March 27, 2013

Wednesday cruci-fiction

There are two constants on the fundamentalist liturgical calendar. One occurs in late October, as Hallowe'en approaches: the Annunciation of the Evils of Trick-or-Treating. The other takes place in the spring: the Epiphany of Good Wednesday.

Yes, Good Wednesday: the belief that Jesus' crucifixion had to take place on Wednesday, and not on Friday as tradition (read: Roman Catholic) has maintained.

I'll grant this: These folks take the authority of the Bible seriously, unlike, arguably, the majority of Christmas and Easter Christians who come to church a couple times a year to assuage whatever guilt they have, and can't be bothered to think these things through the other 363 days of the year. It seems to me, however, that the Wednesday crucifixion thing just doesn't work, and I think a better case can be made for the traditional view.

Some years ago, the only people you would have seen making this kind of argument were from Sabbatarian sects, such as the Seventh-day Adventists or the various groups that grew out of Herbert W. Armstrong's teachings. It's clear why they would advocate for a Wednesday crucifixion: they want to undermine the foundations of Sunday worship in favour of their Sabbatarian theology. Christians gather together on Sunday because that was the day Jesus rose from the dead. I don't see why any group of Sunday worshippers would want to copy their arguments, however; I guess it has something to do with a suspicion of all things Roman Catholic. Just because it's traditional doesn't necessarily make it wrong, and if our timeline of Holy Week is based more on some kind of "Romophobia" than exegesis, then we've started off on the wrong foot.

The sign of Jonah

The Wednesday crucifixion view basically hinges on a particular interpretation of one key passage:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered [Jesus], saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just 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 12:38-40)

Wednesday advocates latch on to the phrase, "three days and three nights" and argue that this must three complete, 24-hour days. Friday sundown to Sunday morning is not three full days; in fact, it's not even two full days. How do you get "three days and three nights" out of one day and two nights?

I answer with another question: What makes Matthew 12:40 the lynchpin of dating crucifixion day? The interval between Jesus' death and resurrection are mentioned many times, and described in various ways, for example:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." (John 2:19)

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matt. 16:21)

[T]hey said to him, "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened." (Luke 24:19-21)

In other words, the language Jesus and his disciples use to describe the time of his death and resurrection isn't consistent or mathematically rigorous. It's idiomatic. Jewish idiom reckoned a partial day as a day. When the disciples on the Emmaus road said "it is now the third day," they meant that the events of the crucifixion took place on the first day, there was a day in between, and now it is the third day—and, as they will soon find out, they are trying to explain to the risen Christ himself what just happened to him.

Besides, to latch onto the "three days and three nights" idiom of Matt. 12:40 is to miss the point. The "sign of Jonah" doesn't point to the number of hours spent in the earth: it points to the resurrection. Just as Jonah was swallowed by a fish but brought back to dry land, Jesus would be swallowed by the earth and come out of the tomb again.

The problem with the Wednesday crucifixion theory is more fundamental, though: according to the Gospels, Jesus died around the ninth hour, or 3 in the afternoon (Matt. 27:45-50), and was buried by sundown that same day, in order that it could be done before the Sabbath began (Mark 15:42-43; Luke 23:54). If "three days and three nights" means "three full days," then the best the Wednesday crucifixioneers can argue for is a Saturday afternoon resurrection. Anything later would be three days and four nights; if they want to insist that the idiom has a technically precise definition, then that argument must cut both ways.

An even smaller minority has argued in favour of a Thursday crucifixion for this very reason. However, this strikes me as an ad hoc solution to make the numbers work out rather than a serious answer based on sound hermeneutics.

How many sabbaths were there?

Another Wednesday argument goes that the sabbath day that followed the crucifixion was not the regular weekly sabbath, but a mid-week "high day" (John 19:31). This argument is at least plausible: there were numerous special sabbaths throughout the Jewish calendar, and two of them occurred at the beginning and end of the Passover week.

The problem with this view is that it's one sabbath too many:

[Joseph of Arimathea] went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. (Luke 23:52-24:1)

Since no work could be done on a sabbath day, Jesus' burial was a rather hasty matter, since it had to be done before sundown. He was wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. Normally, a body would also be anointed with aromatic spices that were wrapped in the shroud, but apparently there was no time for this preparation. After the sabbath day had passed, the women went to the tomb to finish the work of preparing Jesus' body, but of course they found no body, and an angel announced that he had risen from the dead (Mark 16:6).

And so here lies the problem: If Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, and Thursday was a special sabbath day, then why did the women wait until Sunday to finish preparing his body? Friday wasn't a sabbath; why not do this important work then? The fact is, nothing in any Gospel actually suggests that the women delayed Jesus' anointing by more than a single day. On the sabbath, they rested "according to the commandment" (Luke 23:56). Which commandment? The fourth commandment, of course, which required the observance of the seventh-day sabbath.

And so the most credible timeline for the events surrounding the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus starts to look something like this:

  • Day 1: Jesus is brought out to Golgotha, carrying his cross. He is nailed to the cross, and by about 3 pm he was dead. Joseph of Arimathea claims his body, and Jesus is hastily buried in his tomb before sundown, which marked the beginning of the following sabbath day. The women prepare spices for the burial but are unable to use them due to the onset of the sabbath.
  • Day 2: The sabbath day, upon which the disciples and the women rested. The priests petition Pilate to post guards at the tomb.
  • Day 3: During the night, the angel came and moved the stone from the tomb. At about dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb with the anointing spices, only to find the tomb open and Jesus gone.

What I have called Day 3, the Scriptures specifically say was the first day of the week. But this means that if the "third day" was Sunday, then we must conclude that the first day, the day of crucifixion, was the sixth day of the previous week. "Good Friday" is a Friday after all.

But we knew this already

The fact is, we don't have to do even those deductive gymnastics. The Bible simply says Jesus was crucified and buried on the sixth day of the week.

All four Gospels mention that the crucifixion took place on the "day of Preparation" (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14,31). The verse in Mark goes farther, and explains that it was the day before the Sabbath. In Greek, the "day of Preparation" is paraskeue. According to Bauer, Danker, Arndt and Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (one of the standard lexicons of New Testament Greek), paraskeue was "was Friday, on which day everything had to be prepared for the Sabbath, when no work was permitted." Mark's other word, prosabbaton, is "the day before the Sabbath, i.e. Friday."

In other words, all four Gospel authors tell us exactly what day of the week the crucifixion took place on, because they all use the everyday word for the sixth day of the week—in other words, Friday!

Sometimes, for more obscure theological questions like this, you have to do some digging. Other times, someone just comes out and tells you. This is one of those times. The Wednesday crucifixion theory is, simply put, without merit. The option just isn't open.