During the past 2,000 years most Christians have believed that Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon. However, some Bible students claim that He was crucified on the previous Wednesday afternoon. Which is it?
I will begin by pointing out the most important issue: Whether it happened on Friday afternoon or Wednesday afternoon, what matters is that Jesus was crucified for our sins. Those who accept Him as their Savior and commit themselves to serving Him to the best of their ability can be sure of their place in heaven, regardless of which day they choose to believe He was crucified.
Still the day of the week when Jesus was crucified is worth considering.
The Wednesday crucifixion theory is primarily based on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 12:40, where He said that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The traditional view that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon and rose at dawn the following Sunday morning would encompass only two nights, one full day, and three partial days. If Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon, how can we explain His statement that He would be in the grave three full days and three full nights? The Wednesday crucifixion theory solves the problem by pushing Jesus’ crucifixion back to Wednesday afternoon and having Him rise from the dead shortly after sundown the following Sabbath.
Nevertheless, the majority of Christian Bible scholars still maintain that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon and rose shortly before sunrise the following Sunday. So how can we tell which way it really was?
In search of a solution
A couple of principles of biblical interpretation can help us to resolve the apparent conflict.
The first principle is that, insofar as possible, we should interpret biblical passages in the context of when they were written. The Jews at Christ’s time used a way of counting time that’s known as “inclusive reckoning.” By that definition, an event that occurred on any portion of a particular day was counted as having occurred for the entire day. Thus, according to the Friday crucifixion theory, Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday afternoon shortly before sundown—day one; He remained in the tomb all day on Sabbath—day two; and He arose between sunset on Sabbath and sunrise on Sunday—day three. Inclusive reckoning would count each of these partial days as one day.
The second principle is that when one text conflicts with what others say, we must interpret the seemingly contradictory statement so that it agrees with the majority of the biblical evidence. In other words, we cannot allow the one text about Jesus being in the fish’s belly for three days and three nights (three full days) to contradict several other texts that make it clear He was in the grave less than three full days.
Applying the principles
Three lines of evidence point clearly to a Friday crucifixion.
Luke 24:13–21. The clearest evidence is found in verse 13: “The same day [the day of Jesus’ resurrection] two of [His disciples] were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem.” Jesus joined them, but they didn’t recognize Him. Jesus asked them, “ ‘What are you discussing together as you walk along?’ They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, ‘Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?’
‘What things?’ he asked.
“ ‘About Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied. ‘He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel; And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place’ ” (verses 17–21; italics added).
Had Jesus been crucified on Wednesday afternoon and resurrected shortly after sundown on Sabbath, Cleopas, speaking to Jesus on Sunday afternoon, would have had to say, “It is now the fifth day since all this took place.” Cleopas’s statement on Sunday afternoon that “this is now the third day” makes it clear beyond a doubt that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon. His statement also validates the principle of inclusive reckoning of time, in which a part of a day is counted as a full day.
Luke 23:50–56 and John 19:31. In Luke 23:54, we are told that Jesus’ crucifixion and burial occurred on “Preparation Day”—the day to prepare for the Sabbath. The proponents of the Wednesday crucifixion theory state that in the year Jesus was crucified, Passover would have occurred on a Thursday, making Wednesday a preparation day for the Passover Sabbath. However, nowhere does the Bible ever call the Passover a Sabbath.
Furthermore, John 19:31 removes this support for a Wednesday crucifixion. After calling the day of Jesus’ crucifixion a “preparation day,” John went on to point out that “that Sabbath [the day following Jesus’ crucifixion] was a high day” (NKJV).* In the Jewish culture of the time, a weekly Sabbath was called a “high day” when it coincided with one of the annual feast days. And everyone agrees that in this case the annual feast day was Passover. Therefore, in the year Jesus was crucified, Passover occurred on a seventh-day Sabbath, not on a Thursday.
Luke 23:55–24:1. Finally, we must consider the way the Gospel writers state the chronology of the weekend Jesus was crucified. Luke says that “the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph [of Arimathea (John 19:38)] and saw the tomb and how [Jesus’] body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment” (Luke 23:55, 56). Proponents of the Wednesday crucifixion argue that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus on Wednesday afternoon shortly before sundown; the women prepared their spices and perfumes on Wednesday just before sundown; and everyone rested on Thursday, which they interpret as the Sabbath of the annual Passover.
There are three problems with that interpretation. First is the fact that Luke says the women “rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment” (Luke 23:56; italics added). The Sabbath of the commandment is clearly the weekly Sabbath, not the Passover, because, as noted earlier, nowhere in the Bible is there a commandment to observe the Passover as a Sabbath.
The second problem has to do with the overall chronology in Luke’s account. In the first part, which we’ve just considered, he mentioned the crucifixion, Jesus burial, and the women preparing spices, all of which could have happened on either Wednesday or Friday afternoon. But in Luke 24:1, which immediately follows, Luke said, “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.” Thus, Luke gives us the following chronology:
- Jesus was crucified and buried on the preparation day (Friday);
- The women rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment, which was a high day in which the weekly Sabbath and the annual feast day coincided.
- Jesus rose from the tomb early on the first day of the week (Sunday).
There’s no suggestion of a Wednesday and a Thursday in this chronology.
This brings us to the third problem regarding the day Jesus was crucified. All four Gospel writers record that He rose from the dead on the first day of the week, Sunday (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). We also know that the women who went to the tomb the day after the Sabbath fully expected Him to find Him dead. He had told His disciples repeatedly that He would be killed and rise from the dead the third day (Matthew 16:21), but they all refused to believe it. Thus, if Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, what reason would the women who went to anoint His body early in the morning after a Passover Sabbath (Mark 16:1) have had for waiting all day Thursday, Friday, and Sabbath, only going to the tomb on Sunday morning?
The Wednesday crucifixion theory actually creates more problems than it solves.
Returning to the original problem, there are two theories about the day Jesus was crucified: Wednesday or Friday. How can we determine which is correct? First, we have to consider the weight of evidence, which in this case clearly supports a Friday crucifixion. And second, we have to understand the Jewish custom of inclusive reckoning—counting a part of a day as a whole—which was very common at the time Jesus lived.