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THE GOOD FRIDAY MYTH
The belief that Jesus died on a Friday and resurrected the following Sunday morning has been such an ingrained tradition within Christianity for nearly two millennia that questioning whether it's true or not seems almost blasphemous. After all, the Bible insists Jesus died on the eve of the Sabbath and the tomb was discovered empty the following Sunday morning, so what room is there to question the gospel timeline? It seems to be one of the most clearly established facts in the Bible and, some would maintain, in history.
But is it really true? This is not to question of whether the resurrection literally occurred. That's another question entirely. The issue I want to address is whether Jesus really died on Good Friday as legend insists and, more importantly, why it's important whether he did or not.
The Three Day
The most obvious problem, of course, is that if Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon and rose again shortly after dawn on Sunday, he was mistaken when he is recorded in Matthew's gospel as claiming that just as the Old Testament prophet Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, he would spend three days and three nights in the "heart of the earth" (Matt. 12:40). In doing so, Jesus clearly implies here that he would be dead for three twenty-four hour periods, whereas Friday afternoon to Sunday morning are not three days, but two nights and one full day, with small bits of two other days on either end.
Some scholars circumvent this problem by claiming that Jews counted any part of a dayeven if only a few minutesas a complete day; therefore, if Jesus died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday, he technically rose on the "third day," at least informally. Additionally, since the Sabbath always falls on a Saturday, by default that makes Friday the only possible day he could have died. If that is the case, though, then what are we to make of Jesus' own words which clearly suggest not three metaphorical or "partial" days, but a full seventy-two hours? Either Jesus was wrong, or the belief that he actually died on Good Friday is wrong. No other option appears to present itself.
It only remains a dilemma, however, until we do a bit of research. A careful study of the gospel accounts and some knowledge of the Jewish holiday of Passover (Pesach) goes far in helping us clear up this quandary, as well brings considerable logic and consistency to the entire gospel account.
First, a little background. Passoverone of the two holiest Jewish holidays (the other being Yom Kippur)celebrates an event that supposedly occurred thousands of years earlier when God, in an effort to force the Pharaoh of Egypt to allow the Hebrews to leave Egypt, had his angels slay the first-born son of every household throughout the land. Only those who had coated the doorstop of their homes with the blood of a sacrificial lamb were spared God's retribution, leaving allegedly thousands of Egyptian children dead. Aside from how one views this incident from a moral perspective, it had the desired effect and induced the Pharaoh to allow the Hebrew slaves to leave. The term "Passover" then, comes from the fact that the angels of death "passed over" those Jewish households that were obedient to Moses command to adorn their doorstops. In effect, it is a celebration designed to recognize God's provision for his people and his protection.
In ancient times-and to a large extent today-Passover was celebrated for a full eight days and was marked by a pilgrimage as devout Jews from across the land made an annual journey to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice animals in remembrance of God's efforts on their behalf. It was also the one time of the year the priests made blood sacrifices as a means of atoning for the sins of the people and so, hopefully, sparing the nation from the punishment their collective indiscretions warranted. In effect, it was an effort to get God to overlook the Jew's various sins for one more year and bring them continued peace and prosperity.
The Jews were very careful about keeping track of the various festivals and holy days that were mandated by their forefathers, and Passover was no exception. It wasn't performed just any old time it was convenient, but had to celebrated on a specific date, in this case the 15th of Nisan by the Jewish calendar. Now the Jews didn't figure "days" the way we do. We tend to go from midnight to midnight, but the Jews counted days as starting and ending at sunset, making what constituted a "day" a little more arbitrary. Additionally, the Jews referred to these special observances also as a "Sabbath," though they were usually prefaced with the term "special" or "high" Sabbath to differentiate them from a regular Sabbath. In fact, the gospel of John itself makes this distinction by referring to it as a "high Sabbath" (John 19:31), thereby confirming this practice.
Now this is where the fun begins, for like our own Christmas Day, the 15th of Nisan is a floating holiday that can fall on any day of the week (with the exception of Friday, which the Jewish calendar manages to circumvent through a bit of mathematical sleight-of-hand). Were it to fall on any day other than Saturday, which it usually did, it meant a week would contain more than one Sabbath day. In fact, since the last two days of the holiday were also considered Sabbath days as well, one might find as many as four Sabbaths occurring within an eight day period. That Jesus was crucified on the eve of "the Sabbath," as clearly noted in all four gospels, doesn't demand that the Sabbath necessarily be on a Saturday at all. As such, there is no mandate that he die on a Friday either; in fact, since Passover could fall on any day of the week (except Friday as already noted) the Sabbath eve could be any day of the week as wellexcept for Thursday.
So when was the Passover High Sabbath during the time of Jesus? We can't be certain because we don't know precisely what year Jesus was crucified. Additionally, even if when knew the exact year, converting the ancient Jewish calendar (which uses 360 days and several leap days to fill in the gaps) into our modern calendar equivalent is no easy task. The Romans were using the inaccurate Julian calendar then, which was eventually converted into our modern Gregorian calendar in the sixteenth century. When they did this, some 14 days turned up missing (talk about your lost weekend!), and even then these were only partially accounted for in later adjustments. (NOTE: one excellent source available on the internet to figure Jewish dates can be found at http://www.hebcal.com/hebcal/.) As such, determining which day of the week Passover fell 2,000 years ago can only be guessed at.
However, it is agreed upon by scholars that Jesus' ministry took place during Pontius Pilate's reign as governor of Judea, which, according to historians, occurred between 26 and 36 CE. Considering other events that were taking place at the time, best estimates are that Jesus' ministry took place sometime between 28 and 32 CE, with 29-31 CE being generally considered the most likely timeframe. Considering that Jesus' ministry is thought to have lasted approximately two years, that means he would have been crucified sometime between 30 and 32 CE. Any earlier than that would be too soon; after 32 CE would appear to be too late, as it is believed that Pilate served for some time after Jesus' death-perhaps as long as four or five years. With that in mind, then, a bit of research show us that, according to best estimates, Passover did not fall on a Saturday during any of those years, falling instead on Tuesdays in both 31 and 32 CE. However, in 30 CE, Passover fell on a Thursday (approximately the 5th of April by our calendar), and this proves to be important, especially if we want to take Jesus' "three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth" statement literally.
If we take into account that a Jewish "day" actually begins at dusk of the previous day, in order for Jesus to be in the tomb a solid seventy-hours and for the tomb to have been discovered empty the following Sunday morning, this would necessitate Jesus' crucifixion take place on a Wednesday afternoon, with a late Wednesday afternoon burial (prior to sunset, when all workespecially burying the deadwould be forbidden). Then, assuming a Saturday afternoon resurrection (another "regular" Sabbath) followed by the Sunday morning discovery of the empty tomb, this gives us our seventy-hours hoursWednesday night through Saturday nightprecisely as Jesus stated in Matthew.
The Women at
While this may seem a trivial point to many people, I submit it is more important than it appears at first glance, for it clears up many loose ends that would be left dangling otherwise. Perhaps the most important purpose it serves is that it brings some logic to the gospel accounts, especially in explaining the order of events in a more comprehensive and plausible manner. For example, the gospel accounts state that the women who were the first to discover the empty tomb had come to Jesus' tomb at dawn of Sunday morning specifically to anoint his body with aloes and special spices as prescribed by Jewish custom. (Normally, of course, this ritual would have been performed almost immediately after death and before internment, but since the burial was done hastily, there wasn't time, necessitating the later visitation.) Now such special items were not standard fare in the average Jewish home, nor were they inexpensive. The women had to come up with the funds to purchase these items, go to the market to buy them, and then travel to the tomb. If Jesus was buried on Friday evening and the next day was the Sabbath, when no buying or traveling was permitted, then when would the woman have had the opportunity to acquire the required objects? Obviously, they wouldn't have been able to unless there were a day in the sequence of events during which the markets were open. Only during a regular, business-as-usual Friday sandwiched between two Sabbath days (Thursday and Saturday) would such have been possible, further strengthening the position that Jesus died on a Wednesday evening. No other position seems to hold together sequentially.
of the Date
While I admit the precise day of Jesus' crucifixion and burial may not seem an important point to most people, and I admit it is only an interesting sidebar to the real significance of the entire drama, it does demonstrate how tradition (Good Friday) can often supersede the gospel narratives themselves. As a result, today we find many Christians trying to reconcile how a Friday afternoon crucifixion and Sunday morning resurrection equals "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" when all that is necessary to clear up the mystery is a careful reading of the text and some rudimentary knowledge of Jewish religious observances and customs. The Bible really does reward those who pay attention to the details, it seems.
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