The Problem of Holy Week

Author: Ian Taylor

The Babylonian Calendar. The earliest times for which we have archaeological and historical evidences are those of the Babylonian empire. The Babylonians, or an earlier civilization, celebrated the year as 360 days, that is, the time taken for the Sun to complete its cycle. This is known as the “solar year” but today we understand that the Earth takes 365.2422 days to orbit the Sun. The Babylonians divided the circle into 360 degrees – one degree per day. The Moon’s orbit around the Earth takes 29.5 days and orbits the Earth just over 12 times a year. The solar year can be determined within a day or so by the shadow cast by a gnomon or obelisk; the Spring equinox is the easiest date to measure and in many nations has always been the starting point for the New Year. This was the method used by the Babylonians. Nevertheless, the number of lunations (orbits of the moon) each solar year was 12 and this number became sacred to the Babylonians. Each day, that is, each degree, was divided into 12 hours of day-light and 12 hours of darkness (the hours varied in length throughout the year) and, later, each hour was divided into 12 X 5 minutes.

The Jewish Calendar. The Jews have faithfully followed the Genesis account of creation and maintained the 7-day week with the Seventh Day i.e. our Saturday, as their Sabbath; other nations have tried the ten-day week but without success. The Jews have also retained the Genesis reckoning of the day as “the evening and the morning,” that is, each new day begins at sunset. Practically everyone else takes mid-night as the dividing point between one day and the next. The Jewish months are based upon the moon; each month begins and ends at the new moon i.e. begins within the three days of complete darkness. Since the moon’s cycle takes 29.5 days, the Jewish months are alternately 29 and 30 days in length with 3 days added after twelve months to bring the calendar year roughly into line with the solar year. A further correction is made every thirteenth year when an additional month is added. Many of the Jewish festivals, including Passover, are thus locked into a 19-year cycle in which the dates and names of the days re-occur on the calendar every 19 years. For the same reasons, Easter and associated Holy Week are locked into the same 19-year cycle. The Jewish New Year begins in their month of Nisan, or, as it was formerly called in Exodus 12:2 and Deut. 16:1, Abib. In these passages, the commandment is given that the year is to begin on the first new moon (following the Spring equinox). The equinox is when day and night are equal i.e. each is 12 hours. The Spring equinox occurs on our calendar about March 21st and is easily found with the gnomon. In summary, each day, month and year of the Jewish calendar begins in darkness and thus commemorates the Creation. One very important but little known fact concerns the accurate determination of the new moon when the moon is not visible for three days. The Jews were never too concerned with practical observation of the heavens and the rabbinical authorities tended to set their dates for the new moon and consequently the month and the Passover by calculation. Small errors crept in, multiplied and by the 8th century A.D. a sect of Jews in Bagdad known as Qaraites (Karaites) rejected tradition and insisted upon establishing their festivals by direct observation. The minor differences in times have been the source of debate and contention among orthodox Jews for centuries particularly with respect to the times for the Passover.

The Christian Calendar. In 46 B.C. and with the power and authority of Rome, Julius Caesar rejected the lunar calendar and introduced a civil calendar of 365 and-a-quarter-days based upon the sun. The quarter day was introduced as a full day once every fourth year, known as a “leap-year.” The “Julian Calendar” began the year on January 1st rather than March 21st and retained the twelve months of odd lengths. This calendar was adopted throughout the old Roman Empire and eventually by Christendom.

By the 16th century, European astronomers had established that the “quarter day” of the Julian calendar was just a bit too long and by 1582, was almost 11 days ahead of the solar year. This was noticeable by the seasons and important for planting crops. Pope Gregory XIII [1502-1585] introduced calendar reform by basing the solar year more accurately at 365.2422 days rather than 365.25 days as in the old Julian calendar. Every fourth year was still a leap year except for three of every fourth century years ending in 00. The year 2000 was a leap-year but the one before that was 1600. The new calendar, the one in use today, is extremely accurate and known as the Gregorian calendar; it was accepted by all the European Catholic countries without question in the year 1587. In that year, they all leaped forward by ten days. However, Britain was staunchly Protestant, refused to accept any popish decrees and for the next 165 years was 11 days or more behind the European calendars. This situation changed, but not without a fuss, in 1752 when King George II of England ordered adoption of the Gregorian calendar. That year the British leaped from the 2nd to the 14th of September. The Eastern Orthodox Church i.e. the Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian and Greek, still refuse to recognize the Gregorian calendar simply because of its source. The result is that the Latin Christians, that is, Western Christians whether Catholic or Protestant, celebrate Christmas Day on December 25th whereas the Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day on January 6th, a day known to the West as Twelfth Night.

Holy Week and the Passover. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, includes Maundy Thursday (John 13:5, foot-washing), Good Friday and concludes on Easter Sunday. It is the last week of the Lenten period that began on Ash Wednesday, several weeks earlier. Easter and all the related festival days of Lent and particularly the Last Supper (Passover), are locked together as moveable feasts determined by the time of the new moon. Easter can fall on any of the 35 days between March 22nd and April 25th and celebrates Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. In reference to this, Matthew 28:1 says, “Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn…” All the other gospels simply say it was the “first day of the week.” (Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1 and John 20:1). Easter is thus always on a Sunday, “the first day of the week.” The Jewish Sabbath is on the seventh day, Saturday, and follows from Exodus 20:10 “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.” Thus, the first day is Sunday and there is no question, Sunday was the day of the week that Christ rose from the dead. We should recall that in the minds of the gospel writers, Sunday began at sunset the previous day. It is worth mentioning that there were great disputes among the 2nd century Christians as to the actual day to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. Most agreed to celebrate on a Sunday, but there was a smaller number, referred to as the “Quartodecimans,” who, with their Jewish background, adhered to “the 14th day of the moon,” i.e. Nisan 14th or Passsover. Of course, this sect was considered heretic. The situation was finally settled in AD. 325 at the Council of Nicea where it was decreed that Easter be celebrated on, “The first Sunday after the full moon (Note: full moon, not new moon) which happens on or next following the 21st of March, the Spring Equinox; and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter-day is the Sunday following.” Clearly, the historical evidence shows that there have been disputes in the past regarding the time of the Last Supper. The question is: Upon what day of the week did Jesus die and upon what day was the Passover and Christ’s Last Supper with His disciples?

The Passover. Commentaries and bible teaching often claim that Passover i.e. Pesach or the seder meal, takes place on Nisan 14th, the first day in the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. The detailed instructions are given in Exodus 12:1-20 and require that a lamb be purchased on the 10th day of Nisan, kept until the 14th day then, at twilight [literally, “between the evenings”], the lamb is killed, roasted whole and eaten. According to Jewish reckoning, since the Passover meal takes place after sunset this becomes Nisan 15th and is strictly on the second day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread as is correctly stated in the Encyclopedia Judaica. The first day of the Feast is Nisan 14th, called “Preparation Day” when the house is cleaned to remove every speck of leaven. Unleavened bread (Matzoh) is eaten throughout the seven days of the Feast. Apart from the problem already mentioned of determining the day of the new moon and thus the calendar day of Passover, there was the even greater problem of logistics at the time of Christ. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was one of the three annual feasts that required every Jew to travel to Jerusalem to commemorate. According to the law (Leviticus 17:3-9), the lamb had to be killed “at the door of the tabernacle,” i.e. later at the temple, by the priest and its blood poured out by the side of the altar to return to the dust of the ground. The lamb was to be immediately roasted and eaten and any left over had to be burned, it could not be kept (Exodus 12:6-10). According to the figures given by the Jewish historian, Josephus, there were 2,700,200 people in Jerusalem for the Passover in the year A.D. 62 meaning that it was necessary for the temple priests to kill at least 256,000 lambs. Working around the clock in shifts of 100 this would have taken a minimum of four days! Thus, the sheer numbers involved pressed the keeping of the law beyond practicality. The time for killing the lambs “between the evenings” had already been pushed back to 3 p.m. of Nisan 14th but in Christ’s day it would, in any case, have been totally impossible for everyone to celebrate at the same time. While Scripture is silent about these logistical problems, it is suggested that the apparent contradiction between the accounts in the synoptic gospels and that in John’s gospel may provide a clue to what was actually taking place.

The Problem. The synoptic gospels are all in agreement that Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified after the Passover – the Last Supper – with His disciples (Matthew 26:19; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:13 “…they prepared the Passover…”). However, according to John’s gospel, Jesus was crucified before the Passover. “Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover and about the sixth hour (12 noon). And he (Pilate) said to the Jews, ‘Behold your king!'” At this moment Jesus had been on the cross 3 hours.(John 18:28; 19:14-15 and 30-32). Matthew and John were the only primary witnesses; Mark and Luke were not at the Last Supper and scholars generally agree that Matthew used Mark’s account as his source. Thus, John is an important witness. and the early Church Fathers evidently recognized this when they chose Friday as “Good Friday,” the day of Christ’s crucifixion and death. According to Matthew 12:40 and Luke 11:30 Jesus said, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Church teaching usually count the days as the remaining part of Friday, Saturday and the early part of Sunday morning but fail to mention the three nights!

A Possible Solution. Because of the logistical difficulties mentioned above, the temple authorities would surely have had to compromise and permit the Passover meal to be eaten by individual groups on one of several evenings prior to the official date of Nisan 15th. Further, the official date could, in any case, have been incorrect by one day i.e., the day declared to be Nisan 9th by the temple officials may, in fact, have been Nisan 10th according to the moon. It might then reasonably be supposed that Jesus chose the correct day while the official days to purchase the lamb, kill the lamb and the Passover meal were each on the following day. Luke’s account provides the essential details of the Last Supper, “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover… Then came the day of Unleavened Bread when the Passover must be killed. And He (Jesus) sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover for us.'” (Luke 22:1-8). Peter and John had likely been looking after the lamb since its purchase at the temple. Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first day of the week, Sunday and, disgusted at the exchange rates for temple money, overturned the tables. Peter and John took the lamb to the temple to have it killed on Wednesday given as Nisan 13th but correctly Nisan 14th. Jesus celebrated the Last Supper after sunset on Wednesday, now reckoned as Thursday and correctly Nisan 15th. However, by temple reckoning this was Preparation Day, Nisan 14th. Jesus was arrested and tried in the early hours of Preparation Day i.e. Thursday morning, and hung on the cross at the third hour i.e. 9 am. At this time, the Jewish community was cleaning their houses. At the ninth hour, i.e. 3 pm., Jesus died. It was at this same moment that the official Temple Passover lamb was killed. Of course, thousands of lambs had been killed during the previous few days. The official lamb(s) was roasted later in the afternoon. At this same time, Jesus was removed from the cross, washed, wrapped and placed in Joseph’s tomb quickly before sunset. After 3 pm. in Passover week it was by Jewish reckoning then Friday, and officially Nisan 15th. Possibly, the official temple Passover meal was reserved for the priests. If this suggested sequence is indeed true, then this would explain what appears to be the discrepancy between the synoptic accounts and that of John regarding the time of the Passover. It would also explain why the early Christian Fathers thinking as Jews adopted the Friday as “Good Friday” when it was actually Thursday by our understanding today. The three days and three nights in the earth prophesied by Jesus (Matthew 12:40 and Luke 11:30) would consist of the days of Friday, Saturday and Sunday after sunrise and the nights of Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Jesus rose up, according to prophecy, on “the third day” (Matthew 17:23).

Encyclopedia Britannica N.Y. The Encyclopedia Britannica Co. 11th edition, 1910.
Quartodecimans in Vol. 4, p. 992. Qaraites in Vol. 22, p. 705.

Encyclopedia Judaica. N.Y. The Macmillan Co. 1971, Vol. 13, p. 163.

Wars of the Jews by Josephus. In:
The Works of Josephus. Trans. By William Whiston. MA. Hendrickson Pub. 1985.
Population of Jerusalem at Passover, Book IV, Chap. IX, p. 3.


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