Matt. 27:62-66 As the Sabbath day approaches at dusk on the Friday evening, the chief priests and the Pharisees ask Pilate to mount a guard on Jesus’s tomb, as they are afraid that Jesus’s followers may steal the body and claim that he has risen from the dead. They remember that, when he was alive, Jesus taught his disciples that he would rise again after three days (see Matthew 16:21).
When was Jesus crucified?
The exact day of Jesus’s crucifixion has puzzled scholars over the centuries as there appears, at first sight, to be a discrepancy between the timings in John’s gospel and in the other three ‘synoptic’ gospels.
Mark, Luke and Matthew make it clear that the Last Supper, shared by Jesus with his twelve disciples, was a Passover meal (see Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7-8 & Matthew 26:17-19). The Passover lamb was usually slaughtered just before dusk on 14th Nisan in the Jewish calendar (see Exodus 12:6 and details about the Festival of Unleavened Bread in Section 1).
Jews usually finished their daily work at about 3.00pm (the ‘ninth hour’). The roast lamb and other items in the Passover feast would have taken three or four hours to prepare and the meal was then eaten after sunset at the start of 15th Nisan (see Exodus 12:8 & 14-20).
In the Jewish lunar calendar, each new day began at moonrise (around sunset) not sunrise, and as each lunar month began with a new moon, the 14th of each month would always have been a full moon.
Jewish Calendar &
The light of the full moon enabled the Israelites to escape from Egypt on the first Passover night (see Exodus 12:42), and the moonlight allowed Jesus and his disciples to cross the Kidron Valley safely to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper (see Mark 14:32). It also meant that Judas was able to identify Jesus immediately in the middle of the night and betray him with a traditional kiss of greeting (see Mark 14:45).
According to the three ‘synoptic’ gospel accounts, the Last Supper was a Passover meal that took place on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb (see Mark 14:12).
However, if the Last Supper took place on the evening of 15th Nisan – which was normally the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover) – then Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin (and his crucifixion) would also have had to take place during the Passover festival. This would have created a serious problem as Jews were usually permitted to kill and roast the Passover lamb on the first day of the festival, but were not allowed to perform ‘work’ of any other kind – including a meeting of the Jewish council (see Exodus 12:16).
According to John’s account, the Last Supper took place just before the Passover festival on the evening of 14th Nisan – the day before the first day of the Passover (see John 13:1). Jesus was tried by the Jewish council, crucified by the Romans in the presence of the Jewish chief priests, and then buried by two Jewish members of the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus) before the first day of Passover began at twilight on the Friday afternoon (see John 18:24-28, 19:17-22 &19:38-39). But if this was the actual timing, was the Last Supper on 14th Nisan really a Passover meal?
This apparent anomaly may be resolved if the events of Holy Week are seen in the unusual context of 30AD. In that year, the first day of Passover (15th Nisan) was a Sabbath day (starting early on the Friday evening and finishing late on the Saturday afternoon). John calls it ‘a special Sabbath’ or ‘great Sabbath’ (see John 19.31) because it was also the first day of the Passover festival. Whenever the first day of the Passover festival occurred on a Sabbath, special regulations were brought into force as it was against the Jewish law to do any ‘work’, including the preparation of food, on the Sabbath (see Exodus 31:12-16).
As a result, the Passover lamb could not be slaughtered and then roasted in the early evening of the first day of the Passover festival if it was also a Sabbath. Consequently, Jews were allowed to kill the Passover lamb and celebrate the Passover meal on the ‘Preparation Day’ preceding the Sabbath – the day before the first day of the Passover festival (see Mark 15:42).
It would appear that this is exactly what Jesus and his disciples did in 30AD when they ate the 'Last Supper' - a Passover meal - on the evening of Thursday 6th April (at the start of 14th Nisan), the day before Jesus was crucified around 9.00am (the 'third hour') on Friday 7th April (still 14th Nisan until late afternoon, then 15th Nisan - the first day of Passover - after sunset).
Wealthy Jews (including the chief priests) could choose to eat the Passover meal on the Friday evening at the start of the Sabbath – as long as they had arranged for the Passover lamb to be ritually killed and the meal prepared in the morning or early afternoon of the Friday. In this way, Jesus – the ‘Lamb of God’ (see John 1:29 & Revelation 5:6-10) – was crucified to save mankind from sin and death at the very same time as many Passover lambs were being slaughtered on the Friday morning to commemorate the first Passover in Egypt. On that earlier occasion, the blood of the Passover lambs, smeared on the doorposts, had saved the Israelites from death (see Exodus 12:13).