Resurrection Day: What Day Was Jesus Crucified?

Most Baptists were taught in Sunday school from an early age that the Lord’s Supper and Judas’ betrayal took place on Thursday, the crucifixion occurred on Friday, and Jesus arose early on Sunday morning. Though all agree with these events culminating on Resurrection Day, the exact timing of the crucifixion evidently has been a matter of some debate, with some scholars placing the crucifixion on Thursday — or even Wednesday.

Two South Carolina Baptist professors, at the request of The Baptist Courier, offered their perspectives on the dating discrepancy: Walter Johnson, dean of the College of Christian Studies at North Greenville University; and Peter Beck, chair of Christian Theology at Charleston Southern University.

“The belief that Jesus was crucified on Thursday rests mainly on two considerations — both questionable,” Johnson began. “First, John 19:14 states that Jesus was crucified on ‘the day of preparation of the Passover.’ If this phrase means the day before the Passover, the day would have been Thursday.”

The problem, Johnson observed, is the phrase in Hebrew literature always means the day when preparations were made for the Sabbath, which would be Friday.

He points to John 19:31 as further biblical support for the view that Jesus was on the cross on Friday: “Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath … .”

Another problem with asserting that Jesus was crucified on Thursday, Johnson said, is the other gospels record that the Last Supper was the Passover meal (see Luke 22:1-23). “That would be impossible if Jesus had been crucified on Thursday, the day before the Passover,” he noted.

A second consideration is that by placing the crucifixion on Thursday, the timetable does allow for Jesus to be in the grave for three days and three nights, as indicated in Matthew 12:40. But that, too, presents a problem, Johnson said.

“The problem is that the Jews counted both the day on which any period began and the day on which the period ended as one day. Thus, part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday would constitute three days for them,” he explained.

Johnson cited Esther 4:16 and 5:1 as examples of this method of counting days. “According to Jewish reckoning, ‘three days and three nights’ could indicate either no more than three days or merely some portion of three successive days,” he said.

The interpretation that aligns with all four gospels, he maintained, is that Jesus had the Passover meal with His disciples on Thursday, was crucified on Friday, and He was raised on the third day, Sunday.

Beck tackled the other possible day for the crucifixion of Jesus: Wednesday.

“The church commonly believed the Friday before Easter as the day of the crucifixion,” he agreed. “Yet when one compares the accounts of the crucifixion in the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — with that of John, discrepancies seem to arise. This has led some to question whether the crucifixion took place on Friday or perhaps Thursday, or even as early as Wednesday.”

Recent arguments of scholars suggest the date of the crucifixion can be narrowed down to either March 1 (Wednesday) or March 3 (Friday) in the year 33 AD, Beck said. They arrived at these dates by comparing clues found in Scripture with history related to the Roman Empire, he explained.

“The challenge presented to us in the biblical accounts arises from the question of the precise meaning of ‘three days and three nights,’” he concurred. The significance of this period is that it is a reference to the account of Jonah being a sign of Jesus’ promised resurrection, providing proof of His messianic claims (see Matthew 12:39, 16:4).

The difficulty arises, however, when counting backwards from Resurrection Sunday, Beck noted. “If you hold to a literal — or what some call an ‘exclusive’ — accounting, you must back up approximately 72 hours from the resurrection. Accounting for the Sabbath and the Passover of Passion Week, this would suggest the crucifixion took place on Wednesday,” he explained.

“However, if one allows the Passover and the Sabbath to be reckoned as just one day apart and takes into account the Jewish culture of the time — often counting any part of a day as the whole day — Jesus was in the tomb for part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday.

“There’s your three days; that takes us back to a Good Friday crucifixion,” Beck concluded. “This approach seemingly aligns with the Synoptics’ account.”

What’s truly important, though, is not the actual day on which the crucifixion occurred, but that it — and, more importantly, the resurrection of Jesus — occurred. The empty tomb, after all, is the reason for the Church’s celebration.

While a desire to be biblically precise about the timing of the crucifixion is admirable, the actual dating should not become divisive, Beck added.

“The important thing is that it was on the cross that He suffered and died for our sins. Debates aside, at the end of the day (no pun intended) Christians celebrate the resurrection annually because it is the most important day in history,” he said, pointing to Romans 10:9 and 1 Corinthians 15:12-28.