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From Triumphal Entry to Resurrection

2014-04-22

A Careful Analysis of the Timing of Events from Jesus’ Triumphal Entry to His Resurrection

Background

To gain an accurate understanding of the timing of any given events in scripture, we must understand the full context, including what the laws and customs were at the time Jesus walked the earth. This will help to clear up some controversies and apparent difficulties in the details provided in the Gospel accounts.

Exodus 12 is where instructions for the Passover festival were first given. Verse one states that the month of Nisan was to be the first month of the Hebrew calendar. A new month was determined by the first sighting of the crescent moon, and Nisan (a.k.a. Aviv) was when barley was ripe. This is roughly equivalent to March-April on the Gregorian calendar.

The passage also states that a flawless year-old male lamb (or goat) was to be selected for each family on the 10th. It was to be cared for until the 14th, when at twilight all the lambs were to be slaughtered and then eaten. This marked the start of a 7-day period beginning and ending with a “sacred assembly” (a.k.a. a Sabbath), and all yeast had to be purged from every house for the entire 7 days. The 14th became known as Preparation Day, and the 15th was the actual Passover, though the whole festival was also called the Passover. So regardless of the Gregorian calendar dates, the Preparation was the 14th and the Passover was the 15th.

No work was to be done on any Sabbath except for certain types of food preparation (e.g., Ex. 20:9-10), and people were not to travel (Ex. 16:29). By the time of Jesus the rabbis allowed people to walk less than a mile. So if anyone is said to have worked, done business, or traveled more than a mile at some point in the Gospels, we can be sure that it was not a Sabbath day.

A 24-hour day in Israel began at sundown and was divided into segments called “hours” or “watches” (as relates to guard duty). Each “hour” was really a three-hour span, but it was known by its beginning; that is, the “third hour” lasted from 9 o’clock to 12 o’clock, counting from either 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. Going by the position of the sun or moon in the sky made greater precision impractical. But more importantly, the expressions “the third hour” and “almost/about the sixth hour” refer to the same three-hour span, with the latter meaning it was close to the end of that span. [see David Lipscomb (1831-1917), A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 295-296].

There is an often-overlooked figure of speech in the NT that requires us to know about two other feasts. The Feast of Firstfruits (the first day of the week following Passover per Leviticus 23:9-16), began a seven-week festival called the Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15-22), the final feast day of which was called Pentecost. Firstfruits was known as “one/first of the Sabbaths”, and this phrase in Greek is almost always imprecisely translated as “the first day of the week” in most Bibles.

While it is true that “Sabbath” by itself could be simply another name for an ordinary week rather than just the Sabbath day itself, the plural was not, except as in the phrase “Sabbath of Sabbaths” meaning the most honored of Sabbaths (the Passover itself). Context may also indicate a week, such as “I fast twice every Sabbath”, which wouldn’t make sense if it meant a literal Sabbath day. So if we see “first/one of Sabbaths” in the Greek, we know it refers to the annual Feast of Firstfruits rather than an ordinary week or weekly Sabbath.

General Analysis

The first clear mention of the day of the week comes in John 12:1: “Six days before the Passover”. It is followed in John 12:12 by, “The next day” regarding what is called the Triumphal Entry. So the Triumphal Entry happened 5 days before Passover, making this event the 10th of Nisan, since the Passover was always the 15th. And Nisan 10 was the day the lambs were to be selected, so the Triumphal Entry was the first act of Passover Week that Jesus fulfilled, along with his riding on a donkey as predicted in Zechariah 9:9.

The next mention of the day of the week is in Mark 11:10ff: After the Triumphal Entry, Jesus went to the temple but it was late so he went to Bethany. The next day, the 11th, he threw the merchants out of the temple. Then in vs. 19 and following we see that the day after that, the 12th, is when the religious leaders began to challenge Jesus forcefully. Then in Mark 14:1 we are told that the Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread was two days away, which is also the 12th since the Feast would begin on the 14th, Preparation Day.

Remembering that the days began at sunset, the Last Supper was the first event on Preparation Day. We determine the day by noting statements that refer to it in conjunction with when Jesus was killed. Mat. 27:62 says that the tomb was sealed on the day after Preparation (that is, the Passover itself). Mark 15:42 and Luke 23:50-54 say that Joseph of Arimathea asked to bury Jesus’ body near evening on Preparation Day. John 19:30-33 says that because Jesus died on Preparation Day (followed by a “special Sabbath”), the Jews wanted the bodies taken down before the Passover. So it is clear that Jesus died on Preparation Day, and that the Last Supper was the beginning of that day. Thus everything from the Last Supper to Jesus’ burial took place on Nisan 14. The timing of events on that day will be examined later in more detail.

But was this Passover, a “special Sabbath”, on the same day as the normal weekly Sabbath, or were there two Sabbaths that week? Compare Mark 16:1 and Luke 23:56; the first has the women buying burial spices after the Sabbath, but the second has them buying them before the Sabbath. The only way to reconcile these two accounts is to have a normal weekday between two Sabbaths. We cannot simply brush this aside as sloppiness or non-inspired writings just to avoid a difficulty.

Some acknowledge the two Sabbaths but have them back-to-back, yet this does not allow time for the women to purchase and prepare the spices. They observed where his body was placed and had not yet acquired the spices (Mark 16:1), and this was a last-minute burial due to the quickly-approaching Passover Sabbath. Verse 2 states that the day they went to the tomb was “very early on the one/first of the Sabbaths”, which cannot mean a Sabbath when work is forbidden, but rather means the Feast of Firstfruits as mentioned in the Background.

So Nisan 14 is when Jesus died, followed by the 15th (Passover Sabbath), the 16th (a normal working day), and the 17th (the weekly Sabbath). Thus he arose on the 18th, which was during the darkness of Saturday night/ Sunday morning. The 15th through 17th are three full days and nights, fulfilling what Jesus prophecied specifically (Mat. 12:40). The less-precise statements elsewhere about “after three days” or “the third day” cannot allow us to ignore or redefine this precise description. But what of the claim by the two walking to Emmaus that Sunday was “the third day since all these things happened”? The last thing having to do with Jesus was the sealing of the tomb on the Passover (Mat. 27:62). Since that was the 15th, then three days later was the 18th. Note that the text does not explain what “all these things” include.

Now since the 18th was Sunday, then the previous Sunday had to have been the 11th. This means that Nisan 10, the Triumphal Entry, had to have been on a Saturday (the normal weekly Sabbath before Passover). So now we must look for clues in the text to tell us whether this could indeed have been a Sabbath. Mat. 21:1-11 tells us that Bethphage, where the donkey he was to ride was located, was “just ahead”, so it wouldn’t violate Sabbath travel restrictions. But vs. 12 says “then” Jesus drove the merchants from the temple, and they wouldn’t have been there on a Sabbath. Yet we cannot say that “then” meant the same day.

But wasn’t riding a donkey forbidden on the Sabbath, since the Law included animals in the command to rest on that day? Yes, but why was the prophecy in Zech. 9:9 about the King riding a donkey made at all? Since riding a donkey happened on every other day of the week, it would hardly serve as a sign or event that people could point to as a fulfillment of prophecy. The fact that so many people saw him and began to say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” surely indicates that they understood from scripture that this wasn’t an everyday occurrence.

So there is no airtight argument either way on whether or not the Triumphal Entry took place on a Sabbath; it can be neither ruled out nor confirmed. Yet it is difficult to construct a scenario that better fits all the details given in the Gospels. That is, we arrive at this conclusion through a process of elimination rather than an explicit statement. And none of the many theories of days of the week is without some degree of speculation. The question is not which theory is perfect, but which theory has the fewest weaknesses.

Detailed analysis of Nisan 14, the Preparation Day

In the general analysis it was stated that the days began at sunset, and that the first event on Nisan 14 was the Last Supper. Being a day of “preparation”, the people rid their houses of all yeast, and this was surely the purpose for which Jesus sent his disciples to the “upper room”. There was no mention of the priest sacrificing lambs at this time, since it was not to be done until the afternoon just before the Passover, near the end of the Preparation. Neither could the disciples have done the sacrifice on their own. So preparing and eating “the Passover” meant all the events of that evening and the next day, not just the evening of the Last Supper.

But it should be pointed out that the Greek of all the passages where Jesus speaks of the bread and cup does not include “again”; that is, Jesus did not say “I will not drink of it again until” but “I will not drink it until”. There is no indication that Jesus ate the bread or drank the wine himself, but only that he passed them to his disciples to eat and drink (Mat.26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18). And in Luke 22:16 Jesus says, “I will not eat [this Passover] until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God”. That is, he was not eating this passover (the 15th) at this time. The addition of “again” to the text makes a significant change to its meaning.

The next event was at the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (Mat. 26:30-56, Mark 14:32-52, Luke 22:39-53, John 18:1-11). By this time it was late at night, which was why the disciples kept falling asleep. And while it was still dark, the lynch mob came with Judas to betray Jesus and take him away to the high priest. John 18:28 states that it was not until morning that Jesus was taken to the governor, so everything from the Garden to the illegal trial of the high priest was during the night, which you will recall is still the first half of Nisan 14.

The next segment of time is from the first visit to Pilate to Jesus’ crucifixion. As mentioned, John 18:28 says it was now morning, but it also says that the Jews wouldn’t enter the governor’s palace because it would make them ritually unclean and prevent them from eating the Passover. This is yet another proof that the Last Supper was not the actual Passover meal.

John 19:14 states that when Pilate made a final effort to have Jesus released it was “about the sixth hour”. Remembering how hours were calculated at the time, and that “the third hour” was from 9 a.m. to noon, this means it was getting close to noon, perhaps as early as 11 a.m. And John adds in verse 15 that it was still the Preparation. That same verse, along with Mat. 27:45, Mark 15:33, and Luke 23:44, states that darkness came over the land from “about the sixth hour to the ninth”, meaning around noon until 3 p.m. And it was shortly after this that Jesus died, at the same time the high priest was sacrificing the lambs for the Passover.

Mat. 27:57-61 states that in the remaining three hours of the Preparation, Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body, wrapped it, and laid it in his own tomb, and that it was the next day (daylight during the Passover) that the religious leaders had the tomb sealed. Mark 15:46-47 adds that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses observed this and noted the location of the tomb. Luke 23:50-56 also adds that the Passover Sabbath was about to start. This is corroborated as well in John 19:41-42.

So it is clear that Jesus was crucified near noon on the 14th, died around 3 in the afternoon, and was buried before sundown around 6 p.m.

Detailed Analysis of the Time Between Jesus’ Death and Resurrection

Scholars disagree significantly about the time and day of Jesus’ death. Yet if, as this document has argued, he had to have died on a Wednesday afternoon and rose after dark on Saturday night, we have to account for:

  1. “three days and three nights” (Matt. 12:40)
  2. “the third day” (Matt. 16:21, 17:23 20:19, Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 21, 46; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4)
  3. “within three days” (Matthew 26:61, 27:40, Mark 14:58, 15:29; John 2:19-20)
  4. “after three days” (Mat. 27:63, Mark 8:31, 9:31; the word ‘meta’ with accusative case [‘three days’] means ‘after’).

As noted, the tomb was sealed on the Passover, Nisan 15. And the women had to have prepared the burial spices afterwards, as there was no time to purchase or prepare them between Jesus’ burial and the start of Passover. So the 16th was an ordinary day, though still part of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and it was then that the women bought and prepared the spices. But they had to rest again for the weekly Sabbath on the 17th. Thus the 15th through 17th completed three full days and nights.

But what of “the third day” and “after three days”? As discussed before, these were less precise terms, and we are not told when “all these things” were completed: was it as soon as Jesus was buried, or was it when the tomb was sealed? If the former, then “three/third” does not fit and it would in fact be “four/fourth”. But if the latter, there is no discrepancy. And as with the day of the Triumphal Entry, we cannot rule out either one, and none of the other theories can account for either the number of days or whether the women bought spices before or after a Sabbath. There is simply no way to have “three days and three nights” cover the exact same span as “the third day/after three days”, even if an appeal is made to part of a day being counted as a whole day.

Mark 16:1-2 states that the women took the spices to the tomb “after the Sabbath... extremely early on the First of Sabbaths, just as the sun was beginning to rise”. So we know that Jesus had already arisen before dawn, and that this was on “the first day of the week” which had begun at sundown Saturday (Nisan 18). And since verse 9 says that Jesus arose “early on the first of Sabbaths”, it was soon after dark on Saturday. Then after this he appeared to Mary Magdalene at dawn. The same but slightly less detail as Mark’s account is given in Mat. 28:1, Luke 24:1, and John 20:1.

Speculation on the Year

We know that the Passover was on Nisan 15, but we don’t know the precise year. Some rely upon astronomical observations, especially concerning when there would have been a full moon at the Passover. However, scripture does not stipulate that the Passover must occur on a full moon; this is a tradition rather than a divine command. We also know that the timing of the first month depended upon the barley harvest, which cannot be known with great precision. But it should be noted that during Jubilee years there was no harvest at all, and even Noah could know days and years when there were no plants of any kind. We can also cite Gen. 1:14 which states that the sun, moon, and stars are for marking the passage of time. And the calendar used by ancient Israel was certainly a lunar one, in which case a month began with the first sighting of the new moon. So the 15th being the middle of the month would be the approximate time of a full moon, though once again we cannot dogmatically state that the Passover fell exactly on a full moon.

But even if scripture did specify a full moon, it would not be possible to calculate the year based on astronomical data or the beginning of harvest, since it would depend upon the observation of the priests, and no one can say what the local atmospheric conditions were in Israel on a given night in the early first century. So astronomy can neither confirm nor deny any claims to a particular year. The best that can be done is to estimate the possible range of years on the basis of details throughout the Gospels concerning Roman authorities over Israel and their estimated dates of rule. And in all these calculations, remember that there was no year zero (see this article).

Luke tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. According to this article, Herod was appointed king in late 39 b.c. and reigned for 37 years, ending at his death in 1 b.c. Now we also know that before Herod died, he had all boys under age 2 murdered in a vain effort to prevent Jesus from becoming king. So Jesus had to have been born at least two years prior to Herod’s death, which brings us to 3 b.c. at the latest. Now Jesus’ ministry was preceded by that of John the Baptist, and Luke tells us that John begain his ministry in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. If his reign began in 14 a.d., fifteen years later would be 29 a.d. and thus the earliest Jesus’ ministry could have begun, and his birth would have been in 1 b.c. Yet there is dispute over the year Tiberius actually began to reign (see this article), but then the question is what calculation Luke was using. At any rate, the article throws enough uncertainty on the timing of the reign of Tiberius to keep it from ruling out the limiting factor of the death of Herod.

Clearly we are dealing with probabilities, not precision, so any theological position dependent upon an exact year is on unstable ground (especially concerning prophecy). So the following scenario is as accurate as any: Jesus was born around 3 b.c., and his ministry began around 27 a.d. at age 30 (Luke 3:23). His ministry began and ended during Passovers (John 2:13, all Gospel accounts of Jesus’ execution), and only one Passover is mentioned between those two (John 5:1, 6:4 is the only Feast specified during that time). So his ministry ended at his death around 29 a.d. at age 32.

In any discussion of the years of Jesus’ life, our margin of error is between -1 and -4 years. So if we wanted to calculate the number of years since Jesus died at age 32, we would determine the range of years by subtracting either 31 or 28 from the current year. For example, if the current year is 2015, then it’s been between 1,984 and 1,987 years since he died and rose again— unless, according to this article, Herod died ten years earlier than we thought!

Conclusion

Jesus’ Triumphal Entry was on Saturday, Nisan 10, the weekly Sabbath before the Passover. He was “observed” through the 14th (Preparation Day, Tues. night/Wed. day), which began with the Last Supper. During the night he was illegally tried by the Jewish religious leaders, and by daybreak he was taken to the Roman authorities. Pilate sentenced him to death at around 11 a.m., and he was crucified by around noon. Darkness came over the land until 3 p.m., shortly after which he died. In the final three hours of the 14th (Wed. late afternoon), Jesus’ body was wrapped and buried in a tomb.

Nisan 15 (Wed. night/Thurs. day) was the Passover Sabbath, followed by an ordinary working day (Thurs. night/Fri. day), upon which the women bought and prepared burial spices. Then they rested on the 17th (Fri. night/Sat. day) since it was a normal weekly Sabbath. The 18th began at sundown Saturday, and early on that day (that is, shortly after dark) Jesus arose. At dawn the women brought the spices to the empty tomb.

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