How the Passover Illuminates the Date of the Crucifixion

Share/recommend this article:

Excerpt I have found that a close study of the term “Passover” and matters related to it profoundly illustrates how intricately the Lord God has tied together the books of the Bible, where one part far removed from another explains and illuminates an obscure detail elsewhere that is otherwise almost inscrutable... Continue reading

Explore
Related Articles
Support
Like this artice?

Our Ministry relies on the generosity of people like you. Every small donation helps us develop and publish great articles.

Please support ABR!

Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover & PayPal

In August 2017, I undertook a wide-ranging study of various aspects of biblical chronology and eschatology. This study, now referred to as the Daniel 9:24-27 Project because seeking to understand those verses got me started, was motivated by my desire to settle, to my satisfaction alone, exactly what God had revealed in Scripture about end-times matters. Because I attended seminary back in the 1980s, I am quite aware that this area of study has generated a lot of opinions and discussion! Very significant “isms” of the evangelical world—premillenialism, amillenialism, postmillennialism, and various shades of these—find their origin in differences in how the books of Daniel and Revelation are understood. Since so many books and Internet websites have undertaken to promote the views of their authors on these matters, not all of whom are equally determined to let the written Word of God have the last word, I decided to do my own from-scratch research with nothing but an open Bible in front of me.

Taking on this project has had a real impact on my life. The continual exposure to the Word it requires has deepened my prayer life, strengthened my faith, and awed me as I have seen, again and again, how every “jot and tittle” of the biblical text reflects the inspiration of the Holy Spirit behind it. Timelines started in one book, touched on in another, and finished in yet another all tie seamlessly together. Surely this would not have been possible without the Living God acting behind the scenes to bring His Word into the world through a variety of people from different times and backgrounds.

But others over the years have said as much, and merely repeating this observation does little to edify others. Specific examples are needed. Therefore, in this article I will look at a few from my ongoing research that illustrate the faith-encouraging, deep interconnections among different passages of Scripture. They shed light on one another in the same way that a gifted human author gradually develops a plot line that deepens and grows in complexity as the chapters pass.

Given the daunting task I set for myself, to try to understand the full range of eschatology-related topics covered in Scripture, there are many subjects I could tackle! In this study I will share just a very narrow slice of my research, a part that ties in with determining the date of the Crucifixion. I have found that a close study of the term “Passover” and matters related to it profoundly illustrates how intricately the Lord God has tied together the books of the Bible, where one part far removed from another explains and illuminates an obscure detail elsewhere that is otherwise almost inscrutable.

My larger goal is for the study to clarify how part of the prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27 has already been exactly fulfilled in history, and then, God willing, to go on to a consideration of aspects which still remain to be unveiled as the time of the Messiah's return gets closer.

Much Ado Over Eclipses

The need for brevity here prevents undertaking a comprehensive overview of the options for the date of the Crucifixion, so let us focus on just differentiating between the two main candidates: April 7, 30 AD or April 3, 33 AD. We will restrict our examination to these two dates because they are the only ones between 29 and 36 AD when the Passover began on a Friday evening (dates as assigned by Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Table 179):

  • Monday, April 18, 29 AD
  • Friday, April 7, 30 AD
  • Tuesday, March 27, 31 AD
  • Monday, April 14, 32 AD
  • Friday, April 3, 33 AD*
  • Wednesday, March 24, 34 AD
  • Tuesday, April 12, 35 AD
  • Saturday, March 31, 36 AD

* It should be noted that the chart at http://www.judaismvschristianity.com/passover_dates.htm, claiming to use U.S. Naval Observatory data, gives the date of Nisan 14 in 33 AD as Saturday, April 4. I use Finegan for the purposes of this paper because he is widely regarded as authoritative, and his date was accepted by Humphreys and Waddington. Should Finegan’s date be shown to be wrong, this study will need to be revisited.

The April 3, 33 AD date has received a lot of good press in recent years, but this has been due less to careful exegesis than to the popularizing of a lunar eclipse study by Colin Humphreys and W.G. Waddington in 1983, a study developed further in their 1985 paper, “The Date of the Crucifixion” (JASA 37, pp. 2-10, online at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1985/JASA3-85Humphreys.html). That study concluded there was a “blood moon” that day, which they tied in with the Joel 2 prophecy quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21). Since NASA calculated that there was a lunar eclipse on Friday, April 3, 33 AD, but not on any other candidate for the Crucifixion date, the authors claim only that date works.

But there is a fly in the ointment. Since NASA’s research, showing that there was indeed a lunar eclipse that day, is taken as completely solid and provides the starting point for their study, shouldn’t the related research of particular scientists working for NASA be regarded likewise? NASA scientist Bradley Schaefer studied the question of the visibility of the eclipse on April 3, 33 AD, and arrived at conclusions that do not reinforce the case Humphreys and Waddington have promoted. Schaefer and his work have thus been consigned to the doghouse by all who have taken the Humphreys and Waddington analysis to heart. Schaefer, in a technically sound peer-reviewed paper with a lot of math that is far over my head, came to the conclusion that the lunar eclipse of April 3, 33 AD would have been barely noticeable on the horizon just as the moon rose that evening, with a normal full moon gracing the sky through the heart of the night. That day in Jerusalem, he said, the eclipse at twilight would have been partial, at most briefly occluding no more than 59% of the disk of the full moon, such that the leakage of light from the unshadowed part of the moon that night would have washed out any “blood moon” phenomenon (Schaefer, Lunar Visibility and the Crucifixion, p. 59, online at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1990QJRAS..31...53S). As he put it, it would have been like trying to notice an “8 watt red light bulb next to a megawatt searchlight” (Schaefer, p.65). That is a quite graphic description of the difficulty in seeing this eclipse. He also observed that the eclipsed moon could only be noticed by the naked eye when it was at least 3.4 degrees above the horizon, and by that time the darkest umbral shadow would have completely left the moon, or occluded less than 1% of the lunar disk (Schaefer, p. 64).

Some defenders of Humphreys and Waddington have objected that Schaefer failed to take into account “triple refraction” of the lunar light through the atmosphere, which would have lengthened, and thus reddened, the wavelengths of the light, and theoretically approximated a “blood moon.” At first glance that argument seemed to carry some weight, but then I thought: If the light being refracted through the atmosphere was mainly from the “searchlight” of the 41% unoccluded part of the full moon, the net effect would still have been just the normal amber coloration of the rising moon, nothing out of the ordinary. It also struck me that it was rather difficult to imagine a qualified NASA scientist, whose specialty was analyzing lunar phenomena, would have forgotten to fully account for atmospheric refraction in his peer-reviewed paper. How likely is that? (And this is assuming, for argument’s sake, that Schaefer was wrong in his calculations that the umbral occlusion of the moon would have essentially ended before it was high enough in the sky to be noticed.)

For these reasons, I am inclined to dismiss the lunar eclipse argument as having any significance in determining the day of the Crucifixion. But what about Peter’s quote of the prophet Joel? Surely that has a bearing on whether there was a blood moon, science be hanged? The quote in full reads (ESV):

And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
(Acts 2:17-21, quoting Joel 2:28-32a)

Was Peter’s quote from Joel 2, which he said was a fulfillment of what the crowd was hearing that day (i.e., the hubbub of speaking in foreign languages issuing from the house where the disciples had gathered), indeed focused just as strongly on the “moon shall be turned to blood” aspect (as Humphreys and Waddington assume) as on the “pouring out my Spirit” part? For this to be true, “the moon to blood” would have to apply not to what was being heard that Pentecost day (the issue Peter was directly addressing), but to a partial eclipse “blood moon” supposedly briefly seen 50 days previously—after Jesus was already in the tomb and people had largely dispersed to their homes, and by arguably an entirely different group of people than on Pentecost—rather than to the cacophony of sound his audience was wondering about. Every interpreter of Scripture will have to make up their own mind how likely this was. For my part, accounting for what Dr. Schaefer wrote about how minimal the eclipse’s visual impact at Jerusalem probably was and my perception that his analysis is scientifically reliable, I think it is quite acceptable exegesis to view the mention of the “blood moon” as a yet-unfulfilled part of the Joel prophecy that did not apply to the situation at hand. It happened to be part of the larger context of the quote and for that reason was included, notwithstanding that it was not directly applicable to the Pentecost situation, because Peter wanted to get past it to the important, and very applicable, challenge the prophet closed with: “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

What Do the Scriptures Say?

At any rate, for now I want to set aside the whole eclipse debate and look to the Word alone. Does it tell us anything that helps us choose between April 7, 30 AD and April 3, 33 AD for the date of the Crucifixion? I believe it does, but it is not immediately obvious. We first have to go back to the Old Testament to see how God set up the first Passover, then how the Jews subsequently celebrated it. There are four important passages we need to look at.

Exodus 12

Our first passage records the inception of the Passover, on the night when the angel of the Lord struck down all of the first-born in the land of Egypt, but “passed over” and spared the Israelites with the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. Exodus 12 records the story (ESV):

This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers' houses, a lamb for a household….Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight….They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. And you shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn….It is the LORD's Passover (Ex. 12:2-11, emphasis added).

The takeaways here are that on the first month of the Jewish religious year, which is called Nisan, on the fourteenth day of the month as that day begins at twilight (the Jewish day begins around 6 pm in the evening), the Passover lamb was to be killed. It was kept in the household from Nisan 10 until Nisan 14 began, so the slaughtering of the lamb was just after the onset of Nisan 14. Then, that same evening of the start of Nisan 14, the lamb was to be eaten as part of a meal that included unleavened bread. Remember that according to Scripture, the lamb was both killed and eaten on Nisan 14. It was not killed ahead of time on Nisan 13 for eating on Nisan 14, nor was it killed on Nisan 14 and then eaten on Nisan 15. In fact, such carrying over of the Passover meal to another day was expressly forbidden: “you shall let none of it remain until the morning.” These words tell us that the meal was eaten before the daylight portion of Nisan 14 dawned. Moreover, it was a meal involving the eating of unleavened bread, a detail having a bearing on understanding other matters later.

Leviticus 23

Next, consider this information gleaned from Leviticus 23:

These are the appointed feasts of the LORD, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the LORD's Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work….On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work (Lev. 23:4-8).

Numbers 28

Numbers 28 is similar, for brevity we will leave out the details about the sacrifices:

On the fourteenth day of the first month is the LORD's Passover, and on the fifteenth day of this month is a feast. Seven days shall unleavened bread be eaten. On the first day there shall be a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work….And on the seventh day you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work (Num. 28:16-18, 25).

These two passages establish some additional facts for us. One we already learned from Exodus 12: that Nisan 14 was the assigned day of “the LORD’s Passover,” which specifically referred to the day of the Passover seder—the meal of the lamb sacrificed at twilight as that day began and eaten with unleavened bread. To this we add an additional fact, the next day—Nisan 15—would be the start of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. Even though “the LORD’s Passover,” the seder meal of Nisan 14, was also a day of eating unleavened bread (see Exodus 12 above) similar to the seven days of the Feast, the inclusion of the Pachal Lamb in the meal on Nisan 14 set it apart as separate from the rest of the Feast. Thus, Nisan 14 was a day of unleavened bread, but it was not technically part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread that starts on Nisan 15. The expressions “days of unleavened bread” or just “unleavened bread,” unmodified by the words “Feast of,” were the way the Jews joined Nisan 14 and 15 as two parts of a single, larger festival period called simply “the Passover.” Used that way, it referred to an eight-day period. This is an important point to keep in mind when we look at the Passover in the New Testament.

Also observe, this Feast of Unleavened Bread would begin and end with a “holy convocation” on which work was not to be done. In other words, two special Sabbaths bookended this Feast, known as “high” Sabbaths because the festivals were known as “high days.” Unlike the normal weekly Sabbath that was always observed on the seventh day of the week (Saturday), such high Sabbaths could land on any day of the week. This was because the dates of the month Nisan were determined via a lunar calendar, such that Nisan 15 landed on different days of the week in different years.

2 Chronicles 35

Finally, 2 Chronicles 35 gives us insight into the way the Jews practiced the Passover seder (the meal of the lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs eaten on Nisan 14):

Josiah kept a Passover to the LORD in Jerusalem. And they slaughtered the Passover lamb on the fourteenth day of the first month….And they roasted the Passover lamb with fire according to the rule; and they boiled the holy offerings in pots, in cauldrons, and in pans, and carried them quickly to all the lay people….So all the service of the LORD was prepared that day, to keep the Passover and to offer burnt offerings on the altar of the LORD, according to the command of King Josiah (2 Chron 35:1, 13, 16).

This passage makes clear that the Jews in Josiah’s day understood Exodus 12:2-11 as teaching that both the killing and the eating of the Passover lamb were to take place on Nisan 14. Why am I emphasizing these things? Because they are not so crystal clear when we see how things are written up in the Gospels. It appears God deliberately hid these bits of background information about the Passover deep in obscure places of the Old Testament so that only people motivated to know His truth would find it.

The Passover in the Gospels

Now, what is so confusing in the Gospels? Basically, there are multiple ways the term “Passover” can be understood, and apart from the OT background above it is a murky business. It sometimes refers only to the Passover seder meal day of Nisan 14 when the lamb was sacrificed, while in other places it combines Nisan 14 together with the days of the Feast beginning on Nisan 15 and emphasizes their common focus on eating unleavened bread. When understood broadly this way, the general terms “Unleavened Bread” or “days of Unleavened Bread” are used. The rule is, if the time period is called “the Feast of Unleavened Bread,” it refers only to the seven days beginning on Nisan 15.

Let us now look at the events surrounding the day Christ died with these insights, beginning with Matthew.

Matthew 27

Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He said, “Go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is at hand. I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover (Mt. 26:17-19).

Observe the mention of “the first day of Unleavened Bread.” This is not specifically the Feast of Unleavened Bread lasting seven days beginning on Nisan 15, but the first of eight days in which unleavened bread is to be eaten. Thus, the day in question is Nisan 14, the day for the Passover seder meal. That this is the proper understanding is confirmed by the words “prepare…to eat.” They refer to slaughtering the lamb just as Nisan 14 begins at evening, and along with it preparing the unleavened bread and bitter herbs which are part and parcel with the meal as laid out in Exodus 12.

Mark 14

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was being sacrificed [i.e., on Nisan 14], His disciples said to Him, “Where do You want us to go and prepare for You to eat the Passover?” “…go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him; and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is My guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?’ And he himself will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; prepare for us there.” The disciples went out and came to the city, and found it just as He had told them; and they prepared the Passover (Mk. 14:12-16).

These verses do not include the Greek word for “feast,” heortē, as in Luke 22:1 below (“Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching”). As noted earlier, the truncated expression, “Unleavened Bread” without “the feast of,” is the broad use described in Exodus 12:18 that includes the Passover seder meal of Nisan 14 (“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening”). Therefore, “first day” as used here refers to Nisan 14, not to the first day of the strictly-defined (in Exodus 12, Numbers 28 and Leviticus 23) Feast of Unleavened Bread that starts on Nisan 15. The focus of Mark 14:12 is not on the festival as a whole, but specifically on the group meal of the Paschal Lamb along with unleavened bread. Since the room was already “furnished and ready,” the only preparing needed was the meal. Peter and John (see Luke 22) could handle the slaughtering of the lamb and cooking everything just between the two of them.

Luke 22

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover….Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover (Lk. 22:1, 7-13).

The emphasized words give the keys to understanding this passage, which corresponds perfectly with what Matthew and Mark reported. Luke begins by talking about the formally-defined Feast of Unleavened Bread held from Nisan 15-21 inclusive, then his focus switches to Nisan 14, the day the Passover lamb was slaughtered and on which unleavened bread was eaten for the first time as part of the complex of Passover-related events. “Prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it” means just what it says—kill the lamb as Nisan 14 begins and also bake the unleavened bread, so the meal can be eaten.

John 13

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him…(John 13:1-2).

Here we have the expression, “Feast of the Passover.” “Feast of” should be understood as a technical term, marking this as a mention of the Feast of Unleavened Bread starting on Nisan 15, of which the Passover seder meal on Nisan 14 was part of the whole complex of events. Since the verse continues with mentions of the “hour” of His departure (the Crucifixion), the reference to “during supper,” and the betrayal of Judas which we know took place in the wee hours of the night on Nisan 14, the supper mentioned must be one and the same as the Passover seder described in the other Gospels.

The Proper Place for Typology: The “Last Supper” Question

The words “during supper” in John 13 brings us to another matter that should be discussed. Some have proposed that the “Last Supper” was a different meal than the Passover seder (notwithstanding that Scripture knows nothing of the expression “Last Supper”; the term is entirely a human invention). The idea that there might have been a “Last Supper,” a meal separate and different from the Passover seder, arises from the mistaken perception that this meal was prepared on Nisan 13 and eaten on Nisan 14, but the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb took place around 3 pm on Nisan 14 and was actually eaten on Nisan 15. By this understanding, and with a very rigid view of the typology of Christ as the Passover Lamb, it is said that the type/antitype relationship breaks down if Christ did not die at the exact same time as the Passover lambs.

But we have already seen above that Old Testament passages indicate that on the original Passover, the lambs were slaughtered and prepared as Nisan 14 was just beginning, on the heels of Nisan 13 in the early evening, not at 3 pm in the afternoon of Nisan 14. It is not as if the Passover typology breaks down, for we have seen the OT teaching is that the lambs were sacrificed on Nisan 14, the same day that Jesus suffered and died.

I am indebted to Keith Hunt (http://www.keithhunt.com/passover5.html) for pointing out several areas where typology cannot be pushed too far in equating the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb at the seder meal with the sacrificial death of Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”:

1. Jesus' blood was spilled at the cross, outside the city of Jerusalem, not in a house, as was the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:7 with the last chapters of the gospels).

2. The Passover lamb was slain by having its throat cut (the usual way to kill a sacrificial lamb or goat in Israel). Jesus was not slain in this manner as the gospels make plain.

3. Jesus' blood was not used in any specific way, it fell to the ground. The blood of the Passover lamb of Exodus 12 was used in a specific way (verse 7).

4. The lamb of Ex. 12 was roasted with fire (verse 8, 9).  Jesus was not killed by being burnt at the stake, but was crucified on a cross (see the gospels).

5. Nothing of the Passover lamb was to remain. That which was left over was to be burnt by fire (verse 10). The Messiah's body was not to see corruption (Ps. 16:10).

6. Jesus was beaten, bruised, buffeted, spit upon, and scourged, so He was greatly marred (Isa. 52:13, 14; 53:5, 7, 10). The Passover lamb was not treated this way before it was sacrificed in death.

7. Jesus was killed along with others (two others to be specific as the gospels show) - Isa. 53:12. The Passover lamb was the only one killed on the 14th for the Passover service and meal. The lamb of Ex.12 was not killed with one or more lambs during that service. There was one lamb killed for each group, not two or three.

8.  So severely beat (sic) was Jesus that it was foretold: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint....” (Ps. 22:14). This did not happen to the literal physical Passover lamb.

9.  Jesus was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:12, 13; Mt. 26:14-16; 27:3-10). Nothing of this typology was done with the Passover lamb of Exodus 12.

It is possible to push the search for analogies too far. We have repeatedly seen above that the meal to be eaten is plainly called “the Passover” in the Gospels, and we should not use humanly-devised typology relationships to say that the plain sense of the biblical text is misleading and a different “Last Supper” is meant. I want to close this part of the study with one more quote from the amazingly lucid Keith Hunt, recorded at http://www.keithhunt.com/passover6.html:

Typology is good. Typology is used by God, but typology like some aspect of parables, BREAKS DOWN at points and is not necessarily meant to be carried over into the hundredth degree of everything stated or given.

The Passover lamb was slain and died at the BEGINNING of the 14th day. Jesus died towards the END of the 14th day. Was Christ to die at the beginning of the 14th like the Passover lamb did? No! There is NO SCRIPTURE in Exodus 12 that dogmatically asserts the Messiah was to die at the beginning of the 14th, just as there is no scripture to say He was to be put to death by being burnt at the stake, or roasted, as was the Passover lamb.

Typology is good if you use it CORRECTLY! It is like what Paul said about the law. “But we know that the law is good, IF a man use it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8).

Typology is also good IF you use it typologically lawfully and correctly!

Clearing Up Confusion in the Gospel of John

Returning to the Gospel accounts, we now look at some confusing passages in John:

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover (Jn. 18:28).

Since it takes place later on Nisan 14 after the Passover seder had already been eaten by all the Jews just after the close of Nisan 13 (following the prescriptions in Exodus, Leviticus, etc.), this verse must refer to the remaining festival meals of unleavened bread still to come, beginning with the high Sabbath meal of the coming evening, Nisan 15. There is no conflict here; “the Passover” in this verse refers to the entire Feast of Unleavened Bread, precisely as Luke 22:1 defined it: “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover.”

Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (Jn. 19:14).

Since “day of preparation” consistently refers to the day before a Sabbath to get ready for it, that is how the expression should be understood here. John later (19:31, see below) mentions that the Sabbath in question was a “high” Sabbath. This means it was the Nisan 15 Sabbath connected with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. So this reference is not to slaughtering the Passover lamb and cooking the seder meal (which had already been done the evening before), but to getting ready for the upcoming high Sabbath that was part of the Passover-related festivities.

The Day of Preparation

At this point an observation on another source of potential confusion is called for: the words “prepare” and “day of preparation.” Whenever we find “day of preparation” mentioned in the Gospels, it refers to getting ready on the day before a Sabbath. The term has nothing to do with the day for slaughtering and cooking the Passover lamb, but to the day before a Sabbath. In the Old Testament, the Jews were instructed in the wilderness to gather manna each day, but not on the Sabbath, when no work was to be done. They were to prepare for the Sabbath by collecting on Friday a double supply of manna sufficient to cover the regular Sabbath as well. There was extra work to be done that day to get ready for the day when no work could be done. We need to beware lest we confuse preparing the Passover seder to eat with the “day of preparation.” The two things were quite distinct, and context makes it clear which is which.

The Jewish Use of Inclusive Dating

Apart from the question of whether there was a “day of preparation” preceding a Nisan 15 high Sabbath that did not land on a Saturday, it is theoretically possible for two Sabbaths to occur between Nisan 14 and the “first day of the week” when the Resurrection took place. This has been the crux of the debate between which date to choose for the Crucifixion. Sabbatarian calendars on the Internet, for example http://www.marieslibrary.com/PDF_Articles/JesusCalendar30AD.pdf, place the Passover of 30 AD on Wednesday, April 5 rather than the usual Friday, April 7. By their reckoning, Thursday (Nisan 15) was the start of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a high Sabbath of no work. Then Friday, Nisan 16, was the day of preparation for the regular Sabbath, on which it is supposed the women "bought" (purchased in the market) spices to anoint Jesus, but did nothing else. They just went to the market, purchased supplies, then went home to wait until the rest of that day and the Sabbath the followed it were over. Then the next day, Nisan 17, was the regular Saturday Sabbath, with the Lord rising from the dead during the early hours of Nisan 18, which would have been Sunday, April 9.

But isn’t that Wednesday-to-Sunday period too much time? Not by the calculations used by sabbatarian groups. They hold that Matthew 12:40 takes care of the problem: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Many, if not most, modern Americans would understand this passage, if read in isolation, as speaking of the passing of three full days—i.e., 72 hours. By tying this way of understanding Mt. 12:40 in with the idea of two Sabbaths between Wednesday and Sunday, a seemingly reasonable case can be made for the Crucifixion taking place in 30 AD, with the empty tomb being discovered the first day of the week. This superficially seems to work.

Except, a closer look shows it does not. We still have to deal with the matter of inclusive dating. Inclusive dating simply means that a measured period of time is reckoned to include the day the counting begins from. Consider, for example, the time covered by the Feast of Unleavened Bread. One Sabbath—the first day of the feast—is on Nisan 15. Using inclusive counting, Nisan 15 is also the first day of the Feast, making Nisan 21 the final, seventh day of the Feast. Other considerations also show the Jews used inclusive counting. The apostle Paul wrote:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…(1 Cor. 15:3-4).

He was raised on the third day. What day of the week was that? We have multiple Scriptures that unanimously declare it was “early on the first day of the week”:

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb (Mk. 16:2).

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared (Lk. 24:1).

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb (Jn. 20:1).

The only way we can connect the first day of the week, Sunday, with the third day of entombment of Jesus’ body, is if Saturday (the regular Sabbath) was the second day of entombment, and Friday (Nisan 14) was the first day of the three-day count. This means the Resurrection took place early in the morning of a Sunday, Nisan 16.

But what about John 19:31? This verse tells us,

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.

On the surface this seems to complicate matters, seemingly indicating that the Sabbath in question was not the regular Saturday Sabbath of 33 AD, but the special Sabbath of Nisan 15 in 30 AD. But when we look closely at the calendar of 33 AD and understand that the Jews counted days inclusively, such that the “three days and three nights” of Mt.  12:40 was a Jewish idiom that in no way sets aside the inclusive counting norm, we see something fascinating: in the year 33 AD, the high Sabbath mandated by the Feast of Unleavened Bread landed on Saturday—the same day as the regular Sabbath! This allows John 19:31 to stand as written, “that Sabbath was a high day,” and not conflict in any way with inclusive counting back from the first day of the week that places the Crucifixion before the end of the day on Friday, Nisan 14, the day of “the LORD’s Passover.” It does conflict, however, with the sabbatarian understanding that Nisan 15 was on Thursday, April 6 in 30 AD.

[Addendum, 8/12/2018: Justin Martyr, in chapter 67 of his First Apology (ca. AD 155-157), wrote: "For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples..." (emphasis added). This is confirmation that at a very early date, the Church recognized the Roman "day of Saturn," i.e. Saturday, as the day that immediately followed the day of the Crucifixion. It also confirms that Sunday was the "third day" when the risen Lord appeared to His disciples. This is further solid historical evidence against any claims the Crucifixion took place on a Wednesday. Only a Friday crucifixion fits with what Justin Martyr wrote.]

Conclusions

It is time to wrap this up. We have seen that Old Testament passages about the Passover shed tremendous light on understanding otherwise confusing mentions of it in the Gospels. The Bible is truly a book that explains itself, a sure sign of the hand of God superintending over its writing that covered centuries. There are no conflicts between any of the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion week, and the timeline of events taking place on Nisan 14 in particular is quite clear when the Old Testament passages cited are allowed to guide how we interpret things.

Despite this edification, however, I must confess some disappointment. I had entered into this study with the expectation that all researchers would work from a common calendar, and in my search for a calendar for 30 AD I settled upon one offered by the website http://www.cgsf.org/. Only after I had done a considerable amount of work did I realize, in a state of shock, that the calendars used there did not match up with those used for 30 AD by most of the evangelical world! The Church of God website gives the Passover of 30 AD on Wednesday, April 5. In contrast, the usual scholarly sources in the evangelical world uniformly place the Passover of 30 AD on Friday, April 7.

This difference in calendars has a tremendous impact on the research done so far. I had hoped to be able to show, from Scripture alone, that April 3, 33 AD was the only viable option for the date of the Crucifixion, because having the high Sabbath of the Passover week coincide with the regular Sabbath on Saturday that year makes everything “click.”  If Nisan 14 in 30 AD corresponded with April 5, taking account of inclusive dating would rule that year out, leaving April 3, 33 AD as the only viable choice.

Now, however, I am a bit wiser, if not much closer to my goal. When Nisan 14 of 30 AD is assigned not to April 5 but to April 7, we also have a combined high/regular Sabbath day on Saturday, April 8. Most of the arguments covered in this study that favor April 3, 33 AD thus apply equally well to April 7, 30 AD. The only real difference that I can see at this time is the impact of the lunar eclipse argument of Humphreys and Waddington. It would seem to rule out 30 AD as a possible Crucifixion date if it was strong. However, I am satisfied from my study so far that it is a weak argument that gives us no firm basis for choosing 33 AD over 30 AD for the Crucifixion. I wish it did, but in the face of the research by Schaefer I am not prepared to accept it.

So, the work continues in search of a better basis for making a choice between those two years. I am actually rather pleased that I can still view 30 AD as a candidate for the Crucifiixion date, because it works much better with other conclusions that have come out of my eschatology research! But that is a story for another day.

(This article was slightly revised March 31, 2018.)

Research RSS Feed

AddThis Feed Button

Recent Articles

In 1654 James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh in Ireland, published his Annals of the World, in Latin. An...
Join Pastor Scott Lanser as he explains the Biblical imperative for defending the Christian Faith and...
Many skeptics try to separate the realms of fact from the realm of faith. Watch as Scott Lanser and Henry...
Associates for Biblical Research announces the discovery of a ceramic pomegranate from its second season...
Associates for Biblical Research
  • PO Box 144, Akron, PA 17501
  • Phone: +1 717-859-3443
  • Toll Free: 1-800-430-0008
Friend ABR on Facebook.com Join us on Twitter Join us on Twitter