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Good Thursday?

April 8, 2015

This Easter my father-in-law asked me if I was familiar with the arguments for believing that Jesus was crucified on Thursday instead of Friday. I was only vaguely familiar with this subject and promptly looked it up. It’s not even remotely difficult to find this claim. Search “Good Thursday” on any decent search engine and you’ll get plenty of hits. What is odd, though, is that almost none of the articles you turn up will argue against the idea. Think about this for a minute: most churches who mark liturgical time in any serious way mark Good Friday. Some churches even have special services or other religious obligations on that day. Despite this, it is much easier to find people arguing for the minority claim than the majority one. What’s going on?

The first answer is that the claim that Jesus was crucified on Thursday (or any other day except Friday) never seem to have made it out into the larger denomination ecosystem. Perusing the articles on the issue I began to recognize the sorts of subtle tells (largely word choices and a fondness for using the KJV) that suggest that many of the articles were written by people coming from a particular sub-section of the Protestant world. Many of the people who might argue most vociferously for Good Friday have probably never heard the Good Thursday claim.

However, the issue is much more interesting than that. Having reviewed the evidence I have decided that the Good Thursday claim is pretty badly supported and rests on a series of intelligent-looking mistakes. I am fond of finding intelligent-looking mistakes because these are the ones that fool most people. Mistakes that are obviously stupid are much more easily avoided.

Let’s start with the reasons for making the Good Thursday claim. There are two reasons to even start down this path. The first, and most often explicitly mentioned, is that Jesus says in Matthew 12:40 that the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Attempting to get three days and three nights out of a Friday death and a Sunday morning resurrection is pretty much impossible. The second reason is that combining John’s chronology with the chronology found in the other gospels supports the Good Thursday interpretation.

The first reason, the count of days and nights, is actually deeply problematic. The prediction “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” is known as the sign of Jonah. Jesus refers to it in this manner in the verse right before the one just quoted and also references it in Matthew 16:4 and also Luke 11:29. In neither of these other instances is an exact count of days given and in Luke the sign may actually consist of something entirely different as the discussion is about how Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites (none of whom are recorded in the book of Jonah as having witnessed Jonah getting barfed out of a giant fish). On its own this would be weak evidence – Matthew 16 may leave of the day count since it was covered in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 may leave off the day count because a different point was being made about Jonah. However, it remains that there are three mentions of a sign of Jonah and only one contains this three day and three night claim. There are, however, eleven instances in the New Testament where Jesus is predicted to rise/said to have risen on the third day. Three times in Matthew (16:21, 17:23, and 20:19) and three times in Luke (9:22, 13:32, and 18:33) Jesus predicts his death and resurrection and states that he will rise on the third day[1]. Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection on the third day (using those words) is also mentioned in Matthew 27:64 and Luke 24:7. In Luke 24:46 (post-resurrection) Jesus explains that the Scriptures said that he would rise on the third day. Finally, Acts 10:40 and 1 Corinthians 15:54 state that Jesus was raised on the third day.

The issue here is that you can’t both be raised on the third day and also be dead for even parts of three days and three nights without being killed at night. (Night 1, Day 1, Night 2, Day 2, Night 3, Day 3 and resurrection.) Since Jesus’ death is pretty clearly placed in the day this gives us no option for making the two ways of counting time reconcile – Jesus will be raised during day three before night three. Any attempt to shift the chronology of Jesus’ death from Friday to Thursday to get three days and three nights to protect the count given in Matthew 12:40 throws off eleven other verses.

Now, it is clear from reading some of the pro-Good Thursday articles that some of the authors are worried that atheists will claim that the three days and three nights discrepancy invalidates the Bible. I will point out that any atheist attempting such a tactic is faced with several problems. Firstly, the actual problem is that the book of Matthew itself contains two irreconcilable time predictions. Secondly, this is a magical contradiction – the fact that both counts exist in the same book indicate strongly that the original readers assumed that one of the counts of days (probably the one only mentioned once) was a loose allusion to the Old Testament and not a precise estimate.

As I mentioned earlier there is also the matter of John’s chronology. This is, I think, a far better argument since it involves a careful reading of John’s gospel and an attempt to tie it in to the other accounts rather than careless reading of a single verse. However, the problem here is also quite pronounced. John’s gospel is (usefully) very clear on when Jesus was crucified. In John 19:14 we learn that Jesus’ trial before Pilate is wrapping up at about noon on the Day of Preparation before Passover. In one regard this is the same chronology as is found in the Synoptics (the name for the other three gospels): these gospels also record that Jesus was killed on the Day of Preparation. However, Matthew 26:17 tells us that on the first day of unleavened bread Jesus’ disciples ask him where he wishes to eat the Passover, placing the Passover meal prior to Jesus’ trial. Some articles advocating for Good Thursday suggest that Jesus ate Passover early and was then killed the following day when other Jews were preparing for Passover (which would have begun at sundown of that day). If this were all of our data that would make some sense although it would be very odd for someone to eat the Passover early since the commands in Exodus 12 regarding the Passover are strict about the timing. It would also require us to ignore the most natural reading for “the first day of unleavened bread” which is that it is the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, which is Passover, and assume that it actually meant the first day on which leavened bread was banned, the day after the Passover meal. One site making this claim points out that the Greek reads “the first day of unleavened bread” and not, as most English translations say, “the first day of the feast of unleavened bread”. However, this is a weak case. We say “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” because we are unfamiliar with it. In fact, in some places English translations will also say “the Feast of Passover” when the Greek just says “Passover”. People who are familiar with the names of holidays generally don’t feel obliged to add adjectives reminding their audience what the type of holiday it is.

Moreover, both Mark and Luke add additional detail. In Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7 we run across the same “the first day of unleavened bread” formula but also a note that this is when the Passover lamb was traditionally killed/must be sacrificed. This is not a note about the behavior of Jesus and his disciples but a note about a point of time within the calendar of Jewish feasts and it clearly places the Last Supper on Passover. Mark 15:42 adds another important note by saying that Jesus died on the Preparation Day before the Sabbath. So, while all four gospels agree that Jesus died on Preparation Day they disagree on which Preparation Day (since Passover is also a Sabbath, although not always a Saturday). The chronology in John’s gospel has Jesus dying on the day before Passover (during the time period when the Passover lambs were slaughtered) and rising on Sunday (thankfully, all four gospels clearly mark the resurrection as “the first day of the week”, an unambiguous way to indicate the day we now call Sunday). This places Passover on Saturday (with the meal after sundown on Friday), making Passover a High Sabbath on a regular Sabbath. The Synoptic chronology has Passover happening on Friday (with the meal after sundown on Thursday) which makes Passover fall on what would normally be the Day of Preparation for the normal Sabbath.

There are two viable options that I see. One adopts the same fast-and-loose approach to the time of Passover exhibited by some of the articles that I criticize here. However, instead of assuming that Jesus celebrated Passover early we might assume that some Jews figured that since Passover fell on Friday they’d just celebrate it on the Sabbath that was already coming on the next day. This would have some Jews (perhaps hard-core traditionalists) celebrating when Jesus (who was a rabbi, after all) did while other Jews, perhaps laxer Jews who felt that they couldn’t afford to take two days off work in one week, celebrated Passover a day late on the normal Sabbath. This allows both versions of events to be entirely true – there were lambs being sacrificed for Passover on the day that Jesus told his disciples to prepare the Last Supper and also on the day when he died. The other option is just to assume that one chronology isn’t right. Now, this probably worries some people a lot but John’s chronology often doesn’t match that of the Synoptics and I’m not entirely convinced that John’s chronology is meant to be chronological rather than topical. (This appears to be an allowable way to handle chronology in some ancient histories.) Moreover, both accounts agree on a substantial amount of chronological details: Jesus died on a Day of Preparation and was raised on the third day which was Sunday. The argument is exactly when Passover fell amongst all of this and the disagreement amounts to one day’s difference. Eyewitness of events that happened last month can differ more than that.

While this is already a lengthy article there is one more issue of interest to me. It turns out that the Good Friday tradition is quite old. Justin Martyr (First Apology, Chapter LXVII, early second century) says that Jesus was crucified on Friday. The reason I find this interesting is that the rejection of the Good Friday tradition is the rejection of a very old tradition. However, it does not provide a very good explanation of where the Good Friday tradition came from at this early date. If, as I have argued, Jesus was crucified on Friday the tradition comes from receiving that information from those who knew about it or (since I think it’s not that hard to figure the chronology out from the gospels) deriving it from Scripture. The incorrect idea, Good Thursday, would come from people trying to deal with the sign of Jonah, but not very well, and this is why it is both recent and relatively poorly-known. If the Good Thursday people are right then presumably the church began knowing this and Justin would have had to be unaware of this despite very active engagement with Christian theology and writing, indicating that this knowledge had been more or less entirely forgotten. This is an odd claim, although not a lethal one, and it demonstrates one of the reasons I am hesitant to challenge traditions that date to within only a generation or so of the apostles.

What is a lethal blow to the Good Thursday theory is the chronology found in Luke and Mark concerning the timing of Passover relative to the Last Supper and the widespread agreement that, despite the sign of Jonah, Jesus was raised on the third day and not after three days and three nights had passed.

[1] Much like the sign of Jonah the “third day” is connected to the Old Testament. In Hosea 6:2 there is a promise of being raised on the third day. Some commentators believe that when Jesus says that he will be raised on the third day his disciples understand this to be a metaphor for the general resurrection of all the righteous because of this verse from Hosea. This certainly makes more sense than the more common interpretive option of assuming that the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is saying because they are dumber than a box of rocks.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    April 20, 2015 6:43 pm

    BTW, my father did a bit of research about exactly how you determine when passover will fall, and I seem to recall that it depended on the ability to see the moon after the new moon, and that therefore when passover fell could vary geographically. This is basically to add another reason to think that people could be eating the passover lamb two nights in a row.

    I think there may also be a school of thought that says that John is “theological” and not “historical”, and so John changed the day to make a theological point about passover. This might fit with the idea that John is arranged topically. However, the idea might rely on the use of an older mindset in which John is late and theological since it emphasizes Jesus divinity, and therefore cannot be trusted about events. As you say, the difference is only one day, and memory is complicated…

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