Every year around Easter, my Facebook feed fills up with speculations about the timing of the various events surrounding the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. I’ve previously addressed questions about the hour at which Christ was crucified and about the timing of the crucifixion in relation to the Passover. In this article, I’ll present a few of the reasons that I believe the crucifixion of Christ took place on a Thursday.
My primary reason for holding to a Thursday crucifixion is that this is the natural understanding of the biblical accounts of Christ’s resurrection. Throughout the Scriptures, we find prophecies and accounts of the resurrection which state that it took place on the third day after the crucifixion. Here are a few examples:
The Bible clearly teaches that Christ rose from the dead on the third day from His crucifixion. Since we are also told that Christ rose on the first day of the week, we can count back from Sunday to find that the crucifixion must have taken place on the previous Thursday. If Sunday was the third day since the crucifixion, then Saturday would have been the second day since the crucifixion, and Friday would have been the first day since the crucifixion. That leaves Thursday as the actual day on which the crucifixion took place.
The primary objection to a Thursday crucifixion is the claim that Jesus needed to remain in the grave for a full 72 hours. This objection is based on two of Christ’s statements about His resurrection. In Matt 12:40, Jesus said that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights just like Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. And in Mark 8:31, Jesus said that He would rise from the grave “after three days.” Many Christians interpret these verses to mean that Jesus was claiming that He would be in the grave for a full 72 hours, but that interpretation is inconsistent with the use of similar phrases in other passages of Scripture.
Let’s start with Christ’s claim in Matt 12:40 that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights. There are only two other examples of this construction in Scripture (not including Jonah), and both of them allow for the view that the time period thus described was less than a full 72 hours. The first one is found in Esther’s declaration to Mordecai:
“Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish. So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him. Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king's house, over against the king's house: and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the gate of the house.” (Est. 4:16-5:1)
Of course, the phrase “three days and three nights” is not reproduced in exactly that form in this verse, but the construction here is very helpful in understanding how this concept was understood by the Jews. Esther asked for the people to fast night and day because the Jewish calendar starts each new 24-hour period at what would be approximately 6:00 the previous evening in the Gregorian calendar. Thus, Esther’s request that the Jews fast night and day for three days was essentially the same as Christ’s statement that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights.
Both statements refer to three periods of day and night, but Esther’s statement was not constricted to a full 72-hour period. She did not wait until after the third day to go in unto the king. She went in after the third night but during the third day. This opens up the possibility that Christ’s resurrection on the third day was after the third night but during the third day before a full 72 hours had passed since His death.
Some might still object that Esther did not clearly state that she would go to the king after three days and nights in the same way that Christ said that He would rise after three days and three nights in the grave, and this brings us to the other use of this phrase in Scripture. When David was pursuing after the Amalekites who had captured his family, he found an Egyptian servant who had been abandoned by his fleeing Amalekite master. The Bible tells us that the servant had not eaten for “three days and three nights,” but it also records the servant as saying that he had been abandoned because he had fallen ill “three days ago” (I Sam 30:12-13).
This combination of the phrase “three days and three nights” along with the phrase “three days ago” does not allow for the first phrase to be strictly interpreted as a full 72-hour period. If “three days and three nights” were restricted to a full 72-hour period, then the servant would have said that he had fallen ill four days ago instead of three days ago. The two phrases together only allow for the view that three full nights had passed but not three full days. Thus, when we compare Christ’s statement in Matt 12:40 to similar statements found in other passages of Scripture, we find that His prediction that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights was not necessarily a prediction that He would be in the grave for a full 72 hours.
Similarly, Christ’s statement in Mark 8:31 can also be compared to another passage of Scripture to demonstrate that the phrase “after three days” did not require Him to be in the grave for a full 72 hours. In this case, we have an explanation regarding Christ’s own words which clarifies that the phrase “after three days” actually meant “more than 60 hours and up to 72 hours” rather than “after at least 72 hours.” This explanation is found in the request that the Pharisees made for a guard to be posted outside of Christ’s tomb. The Bible tells us that the Pharisees came to Pilate:
“Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.” (Matt. 27:63-64)
The Pharisees did not ask for the tomb to be guarded until the fourth or fifth day. They only asked for it to be guarded until the third day, but if they had understood Christ’s words to mean that He would be in the grave for a full 72 hours before rising again, then they would have asked for a guard until at least the fourth day. The next chapter of Matthew tells us that the guards were still present when Jesus rose from the grave, which means that Jesus must have been in the grave for less than 72 hours and, consequently, that His claim that He would rise “after three days” was not intended to mean that He would be in the grave for a full 72 hours.
Based on a comparison of these passages of Scripture, I see no other option but to conclude that Jesus died on Thursday and rose again on the third day following, which was Sunday.
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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