On Which Day of the Week Did Jesus Die?

On which day of the week did Jesus 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:

  1. “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).
  2. “After three days” (μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας). There are four times this phrase is used (Matthew 27:63; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34).
  3. “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).
  4. “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)).
  5. “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:

Thursday crucifixion:
1st day—Thursday afternoon
2nd day—Friday
3rd day—Saturday
(don’t count Sunday morning)

Friday crucifixion:
1st day—Friday afternoon
2nd day—Saturday
3rd day—Sunday morning

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.

What do you think? I can’t promise to answer your further questions, but do ask or instruct as you wish in the comments below.

  1. Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1977), p. 74.
  2. Ibid., p. 65, cf. p. 68.
  3. 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.
  4. Ibid., p. 74, emphasis added.
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25 thoughts on “On Which Day of the Week Did Jesus Die?”

  1. Very interesting, Dwight, as always!

    I still remain to be convinced about Friday (but then I have not read Hoehner…). There are few other items which seem to make more sense if we assume the death on Thursday (i.e. assuming “Sabbath” meaning “a holy day” not Saturday); you seem to be mentioning Synoptics only, not John; the Passover meal; women waiting over sabbath; soldiers guarding the tomb, etc.

    Does it matter? Probably not as much, as you rightly point out, although I do know people who would say that unless you agree with their interpretation, you are not a true Christians.

    This brings to fore another, perhaps more important, question. How ‘strict’ with the Scriptures do we need to be? In other words, should we be sticking to a certain interpretation (or even reading) of a particular Scripture, as any departures would ‘erode our trust in the Scriptures’? Where are the limits of freedom to interpret/change?

    Apologies for late Easter Saturday ramblings. Have a great and peaceful Easter – He has risen!

    1. Good questions, Adam. On the Sabbath and Passover questions, see my brief replies to others in this thread; Hoehner does deal with these questions.

      On the question of interpreting Scripture: I think we need to be fully convinced that there is a right way to interpret every passage, and that ways that contradict this right way are indeed false. And so we take the task of interpretation seriously, with God’s help. But we also must remain humble and aware that we will not get every interpretation correct. We should be ready to learn from others and change our views when necessary. That is called learning!

  2. I think you are probably right although here is an interesting article that I read from the other perspective yesterday. https://jewsforjudaism.org/knowledge/articles/three-days-in-tomb/
    The other thought that keeps flitting through my mind in all of this counting and calculation is that we are dealing with a person who didn’t seem to be as tied to time and space as most of the rest of us. Perhaps he made an appearance in “the heart of the earth” before it was official. Just a thought.

    1. Mark, that article is actually published by a group that is trying to convinced Jews not to believe in Jesus. They use a confusing name, don’t they! I am pretty sure Jesus did fulfill his own prophecy.

  3. Unfortunately, they weren’t using the Julian calendar, and that’s what really muddies the waters. Honestly, I think the more important issue is that we observe, and mourn, and celebrate what happened. (I have a friend who’s Greek Orthodox, and their Easter seldom coincides with ours.)

  4. In Alaska there is a camp ground about 29 miles in on road to Mt McKinley. You can only stay there if you stay 3 nights. So you have to arrive on say Friday and leave on Monday to stay three nights. So if a person arrives on Friday and leaves on Monday is he there for 4 days? Not met to disprove any thing you have said in this blog. As you said, it is more important why Christ died then when. How does the Jewish passover fit time wise with the view that Jesus Died on Friday when the Passover Lamb was slain?

    1. James, I’m sure that it won’t work very well to use ancient Jewish ways of talking about time when reserving cabins in Alaska today. 🙂 On the Passover question, see my reply to Chris. I think the Synoptic Gospels pair Passover with the Lord’s Supper, while John pairs it with Jesus death. Both pairings have theological significance. As Paul said, Jesus is our Paschal Lamb.

      I’d love to spend a weekend at that Alaska campground. Can you give me any leads? 🙂

      1. Haven’t been their yet. Planning a trip this summer with our family that is still home. The national park sites give you the scoop.

  5. So, without going into a lot of detail here, I once read an interesting article that explained it quite well to my mechanically minded mind (everything has to ‘fit’ and have an explanation 😊). The article said this ‘Jesus was buried on Wednesday. The next day was ‘a’ sabbath, not ‘the’ sabbath meaning that it was actually a holiday, not a Saturday. We know that He died on the day before a sabbath which would automatically make it Friday as Saturday is the sabbath. However, this guy pointed out that one of the gospels (can’t remember which one, too tired and lazy to look it up 😁) says “this sabbath was a holy day” which means that it wasn’t Saturday which means that Jesus did not die on Friday. Just thought I’d throw that in the mix. You’re most welcome of course! Happy Easter (Or Happy Resurrection Day) 🙂

    1. Hi Michael! Hoehner does address the “day of preparation for the Sabbath” question. He finds historical evidence that leads him to conclude that there was only one Sabbath referred to in the week of Jesus’ death–the one on Saturday, which was mentioned as special because it occurred during Passover week. I don’t have time to expound all the details, but did want to say Hoehner takes this into account. Blessings on your post-Easter week! 🙂

  6. The important issue is that we believe that this was part of the work of redemption.
    Here are a few of my thoughts. I have never heard anyone disagreeing that Palm Sunday was on Sunday (the first day of the week). If we look at Ex. 12:1-6 we see that the 10th day was lamb selection day. When Jesus entered Jerusalem that day there were two things taking place: One: this was the fulfillment of Zech. 9:9 and Jesus was being proclaimed by his disciples and others that He is the King of the Jews, Luke 19:36-38. Second: Jesus was silently saying, I am the Lamb. Since Sunday was lamb selection day (10th day was Sunday, 11th day- Monday, 12th day- Tuesday, 13th day- Wednesday, 14th day- Thursday) and the lamb was to be killed in the evening of the 14th day. Jesus and his disciples had the passover that evening and Jesus instituted communion that evening for the first time. They then left the upper room, went to the garden and Jesus was arrested that night, and crucified during the day of Friday.
    For more reading, read from the book: Annals of the World by James Ussher, read pages 812 – 824

  7. I like to think that God knew what he wanted the gospel writers to write. If Jesus said he was going to be dead three days and three nights then he had to die on Thursday. That’s the only way he could have been in the grave for three nights. Also he would also have been dead more than two full days but less than three, thus rising on the third day. Another thing, if you follow his last week Thursday seems to be missing, unless he was crucified that day.

    1. On the three nights question, as I noted in the post, there is OT evidence that this was an idiomatic saying and that a Jew who said this was understood not to mean a literal three nights, but only some sort of a three-day period. I know that goes against our modern way of talking about time, but it appears to be a very biblical way of understanding things.

      On the missing Thursday, yes, some point to a missing day (more often Wednesday) if Jesus died on Friday. That may be possible. Or, Hoehner may be right when he suggests that Jesus actually entered Jerusalem on Monday rather than Sunday, so that there is no missing day.

      Again, I’d have to read Hoehner again to say more. Thanks for the comments!

  8. In reading James Beachy’s comment I am more firmly convinced that Jesus died on Thursday. Why would God get everything else perfect and miss the day the lamb was to die. If the Passover lamb was to die on Thursday night why would God wait until Friday for the True Passover Lamb to give his life? Also, in John it specifically states that the Passover had not yet been eaten before Jesus’ crucifixion. (John 18:38) Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgement and it was early and they themselves went not into the judgement hall lest they should be defiled but that they MIGHT EAT THE PASSOVER. (Emphasis mine) The Passover was eaten on Thursday night, after Jesus was crucified. It all makes perfect sense. Jesus didn’t eat the Passover with his disciples, He “desired, with desire to eat it” but He knew that He would be in the grave when the Passover was eaten. He had however made sure His followers had somewhere to eat it and had given them the Lord’s Supper as a reminder of him. (The Greek word for bread in the accounts of the Lord’s Supper is artos. This refers to a normal leavened loaf of bread. The Greek word for a loaf of unleavened bread, Passover bread, is matzos which does not appear anywhere in the accounts of The Last Supper.

    1. Chris, thanks for taking time to respond. The Passover question is an important one. I wish I had time to discuss it now. I do want to say that Hoehner certainly does discuss this question. If my memory serves me well, the Synoptics seem to imply that Jesus held his Last Supper on Passover night, while John seems to imply, as you note, that it was the evening before the Passover. Hoehner discusses the possibility that there were two different days when Passover was observed, one day by many Galileans and one by Judeans, and that this dual observance explains the apparent discrepancies in the Gospel accounts (John = Judean, Synoptics = Galilean). That is all from memory; I may have some details wrong.

      Grab Hoehner’s book for cheap on Kindle if you want to dig deeper! 🙂

  9. Hi Dwight,
    Interesting post. I’ve added Hoehner’s book to my wish list.

    I agree with the traditional view that He died on Friday. I think two things that you mentioned are crucial: “on the third day” and “after three days” means the same thing, and the rabbi’s quote: “A day and night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it”. This is how they counted time: part of a day is counted as a whole day. They didn’t count the number of days by 24 or 48 hours, nor did they skip ahead and count tomorrow as the first day. So if they said, “in three days”, today is counted as the first day. So if he was put in the tomb on Friday and rose again on Sunday, then Friday, Saturday, and Sunday should each be included in the number of days. If he died on Thursday and rose again on Sunday, the Bible would have said he was in the grave for four days.

    They had a similar way of counting the years of a king’s reign in the Old Testament. For us, let’s say someone is crowned king in November 2017. He dies in January 2018. We wouldn’t even say he reigned two years. We might say he reigned 14 months, or a little over a year. But the Israelites would use one of two methods to count the length of his reign. One method was “accession year reckoning” when his first year (2017) would be called his accession year. So then 2018 would be called his first year, and 2019 his second year. With this method, they would say he reigned two years. The other method was “non-accession year reckoning”; this is similar to the way they counted the days that Jesus was in the tomb. The year he is crowned was counted as the full first year; so they would’ve counted three years: 2017, 2018, 2019. He reigned three years! (When to us he reigned just three months).

    The divided kingdoms used different methods at different times; sometimes when a new dynasty came to power in Israel, the reckoning would change. The Bible often says that a king came to power in a certain year of the king of the other kingdom (for example 2 Kings 18:1 – “In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign.”) So scholars can try to synchronize the chronology and figure out which method they were using.

    I agree this is not a highly important issue. I just don’t like seeing unnecessary confusion. I don’t know if Seventh-Day Adventism could benefit from the confusion – for example, by not counting Sunday, and so arguing that we shouldn’t worship on Sunday after all?

      1. That makes better sense. And I think you meant to say “When to us he reigned just 14 months” rather than “When to us he reigned just three months” at the end of the same paragraph. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Matt. And excellent evidence from the OT! Yes, I can confirm I have read the same about the chronology of the kings that you shared here, even though I would not have been able to pull it all up from memory. Your observations greatly strengthen what I shared in the OP. Thanks again.

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