Skip to main content

See also:

Jesus crucified the day before a high Sabbath

In this year, there would be two Sabbaths during Passover week
In this year, there would be two Sabbaths during Passover week
Photo by Andrew Verrett

The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away (John 19:31).

Christians have celebrated the death of Jesus for centuries on Good Friday. This is because Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are placed on a day adjoining the Sabbath as in verses like the one above and Matthew 28:1 below:

In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

There it is – Jesus was crucified the day before the Sabbath, and it stands to reason that since the “Sabbath” is on Saturday, the crucifixion must have been on a Friday. (See 6th paragraph of Was Jesus crucified in a Jewish leap year? for a discussion of Jewish week days.) Thus, tradition has Jesus' crucifixion on a Friday, followed by the Saturday Sabbath, and then the resurrection on Sunday morning. (Click here for an article with this traditional teaching.) But is it possible that a Friday crucifixion is not historically accurate?

Many people do not know that the Old Testament defines two different kinds of Sabbaths:

1. The type with which we are most familiar is on a weekly basis, from sunset of what we call Friday until sunset of what we call Saturday. (While our day begins and ends with midnight, the Jewish day begins at sunset and ends at the next sunset.)

2. The other type – called “high days” or “high Sabbaths” consists of the seven annual Sabbath days listed in Leviticus 23 (verses 7, 8, 21, 25, 28, 30-32, 35-36). These could occur any day of the week. [1] According to the Mosaic Law, the day following Passover (which is the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread) is always a Sabbath day of rest no matter on what day of the week it falls and is to be observed like the 7th-day weekly Sabbath. (See Leviticus 23:4-8, Numbers 28:16-18.) Accordingly, John's Gospel records the day after Jesus' crucifixion was a high Sabbath. But does that mean it had to be on a Friday?

It's time to set aside tradition and see what the Bible actually says. Back to the earlier verse from Matthew 28:1:

In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.

Most Bible translations render this word “Sabbath” in the singular because translators, believing the traditional Friday crucifixion scenario, couldn’t make any sense of the fact that the Greek manuscripts all have this word in the plural. [1][2] The Greek word written there is Sabbaton – Sabbaths (plural) and not Sabbato – Sabbath (singular).

Young’s Literal Translation translates the verse:

And on the eve of the sabbaths, at the dawn, toward the first of the sabbaths, came Mary the Magdalene, and the other Mary, to see the sepulcher.

Is it really possible that Matthew could have meant two Sabbaths? Yes, a high Sabbath as recorded in John 19:31 and a regular Saturday Sabbath. Remember, the Bible defines seven feast days that were to be observed as Sabbaths and one of those would be the day after Passover, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Thus, regardless of what day of the week the Passover fell when Jesus was crucified, the next day would be a high Sabbath because it was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

A two-Sabbath week would occur frequently. It would only be a week in which a high Sabbath fell on a Saturday that would be the more rare occurrence of a holy-day, one-Sabbath week. Unless the day after the Preparation Day when Jesus was crucified fell on a Saturday, there would have been two Sabbaths in the Passover week.

Of course, one could think that the plural form of Sabbath in Matthew 28:1 was an error, but if Matthew made a mistake, then so did Mark in chapter 16. According to Young’s Literal Translation:

16:2 and early in the morning of the first of the sabbaths, they come unto the sepulchre, at the rising of the sun

16:9 And he, having risen in the morning of the first of the sabbaths, did appear first to Mary the Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven demons

And Luke:

24:1 And on the first of the sabbaths, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, bearing the spices they made ready, and certain [others] with them

And John:

20:1 And on the first of the sabbaths, Mary the Magdalene doth come early (there being yet darkness) to the tomb, and she seeth the stone having been taken away out of the tomb,

20:19 It being, therefore, evening, on that day, the first of the sabbaths, and the doors having been shut where the disciples were assembled, through fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and saith to them, “Peace to you;”

Since it’s unlikely they all made the same mistake, then what did the Gospel writers mean by “the first of the Sabbaths?” Well, the second high Sabbath in the Jewish year occurred on the last day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. So, if the first week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread had two Sabbaths, then the last week of the Feast would have had two Sabbaths as well. Therefore, to clarify which Sunday associated with the Feast that the women visited the tomb, they’re letting you know that it occurred on the Sunday closest to the beginning of the Feast rather than the Sunday after the Feast was over. So, rather than saying, “at the dawn on the 17th of Nisan,” they recorded the event in terms that relate to the Feast. (We do the same thing today. We say, “We went to Grandma’s the day after Christmas” or “We stayed up all night New Year’s Eve” or “I had a great time on my birthday” without naming the calendar date.) Similarly, see the same way of recording time in Mark 14:12:

And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?

Even though the Feast of Unleavened Bread didn’t begin until the 15th, the Jews were not to eat leavened bread beginning on Passover day. The lamb was killed in the evening on the day of Passover – the 14th of Nisan (Exodus 12:6). So when Mark says the “first day of unleavened bread,” he means Passover day, the 14th of Nisan – the first day they were to eat unleavened bread. He doesn’t mean the 15th of Nisan, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

By New Testament times, the people had begun to refer to the entire time of Passover and the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread as either the Passover or simply as the Feast. (This is no different from our culture saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” or when someone asks, “How was your Christmas holidays?”) They also referred to other feasts instituted by God simply as the “Feast.” For example:

On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem (John 12:12). (See also John 4:45; 11:56; 7:8,37; Acts 18:21.)

So again, to avoid confusion as to which feast and as to whether this was the day of Passover or the actual Feast of Unleavened Bread, Mark writes, “the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover …” to let you know he specifically means Passover day (the 14th of Nisan).

Therefore, Matthew 28:1 could read, “In the end of the Sabbaths, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week after the first of the feast’s Sabbaths, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.” (The words in italics are not in the original language, but are added for clarity and ease of reading. As an aside, the phrase in the KJV “the first day of the week” is not an exact translation of the original Greek. In the original it’s “the first of the Sabbaths.” “(T)he first of the Sabbaths” is also rendered “the first day of the week” in the referenced verses in Mark, Luke, and John.)

Okay, back to the high Sabbath, the day after Jesus was crucified. It could have fallen on the same day as the regular Sabbath beginning Friday at sundown and ending Saturday at sundown. Then again, there could have been two Sabbaths in the week Christ was crucified to atone for our sins. The normal Sabbath, and then some other day of the week. What we do know without question is Jesus died the day before a high Sabbath, which was the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. What day of the week the high Sabbath fell that year will take a closer examination. There are sufficient clues in the Bible to reach a conclusion. Some of those can be found in the article, Doctrines that creep in: Palm Sunday was on a Sunday.

[1] B.A Robinson, “The Christian Origins Of Easter”, Religious Tolerance, http://www.religioustolerance.org/easter6.htm

[2] Olaf Hage, “The Crucifixion Of Jesus”, Hage Productions, 1998, http://petragrail.tripod.com/tree.html