There are quite a few out there that claim that Jesus couldn’t have been crucified on Good Friday because it wasn’t a full three days and three nights, that it had to have happened on Wednesday. An immediate response to this is that this claim fails to understand the 1st-century Jewish view that any part of the day counted as a full day. There are even some today that count days that way. For me, when I count three days, I count tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that. But my wife, for example, counts today, tomorrow, and the day after as the 3rd day.
Jesus himself, says “today, tomorrow, and the third day” (Luke 13:31).
While these are the immediate responses, Tom Berg, of Blogging The Word, has done some extensive and study into this topic which took two blogs to briefly encompass his results: first with a look on the scholarship as well as biblical data from Matthew and Mark, with a followup on the data from Luke, John, Peter, and Paul, both posts with a bibliography. I’m going to briefly summarize his two posts, but I recommend you read both for further information.
He starts off by asking the question, sharpness, condescension, and arrogant attitudes aside, “is there any reason at all to think Jesus didn’t die on a Friday? Is there any good reason to think he did?” And he responds with:
In fact, that Jesus died on Friday could not be more clear from the biblical accounts themselves, from the traditions of church history, and from the consensus of NT scholarship…But the actual day of the week of the crucifixion is not held in any kind of serious dispute. It is as close to a consensus position in NT scholarship as is possible. The dating of the Crucifixion as occurring on a Friday, together with Paul’s preaching before Gallio in AD 51-52 while he was in Corinth, are in fact the two bedrock dates from which all the rest of NT chronology are built.
The Scholarship View
Why does Tom start with the scholarship view? He says this (emphasis his):
I mention the voices of scholarship here primarily to enjoin humility upon my reader. There are many complex and controversial issues in biblical scholarship, where many good scholars stand on opposite sides of an issue and hold widely diverse opinions.
This is not one of those issues.
It needs to be recognized that this is not a controversial issue. It is presented as controversial only by those who are ignorant of the literature. It is a consensus opinion among biblical scholars, which has had only the occasional dissenting voice. I’m all for the courage of challenging the status quo. But if you wish to offer such a challenge, know the details of what you are talking about, and be humble and respectful of the fact that you are accusing essentially every biblical scholar alive of being wrong (and they do, after all, study this kind of thing for a living). Such claims should be made with a humble spirit rather than the dogmatic and angry attitude so dismissive of the traditional opinion that I often see.
In regards to the scholarship view, Tom gives several quotes and references, including Craig Blomberg in his book “Jesus and the Gospels”:
“We know that Christ died during the reigns of the prefect Pilate (AD 26-36), the high priest Caiaphas (AD 18-36), and the tetrarch Antipas (4 BC-AD 37). It would seem that he was crucified on a Friday (the day before the Sabbath, as in Mark 15:42 par.) and the day after the evening on which the initial Passover meal was celebrated (Mark 14:12, 14, 16 pars.).”  His text is a standard work, and was even the textbook for the Life of Christ course at HBBC when I was in undergrad (though I didn’t take the course). He makes no mention of another possibility in the text. He does however insert a footnote after the above quotation, which notes, “Some have argued for a Wednesday crucifixion on the grounds that in Matt. 12:40, Jesus predicts that he will be in the ‘heart of the earth’ for ‘three days and three nights,’ thus requiring three full days before Resurrection Sunday. But this interpretation fails to recognize the standard Jewish idiom of using ‘a day and a night’ to refer to any portion of a twenty-four-hour period of time.” For Blomberg, a possibility other than Friday is worthy of mention only as a brief footnote.
This is a good indication of the general approach of scholarship to the issue. Thousands of pages worth of ink have been spilt in the last two millennia debating the controversial issues surrounding the date of the crucifixion and Easter, but the remote possibility that Jesus didn’t die on a Friday is worth little more than an occasional footnote in this voluminous discussion. Scholars make their living by carefully and thoroughly debating every possible option of every technical issue, but this simply isn’t a controversial issue about which there is any doubt to seriously discuss.
Tom also references Harold Hoehner in his book “Chronological Aspects Of The Life Of Christ”, who examines all three possibilities (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) in detail and concludes:
“Having examined the three different views, it was concluded that the Friday date for the crucifixion is the most acceptable. Both the Wednesday and Thursday views are basically built on one verse, namely, Matthew 12:40. These views are unacceptable, because, first, the preponderance of Scripture would indicate Jesus’ crucifixion as having occurred on Friday, and second, when one realizes that the Jews reckoned part of a day as a whole day, these options no longer stand.”
The Voice of Church Tradition
Tom says this:
It goes without saying that the early Church Fathers and traditional position of the Church has been that Jesus died on a Friday and was raised on a Sunday. I don’t recall a single dissenting voice anywhere in early church history. That Jesus died on a Friday and rose on Sunday is after all the origin of the language of “Good Friday” and essentially the reason that we worship on Sunday instead of Saturday.
The Voice of the Evangelicals
After reviewing several topics (What is the Sabbath?, What is Passover?, What is “The Day of Preparation?), he points How Were Days Counted?:
In the common Jewish reckoning, the 24 hour period called a “day” doesn’t really begin at sunup (though note that Judaism could at times follow either Egyptian or Mesopotamian reckoning). Rather a day began at 6 pm on one evening and ended at 6 pm the following evening. And a “day” was typically conceived of as an entire Day/Night unit, regardless of how much of that unit was being referred to. For example, Genesis records the first time such units were noted, “And the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5, etc.). Note that it starts with the evening first. One “day and night” was simply a way to refer to any part of this Night/Day unit.
This lines up with what I’ve read from every scholar on the topic.
He also covers How Were Hours Counted?, before adding:
Keep these basic elements of the Jewish chronological view in your minds as you read the Gospels, since they are the elements in the minds of the Evangelists when they wrote them.
The Voice of Mark
There are 3 major Passion Predictions in Mark: Mark 8:31-32a, 9:30-31, and 10:32-34. In all three, Jesus predicts that he will rise “after three days.” When you examine the Passion Account in Mark (Mark 12:42-47) and follow his chronology, it is straightforward:
Mark presents Jesus as dying on Friday (the day of preparation for the Sabbath, 15:42), then sees the next day as Sabbath (15:42; 16:1), and sees the day following the Sabbath day as the first day of the week, or Sunday (Mark 16:1). Thus, according to Mark, Jesus died on Friday. There is simply no room in Mark’s chronology for any other understanding.
The Voice of Matthew
In regards to the Passion Predictions in Matthew, Matthew has the same 3 predictions that Mark has (compare above to Matt. 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19) along with a fourth (26:1-2). When you compare Matthew’s accounts to Mark’s, Matthew records the predictions as on the third day rather than Mark’s after three days.
For the Passion Account in Matthew, Matthew gives a detail chronology in Matthew 27:61–63. Here, Tom says:
Matthew has specifically chosen language that prevents the reader from seeing any Sabbath other than Saturday being in view. According to Matthew, Jesus died on the day of preparation for the Sabbath (27:62)
Tom gives a full examination of the Sign of Jonah in Matthew 12:38-40, which is the only reason anyone would hold to the crucifixion happening on Wednesday rather than Friday. “But they almost always quote only verse 40, in isolation from its context. This will cause the reader to miss its interpretation.”
After an in-depth examination, he concludes with 6 points:
- The original context in Jonah makes it clear that specifying a 72-hour period wasn’t the original point of the phrase (Jonah 1:17-2:10).
- The context of the passage surrounding the phrase in Matthew makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t intending to specify a 72-hour burial period but was rather primarily predicting that he, like Jonah, would escape from death (Matt. 12:38-42).
- The explanation and usage of this common idiom in rabbinic literature makes it clear that a 72-hour period isn’t in view.
- The normal usage of this common idiom even within the Hebrew Bible makes it clear that a 72-hour period is not in view (I Sam. 30:11-15, etc.).
- The fact that the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke the phrase clearly didn’t understand him to mean a 72-hour period shows that Jesus didn’t intend to refer to a 72-hour period (Matt. 27:62-66).
- The fact that Matthew records the saying but sees no contradiction with his chronology consistent throughout his Passion account of Jesus dying Friday, and being raised on Sunday, “on the third day,” shows that he didn’t understand Jesus to be specifying a 72-hour period.
The Voice of Luke
Just like how Matthew handled the Passion Predictions in Mark, the same goes for the Passion Predictions in Luke, clarifying after three days to on the third day. The angels who appeared to the women in Luke 24:5-9 remind them of Jesus’ prediction that he would rise on the third day. And the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) say that it was the third day since the crucifixion.
The Passion Account in Luke, he is clear on when the crucifixion happened: “It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning” (Luke 23:54 ESV) That is Friday, the day before the Sabbath. With the empty tomb being found on the first day of the week, or Sunday. “There simply is no room in Luke’s chronology for any other understanding.”
For the Sign of Jonah, Luke does not even mention three days and three nights, because he doesn’t need to to make his point.
There is so much more that Tom covers with the Voice of John, the Voice of Peter, and the Voice of Paul, as well as the Pre-New Testament Oral Tradition. For the last part, he quotes 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which explicitly says “that he was raised on the third day”. I’ve written more about that creed here and here. That creed that Paul quotes predates anything in the New Testament, with even atheist scholars trading it to originating within 1-2 years of the resurrection.
Tom concludes with this:
The voices of the NT bear a remarkably consistent witness at this point. And the voices of historical tradition, the tradition of Christian interpretation, and modern biblical scholarship, which generally find themselves divided at almost any randomly chosen issue, are also amazingly unified in bearing witness to the same chronology. Jesus died on Friday, and the tomb was found empty Sunday morning. There simply is no controversy about the issue.
The only reason that anyone might ever think otherwise is an isolated and overly-literal reading of the Sign of Jonah in Matthew 12:40 which they think forces them to come up with a scheme that would allow Jesus to have been in the tomb 72 hours. But reading Matthew 12:40 as demanding 72 hours in the tomb not only contravenes the entirety of the rest of the NT as it presents its chronology, it also ignores;
- The original context and traditional Jewish interpretation of Jonah 1:17;
- The clear intent of Jesus for the saying in the context of Matt 12:1-45;
- Matthew’s clear understanding of the saying as he presents it in preparation for his Passion chronology (Matt. 27:62; 28:1);
- The Pharisees’ understanding of the saying as made clear in Matt. 28:62-66;
- The natural use of a common Jewish idiom in counting days in rabbinic literature;
- The use of this same idiom within the Hebrew Bible (Gen. 42:17, 18; I Kings 20:29; I Chron. 10:5, 12; Esth. 4:16; 5:1; I Sam. 30:12, 13);
- The fact that Luke was able to present Jesus as making the same point about the Sign of Jonah with no reference whatsoever to “three days and three nights” (Luke 11:29-32);
- The likelihood that Luke in fact didn’t include the phrase precisely because he knew it might be misunderstood by his Gentile readers unfamiliar with the Jewish idiom (and clearly he was right!).
Please read both of Tom’s blogs for an in-depth look into this topic. I think it’s pretty clear. Jesus was crucified on Good Friday.