What Day Did Jesus Die? The Good Friday Controversy

Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

Author |  Professor | BE Contributor

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Date written: November 2nd, 2023

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

What day did Jesus die?  To many, this might seem like a silly question: Jesus died on Good Friday! Everyone knows that!

While this is indeed the tradition within Christianity, scholars know that it’s far from certain. In this article, I’ll show the contradiction between Gospels that raises this question, the basics of the Jewish calendar, and a likely answer to the question of when Jesus died.

What Day Did Jesus - Die The Good Friday Controversy

How Are Days Measured in the Jewish Calendar?

Before we get into the exact day Jesus died, you’ll need some background on the Jewish calendar. This is a big topic, but for our purposes I’ll just discuss the way days are measured. Unlike the Gregorian calendar most of us use, the Jewish calendar measures a day from sunset to sunset. This is why, for example, the Sabbath in Judaism starts on Friday evening.

The calendar also has its own months, and since all the Gospels agree that Jesus died during the week of Passover, he probably died in the month known as Nisan which coincides with March-April on the civil calendar.

The Crucifixion in Mark: Jesus Died on Good Friday

As you may know, there are many differences between all the Gospels. However, the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – tend to agree with each other on many things, specifically the timeline of Jesus’ life. John, on the other hand, is very different from the Synoptics.

Scholars agree that Mark is our earliest written Gospel and that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, adding material and embellishing Mark’s account. So according to Mark, when is Jesus crucified?

Mark says that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal. This was the most important celebration for 1st-century Jews as it commemorated God’s salvation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

For Mark, this takes place on a Thursday evening. How do we know this? Because Mark 15:42 tells us that Jesus’ death and burial happen on the day before the Sabbath, which is always from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. 

At this Passover meal, Jesus adds additional significance to the meal, claiming that the bread and wine are his body and blood.

Not long after this meal, Jesus is arrested, spends the night in jail, and is tried by Pilate in the morning. He is then crucified at 9:00 AM. Because Passover started the evening before, he is crucified on the day of Passover: Jesus died on Good Friday.

Mark's Timeline of Jesus' Death:

  • Sabbath - from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday
  • Last Supper, Passover & Death - from sundown Thursday to sundown Friday.  So Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples on Thursday night and dies on Friday morning on the day of Passover.  According to the Jewish calendar, though, these are both the same day.

For those of us thinking in terms of a Western calendar, he would have had his last supper on Thursday night, died on Friday morning (Good Friday), which was the day before the Sabbath on Saturday.

What Day Did Jesus Die in John?

"When did Jesus die?" may seem like a question with a simple enough answer, but as it turns out, it depends on which Gospel you read!

In the Gospel of John, while the Passover begins on Friday at sundown, Jesus’ Last Supper occurs on Thursday, the evening before. This means that in John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal.

After this supper, Jesus is arrested, spends the night in jail, and is tried by Pilate in the morning. He is finally crucified just after noon on the day before the Passover meal is celebrated. Additionally, John has this Passover coincide with the Sabbath, which didn’t always happen.

In Mark, the Last Supper is the only Passover in the life of Jesus. In John, three Passovers are mentioned, although the Last Supper isn’t one of them.

Do John or the Synoptics Have the Day Right?

Are there any other sources for the date of Jesus’ crucifixion? One very significant Jewish source, the Babylonian Talmud, says this:

And it was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshua [the Nazarene] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come and plead on his behalf." And since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover.

This source agrees with John’s chronology that Jesus was killed the day before Passover.

There is a problem, though. This source was written between the 3rd and the 6th centuries, long after the events it describes. As such, its historical value for what happened in the 1st century is negligible.

Many in the early Church commemorated the day of Jesus’ death according to John’s timeline as well, on the 14th of the month of Nisan. They then celebrated Easter two days later. However, starting in about 164 CE, there were ongoing controversies about the dating of Easter.

In 200 CE, a Christian author named Hippolytus wrote furiously that an unnamed Christian had claimed that Jesus had eaten a Passover meal the day before his crucifixion (as it says in Mark). This was impossible, Hippolytus wrote, because Jesus was the sacrifice. John the Baptist says as much in the John 1:29, calling Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

John’s Gospel is the only one, by the way, that calls Jesus the Lamb of God, a direct reference to Passover. This suggests an interesting possibility.

Did Jesus Die on Good Friday

When Was Jesus Crucified?

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors frequently reminded us that the most important question for any scholarly work is “So What?” In other words, if you have a new historical theory, why should anyone care when Jesus died? What’s at stake?

With this in mind, Bart Ehrman gives us an intriguing option to answer the “so what?” question.  If you're asking, "when did Jesus die?", why does it matter if he died on the day of Passover or on the day before Passover?

As I wrote earlier, Mark is our earliest written Gospel, written around 70 CE, while John is our fourth and latest written Gospel, written sometime between 90 and 120. This means that Mark was written about 40 years after Jesus’ death while John was written 60 or more years after Jesus’ death.

Most scholars agree, then, that Mark’s Gospel would have contained the more accurate timeline, being so much closer to the date of events it describes than John’s Gospel.  In fact, Mark's Gospel typically contains the most historical version of Jesus.

In addition, Ehrman notes that in the Gospel of John “Jesus’ death represents the salvation of God, just as the sacrifice of the lamb represented salvation for the ancient Israelites during the first Passover.”

He goes on to write that because of this, it is far more likely that the author of John changed the traditional date of Jesus’ death so that it wouldn’t coincide with Passover. Why? Because Jesus himself was the sacrificial Lamb. As Bart says, “Perhaps John (or his source) made a change in the day and hour of Jesus’ death precisely to reinforce this theological point.”

Conclusion: Did Jesus Die on Good Friday?

How were days measured in the Jewish calendar? A day was measured from sunset to sunset. This means that in Mark, Jesus ate a Passover meal in the evening and was killed the next morning, which was the same day: Passover. For John, Jesus ate a non-Passover meal the day before Passover and was then killed the next day, which was still the day before Passover.

What other sources do we have for the date of Jesus’ death? A Jewish source says Jesus was killed the day before Passover. This source is far too late, however, to give us much historical value. An early Christian author, Hippolytus, said that Jesus couldn’t have eaten a Passover meal before dying because he himself was the Lamb of God sacrificed.

Why is there a discrepancy between John and the Synoptics on Jesus’ death? While we can’t know for certain, John’s designation of Jesus as the Lamb of God may mean that John changed the date of Jesus’ death to reflect that theological opinion.

What day did Jesus die? Since Mark's account was written so much closer in time to Jesus’ actual death than John’s, it is highly likely that his version is correct: Jesus died on Good Friday, which was the day of Passover that year.

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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