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The Death of Jesus

The traditional Jewish calendar of the first century AD was lunar, in which the first day of each month was determined by when the crescent of the new moon became visible in Jerusalem. It was perhaps natural, therefore, that sunset also should mark the beginning of a new day, which extended to sunset the next day (night and day rather than day and night; cf. Genesis 1:5, "And the evening and morning were the first day"). Friday, for example, began at sunset on Thursday and ended at sunset on Friday, which was the beginning of Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Daylight hours, however, still were measured from sunrise (6 a.m.). By this reckoning, the sixth hour began at noon and the ninth hour at 3 p.m. An event that occurred in the twilight just before sunset (the twelfth hour, 6 p.m.) was counted as taking place on that day and, after sunset, the next. Although the notion of a new day beginning in the evening is potentially confusing, it is no different than one that begins at midnight.

As God commanded Moses, Nisan (corresponding to March/April in the Julian calendar) was to be "the first month of the year to you" (Exodus 12:2). To commemorate the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt (who had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb so God would "pass over" them), there was to be an annual Passover feast of unleavened bread and bitter herbs. A lamb was to be kept "until the fourteenth day of the same month" (12:6), when, on this "Day of Preparation" (14 Nisan), it was slain that afternoon in anticipation of the Passover meal later that evening (Leviticus 23:5, Numbers 28:16). The meal itself was eaten after sunset (at moonrise) on what was the start of Passover day (15 Nisan), which extended to sunset the next day.

All four gospels agree that Jesus died on a Friday before the Sabbath at the time of Passover, which was celebrated on the first full moon after the vernal equinox. And all agree that he shared a "last supper" with his disciples and that he was crucified in the reign of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea from AD 26-36 (Tacitus, Annals, XV.44; also Luke 3:1).

But there is a seeming contradiction as to whether Jesus died before or after this last supper and whether it truly was a Passover meal. In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is said to have been crucified and died after Passover. In the gospel of John, he died before Passover.

Mark (the first gospel to be written as, a quarter of a century later, John is the last) recounts that the disciples asked Jesus where they were to prepare the meal "that thou mayest eat the passover" (14:12; also Matthew 26:17; Luke 22:15, "I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer"). That evening, Jesus took bread (not apparently the unleavened matzo of the Passover) and broke it (as his own body would be broken) and then the wine, signifying the shedding of his own blood. Later that night, he was arrested and tried, and crucified the next morning at "the third hour" (Mark 15:25) on what still was the day of Passover.

John, however, writes that Jesus died "before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father" (13:1, 18:28). There is no preparation nor mention of a communion; rather, "supper being ended," Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (13:2,5) and, echoing Moses, gave them a new commandment: to love one another (13:34). That night, he was arrested and, early the next morning, taken to Pilate, although the Jewish authorities did not enter the building to avoid any defilement so that they "might eat the passover" (18:28) that evening. When, at the end of the trial, Jesus was brought outside for judgment, John recounts that "it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour" (19:14,31).

Mark, then, relates that Jesus was crucified at 9 a.m. on the morning of Passover day (Friday, 15 Nisan), after the Passover meal the night before. In John, there is not a Passover meal and Jesus is condemned the day before, sometime after noon on the Day of Preparation (Thursday, 14 Nisan).  Of the two accounts, John's may be the more probable. A crucifixion on Friday morning, for example, requires that the arrest, interrogation, and trials before the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, and Herod all to have been concluded by then. The death also occurs on Passover day, which in John also was a "high day," coinciding with the Sabbath (cf. Leviticus 23:7, "on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread"), a day in which capital punishment was prohibited by Jewish law—as were decisions regarding criminal cases being made at night (Sanhedrin, Mishnah IV.1). Too, given the agony of crucifixion, the actual death of Jesus must have been later that afternoon to allow for what transpired before his death, which is recorded to have been "about the sixth hour" (Luke 23:44) and "at the ninth hour" (Mark 15:34) and "about the ninth hour" (Matthew 27:46)—or about three o'clock in the afternoon

To reconcile these accounts, Humphreys has suggested that Jesus, no doubt aware of his imminent arrest, did not have the Passover meal on Thursday evening but a last supper on Wednesday, the night before. His death on the Day of Preparation (Thursday) then would be at the same time that the lambs were being prepared for the Passover feast later that evening, at the beginning of Passover Day (Friday), the symbolic theological point that John made in portraying Jesus as the sacrificial lamin the words of John the Baptist, "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (1:29). On the other hand, as Ehrman warns, to reconcile this discrepancy is to gloss over the intention of each gospel: in Mark that Jesus died on the Passover (when the moon was full, as it was on Creation) and John, that Jesus was the paschal lamb.

For Jesus to have died on a Friday when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judaea, 14 Nisan would have to be either April 7, AD 30or, more probably, April 3, AD 33, when there also was a lunar eclipse as the full moon rose above Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the prophecy quoted by Peter that "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come" (Acts 2:20). (If the death of Jesus occurred on a Friday, 15 Nisan, in the decade-long rule of Pontius Pilate, the year would have to be either AD 27 or AD 34, which almost certainly is too early or too late.)

Another incident supports the crucifixion of Jesus in AD 33: the death in Rome of the praetorian prefect Sejanus two years before. When Tiberius retired to Capri in AD 26, he effectively abdicated his responsibilities to Sejanus, who likely appointed Pilate procurator of Judaea that year. Both men were virulently anti-Jewish: Sejanus "desirous to destroy our nation" (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XXIV.160; Against Flaccus,  I.1) and Pilate determined "to abolish the Jewish laws" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.1). When Pilate dedicated gilded shields in Herod's palace in Jerusalem, there was a riot, even though "they bore no figure and nothing else that was forbidden" (Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.299ff). Josephus later relates a similar (if not the same) story. Roman standards, adorned with the bust of the emperor, had been brought into Jerusalem at night (whether intentionally or not), prompting a riot among the populace, who considered "their laws to have been trampled under foot" (The Jewish War, II.9.2-3; retold in Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.1). There was another disturbance, which was brutally suppressed, when money from the Temple treasury was used to begin construction of an aqueduct (The Jewish War, II.9.4; also Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.3.2). 

When Sejanus was executed on charges of conspiracy in AD 31, Pilate no doubt was affected by the loss of his patron. And when the next year, a letter of entreaty from the sons of Herod himself was sent to Tiberius complaining about the shields (or standards), he must have been fearful of any association with the treasonous Sejanus. Indeed, Pilate was reproached by the emperor, who ordered the immediate removal of the offending objects, which were placed instead in the Temple of Augustus in Caesarea (On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII.305). This wariness in giving further offence may explain why Pilate was so uncharacteristically acquiescent in handing Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. And they, in turn, were doubtless aware of Pilate's vulnerability when they threatened that "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (John 19:12). In AD 36, there was another disturbance, when Pilate thwarted the followers of someone claiming to be the prophet foretold in Deuteronomy 18:14ff. Although only the principals were executed, Pilate was recalled to Rome "to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews" (Antiquities of the Jews, XVIII.4.2). Deposed from office, he may have been pensioned off and, falling into misfortune, later may have committed suicide (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, II.7)


In John, Passover day coincided with the Sabbath: "because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day (19:31). When Mark says that "it was the preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath" (15:42), he does not mean, however, the Day of Preparation for the Passover meal on Friday but that day's preparation for meals to be eaten on the Sabbath (Saturday).


The seventeenth-century ivory crucifix is in the Treasury of the Cathedral of Córdoba (Spain), which itself is situated within the Great Mosque (Mezquita).


References: "Dating the Crucifixion" (1983) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. G. Waddington, Nature, 306, 743-746; "The Date of the Crucifixion" (1985) by Colin J. Humphreys and W. Graeme Waddington, Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37, 2-10; The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus (2011) by Colin J. Humphreys; Jesus, Interrupted (2009) by Bart D. Ehrman; The Works of Flavius Josephus (1737) translated by William Whiston; The Works of Philo Judaeus (1854) translated by Charles Duke Yonge.

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