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Three Days and Three Nights

Three Days and Three Nights
By Randy Nettles

The timeline for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has been debated for centuries, with no definitive proof for any one date suggested throughout history. However, I think there is circumstantial evidence for one date in particular, which we will discuss later in this article. The most commonly accepted year for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry is AD 29. This is mainly due to the passages of scripture in Luke 3, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness” (Luke 3:1).

The official reign of Tiberius began on September 17, AD 14, when he succeeded to the principate as the emperor of Rome. This occurred when Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Augustus) died about a month earlier. Fifteen years later would place the start of John’s ministry in the fall of AD 29. Jesus’ ministry could have started then or possibly six months later in the spring of AD 30. We know from the Gospels that Jesus’ ministry lasted for at least two years, but more likely for 3-3.5 years. This would place the crucifixion of Jesus in AD 32 or AD 33.

However, some see John’s ministry beginning as early as AD 27-28. This is because Tiberius was made co-regent (co-Princeps) with Augustus in either AD 12 or 13. In the event of the latter’s passing, he would rule without an interregnum or possible upheaval. Does this co-Princeps authority count as the start of Tiberius Caesar’s reign? I am not convinced that it does. As long as Augustus was alive, he was still reigning as the true emperor of the Roman Empire. In all the history books, his reign is listed as 31 BC-AD 14. Tiberius’ reign is listed as AD 14-37. If Luke was referring to Tiberius’ co-regency, this would place the crucifixion of Jesus somewhere in the vicinity of AD 29-31.

So, with the information we have thus far, the most probable years for the death of Jesus range from AD 29-33. We also know the Jewish calendar date for his death was Passover, Nisan 14. Scripture says Jesus was on the cross from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm (the ninth hour of the day) when he finally “gave up the ghost,” according to Matthew 27:45-50. What day of the week was Nisan 14 for that year? We will try and answer that question within this article.

Jesus told his disciples, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). We have a range of days suggested for the three days and three nights that Jesus was in the grave, namely Wednesday-Sunday, Thursday-Sunday, and Friday-Sunday. I believe the reasons for a Thursday crucifixion were given by the late great Bible teacher, Jack Kelley, in Solving the Three Day Three Night Mystery – Grace thru faith. I agree with Jack’s assessment that Thursday was the day they crucified Jesus. His resurrection occurred before daylight began on Sunday.

Let’s examine these three days and three nights briefly and weigh the pros and cons of each. Most Catholics, and many Protestants, think Friday (Good) was the correct day for the crucifixion. The reason for this is, in a nutshell, that “three days and three nights,” specifically as used in Mt. 12:40, is a Jewish idiomatic expression for three days measured inclusively. Each part of a day is considered a whole – in the context of the Crucifixion, part of Friday, all day Saturday, and part of Sunday is regarded as three days. Why would Jesus have even mentioned the three nights if that was the case? Why didn’t he just say three days?

Usually, a 24-hour day begins at night (dark) and ends during the day (daylight), just like at creation. But with the three days and three nights of the crucifixion to the resurrection, we start during the day at 3:00 pm. If we are not differentiating between day and night, why do the synoptic gospels say that Jesus died in the ninth hour (3:00 pm)? The ninth hour of what? Well, it was the ninth hour of the day, of course. Otherwise, if a 24-hour day starts at 6:00 pm (in Israel) and ends the next day at 5:59 pm, then the ninth hour would be 3:00 am. We know this wasn’t the case, so there must be a reason why Jesus said three days and three nights. Another question relating to this topic is, Why would the apostle John have prophesied in Revelation (Revelation 11:8-9) that the two dead witnesses (during the end times) would lie in the streets of Jerusalem for three-and-a-half days and not be put in graves? Why wouldn’t he have just said four days?

Now I agree there doesn’t have to be 24 hours in a day (12 hours day/12 hours night) for that day to be counted, but some portion of the day and night should be represented. The Friday through Sunday timeline has only two days and two nights. Sunday night, from 6:00 pm to before daylight (approximately 6:00 am), would have been the 2nd night.

Several verses in the New Testament refer to Jesus being raised “on the third day” or “the third day” he will be raised up. Likewise, several verses say, “after the third day.” The adherents to the Friday crucifixion see both of these terms are counted inclusively. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday…three days. They don’t consider the possibility that it could mean they were counted exclusively from the crucifixion. The reference to “on the third day” can not be used to negate the Lord’s clear statement of three days and three nights. They have to agree with it since the Bible can not say one thing in one place and something else in another. I think Mark 9:31 explains the seeming contradiction between these two terms. “For He taught His disciples and said to them, The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.” If Friday was the day Jesus was killed, then Monday would have been the third day He rose, not Sunday. We know Jesus was fully resurrected before the day (light) started at 6:00 am on Sunday. Thus, the term Resurrection Sunday.

Many good scholars and students of the Bible believe Jesus had to have died on Wednesday. The apparent reason for this is because they think Jesus was talking about three full 24-hour days (or three 12-hour days and three 12-hour nights). In their view, Jesus was killed on Wednesday (Nisan 14) at 3:00 pm. Thursday (Nisan 15) would have been the first 24-hour day. Since this was the 1st day of Unleavened Bread, it was called a high holy day where no work was to be done. Friday (Nisan 16) would have been the second 24-hour day. Saturday (Nisan 17) would have been the third 24-hour day. It was the weekly Sabbath where no work was allowed. Jesus rose before daylight on Sunday (Nisan 18). Most adherents to this view believe the women who were to prepare Jesus’ body for burial bought and prepared spices on Friday, according to Mark 16:1 and Luke 23:56. They then rested on the weekly Sabbath before going to the tomb early Sunday morning.

There is just one problem with this view. If Friday wasn’t a high day (an annual Sabbath) or a weekly Sabbath day, where no work was allowed, then the women could have prepared Jesus’ body on this day and not have to wait for Sunday to do it. I doubt that the women would have waited two days before preparing the body when they could have done it after one day (on Friday). I don’t see how it would take one whole day to buy and prepare spices and still not have time to prepare the body for burial.

The Wednesday crucifixion proponents say a Thursday crucifixion would be impossible because of the verses in Mark and Luke. However, they overlooked another possibility. Luke’s version indicates the women had spices on Friday evening, but they would not be able to use them because it was the Sabbath. They could have bought them Thursday while Jesus was on the cross, knowing he would die, and then rested on the High Holy day of Friday and the weekly Sabbath of Saturday. Mark’s version indicates that they went and bought additional spices after the Sabbath ended on Saturday evening when the shops opened up for several hours for evening shopping.

Another problem with Wednesday or Friday is that neither fit the Palm Sunday narrative. We know Jesus entered Jerusalem, riding on a donkey as king of the Jews, on Nisan 10. We believe it was on a Sunday (Palm Sunday), five days before the Passover Feast (the Jews considered Nisan 15 to be the Passover Feast and Nisan 14 to be Preparation Day). The only day that fits would be Thursday. We know it was five days from John 12:1;12-13. Also, it fits the pattern and typology of the Passover lamb mentioned in Exodus 12, where every household was to select an innocent one-year-old lamb without fault or blemish on Nisan 10 (Exodus 12:3-5). They were to keep it until the 14th of the month, and then they were to kill it on the 14th before twilight (Exodus 12:6). And, of course, you know the rest of the Passover story in Egypt.

John the Baptist said it best when he saw Jesus coming toward him, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus was the Passover lamb who was selected on Nisan 10, inspected and questioned by the Pharisees to find fault (blemish) for three days (11th, 12th, & 13th), and finding none, they had him killed on the 14th day of the month. Sunday would have been Nisan 10, and Thursday would have been Nisan 14.

The only other evidence we have to go on for the date of Jesus’ crucifixion (Nisan 14) is astronomical data. We run into trouble when we try to overlay the Jewish calendar dates with the Julian or proleptic Gregorian calendar. To accomplish this, we must first attempt to pinpoint the exact date of Nisan 1, which is no easy task. We know Nisan is the first month on the Jewish calendar and occurs in the spring when the barley crops planted the previous fall are beginning to become ripe for harvesting in two to three weeks. The first month of Nisan usually starts with the first new moon nearest the vernal (spring) equinox in the Northern Hemisphere.

There are two theories regarding when the New Moon begins and thus Nisan 1 (or the first day of any Jewish month). The first theory is that the moon is “new” when it is in conjunction with the Sun (when it moves between the Earth and Sun), and the side turned toward the Earth is dark. This is known as the astronomical new moon. The total time of darkness can last up to 3.5 days (from the waning crescent “old” moon to the waxing crescent “new” moon), depending on its ecliptic latitude. At this phase, the lunar disk is not visible to the naked eye, except when it is silhouetted against the Sun during a solar eclipse.

The algorithms and mathematical formula for figuring out the astronomical new moon conjunctions are quite complicated and were probably not known until a thousand years after Moses. However, some would disagree, as the ancient world was very astute in mathematics and astronomy. The moon conjunction calculated method for Israel’s modern Jewish calendar is a Rabbinic invention introduced after AD 359, which was well after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Some adherents to the new moon conjunction as the first day (or following day) for Nisan 1 believe it can be determined not by calculation but by observation of all the lunar phases and their positions in the day or night skies. This position believes the 1st day of Nisan will begin on the next full day after the new moon conjunction.

The most prevalent and long-standing Jewish view of when the “new moon” begins is the visible sighting of the crescent (waxing) moon after the astronomical new moon conjunction phase (dark period). Depending on the atmospheric conditions, clouds, etc., the waxing crescent moon can usually be seen with the naked eye within 1-2 days after the new moon conjunction, before or after sunset. Most Jewish and Christian scholars believe this is the age-old method for determining the “new moon” or “new month.” In this article, we will refer to it as the crescent moon.

If the moon is still dark and isn’t observed after sunset on the 29th day, the new (crescent) moon will be determined to occur on the 30th day. If it is not seen after sunset on the 30th day, it will still be considered to have happened on this day, as there are only a maximum of 30 days in a lunar month. This is the drawback to a visual sighting crescent moon, as it could have occurred after sunset on the 29th day, but it wasn’t seen due to cloud coverage or haziness. Also, one must be correct about the previous month’s crescent moon sighting. This could throw everything else that follows off by one day unless it is caught down the line somewhere (first quarter, full moon, etc.). It needs to be corrected before the spring Feasts (Passover, Feasts of Firstfruits) begin, or they will take place on the wrong day.

In these modern times, the conjunction of the new moon is easily determined by using mathematical formulas. You can look up the present and future phases of the moon (New Moon, 1st Quarter, Full moon, & Last Quarter) as well as past ones going back 5000 years. Fred Espenak is a former NASA astronomer and calendar specialist and is highly respected in his field. He also worked on NASA’s website on 5000 years of solar and lunar eclipses. These new and full moon tables (going back thousands of years) are mathematically determined and deemed accurate.

In attempting to determine past Passover (Nisan 14) dates on the Julian calendar within the years of AD 29-33, the first step is identifying the new moon conjunctions by using the tables on the website mentioned above. Although the entire dark moon period (after the waning crescent and before the waxing crescent) can last up to 3.5 days, the amount of darkness from the conjunction to the first observation of the waxing crescent moon (around sunset to before midnight) is usually between 24 hours and 45 hours. These are the results I gleaned from a study called “Observing the New Moon” by Roy E. Hoffman (Department of Organic Chemistry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel), in which participants observed the new crescent waxing moons (mostly in Israel) of the calendar months from the years 1993-2002. From what I determined, unless the new moon conjunction occurs in the early hours after midnight, the observed crescent moon will occur within the next 24-hour day. If the conjunction happens in the early hours after midnight, the crescent new moon will not be seen until the 2nd day.

The first new moon of spring usually occurs in March. If it is too early in the spring (1st few days of March) and the barley crops are too immature to be harvested by the time of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the waving of the sheaf on Firstfruits, then an intercalary month of 30 days will be added to the calendar. April will then become the first month (Nisan) of the new ecclesiastical year. The first or second day after the new moon conjunction of April will then become Nisan 1. Otherwise, March will be the Jewish calendar’s first month of Nisan.

You would also do this on the first of every month (Lyyar 1, Sivan 1, Tammuz 1, etc.). The number of days between every month amounts to 29 or 30 days (the length of a lunar month). By comparing the dates and times of the new moon conjunctions of AD 29-33 and 1993-2002 and taking the records of the observed crescent moon sightings of the late 20th century, it is possible to reconstruct a timeline for “likely” observed new moons in the past (1st century). These likely new crescent moons would be the 1st day of the month/s. Most of them will fall within the 24-hour day after the new moon conjunctions except the ones I mentioned above.

I took these dates and transposed them onto the Julian calendars for AD 29 – AD 33, the most likely years for the crucifixion of Jesus. I then filled in the gaps using either 29 or 30 days of the Jewish calendar between the first day/s (observed crescents) of every month. The dates for new and full moons also give you the hours in Universal time, which is three hours behind Israel’s (Tel Aviv) time on the Gregorian timeline. I replaced every date on the Julian calendars with Jewish dates, keeping the same weekdays and only using 29 or 30 days between crescent new moons without any glitches.

At the bottom are Julian calendar dates for the New Moons and the spring Feasts for AD 29 – AD 33, the most likely time when Jesus was crucified (Nisan 14 – Passover). The only years with a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday crucifixion on Nisan 14 are AD 30 (Wednesday) and AD 33 (Thursday). I don’t see a Friday crucifixion within these years. Many believe Jesus was crucified on Friday, Nisan 14 in AD 30. If it did occur on Nisan 14 in AD 30, it would have been on a Wednesday and not on a Friday, in my opinion, based on these astronomical findings/reckonings.

Notice all of the full moons occurred on Nisan 15 (1st day of Unleavened Bread) except one in AD 32 that occurred on Nisan 16. This makes sense as 15 days is nearly half of a Lunar cycle of 29.53 days. As far as the Aviv (Abib) crops of spring are concerned, none of these dates appear too early or too late for the crops to be ripe for the waving of the sheaf on Firstfruits, so the intercalary months (determined by the calculated 19-year Metonic cycle) seem to be accurate (for these years anyway). The intercalary month of Veadar was added in March AD 29 and March AD 32. Also, the calendar converter I have used in the past to determine Passover and other dates seems to coincide mostly (within a few days here and there) with my calculated Jewish calendar years. However, it uses specific Jewish rules that make certain some Feasts don’t fall on a Sabbath day (Saturday), which isn’t Biblical and can throw off the Feast dates.

Was this observational method of determining new moons (without prejudice of what day of the week it fell on) used by the ancient Jews to calculate their calendars? Did they follow the Biblical lunisolar calendar or a calculated one as they do nowadays? I don’t believe the ancient Jews knew how to determine the new moon conjunction in advance. I think they had to rely on observing the moon’s lunar cycle. Whether they did or not, I’m confident God made sure the spring Feasts of the Lord that Jesus fulfilled prophetically were kept on their appointed time, just as the fall Feasts will when Jesus returns to the earth. “These are the feasts of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times” (Leviticus 23:4).

Amen! Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

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