Puzzlingly for some, Easter and Passover were about four weeks apart this year. When we look at the biblical account of Jesus’ last few days, more questions abound if we take current commemorations as “gospel.” Questions such as, “How can we fit the passage of three days and three nights into Friday afternoon through Sunday morning?” and “Why did Jesus instruct His disciples to prepare the Passover and eat it that same evening when the Jews were preparing to recall the Exodus event the following evening?”
Let’s look at the Friday-Sunday tradition first. For centuries Christians have celebrated Christ’s resurrection on Sunday in response, no doubt, to the claim that He came back to life early that morning. But did He? The biblical account shows that He was already alive by dawn—“Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. Then she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him’” (John 20:1–2). Matthew’s Gospel records an angel saying to the women who came to the tomb that Jesus was already risen (Matthew 28:6). If traditional Christianity is correct in claiming that Jesus was crucified on Friday, dying at about 3 p.m., and was resurrected on Sunday morning, then He was in the grave Friday night, the day part of Saturday and Saturday night—that’s two nights and one day. Yet Jesus said the only sign He would give of His messiahship was that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights and then be raised from the dead (Matthew 12:40; 16:21).
Now let’s think about what Jesus did with His disciples on the evening before His death. Notice the following: “Then came the Day [or season] of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover must be killed. And He sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat’” (Luke 22:7–8). That evening they ate the Passover lamb. Peter and John neither objected nor found the instruction to prepare the Passover strange. And that despite the fact that the temple authorities would be killing Passover lambs and goats the following afternoon. At that time, Jews did not have a single approach to the Passover as they do today. Some, like Jesus and His disciples, observed it at the beginning of the 14th of Nisan according to the Torah—in this case on Tuesday evening. Others, such as the Pharisees, observed it at the end of the 14th and beginning of the 15th. This explains the apparent contradiction in the Gospel accounts between the actions of Jesus and His disciples and those of the Pharisees.
Some Christian scholars have grasped the importance of understanding these issues and have reconstructed Jesus’ final days from the biblical account rather than simply accepting tradition. Protestant minister R.A. Torrey was the successor to Dwight Moody at the Moody Bible Institute. In 1907 he wrote about the chronology of Jesus’ death and resurrection: “To sum it all up, Jesus died about sunset on Wednesday. Seventy-two hours later, exactly three days and three nights, at the beginning of the first day of the week (Saturday at sunset), He arose again from the grave. When the women visited the tomb just before dawn the next morning, they found the grave already empty. . . .
“There is absolutely nothing in favor of Friday crucifixion, but everything in the Scripture is perfectly harmonized by Wednesday crucifixion. It is remarkable how many prophetical and typical passages of the Old Testament are fulfilled and how many seeming discrepancies in the gospel narratives are straightened out when we once come to understand that Jesus died on Wednesday and not on Friday” (Difficulties in the Bible, 1907, 1964).
Torrey was not alone in his conclusions. Anglican minister Leonard Pearson wrote: “Was Christ three days and three nights in the grave? Good Friday is the day usually kept to commemorate His precious death and burial, but if He was really buried on a Friday and arose on Sunday morning then at the longest His Body was not more than thirty-seven hours in the grave. The Bible nowhere says that Christ died on a Friday, but that He suffered as the true Passover and therefore on the 14th of the month Nisan. In the year of our Lord’s sacrifice the 14th of Nisan fell on a Wednesday [beginning the previous evening at sunset]. In the East time is reckoned from sunset to sunset. Sunset Wednesday to sunset Thursday—one day; sunset Thursday to sunset Friday—one day; sunset Friday to sunset Saturday—one day. So we get the full period of three days and three nights and early, before sun-rising, the tomb was empty and our Lord was risen. Hallelujah!
“In the Gospel story there is the mention of the Sabbath and this has been taken as the weekly Sabbath, whereas it is the Passover Sabbath. In other words, there are two Sabbaths in the Passover week” (Through the Land of Babylonia, 1939, 1951).
You can find these quotes and others that clarify the questions I’ve raised in our review titled “Another Jesus.” It’s instructive to think through the differences between tradition and truth; they are not necessarily the same.
Special Report: The History of Easter