Good Friday…Or Good Thursday?
Tradition says Jesus was crucified on Good Friday of Easter weekend. Not everyone agrees – some say that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on a Thursday, the day before the Passover rather than Friday, the first day of Passover.
Playing this out farther, the claim presents a conflict in the Gospels. In turn, it serves to invalidate the Gospels’ credibility and by extension, the Gospels’ claim that Jesus is the Son of God. The accuracy of Easter and Passover are called into question by this verse in John:
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. It is easy to draw the conclusion that “to eat the Passover” refers to the Feast of Unleavened Bread that evening.
If the verse is understood in this way, it would mean Jesus was crucified on Nissan 14, a Thursday that particular year, since Jesus was judged and crucified on the same day. As such, the verse would indeed be a contradiction with the other Gospels, even John himself, when the Gospels say Jesus was crucified and died on the first day of Passover, a Friday.
Many people are not aware there is a second, separate Passover meal to be eaten the first day of Passover, after the Feast of Leavened Bread the previous evening. It is helpful to remember the Jewish day begins with sunset and the following sunrise begins the daylight portion of that same day ending at dusk. The Talmud differentiates between the first two Passover meals.
First of the two Passover 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 to be burned.
Second of the Passover meals, Chagigah, was to be taken from the legally required festal sacrificial offering on the first day of Passover, Nissan 15 (after the Feast of Unleavened Bread the previous evening). Meat for the Chagigah came from the sacrifice offered by an individual at the Temple earlier in the day with the assistance of a priest. The Chagigah meal was to be consumed over the course of two days and one night.
Jewish Law stipulated that a portion of the Chagigah sacrificial meat was to be given to the priest as a gratuity for his own Chagigah Passover meal. The remaining meat was to be taken home by the offeror for his own personal Chagigah meal.
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. Rabbinic ritual defilement could be absolved after sunset by means of a ritualistic purification bath.
Since the Feast of Unleavened Bread occurred after sunset, a ritually purified priest could still partake of the meal if he had performed a ritual purification bath. The Chagigah sacrifice occurred during the day meaning a ritual purification bath that evening would be too late.
Disqualification from performing their Chagigah sacrificial duty on the first day of Passover meant the priests would not have received their lawful gratuity portion of the sacrificial meat – no meat for their Chagigah Passover meal. As such, defilement worries in John 18:28 “to be able to eat the Passover” centered on the consequences impacting the Chagigah meal of the Priests.
Logically, perhaps even much bigger, is why the defilement concern of John 18:28 does not refer to the crucifixion of Jesus on Thursday, Nissan 14. Earlier in the afternoon of Nissan 14, shortly after midday, upwards of a quarter million paschal sacrifices had to be performed at the Temple!
Thursday 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.
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 with an overnight arrest, 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 offered 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. 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? Alternatively, 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 September 22, 2022.
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NRSV = New Revised Standard Version translation
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 Antiquities. Book XI, Chapter IV; Book XX, Chapter V. Josephus. Wars. Book V, Chapter V.