In some Protestant churches, especially Fundamentalist ones, every year at Easter time there are sermons explaining that Jesus didn’t really die on a Friday but on a Wednesday. This claim is based on Matthew 12:40, where Jesus states that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
“If Jesus rose from the dead on Saturday night,” a preacher will explain, “then he couldn’t have been crucified and died on Friday afternoon, because there aren’t three days in there. There’s only one, so we need to back up his death from Friday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon.” This is usually accompanied by the claim that Easter is based on a pagan holiday; the “moving” of Jesus death to Good Friday is explained as the result of some unspecified but undoubtedly pagan cause.
All this is nonsense. Easter is not based on a pagan holiday but on a Jewish one, Passover. Easter originated as the first Sunday following Passover, when Jesus was crucified.
Neither, as some anti-Catholics claim, is the name Easter derived from the pagan goddess Ishtar. As checking the dictionary will reveal, Easter is derived from the Old English word east, which means precisely what it does today. Only a speaker of English or German (where the holiday is called Ostern) could fall for such a claim.
In virtually every other language, the name of Easter is derived from the Jewish word Pesach or “Passover.” Thus in Greek the term for Easter is Pascha; in Latin the term is also Pascha. From there it passed into the Romance languages, and so in Spanish it is Pascua, in Italian Pasqua, in French Paques, and in Portuguese Pascoa. It also passed into the non-Romance languages, such as the Germanic languages Dutch, where it is Pasen, and Danish, where it is Paaske.
If Easter is free of pagan origins, so is Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday. The premise of the “three days and three nights” argument—that Jesus rose from the dead on what we would call Saturday night—might well be true. The Jews reckoned the day as beginning at sunset, which is why we read the phrase “evening and morning” in the Bible rather than the more modern phrase “day and night.” To the Jewish readers of Scripture the new day began at sunset.
When Scripture indicates that Jesus rose on the first day of the week, therefore, it means that he rose on the day that began at sunset on Saturday and lasted until sunset on Sunday. Since we are told his tomb was found empty “after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1), he must have risen between sunset Saturday and dawn Sunday. Whether this was before or after midnight Scripture does not say. He might have risen either Saturday night or Sunday morning before dawn, though, for purposes of determining when he was crucified, it doesn’t matter.
In the Bible, parts of time units were frequently counted as wholes. Thus a king might be said to have reigned for two years, even if he reigned for only fourteen months. In the same way, a day and a night does not mean a period of twenty-four hours. It can refer to any portion of a day coupled with any portion of a night. The expression “three days and three nights” could be used as simply a slightly hyperbolic way of referring to “three days.”
As Protestant Bible scholar R. T. France notes: “Three days and three nights was a Jewish idiom to a period covering only two nights” (Matthew, 213).
Similarly, D. A. Carson, regarded as one of the deans of conservative Protestant Bible exegesis, explains: “In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole. . . . Thus according to Jewish tradition, ‘three days and three nights’ need mean no more than ‘three days’ or the combination of any part of three separate days” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8:296).
If Jesus was crucified and died Friday afternoon, that would be the first day; at sundown on Friday the second day would begin; then at sundown on Saturday the third day would begin. So Jesus was indeed “raised on the third day” (Matt. 20:19).
Scripture repeatedly tells us that Jesus was crucified on “the day of preparation,” which was the first-century Jewish way of referring to Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath. This is why the women were not able to anoint his body before he was buried—because Jesus was hurriedly buried late in the afternoon, just as the Sabbath was beginning. The women thus had to rest until the Sabbath was over (Luke 23:56).
We are also told that the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to order the legs of the crucifixion victims broken so they would die faster (from asphyxiation due to an inability to push themselves up on their crosses and take a breath), “in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath” (John 19:31).
Some advocates of a Wednesday crucifixion concede that Jesus was crucified on the day before a Sabbath, but deny that this was the regular, weekly Sabbath. In later times, the phrase “day of preparation” came to be used to refer to the day before Passover and, this argument goes, Passover counted as a Sabbath in the sense that it was a day of rest, even though it usually did not fall on the weekly Sabbath. Thus Jesus was crucified on the day before Passover and had to be buried hurriedly on that account.
But this explanation will not do. In the first century, “the day of preparation” referred to Friday, not the day before Passover. Further, we know from Scripture that the Sabbath following Jesus’ crucifixion was the regular, weekly Sabbath, the seventh day of the week: “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher” (Matt. 28:1).
We can thus reconstruct the chronology of the crucifixion, death, and Resurrection of Christ as follows:
Friday, the Day of Preparation: Jesus is crucified with two thieves. From noon to three in the afternoon, a darkness covers the land (Matt. 27:45). Then, “[s]ince it was the Day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the Sabbath . . . the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31). Then Joseph of Arimathea obtains Jesus’ body and buries it: “It was Preparation Day [that is, the day before the Sabbath]. So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body” (Mark 15:42-43, NIV).
Saturday, the Sabbath: “On the Sabbath they [the women] rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56b). Also on this day, “that is, after the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate” and asked for a guard to be placed on the tomb (Matt. 27:62).
Sunday, the first day of the week: “Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulcher” and found that Jesus had risen from the dead (Matt. 28:1).
Those anti-Catholics who allege that the Church commemorates Christ’s death on the wrong day are themselves in the wrong. The appropriate time for Christians to gather to commemorate Christ’s death is indeed Good Friday, not a hypothetical Crucifixion Wednesday.