Speculation about the day and year timing of Christ's crucifixion and death stems from the lack of direct day-to-day correlation in the Gospel accounts. We know from each of the four Gospel accounts that Jesus died on Preparation Day.
But was that day a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday? And what time did Jesus die? There’s even speculation about the year of his death. To uncover the day of Jesus' death on the cross, we must assemble the evidence from the four Gospels and what we know of the culture at the time.
Cultural Information to Keep in Mind
1. Gospel writers were more concerned about presenting Jesus rather than precise timing.
In the present world, dates have become imperative for adequate news coverage. But the Gospel writers concerned themselves with the events themselves and not the specific timing. They aimed to present Jesus to various audiences and not provide a detailed biography.
2. The Day of Preparation was the day before the Sabbath.
The Day of Preparation day is mentioned in all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and burial. This is the day in which Jews prepared food and did all the work forbidden to be done on the Sabbath but still needed to be done. Because refraining from work on the Sabbath was essential for Jews at this time, Jesus’ followers made sure to bury him before the Sabbath started on Friday at sundown.
What the Gospels Say about Jesus’ Burial
Matthew includes the lengthiest account of Jesus’ death and burial (Matthew 27:31-62). One element of this account is the information about Joseph, a rich man from Arimathea “who had himself become a disciple of Jesus,” (Matthew 27:57b). Joseph is reported to have asked Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ body in Matthew 27:58-61. Then we learn in Matthew 27:62 that Joseph carried this out on Preparation Day: “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.”
Mark also records that Joseph buried Jesus on Preparation Day. “It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath)” (Mark 15:42a.) … “So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).
Luke and John confirm that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation:
“Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin” (Luke 23:54).
“Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:42).
What Day Did Jesus Die? Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday?
Over the years, scholars have produced several models of what events happened during the days of the week leading up to the cross. These models variously propose that Christ died on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
While a Wednesday crucifixion allows Jesus to have been buried for three full days and nights, this would also mean He rose on the fourth day. In addition, the Triumphal Entry would have happened on Saturday, the day of Sabbath rest.
A Thursday crucifixion moves the Triumphal Entry to Sunday, which makes more sense, and eliminates the need for a "silent day" (a day during the Passion Week when no events were recorded). However, we know that the Pharisees rushed to have Jesus in the tomb on The Day of Preparation (John 19:34-42), which is Friday, and before the Sabbath began at nightfall (the Jews measured days from nightfall to nightfall).
When we examine the evidence, Friday fits best with the Gospel accounts and the historical context. For example, the New Testament says that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day—not necessarily after three full, literal days (e.g., Matthew 16:21; Acts 10:40). As mentioned above, Jesus had to be rushed into the tomb on the day of preparation. While a Friday crucifixion would necessitate a "silent day" (probably Wednesday), this day allows time for the Sanhedrin to plan for Jesus's arrest and the subsequent trials. So, the day is only "silent" because we have nothing specifically recorded.
What Time Did Jesus Die?
Matthew Henry explains in his commentary, Jesus was nailed to the cross between the third and the sixth hour, that is, between nine and twelve o’clock. And soon after the ninth hour, that is, between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, he died.
As stated above, the Jews at the time of Christ measured days from nightfall to nightfall. Therefore, Bible scholars can take the Matthew 27:46 KJV, “ninth hour,” and translate it to the Matthew 27:46 NIV, “three in the afternoon.”
Timing of Jesus Death in Mark, Luke, and John
- Mark 15: 33:34, 37 “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) … With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.”
- Luke 23:44-46 “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.”
- John 19:14-16 “It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. ‘Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Pilate asked. ‘We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.”
What Year Did Jesus Die?
Doug Bookman, New Testament professor at Shepherds Theological Seminary, explains the consensus among biblical scholars about the year Jesus died.
“It comes down to this. We can discern quite narrowly that Pilate was prefect in Judea Samaria 26 A.D. – 36 A.D. So that’s our window. The next question becomes: On what day did Passover fall in the year Jesus died? In the minds of most, it fell on Thursday/Friday. It started on sundown on Thursday and went through sundown on Friday. Given all of that, most scholars will agree it drives you to one of two conclusions:”
Theory 1: Jesus died in 30 A.D.
Theory 2: Jesus died in 33 A.D.
Bookman says at this point, “the argument becomes quite technical.” He also says, “With regard to every one of the chronological questions, there is a case to be built on both. I am persuaded of 33 A.D. It’s within that construct that I teach the life of Jesus.”
3 Significant Events Shortly After Jesus’ Death
Matthew 27: 51-54, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
1. The temple curtain was torn in two.
This curtain separated worshippers in the temple from the Ark of the Covenant and it’s top – the Mercy seat, where God would meet only the High Priest only once a year with an atonement sacrifice. We know from Old Testament regulations that entering God’s presence was serious. After two men died attempting it incorrectly, the Lord gave Moses specific instructions in Leviticus 16 on how to approach him without dying.
The fact that this curtain was destroyed symbolized Jesus Christ’s finished work on the cross that removed the barrier between sinful mankind and holy God by becoming the ultimate High Priest and the ultimate sacrifice. Further, the fact that the curtain was torn “from top to bottom” symbolized that it was torn by God himself, not by effort of any man.
2. An earthquake opened tombs, and dead saints were raised to life.
According to John Gill’s commentary, “this was a proof of Christ's power over death and the grave.”
As Jesus raised himself to life on the third day after he died, he defeated the power of death and the permanency of the grave. Gill went on: “These saints, I apprehend, continued on earth until our Lord's ascension, and then joining the retinue of angels, went triumphantly with him to heaven, as trophies of his victory over sin, Satan, death, and the grave.”
This event is significant not only because of its bold claims, but also because it is a story foreshadowing Christ’s second coming to gather all the rest of his people. This event reported in Matthew also fulfills a prophecy in Isaiah 26:19, “But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise— let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy— your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”
3. Jesus is resurrected from the grave.
Photo Credit: Unsplash/Joshua Earle