The timing and sequence of events in the last week of Jesus’ mortal life is very uncertain with nearly as many attempted chronologies as commentators. The one fixed time is the resurrection which occurred “on the first day of the week” before dawn (Lk 24:1; Mk 16:2-3); that is, early Sunday morning. But the day of Jesus’ death and the length of time he was in the tomb are the subjects of heated debates.
The traditional view is that he died on Friday although others argue that he died on Thursday and still others place the crucifixion on Wednesday. Several statements need to be considered in this context, some of which occur more than once:
|“they will kill him and after three days he will rise”||Mk 9:31|
|“he must be killed and on the third day raised to life”||Lk 9:22|
|“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”||Mt 12:40|
|The disciples on the road to Emmaus said: “today is the third day since these things were done.”||Lk 24:21|
To the Western mind, the last two of these passages seem irreconcilable. However, it must be remembered that Jews reckoned time periods inclusively (cf. 1Kgs 22:1-2; 2Kgs 18:9-10). That is, any part of a day is counted as a “day”. So the “three days” includes the crucifixion day. Similarly the “three nights” must include the night during which he was raised. It should also be noted that Jews began their day at 6 pm. Using this information, it seems most likely that Jesus died on Thursday, as shown below. There seems no way to reconcile “three days and three nights” with the traditional Friday crucifixion or the idea of a Wednesday crucifixion.
|<— Three days and three nights —>|
The phrase “after three days he will rise” also implies a Thursday crucifixion, again counting the crucifixion day. The statement of the disciples on the road to Emmaus specifically refers to days since the crucifixion. So Friday would be the “first” day and Sunday the “third day”. The phrase “on the third day raised” clearly refers to the same days. Thus, the four passages can only be understood harmoniously if Jesus died on Thursday afternoon and was raised in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Another important factor to consider is the number of sabbath days that occurred during that week. The day after the Passover lamb was killed was always a special sabbath (Num 28:16-17). So if the Passover fell on a Thursday, there was a special sabbath on Friday (Jn 19:31) followed by the usual Saturday sabbath.
Luke indicates (Lk 23:55 – 24:1) that the women accompanying Jesus were kept from properly preparing his body for burial because of the sabbath day following his death. Yet he clearly says that they went to the tomb with the spices “on the first day of the week”; that is, two days after his death. Thus, it seems that they were kept from going to the tomb until the first non-sabbath day, Sunday. Then as soon as the sabbaths were over, on Saturday evening, they bought spices and prepared them during the evening. Then, rising before dawn on Sunday morning, they went to the tomb only to find it empty.
It should be noted that this passage wouldn’t make sense if Jesus died on Wednesday. In that case, Thursday would have been a sabbath and Friday an ordinary day. Yet the women did not go to the tomb until Sunday. The usual explanation is that they spent Friday “buying and preparing spices” (Mk 16:1). Then they rested again on the Saturday sabbath before they finally went to the tomb on Sunday, four days after the crucifixion. This seems incongruous given the haste in which they went to the tomb on Sunday morning. If they were in such a hurry to go to the tomb, why didn’t they go on Friday? It wouldn’t take all day to prepare spices.
This answer is taken from my book The Times, chapter 9.