The Day Jesus Was Crucified: Studies in Mark, Pt. 77

In study #76 of my “Studies in Mark” series, I explored some issues surrounding the “time” of Jesus’ crucifixion in the four Gospel accounts. In the main, I gave some thoughts on how time was viewed, understood and used in Mediterranean antiquity and how these factors should be borne in mind when reading the various NT accounts. In the end, I concluded that in the work titled “John” (and the same is true of Luke) the author’s are using temporal approximations—in more simple terms: they were saying “Jesus was crucified at about or around such and such time of day.” John says Jesus was crucified at about Noon while Mark says it was 9am. The fact is, John is clearly approximating when he uses the word “about” (again, Luke does the same). Mark does not offer a specific word that denotes approximation; at first glance he seems to be more specific. However, given the cultural norms of time-telling back then, any seemingly specific time that was given should still be taken lightly. To find out more why, click HERE.

Of course, scholars have thought through and argued over the supposed discrepancies between the Markan and Johannine accounts. Some have suggested that the authors have different narrative and theological agendas and that this accounts for the tensions. Others have suggested that a textual variant, that is, the changing of the Greek digamma to a gamma is the answer. Others, particularly fundamentalist atheists have contended that the “contradictions” between Mark and John on the foundational event of Christian, the crucifixion, shows that the Bible is wholly untrustworthy. I do not hold any of these views. As I explained in study #76, there is another, easier and more contextual way (in my view) to make sense of all that is being said.

Just to be clear about where I’m going with this post, I should probably recount the argument that I’m going against. The argument is as follows: John’s work says that Jesus was crucified on the evening before Passover (Nisan 14) and Mark’s says He was killed on the day of Passover (Nisan 15). He couldn’t have been killed twice and thus, He couldn’t have been killed on two different days, so, how might we make sense of this? Well, to go ahead and answer the obvious, I will say that Jesus was killed once, on one day and that the day was the 15th day of the Jewish month called Nisan. He was killed during the 2nd watch of the day, which would have been between 9am and Noon (remember, Jewish days were divided into four watches and the nights were also separated into four watches, totaling eight periods of three hours each in a 24-hour span).

Instead of contending that Jesus was killed a day earlier than He was supposed to be as many scholars have done, that is, that He was killed on Nisan 14—and as a result cannot be viewed as the “Passover Lamb”—what I am going to offer here is a simple timeline of how the Gospels lay out the events. This timeline shows that, indeed, the authors are all in agreement that Jesus was killed on Nisan 15 and was viewed as the Passover Lamb (of course, John’s theology emphasizes the “Lamb” aspect more than the other accounts). Before going on, I should point out two things: 1) All of the Gospel writers, with the possible exception of Matthew, refer to the Passover at some point as a weeklong event as well as a single meal! So, when we read the accounts we have to strive to understand which use is taking place. 2) The “Feast of Unleavened Bread” was also called the “Passover” (e.g. Lk. 22.1). Here’s the timeline:

· Day 1 of Passover, Nisan 14, is the Feast of Unleavened Bread. That afternoon/evening (3pm-6pm), as all four Gospel accounts note, Jesus ate a meal with His disciples (Lk. 22.7-16, Jn. 13.1-2, Mt. 26.17-21, Mk. 14.12-8).

· Day 2 of Passover, Nisan 15—Preparation Day—begins (according to Jewish time) around the time Jesus and his followers finished eating, that is, some time between 6 and 9pm. (Remember, Jewish days were reckoned quite differently than our days are now. Instead of their days ending at 11:59/Midnight, they considered the end of the day pretty much when the sun fell.) So, Nisan 15 begins between 6-9pm and will end on Nisan 16 around the same time. Still on day two of Passover, we find that all of the Gospel accounts tell different aspects of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. If I were to offer a timetable of events for Day 2, as to how the Gospels portray them, here’s what I’d offer:

o 1st watch of the night: Jesus and disciples finish the diner (6-9pm: Jn. 13.1-5)
o 2nd watch of the night: After dinner Judas takes off (9pm-12am: Jn. 13.29)
o 3rd watch of the night: Peter denies Jesus (12am-3am: Jn. 18.27-34; Mt. 27.15-35)
o 4th watch of the night: Pilate releases Barabbas on the “Feast Day” (3am – 6am: Mk. 15.6-20; Jn. 18.38-40; Lk. 23.16-25)
o 1st quarter of the day: Jesus given to Pilate for crucifixion around the “sixth hour” (6am – 9am: Jn. 19.12-16)
o 2nd quarter of the day: Jesus dies on “Preparation Day” (9am-12pm: Lk. 23.50-6)
o 3rd quarter of the day: Joseph of Arimathea goes for Jesus’ body (12pm – 3pm: Mk. 15.42-7)
o 4th quarter of the day: Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb on “Preparation Day” (3pm – 6pm: Jn. 19.41-2)

· Day 3 of Passover: On this day, Nisan 16, which is the 7th day of the week and thus the Sabbath, begins around 6pm – 9pm. All four Gospel accounts speak of this day and have nothing major take place on it (see: Lk. 23.55-6; Jn. 19.28-31; Mt. 27.62-3; Mk. 16.1-2). Note that nothing happens until, as Mk. 16.1-2 says, the “Sabbath had passed”!

· Day 4 of Passover, Nisan 17, which his the first day of the week is the day the tomb has visitors and that Jesus’ body is gone. The Gospel accounts all attest, numerous times, that on the “third day” (that is, after He was killed), He was raised, which was also the first day of the next week. See: Mt. 16, 17, 20 and 28; Mk. 9, 10 and 16; Lk. 9, 18, 24; Jn. 20. Also, see Acts 10.

I should note here that there is no “inerrantist” doctrine undergirding or driving my views here. Neither is there a maximalist mentality that is fueling me. Likewise there is no “evangelical” agenda hidden or embedded in what I’ve offered here. While many will resort to such labeling, I will argue that it is simply fictitious. All I’ve attempted to do here is to take the Gospel accounts at face value, in accord with how time was understood and reckoned in the NT and explain what’s said. Everything pans out smoothly and comports well. There is no need to resort to literary, theological or philosophical theories. As I’ve shown, there is a simple way to understand it all (one has to wonder whether or not scholarship has purposefully made this issue harder to understand than is necessary and riddled it with doubt for sheer academic reasons!).

In the end, the accounts are straightforward and pretty self-explanatory—though a little cultural context does need some explaining! As much as some would like for things not to work out this way, the fact is, they do. In my view, there’s no reason to crucify these accounts in the ways that some scholars have. Indeed, we can say with clarity and ease of mind: The Gospels make sense when they talk about the day Jesus was crucified.

*Note: This post has been added to the "Studies in Mark" page mentioned above!


  1. So on this view, what was the "Passover" that the Jewish leaders had yet to eat, motivating them not to enter Pilate's praetorium so as to not be rendered unclean and unable to eat it? (John 18:28, I think)

  2. James, Great question, although, I think I've already answered it. I've pointed out a few times that 3 of the 4 Gospel accounts (e.g. Mk. Lk. Jn.) all refer to "Passover" not just as a one day/one meal event; it is a week long event! Look at Lk. 22.1 for instance: "Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover..." There are numerous OT pasages that make this same remark (e.g. 2 Chr. 35.17 and Ezek. 45.21. See also, Mk. 14.1 and Jn. 19.14).

    Since "Passover" was viewed as a whole week which included the ongoing feast of unleavened bread, Jn. 18.28 makes sense when read in that light! It's not that they didn't want to miss the "passover meal" but they didn't want to be excluded from the ongoing, 7 day Passover celebration and "Feast".

    As to why scholars keep overlooking the collective use of Passover I have no idea. In context, it is clear to me at least that this is what is being said over and over again; it is emphasized repeatedly.

  3. Michael,

    Are you sure you have your dates right?

    Nisan 14 is not the Feast of Unleavened bread Nisan 14 is the Day of Passover Preparation which is why people argue John was killed on this day. Not because the are looking for something "errant" but because of verses like John 19:14, "Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, "Here is your King!"

    What I think you're missing (or maybe it's me; I'm flying off the top of my head here but I think this is right) is that on Nisan 14 it's not yet Passover. Passover does not start until sunset which is when the feast of Unleavened Bread takes place ON NISAN 15.

    The Feast of Unleavened Bread is often called Passover because only unleavened bread was eaten during these seven days immediately following Passover.

  4. But the problem is not that scholars forget that "Passover" can refer to the whole festival, but that John at least does seem to use it of the initial meal, and intentionally so:

    Note that 18:28 uses the exact same phrase as the Synoptics use of the Last Supper (phagwsin to pascha; Mark 14:12; Marr 26:17; Luke 22:15), of the meal the following day. In fact, John repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus died on the "Preparation Day for the Passover" (19:14; cf. 19:31, 42), which most naturally means the day before the festival starts, not the day after it starts!

    In fact, John's whole point seems to be to place Jesus' death at the same time as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, which was the afternoon of 14 Nisan. As far as I can see, that is why he emphasizes that it was "the sixth hour" that they led him out to be crucified (19:14), to make clear that he died in the afternoon. This ties directly into the Passover lamb imagery in which he cloaks his crucifixion account (cf. 19:29, 33, 34, 36). Your reconstruction eliminates force of these references. In fact, your claim that, if Jesus died on 14 rather than 15 Nisan it would rule out his being the Passover lamb, is (from my understanding of John) precisely the opposite of the truth.

    On a side note, I wonder if John's dating is not in fact the correct one anyway. After all, none of the accounts of the Last Supper mention a lamb (as we should have expect at a Passover meal), and it seems a bit implausible that the Jewish leadership would be up all Passover night trying Jesus, only to defile (to their minds) the first day of the feast with his crucifixion.

  5. Scott,
    I am quite certain that I have my dates right.

    Nisan 14, on the evening, is the first day of unleavened bread. Nisan 15, is preparation day, the day on which jesus died, the day before the sabbath. This is exactly how the accounts portray it.

    It seems to me that all of the confusion goes back to how the days were divided: beginning at evening and ending at evening. Take this into consideration, count out the times and it all pans out.

    The feast of unleavened bread begins the evening of Nisan 14, the which is a Thursday and thus, the 5th day of the week. The entire Passover celebration, commencing with the Feast of Unleavened Bread begins during this period. Then, Jesus dies on Preparation Day, the day before the Sabbath (Fri.) and lays in the tomb through the Sabbath and is raised on Nisan 17, the first day of the next week.

    I am aware of the 7 day Feast of Unleavened Bread and why it was called that (Ex. 12 & Num. 9).

  6. Ken,
    I am going to have to beg to differ here on a number of points.

    Firstly, while the "Preparation Day" most naturally seems to us to be the day before the festival starts, that's not always what it meant. In fact, it could refer either to the day before a celebration but it was most commonly used to talk about the day before a sabbath day. That's how the Gospel writers use it!!!

    Secondly, your translation of "last supper" fails to hold up. The proper reading is "to eat the passover". The eating goes on all week, it is not simply talking about one meal. Please, see my comments to James and check out the verses I cited.

    Thirdly, I do not forcefully or purposefully overlook John's "lamb" theology. I even noted in my post that it is there and more emphatic in that account! However, just because that's the case does not mean that John has to rearrange things to fit some modern scholarly idea of what Jesus as the "Lamb of God" means! I would even argue that it does not take a one-to-one correlation for John to employ that theology; it still works. Even if the lamb (to eat) was slain on Nisan 14 and Jesus was killed less than 24 hours later on Nisan 15, it all still works out!

    Fourthly, it is totally possible (and to me, probable) that they were up all night attempting to "try" Jesus; they didn't want to have to do it a day later, on the Sabbath and thus, desecrate the Sabbath!

    Fifthly, I think you have your days mixed up as to the first night of the feast. Remember, the first night of the feast was Nisan 14, not Nisan 15 or 16. Even more, as for having defiled minds, well, that wasn't their issue really, it was defiled hands and bodies.

  7. Dude you gotta show me some sources, because everything I have read says Nisan 14 is the day of Preparation for the passover which ends at sundown. Nisan 15 which begins AT SUNSET (which I am very aware of--give me some credit man) begins the Feast of Unleavened bread, eat the bitter herbs and all of the lamb before sun up... the passover meal. Maybe we need a Jewish person to come in and settle this one because you are saying the opposite of everyone else.

    At this point I'm not sure we are even having the same conversation or what I might be missing other than Nisan 15 WAS NOT the day of preparation.

    I can't find anything that puts the Passover meal BEFORE the slaughter of the passover lamb. It's kind of like Jesus being resurrected before he dies or something...

  8. Scott,
    You may be right that we're talking past one another, however, we may not be. I disagree, as I understand what you've said, with nothing you've suggested in this last comment. The evening of Nisan 14 begins is the 1st Day of Unleavened Bread. As sun sets, Nisan 15 begins and this is Preparation Day.

    As for the meal, again, they were not having the Paschal Proper but rather the Feast of UB began; that's what they were eating. Thus, the notion that it's like dying before living or being raised before being crucified doesn't really work.

    Question: Why, if JC was the Passover Lamb, would He eat the Passover proper? Just wondering.

  9. Ken,
    Regarding #1: There is nothing to "get around". He is simply saying in 19.14 that this is the Day of Preparation falling on Passover Week. This does not have to be read as saying Passover begins the next day, especially on a Sabbath Day. Of course, there were great debates among the rabbis about what happens when a Passover meal falls on a Sabbath day...e.g. which rules were most important and which ones would have to be ignored but none of that is going on here.

    #2: I'm confused by your arguments here.

    #3: This is a tricky one. But what if the events are seen as one whole here, which I would suggest they are? So that even the betrayal begins the ensuing slaughtering of Jesus. After all, He was leading Jesus to the slaughter house (Judas, that is).

    #4: You misunderstand me. This could go two ways: 1) They ate the lamb a day early or 2) The empahsis is on the Feast of UB. The latter seems most likely.

    #5: The feast begins the evening of the 14th and bleeds into the 15th. The Preparation Day is the day before the Sabbath. As for the changes over time, no doubt. Reinterpretations certainily ocurred.

    It seems as though we're disagreeing on dates, perhaps, when / if I can find some more time to dwell on this, I'll post some sources here. So much going on it's just tough to stay on top of this (Scott and I have been going round and round about this for a few weeks now).

    I don't take offence at anything you said. Be as adamant as you like; that's a good thing; I'm glad you're passionate about this!

  10. Michael,
    1. I suppose it might be possible that 19:14 refers to the preparation day of the Sabbath which happens to fall during Passover (on analogy to 19:31), but again, I think the reference to the 6th hour (placing the crucifixion in the afternoon) and the various other ways John seems to be connecting Jesus with the Passover lamb make this less likely.

    2. I'm not sure what you misunderstand here. Mark 14:12, 14; Matt 26:17 and Luke 22:8, 11, 15 all use the phrase "eat the pascha" of the meal the night before Jesus died, and everyone (including you, from what I can see) agrees that this refers to the Passover meal, the first night of the festival. John, however, does not use the phrase to describe Jesus' last meal with his disciples. He only uses it once, in 18:28, where the Jews are anticipating a meal that will happen after Jesus is killed. Granted that pascha could refer to either the initial meal or the whole of Unleavened Bread (and you are right that John uses pascha--but not "eat the pascha"!--of the whole festival), but it seems clear to me that all the Synoptic references (like Exodus) apply the phrase "eat the pascha" to the initial meal only, so by analogy the most natural reading of the phrase in John is also of the initial meal. The closest thing to an exception to this I can find is Ezek 45:21, but there it is not the pascha that is eaten for seven days, but (explicitely) "unleavened bread."

    3. No doubt John does see the whole betrayal/trial/death/resurrection as fulfillment of Passover, but that doesn't change the fact that he seems to be going out of his way to place Jesus' death at the same moment as the Passover lambs were slaughtered, which he could hardly have expressed more clearly than by stating that Jesus was led out to be crucified on "preparation day of/for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour" (19:14).

    I don't understand your 4. Actually, your last comment to Scott gets at my last 4. You said: "Why, if JC was the Passover Lamb, would He eat the Passover proper?" I suggested (though this is secondary to my real point, see below) that the reason none of the gospel narratives mention lamb at the Last Supper is because Jesus did not eat the Passover proper, and if the usual understanding of John is correct the reason could be that Jesus was already dead by then!

    5. I'm a bit confused about the whole 14, 15 Nisan thing as well; I suspect the problem is the difference between solar and lunar calanders (something that was disputable even in the 1st C.), but my point doesn't depend on that. All I am saying is that it is indisputable that the Passover lamb was slaughtered before the Passover itself began. In light of this, it seems to me that by far the most natural interpretation of John 18:28 and 19:14 is that Jesus was killed at the same time as the lamb. This would mean that for John, Jesus could not have eaten the Passover at the usual time (as the Synoptics seem to imply and as you affirm), since he was already dead by then! ;)

    If this is accepted, then either Jesus actually did eat the Passover a day early (and likely without a lamb), or John has modified the timing (as he did that of the temple incident, or do you dispute that?) to make a theological point.

  11. I don't think it necessarily helps reconcile John and the Synoptics, but it should be noted that "day of preparation" was a normal way of saying "Friday" in a Jewish context, and so "the day of preparation of the Passover" could mean either "the day before Passover" or "the Friday of/during Passover".

  12. James,
    I do think it helps to some degree. I made this point to Ken above.

  13. More thoughts:

    We may have two days of preparation. One on Thursday Nisan 14 the Day of Preparation For the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and one on Friday Nisan 15 the Day of Preparation for the Sabbath. As James pointed out the day of preparation became known as a way to say Friday for some Jewish persons as they had to do all of their cooking for Saturday, but there is still a festival preparation day distinct from the Sabbath preparation day.

    Also, as I'm typing this I'm looking at James' original question and I'm not sure a suitable answer has been given.

    Say for the sake of argument that every time a Jewish person uses the word Passover they mean the entire 7 day festival (we could even say 8 days if you add the day of preparation for the festival)and when they use this holistic term they also want to stay ritually clean during this entire period. Granting this understanding still does not answer James' question.

    John 18:28 " Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover." (NRSV)

    The last part of the sentence is ἀλλὰ φάγωσιν τὸ πάσχα "but might be able to eat the Passover." At this moment early in the morning I'm not sure how you get around phagosin without stretching an argument far beyond its scope.

    I'm entirely unconvinced that an argument that Jews viewed the Passover as a whole without any ability whatsoever to define its distinct parts answers the question here whether John thought they had eaten the passover meal yet, which in your argument they have.