When Was Jesus Crucified?

Today is “Good Friday,” the day Christians believe Jesus was executed through crucifixion. But did Jesus die today or tomorrow? The Bible actually says both.

Mark, the earliest Gospel, says that Jesus died on the day after the passover meal:

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” [...] As soon as it was morning, the chief priests … bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate…. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. (Mark 14:12; 15:1, 25 NRSV)

But John, the latest Gospel, says Jesus was crucified on the day before the passover meal:

Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. [Pilate] said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” (John 19:14)

So in Mark, Jesus was nailed to a cross at 9am the day after the Preparation of the Passover. In John, Pilate is about to send Jesus to his death at 12pm on the day of the Preparation for the Passover.

Those timelines just don’t add up. At least one is false; both cannot be true.

Why would John change the day Jesus was crucified from the earlier Mark narrative? Bart Ehrman gives an interesting theory in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:

Possibly the author of John, our last Gospel to be written, is actually trying to say something, to make a “truth-claim” about Jesus in the way he has told his story. Readers have long noted — and this can scarcely be either an accident or unrelated to our present dilemma — that John’s is the only Gospel that explicitly identified Jesus as “the Lamb of God.”

In fact, at the very outset of the Gospel, Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, sees him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29); and seven verses later, he says it again: “Behold the Lamb of God” (1:36). John’s Gospel thus portrays Jesus as the Passover lamb, whose blood somehow brings salvation, just as the blood of the Passover lamb brought salvation to the children of Israel so many centuries before. [...]

John, or someone who told him the story, made a slight change in a historical datum in order to score a theological point. For John, Jesus really was the Lamb of God. He died at the same time (on the afternoon of the day of Preparation), in the same place (Jerusalem), and at the hands of the same people (the Jewish leaders, especially the priests) as the Passover lambs. In other words, John has told a story that is not historically accurate, but is, in his judgement, theologically true.

That’s the best explanation I’ve heard. John was either told the story slightly differently or changed it to fit his theological point (purposely or accidently).

What I find so refreshing about “liberal” biblical scholarship is its honesty. Fundamentalist scholars are usually apologists — they’re just defending what they want to be true. They are not willing to consider that this, for instance, is a real contradiction. They explain it away with theological smoke and mirrors.

The truth is we don’t know when Jesus died. We only have accounts written generations later, and what we have agree on some parts and disagree on others.

Did Jesus die at 9am the day after the Passover meal, or after 12pm on the day before the Passover meal? I don’t know. You don’t know. Scholars don’t know. And certainly the Christian knocking at your door doesn’t know.

But don’t expect Christian pastors and priests to tell you that this weekend. They’re not in that business.

[For a fuller explanation of this, you can read Ehrman's chapter on it.]

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