The Crucifixion of Yeshua Was On a Friday

By Geert ter Horst

The Crucifixion (Bloch)

The Crucifixion (Bloch)

I. Introduction: The Debate in Messianic and Evangelical Circles

In messianic and wider evangelical circles there’s always a fair amount of discussion going on about the problem how to reconcile the synoptic data about the crucifixion of Yeshua with the data of the Gospel of John. This discussion primarily concentrates on the calendrical date of the crucifixion: Did it happen on the 14th or the 15th of Nisan? In addition to, or in the midst of this debate, there is much disagreement about the exact weekday. In accordance with ordinary Christian tradition many assume this was a Friday. Others are convinced that Yeshua was crucified on a Wednesday or Thursday.

This article will only attempt to clarify the issue of the weekday of the crucifixion. Was indeed a Friday, as tradition states, or was it perhaps another day?

This last mentioned discussion revolves largely around the interpretation of the word “Shabbat” in connection with the burial, especially in John. 19:31, which says:

John 19:31
The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the Shabbat — for that Shabbat was great — besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.

Another text that plays a major role is Mt. 12:40, where Yeshua’s residence in the grave is  posited to be three days and three nights.

Matthew 12:40
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Those who hold the opinion that Yeshua was crucified on a Wednesday or Thursday interpret the text just quoted from John as if the Shabbat mentioned there would not relate to the weekly Shabbat. Supposedly, the annual holiday of Passover would have been called a “Shabbat” by John, although it occurred on different day of the week. During the time frame from the crucifixion to the resurrection there were thus two Sabbaths: first an annual Sabbath, the feast of Passover, and then the weekly Sabbath. The Resurrection according to this opinion happened after or towards the end of the weekly Sabbath.

Support for this interpretation is sought in the text of Matthew 12:40. The importance of this text for establishing the day (and calendrical date) of the crucifixion according to many lays in the ability to use information about the day of the resurrection in order to fix the day of the crucifixion (or vice versa). From the day of Yeshua’s resurrection, one should thus count three full days back for fixing the crucifixion day, or, the other way round, for fixing the resurrection day (and date) one should count three full days ahead from the day of the crucifixion.

The reasoning is that if Yeshua were risen after the weekly Sabbath, it would be impossible for him to be crucified on the preceding Friday. For the time period in the grave would be too short to be counted as “three days and three nights”.

I’ll return to these texts in detail in the following and try to check whether the explanation proposed here above is satisfactory.

In addition to biblical also astronomical arguments are adduced. In the year of the crucifixion of Yeshua the 14th (or 15th) of Nissan might or might not have fallen on a Friday (or Wednesday or Thursday).

The astronomical debate on this issue is very speculative because the intricate details of the Jewish calendar as it functioned in the first century are not known. In the first place we have to face the question of the leap years here. What were the guidelines according to which one occasionally added a second month Adar? Chwolson discloses that this didn’t just happen to keep up with the course of the solar year. A month was also added if the Spring season held off, the roads remained muddy and impassable for the pilgrims to Jerusalem, and the harvest was delayed. This last point was important for the bringing of the Omer sheaf during the Passover week. The barley fields had to be suitable for harvesting at the time of Passover. [1]

An secondary factor of uncertainty is that, for establishing the beginning of a new month, the observation of the crescent was an important factor. A month could last 29 or 30 days and sometimes a cloudy or cloudless sky could be a deciding factor for on which day to start the new month.

Moreover, it should be added to the foregoing that the year of Yeshua’s crucifixion cannot be established with certainty. The opinions vary considerably on this. The years 29, 30 and 33 CE are the most frequently mentioned. In a recent study by Colin J. Humphreys the astronomical possibilities were again explored. This study concludes that the most likely crucifixion date is Friday, April 3, 33. [2]

Since one must take into account many unknown factors, it is difficult and even extremely difficult to reconstruct the calendar by using astronomy and to get any certitude about the weekday of Yeshua’s crucifixion in this manner. For this reason I’ll disregard the astronomical discussion and limit my investigation to the biblical data.

II. The Distinction Between Sabbath and Holiday

The main fact on which the Gospel of John and the Synoptics agree is that the crucifixion took place on the day which preceeds the Sabbath, and remarkably it is about this fact — which at first sight should offer clarity — that opinions vary and a typical messianic and evangelical confusion begins. As already noted, many commentators wonder whether this Sabbath was an annual or a weekly Sabbath. In other words: Was it the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week or an annual holiday which in principle could fall on any day of the week?

One starts here from the premise that the annual holidays are called “Shabbat” in the Bible. One meets this premise countless times in evangelical and messianic publications. In connection with the crucifixion one refers in particular to Joh. 19:31 as a text that seems to support the idea that an annual feast day is a Shabbat.

However, closer examination of the biblical texts shows clearly that this premise is miserably incorrect.

In the Bible there are exactly three and only three things which are called “Shabbat”. These are the following:

(1) The seventh day of each week;

(2) The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur);

(3) The seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle, the Sabbatical Year.

All other holidays and feasts and special periods are never called “Shabbat”. This fact is obviously closely related to the meaning of the word “Shabbat”.

“Shabbat” means “complete rest” or “complete stop (of work)” and this term indicates an intense degree of work prohibition within a certain context. On days and periods which are called “Shabbat” no work at all may be performed. There is also a less intense level of work prohibition, and the term for this is “Shabbaton” which means “pause” or “stop”.

When we look at the biblical legislation about the weekly Sabbath and the holidays, we see that it is in compliance with this terminology. The difference between the annual holidays and the Sabbath is that on the weekly Sabbath no work at all may be done (Lev. 23:3), while on the holidays no work of service may be done (Lev. 23:7-8, 21, 25, 35-36). The meaning of this distinction, as it appears from the biblical evidence, is that on holidays — if they don’t fall on a weekly Sabbath — foods may be prepared and cooked, while on the weekly Sabbath this is not permitted (Ex. 12:16; 16:23).

Returning to the three cases in which the word “Shabbat” is used, we see that this is true indeed. There is only one annual feast day which is referred to as a “Shabbat”. This is the Day of Atonement. For the work prohibition on the Day of Atonement is in fact identical to that of the weekly Sabbath. No work at all may be done (Lev. 23:27-32).

Similarly, the agricultural work prohibition in the Sabbath year for the land is equal to that of the weekly Sabbath. During the Shabbat year no work at all may be done in all the fields (Lev. 25:4-5).

It is now clear why the other holidays, such as first and seventh day of Passover, Rosh HaShanah, the feast day of Tabernacles and the feast of the Eight Day (Sjemini Atzeret) are never called “Shabbat”. The intensive work prohibition of the weekly Sabbath doesn’t apply to those days. Dishes may be prepared and cooking may be done. For this reason these days are sometimes called “Shabbaton” (i.e. “rest”) (Lev. 23:24, 39), but never “Shabbat” (i.e. “complete rest”)

To get the distinction between the terms “Shabbat” and “Shabbaton” Leviticus chapter XXIII is particularly important. The translations, though, are not always reliable in maintaining this distinction, a fact which may have contributed to the misunderstandings about it. However, the Septuagint is accurate and takes over the distinction by means of the Greek terms “Sabbatown” (for the Hebr. “Shabbat”) and “Anapausis” (for the Hebr. “Shabbaton”).

The different terminology regarding Sabbath and holiday is not only maintained in the Pentateuch, but throughout the Tanakh. It never occurs that annual holidays are designated by the word “Shabbat”. Also the Gospels and the New Testament in general, carry on keeping intact this distinction between Sabbath and holiday. In the Gospel of John the holidays — which are usually called “feasts of the Jews” there — are never referred to as Sabbaths. John never says something like: “And there was a Sabbath of the Jews” or something similar. Sabbath and holiday are kept carefully apart.

III. The “Great Shabbat” of John 19:31

There is no reason to assume that the distinction between Sabbath and holidday would be differently treated in John 19:31. John says that it was the preparation. In 19:14 he had already indicated that it was the Preparation of the Passover, and thus of a public holiday. In 19:31, he says that it was the preparation of the Sabbath. He clarifies the latter by adding: “For that Sabbath day was great”. In other words, this was special or “great” Sabbath because it coincided with the feast day of the Passover.

These data of the Gospel of John are consistent with the data of the Synoptics. In the Synoptics we have no mentioning at the burial of Yeshua that it was the Preparation for Passover, though it is said, as e.g. in Mark 15:42, that it was the day prior to the Sabbath. There is no reason to think that this would not be the weekly Sabbath. The Synoptics follow the usual terminology, as I have explained above.

For completeness’ sake, I would add a special text from Luke, which sometimes has given occasion to speculation. This is Lk. 6:1, which uses the expression “second first Sabbath”. This at first sight surprising expression has to do with the onset of the Omer. It seems that the names “Great Sabbath” or “First Sabbath” in the first century were used to indicate the Sabbath that immediately preceded the Omer Count. According to Lev. 23:11 the Omer starts on the day after the Sabbath and in the context of this chapter we are only to think here of the weekly Sabbath day. The text points back to 23:3. There were seven perfect Sabbaths to be counted and the Sabbath immediately prior to the start of the count was therefore particularly important. It was called the “great” or “first” Sabbath. [3]

The first Sabbath within the Omer Count — and thus the seventh day from the beginning of this count — was thus nicknamed ”second first Sabbath” because it was the first Sabbath of the series of seven Sabbaths, but nevertheless the second in comparison to that “great” or “first” Sabbath after which the count began. Luke uses this term to show that the disciples’ eating of the new grain was permitted. The Omer Count had already started.

The conclusion from the foregoing must be that the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John took place on a Friday, because the 14th of Nisan fell on a Friday. It was the preparation of the Passover and the preparation of the weekly Sabbath, because the holiday of Passover that year apparently coincided with a regular weekly Sabbath day.

IV. The “Three Days and Three Nights” of Matthew 12:40

Now it is often objected against this conclusion that Yeshua spent “three days and three nights” in the grave, according to a particular interpretation of Mt. 12:40. Some have concluded from this that Yeshua’s stay in the tomb must have lasted about 72 hours and that for that reason the day of the crucifixion cannot have been a Friday if the resurrection occurred on the day after the Sabbath. This view, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the phrase “three days and three nights”.

There are some other texts in which this expression occurs, and the best known is found in the book of Esther. In Est. 4:16 Queen Esther proclaims a fast of three days and nights. From the course of the story, however, it is clear that this fasting can never have lasted literally three days and three nights, or 72 hours. For it began on the same day it was proclaimed. So a considerable time of this day had already elapsed. This first day was thus an incomplete fast day. And we should notice that Esther appeared before the king during, not after, the third day. The fast would have ended as soon as it was clear that Esther had returned from the king alive and well. Therefore the third day of this fast was also incomplete.

We find something similar in I Sam. 30:11-12 where a sick Egyptian boy was found in the field who had eaten nor drunk for “three days and three nights”. Given the circumstances of war hardships and disease (::13-14) it is unlikely that this was a period of 72 hours. A person is already seriously weakened if he doesn’t eat or drink for two days, especially so if he is also still sick. Here too, the first day, on which he fell sick, and the third day, on which he was found, were probably incomplete.

Be that as it may, in Est. 4:16 it is clear that the expression “three days and three nights” doesn’t designate a period of 72 hours, but indicates any period that begins between a first and a third day, of which only the second day has to be complete.

V. Conclusion: The Crucifixion Was On a Friday

Given the above arguments, there is no serious doubt that Yeshua’s crucifixion actually took place on a Friday and the resurrection some time after the completion of the weekly Sabbath. According to the Gospel of John this Sabbath in the year of the crucifixion coincided with the first holiday of Passover (15 Nisan).

VI. Epilogue: The Deeper Meaning Of a Friday Crucifixion

This order of the events is in harmony with their symbolic and liturgical significance. According to this schedule Messiah accomplished the work of redemption on the sixth day of the week, the same day that G’d once accomplished the work of creation. And Messiah was raised from the dead on the first day of the new week, thus making the day of the commencement of the new creation to be the same day of the week on which once the first light shone in the darkness (Gen. 1:3). During the Sabbath Messiah was resting in the tomb.

In the weekly liturgical order these events are re-experienced and reflected.

On Friday our daily work comes to a temporary end, and we take additional tasks on us because of the upcoming Sabbath. Our daily work, and the extra work of preparing for the Sabbath is thus an appropriate way of denying ourselves in serving HaShem and carrying our cross in following the Messiah (Mt. 16:24-25).

On the Sabbath there is the solemn pause, during which we anticipate the final completion of our work. On this day we experience in particular that we have died with Yeshua and and are dead to this world, and that this world is dead to us (cf. Rom. 6:3-13; Gal 2:19-20; 6:14).

After the Sabbath we start the new week by making havdalah, the ritual separation between Sabbath and weekday. We do this by lighting a new fire, smelling of spices and drinking a new cup of wine. The new fire is a reminder of the creation of light on the first day and an anticipation of the renewal of creation in the World to Come. For that reason it is also a reminder of the resurrection of Yeshua, who surely is the principle and the basis of the renewal of creation. The smelling of spices is reminiscent of the spices that the women brought to the grave, and that were no longer needed. The wine is an anticipation of the cup that Yeshua will drink at the dawn of the Kingdom (Luke 22:18).

In the sequence of the three days Friday-Sabbath-Sunday the redemptive work of Messiah is thus represented in a particular way, liturgically and symbolically. This representation illuminates the central importance of the Sabbath, on which the first creation attains its goal and perfection and is predisposed for the renewal of the regeneration. On the Sabbath we have the opportunity to make ourselves more and more prone to this renewal by uniting with Messiah in celebrating the Lord’s Supper and by hearing and studying the Torah and the prophets.

All these rich symbolic and liturgical connections are absent from a perspective which sets the crucifixion on a Wednesday (or Thursday) and thus detaches it from the dawn of the Sabbath, especially when this also involves the idea that the resurrection happened on the Sabbath afternoon. The consequences of this perspective are very unfortuntate from a symbolic and liturgical viewpoint. Of course, these inconvenient consequences, taken in isolatioin, don’t constitute a refutation. However, they seem to me a heuristic indication of a theoretical defect — in a similar manner as the symbolic and liturgical conveniencies of a Friday crucifixion are a heuristic indication of its theoretical correctness.


[1] Chwolson, p. 45: «Man schaltete einen Monat ein und verschob alle Feste auf einen ganzen Monat, wenn die Landstrassen verdorben, die Brücken zerstört, die Oefen zum braten der Passalämmer vom Regen zerweicht waren und dann auch wenn man wusste, dass die Pilger aus der Diaspora nog unterwegs waren und zum Feste nicht rechtzeitig anlangen könnten.» [D. Chwolson, Das letzte Passamahl Christi und der Tag seines Todes nach den in Übereinstimmung gebrachten Berichten der Synoptiker and des Evangelium Johannis, Haessel Verlag — Leipzig 1908.]

[2] Humphreys p. 80: «All the evidence for the date of the crucifixion supports Jesus dying at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 3, ad 33. This date corresponds to Nisan 14 in the Jewish calendar.» Om meerdere redenen, die te maken hebben met de bredere argumentatielijnen in Humphreys boek beschouw ik dit resultaat met enige scepsis. [Colin J. Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper. Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus, Cambridge University Press — New York · Melbourne · Madrid · Cape Town · Singapore · São Paulo · Delhi · Tokyo · Mexico City 2011.]

[3] Chwolson, p. 65: «Der Sabbat des Osterfestes bekam dann eine grosse Bedeutung; denn er war, wie wir gleich sehen werden, der erste der 50 zu zählenden Tage, weshalb er auch der grosse Sabbat genannt wurde; dann zählte man sieben Wochen und zwar nicht nach Wochen als solche, sondern nach den sieben Sabbaten, von denen der erste nach dem Osterfeste wirklich δευτερόπρωτον war.» [D. Chwolson, Das letzte Passamahl Christi.]


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