I was invited to preach a Palm Sunday sermon today. It was a blessing to meditate on the example of our Servant King. Perhaps if I share this here now, some of you will find it in time to watch it this evening–or sometime later during this special week of remembering our Lord’s suffering and death.
Sermon Title: Worshiping and Imitating Our Servant King
Main Text: Matthew 21:1-11 (Jesus’ Triumphal Entry)
Supporting Texts: Psalm 118; Isaiah 53; Daniel 7; Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-34
Teaser: Our world is full of images of power-hunger leaders, leaders who are willing to use even violence to hold onto power. Today we are going to see a King whose example sharply contrasts with such worldly rulers. His way of ruling should inspire both our worship and our imitation.
I was blessed by the responses after the sermon, including someone who shared an impromptu performance of Michael Card’s song Ride On to Die.
The first thing that must be said about this question is that it is not a question of first importance, nor even of second importance. It is much more important to understand why Jesus died than to pinpoint when. So if today’s question doesn’t interest you, that’s fine.
Nevertheless, the question of when Jesus died has often been debated. And it becomes an important one if it threatens to either divide Christians or erode our trust in the Scriptures.
Three answers have been commonly given to my question: Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. According to Harold W. Hoehner, “the Friday crucifixion view has had the overwhelming support of scholars throughout the history of the church.”1 But the Thursday view and the Wednesday view (though to a lesser extent) have also been defended by some scholars. (Note: I will be relying heavily on Hoehner in this post, using his book Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, available on Kindle right now for only $2.99.)
According to Hoehner, “the primary support” for both the Wednesday and Thursday crucifixion views “is the literal interpretation of Matthew 12:40 where Jesus states: ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.'”2 But Hoehner believes that this piece of evidence for a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion is not as strong as it first appears.
In this post I will build on Hoehner’s thoughts on this one specific argument. I acknowledge that there are other factors that should also be weighed to better answer my original question. But hopefully addressing this one factor will help strengthen our trust in the Scriptures.
The place to begin is to compare all the ways that Jesus spoke about how long after his death he would rise. There are at least five phrases that he and others used:
“On the third day” (τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ). This is the most frequently used phrase, occurring nine times (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 46; Acts 10:40; 1Corinthians 15:4).
“After three days” (μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας). There are four times this phrase is used (Matthew 27:63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34).
“Three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας). This phrase is used once, as cited above (Matthew 12:40).
“In three days” (ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις). This occurs twice, where Jesus says “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” and the Jews discuss his saying. John clarifies that Jesus was speaking about his own body (John 2:19-20)).
“In three days” (διὰ τριῶν ἡμερῶν). This similar phrase occurs twice, where Jesus’ accusers report his saying about rebuilding the temple (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58).
The first thing to note is that a very literalistic interpretation of all five phrases leads to direct contradictions. Phrase (3) “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” seems the most specific, so it is tempting to try to reconcile all the others to this one. Phrase (2) “after three days” could indeed be reconciled quite nicely with (3); the presence or absence of “nights” makes little difference. But there is no way to make a hyper-literal reading of phrase (1) “on the third day” mean the same as phrase (2) “after three days.” If I tell you to come to my house “on” Sunday, that is not the same as if I tell you to come “after” Sunday. So there is no way that phrases (1), (2), and (3) can all be synthesized if they are interpreted in a hyper-literalistic fashion.
Thankfully, parallel passages in the synoptic Gospels point to a solution. In three of the four occurrences of “after three days” (2), there are parallel passages where the phrase “on the third day” (1) is used instead (Mark 8:31 = Matthew 16:21 / Luke 9:22; Mark 9:31 = Matthew 17:23; Mark 10:34 = Matthew 20:19 / Luke 18:33). This shows that the Gospel writers understood the two expressions “on the third day” and “after three days” to mean the same thing. They did not have a hyper-literalistic understanding of time references as we often do.
The fourth occurrence of “after three days” (2) also points toward this understanding, for the response of the Jewish leaders to Jesus’ statement about rising “after three days” was to ask for a guard “until the third day” (ἕως τῆς τρίτης ἡμέρας), not “until after the third day” (Matthew 27:63-64). So the Jewish leaders, too, understood phrases (1) and (2) to be equivalent.
To my amateur mind, phrases (4) and (5) could naturally match either (1) or (2), especially since (1) and (2) are actually equivalent. If so, we have now found a biblical way to synthesize four of the five phrases. (Hoehner does not discuss the last two phrases on my list.)
This leaves phrase (3)—the Matthew 12:40 statement—as the only “three-day saying” that seems to point toward a Wednesday crucifixion. But an examination of OT and rabbinic Jewish ways of discussing the passage of time shows that this passage, too, should not be ready in a hyper-literalistic fashion. For example, in Esther 4:16 Esther tells the Jews, “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day… Then I will go to the king.” But in Esther 5:1 we read that she went to the king “on the third day,” not “after three days and three nights.” (See also 1 Samuel 30:12-13; Hoehner mentions more passages.)
Similarly, several passages in the rabbinic literature reportedly “combine” the Jonah time-table (“three days and three nights,” Jonah 1:17) with various “on the third day” passages such as Genesis 22:4 and Genesis 42:17-18. (I am not sure what Hoehner means by “combine.”) More clearly, Hoehner reports that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (c. A.D. 100) stated, “A day and night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it”3
There are other factors to discuss when determining which day of the week Jesus died, but this is how Hoehner summarizes this primary factor:
“When one examines all the evidence, it seems that the New Testament, the Old Testament, and Rabbinic literature all agree that a part of a day is counted as a whole day-and-night. Thus, the expressions: ‘the three days and three nights,’ ‘after three days,’ and ‘on the third day’ are all one and the same time span.“4
Even when using an ancient Jewish approach to when a new day starts (at sundown), the above data could fit with either a Thursday or a Friday crucifixion—though it seems to me that by Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s method Friday works somewhat better:
If the analysis in this post is correct, then there is little reason to argue for a Wednesday crucifixion and one of the primary reasons to argue for a Thursday crucifixion has been removed. Other factors would need to be discussed to explain why some scholars still prefer a Thursday crucifixion but most conclude that the traditional view, Friday, makes most sense of the biblical and historical data.
My goal in this post was not primarily to convince you about which day of the week Jesus died. Rather, it was an exercise in reading the Scriptures carefully. I admit I enjoy that sort of investigation for its own sake! But hopefully this post will also increase your confidence, as it did mine, that the Scriptures can be trusted to make sense when we read them on their own terms.
Ibid., p. 74. Hoehner cites three passages in Midrash Rabbah and Midrash on the Psalms regarding the Jonah passage, and the Jerusalem Talmud (Shabbath ix. 3) and the Babylonian Talmud (Pesahim 4a) regarding Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s statement. ↩