the first Jewish month (Lev. 23:5), whatever day that would be.

The following day, that is, the Sabbath or first day of the Passover, the chief priests and Pharisees very hypocritically went together to see Pilate (Matt. 27:62). They asked for a guard to watch the tomb to ensure that none of our Lord’s disciples tried to steal His body away by night (Matt. 27:63-64). This was granted (Matt. 27:65) and the watch was set (Matt. 27:66). This all occurred on the first day of the Passover, which was the special Sabbath.

In every Gospel the curtain is opened to the ladies on their way to the tomb of Christ to anoint His body. The Bible clearly says more than once that this occurs in the early morning hours of the day after the Sabbath (e.g. Mark 16:1). At this point one may assume that the Sabbath mentioned is the aforementioned special Sabbath that is held on the first day of the Passover. Assuming this, timeline number one above would be accurate. However, assuming this would be overshooting the Scripture. It plainly states that the women went to the tomb on the day after the Sabbath, which was the first day of the week (Mark 16:2). Therefore, the Sabbath mentioned at the opening of the final chapter of each of the books of the Evangelists was a normal, weekly Sabbath. It was a Saturday Sabbath. Furthermore, when they arrived at the tomb, our Lord was already gone (Matt. 28:6). The Scripture simply does not tell us at what time of day the Lord left the grave.

From these facts we can conclude that timeline number two above is very possible according the facts of Scripture. There is one caveat, however. Seeing that the 14th day of the first month, the first day of Passover, could occur on any day of the week, if it occurred on Saturday, what then? This is the caveat to timeline number two. If the first day of the Passover was also a normal Saturday Sabbath, then it would be possible to surmise that the “Sabbath” mentioned in the first part of the final chapter of each the Gospels could be one and the same as the one mentioned as the day after the preparation (i.e. the day after Christ died on the cross). This seems unlikely to this author for one reason. On that Sabbath day, after the preparation, the priests and Pharisees went to Pilate to get a guard to watch the tomb until the “third day” (Matt. 27:64). It seems unlikely that they would have tried to get a watch if the “third day” actually began that evening at sundown. It is surely not certain, but seems unlikely.

Because of the caveat and the simple fact that we do not know the day of the week in which the Passover began that year, the conclusion of the matter again hinges on Matthew 12:40, in which the Lord states that He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. If the Sabbaths mentioned in the text were one and the same, this verse would clearly be unfulfilled, for it allows for a maximum of only three days and two nights. So, it seems clear that the Sabbaths had to be different days. And if so, the preparation of the (Passover) Sabbath would have been Wednesday, in which the Lord died and was buried before sundown. On Thursday, the first day of the Passover, the priests and Pharisees got a watch from Pilate. On Friday nothing of note happened. On Saturday, the normal Sabbath was held. At some point on this day before sundown the Lord came out of the grave. Early the following morning, which was the first day of the week, the angel rolled the stone away to then allow the women access to the tomb to be witnesses of the greatest event in history!

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Author: Adam | July 27th, 2012

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