Good Friday…Or Good Thursday?
Tradition says Jesus was crucified on Good Friday of Easter weekend. Not everyone agrees – some say that Jesus was crucified on a Thursday, the day before the Passover rather than Friday, the first day of Passover.[i] Was it Good Friday or Good Thursday?
Exacerbating the issue, others argue there is a conflict in the Gospels on the crucifixion timing which, in turn, serves to invalidate the Gospels’ credibility and by extension, its claim that Jesus is the Son of God.[ii] The accuracy of Easter and Passover are called into question by this verse:
JN 18:28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.(NRSV)
John says the priests were worried about becoming defiled which would then disqualify them from “eating the Passover” meal.[iii] It is easy to draw the conclusion that “to eat the Passover” refers to the Feast of Unleavened Bread to be eaten at its appointed time to launch Passover week.
If the verse is understood in this way, it would mean Jesus was crucified on Nissan 14, a Thursday that particular year. As such, the verse would indeed be a contradiction with the other Gospels, even John himself, which say Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover, a Friday.
All may not be what it appears to be. It helps to remember that Jewish days begin at Sunset, not midnight.
What if there was another separate Passover meal that concerned the priests on Friday, the first day of Passover, after the Feast of Leavened Bread? There was…and it involved a legally required Passover sacrifice.[iv] The Talmud, the Jewish Bible, differentiates between the first two Passover meals.
First of the two meals occurred at sunset beginning Friday, Nissan 15, with the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The meat for the main course was taken from the paschal sacrifice offering earlier that afternoon, Thursday, Nissan 14. The meal was to be consumed by midnight with any leftovers burned.
The second Passover meal, Chagigah, was to be taken from the legally required festal sacrificial offering on the first day of Passover, Nissan 15. This meal was to be consumed over the course of two days and one night.[v]
Chagigah, as the first day of Passover meal later came to be called, involved the meat taken from a sacrifice offered by an individual at the Temple earlier in the day with the assistance of a priest who was also a beneficiary.[vi] Jewish Law stipulated that a portion of the sacrificial meat was to be given to the priest as a gratuity for his own Chagigah Passover meal while the remaining meat was to be taken home by the offerer for his own personal Chagigah meal.[vii]
Priests were held to a higher Rabbinical standard with special rules that did not apply to the general populace. Entering Pilate‘s headquarters, the Praetorium, was one of those things that would place the priests in a state of ritual defilement.[viii] Defilement worries centered on the consequences impacting their Chagigah meal.
Disqualification from performing their Chagigah sacrificial duty on the first day of Passover meant the priests would not have received their lawful portion of the sacrificial meat – no meat for their Chagigah Passover meal intended to be consumed over two days and a night.[ix]
Jewish legalities rule out the Feast of Unleavened Bread as the one referenced in John 18:28. Jewish Law provided two remedies for a ritually defiled priest to partake of the evening Feast or any other.
Rabbinic ritual defilement could be absolved after sunset by means of a ritualistic purification bath. Since the Feast of Unleavened Bread began after sunset, the purified priest could still partake of it if he had performed a ritual purification bath.
Additionally, the Law designated a make-up day called the “second Passover.” It’s purpose was intended for those who could not participate in the first traditional Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Logical, perhaps much bigger, reasons why the defilement concern of John 18:28 does not refer to the crucifixion of Jesus on Thursday, Nissan 14, preceding the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Earlier in the afternoon of Nissan 14, shortly after midday, upwards of a quarter million paschal sacrifices had to be performed at the Temple!
It was an all-hands on deck scenario where all the Priests served a vitally important role at the Temple requiring massive preparations with a packed and rigid schedule. Activities involved the sacred sacrificial rituals for the most popular annual Festival in all the land that drew crowds of about 3 million.[x]
With this in mind, how conceivable is a scenario where high level priests pursued their vendetta against Jesus beginning after the evening dinner of Wednesday, Nissan 13, throughout the night into Nissan 14 with an overnight inquisition and a trial; Roman hearings the next morning; and ending with the crucifixion of Jesus at 3pm on Thursday Nissan 14 … at the very same time tens of thousands of pascal lamb sacrifices were being performed at the Temple? It would be like NFL Super Bowl event managers taking the day off on Super Bowl Sunday to attend to personal business.
Consider, too, the Roman factor – Passover was the one Jewish festival where the troublesome crowd of millions of pilgrims worried the Romans more than any other.[xi] How likely is it that Roman authorities would risk triggering a riot by crucifying Jews on the same day as their sacred paschal sacrifices at the Temple? On the other hand, the next day, the first day of Passover, Nissan 15, the crowds were dispersed by Jewish Law to their local housing accommodations to celebrate the Passover Festival with very minimal activity.
Did John’s reference to the priest’s defilement concern of missing the Passover meal actually pose a credibility issue with the other Gospels that said Jesus was crucified on the first day of Passover?
Updated November 21, 2021.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
NRSV = New Revised Standard Version translation
[i] Doig, Kenneth F. New Testament Chronology. Chapter 18. <http://nowoezone.com/NTC18.htm> Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 1883. Book V. <http://philologos.org/__eb-lat/default.htm>
[ii] Wells, Steve. The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. 2017. “423. When was Jesus crucified?” http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/passover_meal.html> “101 Bible Contradictions.” Islamic Awareness. n.d. Contradiction #69. https://www.islamawareness.net/Christianity/bible_contra_101.html>
[iii] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. 1826-1889. Chapter 11. <http://philologos.org/__eb-ttms/temple11.htm>
[iv] Edersheim. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. Chapter 11. “Ablution.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com>
[v] The Babylonian Talmud. Trans. Michael L. Rodkinson. 1918. Book 3, Tract Pesachim. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/talmud.htm> Streane, A. W, ed. A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud. 1891. Chagigah 7b. <http://www.archive.org/stream/translationoftre00streuoft/translationoftre00streuoft_djvu.txt>
[vi] Leviticus 3.
[vii] Leviticus 7:29-32. Edersheim. The Temple – Its Ministry and Services. Chapters 5 & 11. Streane. A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud. Glossary: “Chagigah.”
[viii] Leviticus 22.
[ix] Leviticus 22; Numbers 9. Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book III, Chapter X. Google Books. n.d <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[x] Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book VI.. < http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[xi] Antiquities. Book XI, Chapter IV; Book XX, Chapter V. Josephus. Wars. Book V, Chapter V.