But Why Is It Good Friday Instead Of Good Thursday? -- and other timing oddities (Part 1 of 3)

Fellow Cadrist Chris "Layman" Price has a fine article from a few years ago about the meaning of Good Friday which also traces the linguistic origins of the term.

This article is about historical harmonization issues with the timing of events on the first Easter weekend. There are a number of weirdities, among which is the question of whether Jesus died on a Friday or some other day!

The standard account (which I will eventually argue in favor of, by the way) is that Jesus holds what we call the Last Supper (instituting the first Lord's Supper) on Thursday night; is arrested outside Jerusalem later that night (or very early Friday morning around or after midnight); is run through an informal trial early Friday morning before sunrise; is taken to the Temple to be officially charged at first dawn Friday morning; then is crucified a little later Friday morning (after bouncing around between Herod and Pilate in close proximity while the Sanhedrin tries to get a ratification of the execution), dying sometime mid-afternoon Friday and entombed before sunset.

My reader may observe that there is no way to get "three days and nights" out of this account, even on the most generous reckonings of partial days; but that phraseology only occurs once in the Gospels, specifically in a scene of GosMatt, which in GosLuke's parallel account of the scene (Luke 11:29-30) doesn't feature that saying.

(My reader might also observe that Matthew, or whoever finally authored/edited/redacted our canonical Gospel According To Matthew, must have thought for whatever reason that that phraseology was historical to the scene, because GosMatt features the shortest dead-time of all the Gospel accounts, far less than what Jesus is reported predicting earlier at Matt 12:38-40. We'll be getting back to that oddity, too, later.)

If your mind isn't reeling yet over the idea that Jesus didn't properly predict how long He'd stay "in the heart of the earth" and/or that Matthew got the timing hugely wrong -- and we haven't even gotten to the first main topic of this article yet! -- and if you still happen to care about the historical issues involved here, click on down the rabbit hole! (Or down the sheep shute rather!)

Leaving that annoyance aside until later, let's look first at the most relevant timing issue for today. (I may save the other timing issue articles for tomorrow and Sunday.)

Going strictly by the texts, here is what the timing issues look like. (I'm going to skip over Matt and Mark's account of the anointing of Jesus, since while that's a timing issue in itself it doesn't seem to affect the question of which day Jesus died.)


Sometime while sitting on the side of Mount Olivet after leaving the Temple (having thrown down the Greater Condemnations, GosMatt 23), having spoken about how to watch for the signs of the destruction of the Temple and of His return to the Temple (chapter 24) with strong warnings against how lazy and/or uncharitable servants of His will be punished when He returns (chapter 25 among some other things), Jesus tells them (26:2), "After two days" {meta duo hêmeras} "the Passover is becoming and The Son of man is-being-given-beside [is being pushed by someone] into the crucifixion."

I'm being more literal than usual translations in order to track the issues involved, by the way. "After two days" could mean a couple of different timings, especially depending on whether Jesus is saying this before or after sundown on a particular day: Jewish days started at sunset. In fact the Passover (or "Pascha") would be "becoming" at sundown on a particular day -- so back one day to sunset and back at least part of another. But how far back into the second day, or even back into a third day (looking forward across two subsequent days to the start of a Passover Day at sunset) can't be determined from GosMatt's information. But to give a typical example, if Jesus was sitting out on the Olivet hillside on what we would call Wednesday afternoon or early evening, He could be talking about sunset on what we'd call Friday. (All of Friday back to sunset on Thursday, and all of Thursday back to whenever He's talking in this scene.)

Sometime between this scene and 26:17, the Sanhedrin (or some of them as allies of the high priest Caiaphas) decides to wait until after Passover to do something fatal about Jesus. This space of time is also when Matthew puts the anointing of Jesus by a woman (not identified in GosMatt) at the home of Simon the leper, and Judas Iscariot's deal with the Sanhedrin (or Caiaphas' faction at least) to spy on Jesus looking for a good opportunity to hand Him over to them.

(This introduces a less important timing muddle, as while GosMark agrees with this incident being reported now, GosJohn puts it back around the time of what we now call Palm Sunday much earlier in the week. For the record I regard Matthew and Mark as moving the incident up forward for dramatic purposes since it's connected with why Judas decides to spy on Jesus. GosMatt doesn't give precise time cues for when it happens, and only indicates with a simple "then" that Judas goes to the Sanhedrin subsequently, thus subsequently to whenever the anointing happened. But this is aside from the question of when the Last Supper and Crucifixion occurred.)

GosMatt then says (26:17)... well something kind of grammatically obscure.

"Now to the first [or foremost] of the unleavends, the disciples approached to Jesus saying to Him, 'Where are you willing we should be making ready to You, to be eating the Passover?'"

That "to" is very odd. It might mean the Feast of Unleavened Bread was approaching (as the Greek grammar parallels the disciples approaching Jesus), or it might mean Matthew is finished with a flashback and going back to the main narrative. (We know for a fact that Matthew uses narrative flashbacks and flashforwards, one of the most famous or infamous ones being his brief flashforward (27:53) to tell us that after Jesus has risen from the grave previously deceased righteous Jews will also be rising to be seen by various people in the city.)

In other words, this scene might take place on the day before the Unleavened Bread, or the day of the Unleavened Bread. But how many days (plural) of Unleavened Bread are there?!

It turns out there are two days on which a rabbi may keep the feast of unleavened bread, the Passover feast -- and if he keeps it on the first day, that would be very unusual but also very significant culturally under the circumstances reported in all the Gospels! For a rabbi (or the head of a family) may in emergency circumstances keep the Passover one night early if he is sure that he and his group will not be able to do it the next night. And the most famous example of this in Jesus' day (and for some time afterward) was that of the Maccabees, the Jewish family who led the revolt against Greek domination several generations earlier.

In other words, if a rabbi was expecting that he and his people would have to be fighting on the day of the usual Passover feast, he could hold it one night early. It would still be a legitimate Passover seder, but it might throw timing off when people later try to report it. It would also be a huge signal to anyone watching a rabbi for potential signs that he intends to start a rebellion against other pagan oppressors, like the Romans in Jesus' day--especially if that rabbi has been indicating he thinks he's the Messiah, because according to Jewish tradition in early Christian centuries (still running down to the day of St. Jerome four centuries later, and still today among some groups of conservative Jews), the Messiah was expected to come at midnight of Passover! Thus for Jews the Passover is a night to be on watch, originally on watch for the angel of destruction in Egypt, but later on watch for the Messiah.

It should not be surprising then that Jesus will be arrested around midnight of the night He holds the Passover, if He has held it one night early. That night would be a night, not when rabbis and fathers and their groups would be quietly holding private Passover seders, but publicly celebrating with a huge party and feast in the Temple while the lambs were roasting for the Passover meal on the following night. But it would be the night Jesus and His (or in their estimation "his") group would be expecting to "arrive" with Jesus as the Messiah!

Meanwhile, the disciples here in GosMatt are reported as asking where Jesus wants them to prepare for eating the Passover. That might mean they expect Him to hold it that night, with that night being the normal Passover night of anyone else; or that might mean they expect Him to hold it one night early because they're expecting to be at war the following night! (And/or they're checking to see from His answer whether that's what He's planning for the main Passover.)

But they would want to make plans early even if they think they'll be celebrating it not that night but the next night: there are tons of visitors in Jerusalem who don't necessarily have family in the nearby area, so rooms large enough for Jesus' group will not only be at a premium but likely to have been long since reserved!

Jews at that time, up until the destruction of the Temple, were strictly forbidden by the scriptures (specifically Deuteronomy 16:5) from keeping Passover anywhere other than near the Temple or the tabernacle ("where God chooses to make His name dwell in"), which by Jesus' day meant within the gates of Jerusalem. Families could honor the Passover if they couldn't get to the Temple, but couldn't keep it per se.

As a practical matter, what this meant was that an absolutely enormous amount of lambs had to be sacrificed and cooked, in the Temple and nowhere but in the Temple, before Passover could be kept. Families or groups would bring a lamb, which would be prepared by ritually killing it and then quite literally crucifying it outside the Temple while it waited to be cooked, and then the group would come back later to pick up a cooked lamb (though by the nature of things not necessarily the one they offered. So they graciously offered a lamb to someone else and graciously received one in return.)

In theory the lamb would be sacrificed and cooked not long before the actual Passover service at sunset--Josephus later reported in his account of the Jewish War that this would happen within two hours from around 3 to 5 pm--but in practice there was utterly no way (short of a miracle) that that was ever going to happen. (In the same account, War 6:423-27, Josephus found the number of sacrificed lambs to tally around 256,500! Scholars have regarded that as an exaggeration, but the main problem would have been sacrificing and cooking an average of 2,140 lambs every minute. Even 183 lambs a minute on average would be pushing capacity, and that's allowing 24 hours.) So the lambs started being sacrificed and cooked after sunset the day before Passover.

Now, GosMark agrees with GosMatt that the Sanhedrin agreed two days before Passover and the Unleavened Breads not to try to kill Jesus during Passover; and also agrees with GosMatt that this scene of the disciples coming to ask Jesus where they should prepare for the Passover, occurred on the first day of the unleavened breads, or that the first day is approaching now in his story when this happens (it's the same odd phraseology in Greek, "Now to the first day of the unleavends.") But Mark (or whoever authored/edited/redacted GosMark) offers up an extra detail in reporting this scene: it happens not only on or soon before the first of the days of unleavened bread, but on or soon before the day when the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. (GosMark 14:12)

If the main Passover was to be celebrated Friday at sunset, for example, this scene would have to be taking place late Friday afternoon if it referred to the usual main Passover seder everyone normally expects; and then Jesus would be dying on the day after the night that everyone had celebrated the Passover, or Saturday if Friday sunset was the start of Passover night. But if it refers to the approach of the time when the Passover lambs would really in practical practice start being slain, Jesus would be holding the Passover one night early, and would die Friday afternoon at about the time the Passover lambs would ideally be regarded as sacrificed and prepared for eating (even though in practical practice the killing and cooking would have had to start one night earlier, Thursday night, so that everyone in the city would be able to celebrate the seder together at about the same time).

This will be important for working out timing cues later, but I'll continue tomorrow in Part 2, picking up with GosLuke's timing cues on this scene and then GosJohn's.


Jason Pratt said…
Registering for comment tracking. Yes, I'll be doing mere apologetics this year instead of a devotional sermon, so if anyone from the Cadre wants to contribute one...! {g}
just tell me without making me rad an article: first day in the tomb began Friday evening. that's the end of a day not the beginning so the one real day he was in the tomb was Saturday. he rose Sunday early in the morning he was in the tomb only one full day.
Jason Pratt said…
Well, I did say in the third paragraph I'd be defending that account eventually, but the textual data isn't that straightforward overall.

Jason Pratt said…
I'll also mention somewhere eventually that WE PROBABLY CAN'T KNOW WHICH SPECIFIC THREE DAYS THIS HAPPENED ON! -- we think of it being "Friday / Saturday / Sunday", but the Jewish calendar for starting and ending a week didn't synch up necessarily for when the Roman calendars started and ended a week. It might have been on what we would now call Monday /Tuesday / Wednesday.

Sussing that out would require nailing down the exact year first, which at this late date is probably impossible. On the other hand, keeping this factor in mind will relieve a constraint on dating the year: we don't have to necessarily find a Friday-to-Sunday situation that matches up.


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