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The Christian origins of easter

Was Jesus executed on a Wednesday
& resurrected on the following Saturday?

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Overview:

There is a near consensus among Christians that Jesus was executed on a Friday by the occupying Roman Army, and resurrected on the following Sunday morning. However, there have always been alternate explanations for the timing of the various events associated with his execution and resurrection. One theory is that Jesus died on Wednesday afternoon, and was resurrected on Saturday evening. The empty tomb was discovered on Sunday morning, many hours after Jesus had left it.

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One Sabbath or two?:

An initial clue that might point to a Wednesday crucifixion is found in Matthew 28:1. This passage discusses Mary and "the other Mary" making a Sunday morning visit to the tomb where Jesus' body had been placed. This was after the weekly Sabbath which ran from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. The following are translations according to the:

bullet New English Bible: "The Sabbath was over,...."
bullet New International Version: "After the Sabbath,..."
bullet Jerusalem Bible: "After the Sabbath,..."
bullet King James Version: "In the end of the Sabbath...came Mary Magdalene"
bullet Living Bible: "Early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene..."
bullet Philips Modern English: "When the Sabbath was over..."
bullet Revised Standard Version: "Now after the sabbath...."
bullet Today's English Version: "After the Sabbath,...

However, less commonly used translations of the Bible render Sabbath in plural form:

bullet Young's Literal Translation: "And on the eve of the Sabbaths..." (Emphasis ours)

Alfred Marshall's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Green's Literal Translation, and Ferrar Fenton's Translation also render "Sabbaths" in plural form. To most Christians, the original Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew copies of the Bible are much more important than any English translation. The Greek in this passage also refers to Sabbaths (plural).

Many people do not realize that the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) discusses two different kinds of Sabbaths:

bullet One type occurs on a weekly basis, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.

bullet The other type -- called "high days" consist of the seven annual Sabbath days listed in Leviticus 23. These could occur on any day of the week.

Unless the plural form of Sabbath in Matthew 28:1 was an error by the author of Matthew, or an error subsequently made by a copyist, then the week in which Jesus was executed must have contained two Sabbaths, not one.

The presence of the second Sabbath -- a High Sabbath -- is confirmed in John 19:31:

King James Version: "The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away."

It mentions that Jesus' body had to be quickly removed from the cross before sundown, to avoid polluting the land. This is based on Deuteronomy 21:22-23:

"And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled...."

A second confirmation is found in Mark 16 and Luke 23:

bullet Mark 16:1:  And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

bullet Luke 23:55-56: And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.

So, after the first Sabbath -- the high day -- had passed, three of Jesus' female followers bought spices in order to care for Jesus' body. Then they prepared the spices, and later rested on the second Sabbath day, Saturday.

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How many days were between Jesus' execution and resurrection?

A number of passages in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) mention that three days would pass between Jesus' death and resurrection. Yet traditional belief is that he died on Friday before sunset, and was resurrected on Sunday morning. That interval consists of only a few hours on Friday, Saturday which ran from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, and part of Sunday morning -- a total of perhaps a day and a half, not three. This discrepancy is normally rationalized by counting each part of a day -- part of Friday and part of Sunday -- as a full day. But this conflicts with Matthew 12:39-40:

"But he [Jesus] answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Emphasis ours)

If Jesus died on Friday afternoon before sunset then Friday counts as one day and one night. All day Saturday also counts as one day and one night. Sunday doesn't count because John 20:1 says:

"The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre."

That is, Mary came to the tomb while it was still night. So we end up with two days and two nights -- one day and one night short.

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Possible explanations to the discrepancy:

Conservative Christians view the autograph -- original -- copies of the books in the Bible to be the Word of God. Its authors wrote text that is without error under God's inspiration. One approach to harmonize the conflicting passages described above would be to assume that Matthew 39:40 did not specify "three days and three nights." It actually referred to three "days" (or partial days), as in other biblical passages. The wording that we see in Matthew would then be the result of a copyist error.

Liberal Christians see no problem here. They interpret the Bible as a historical document, and not inerrant. They view the four gospels as written by individuals or groups who were not eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus' life. The authors relied on many oral traditions which varied from each other. When one compares passages from various gospels, one can anticipate errors and assume that they cannot be harmonized.

There is at least one more possibility: Jesus might have been crucified on a Wednesday afternoon, and resurrected on Saturday evening. The chronology would look something like this:

bullet Tuesday: Jesus and his disciples ate an evening meal together, and was arrested.

bullet Wednesday: This is the preparation day mentioned in John 19:31. i.e. the day before the high-day Sabbat. Jesus appears before Pilate, and is crucified; he dies about 2 PM in the afternoon, before sundown. His body is removed from the stake or cross and placed in the tomb.

bullet Thursday: This is a high Sabbath day: the first day of Unleavened Bread, mentioned in Matthew 27:62.

bullet Friday: Jesus' female followers purchased spices.

bullet Saturday: This was a regular weekly Sabbath, different from the high Sabbath day on Thursday. All rested and did no work during the day. Jesus was resurrected sometime in the afternoon before sunset.

bullet Sunday: Mary Magdalene (by herself according to the Gospel of John or with other women according to the synoptic gospels) went to the tomb and found it empty.

Adding up the days and nights:

bullet Jesus died on Wednesday afternoon and is laid "in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40) at or just before sunset.
bullet The first night and first day passes: Wednesday sunset to Thursday sunset.
bullet The second night and day passes: Thursday sunset to Friday sunset.
bullet The third 12 hour night passes between Friday sunset and Saturday morning.
bullet Part of the third 12 hour day passes on Saturday, and Jesus is resurrected before sunset.
bullet The woman or women find the empty tomb very early on Sunday morning.

According to The Good News magazine:

"Several computer software programs exist that enable us to calculate when the Passover and God's other festivals fall in any given year. Those programs show that in A.D. 31, the year of these events, the Passover meal was eaten on Tuesday night and Wednesday sundown marked the beginning of the 'high day,' the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread."

This agrees well with the many theologians' estimate that Jesus was executed sometime between the years 29 and 32 CE.

It is a neat theory, but has little chance of being accepted because of almost two millennia of church tradition supports a Good Friday execution and Easter Sunday resurrection. Also if Jesus actually was resurrected on Saturday afternoon, then the church's justification for moving the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday would collapse, and the 35,000 or so Christian faith groups whose prime day for religious services is Sunday would have to admit that their movement of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday was not justified.

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Reference used:

  1. "Jesus wasn't crucified on Friday -- or Resurrected on Sunday!," The Good News magazine , United Church of God, 2006-MAR-APR, Pages 13 to 15. Online at: http://www.gnmagazine.org/

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Copyright 2006 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2006-MAR-29
Latest update: 201-APR-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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