The 15th year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign (circa AD 27) coincided with the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry (Luke 3:1, 23), followed by approximately three to three-and-a-half years incorporating at least three and probably four Passovers (John 2:13; [5:1]; 6:4; 12:1).1 The year of the Lord’s death and resurrection would have been circa AD 30.2 It was springtime in Judea, around March/April just before Passover (Mark 14:1, 12), approximately six weeks prior to ripe figs (Mark 11:12-13; 13:28).
The Historical and Political Setting
When Judea became a province of the Roman Empire in AD 6, the Romans deposed Archalaeus (son of Herod the Great), set up a military prefect,3 and appointed Annas as high priest. Annas was then removed in AD 15 and replaced by his son-in-law Caiaphas, although Annas and Caiaphas continued to jointly exercise authority and influence among the Jews (Luke 3:2). Pontius Pilate was the sixth prefect of Judea, appointed in the 12th year of Tiberius Caesar and governed during the years 26-36 (cf. Luke 3:1; 23:1).4
Jesus was arrested and brought first to Annas, then to Caiaphas (John 18:13, 24) and the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:66-71), charged with blasphemy and sentenced to death (cf. John 19:7). The Romans had divested the power from the Sanhedrin to execute the death penalty (John 18:31), so Jesus was delivered to the local prefect Pontius Pilate (Matt. 27:11-14; Mark 15:1-5; cf. John 18:28-38).
The Lord was essentially accused of sedition, treason, and insurrection (Luke 23:2, 3, 5, 14; John 19:12) – a very serious charge.5 Only Luke records Pontius Pilate sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 BC–AD 39), who then returned Jesus to the prefect (Luke 23:6-12, 15a; cf. Acts 4:27) as the one with greater authority as the emperor’s personal representative.
When Pontius Pilate gave the Jewish crowds the choice of which prisoner to be released – the humble Galilean preacher (Jesus) or the defiant patriotic militant (Barabbas) – their decision was no doubt influenced by their misconceived messianic expectations.6 It had become customary during the Passover feast for the Roman prefect in Judea to release to the Jews a prisoner of their choosing (Matt. 27:15; Mark 15:6, 8; Luke 23:17; John 18:39). This was neither a law nor a custom of the Romans or the Jews but appears to have been an attempt to placate the volatile Jewish people in order to deter further civil unrest and maintain some semblance of peace (cf. Matt. 27:24; Mark 15:15; John 19:8, 12).
The Crucifixion and Burial
While the Romans may have learned about crucifixion from the 6th-century-BC Carthaginians in N. Africa, they perfected it as a means of humiliation and torture and a deterrent to insurrection. It was not until the 4th century AD that Constantine banned the barbaric practice. The intent of this brutal form of capital punishment was to inflict maximum suffering with a slow, agonizing death.7
In Classical Greek (until the early 4th century BC), the term staurós referred to an upright stake for impaling (H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon 595), but in Koinē Greek it denoted the wooden object upon which the Romans executed criminals.8 The condemned was forced to carry the implement upon which he would die to the place of execution. Seeing that an entire Roman cross weighed over 135 kg (300 lb.), it was the crossbeam, weighing approximately 35-60 kg (75-125 lb.), that was typically carried. Jesus was beaten, crucified, and then buried in a borrowed tomb.
Early Sunday morning (the first day of the week), women journeyed to the tomb “while it was still dark” (John 20:1), and as it “began to dawn” (Matt. 28:1) they arrived at the tomb “when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:1). About a year earlier Jesus had issued the first clear prediction of his death and resurrection, saying he would be killed and then raised “after three days” [metà treîs hēméras] (Mark 8:31). In Jewish usage the expression “after three days” is equivalent to “the third day” [tētrítē hēméra] (Matt. 16:21; Luke 9:22); each evangelist has provided his own Greek translation of the Lord’s Aramaic words.
Earlier Jesus had spoken more enigmatically, viz. of raising up the temple of his body “in three days” (John 2:19-22), then making a comparison to Jonah in the fish’s belly “three days and three nights” (Matt. 12:38-40). Before wrestling with any perceived discrepancies in the chronological record, our first consideration ought to be what the Lord intended by these words and how his immediate listening audience would have understood them. Since Matthew is the only Gospel writer to have recorded the latter prediction, another consideration is what this would have meant to his original reading audience. The surest interpretation of a biblical prophecy is to be found in its fulfillment.
According to ancient time reckoning, any part of a day is counted as a full day, and the expression “three days and three nights” is the idiomatic equivalent of “three days” (see, e.g., 1 Sam. 30:12-13; Esth. 4:16; 5:1; cf. Gen. 42:17-18; 2 Chron. 10:5, 12).10 The enemies of Jesus knew he had predicted his resurrection “after three days” [metà treîs hēméras] (Matt. 27:63), understanding this to mean “until the third day” [héōs tēs trítēs hēméras] (v. 64). In other words, after the third day has come, not after the third day has past. If antagonists had understood the prophecy otherwise, they could have (would have?) easily charged the Lord with having made an erroneous claim. What was meant by the prophetic words was indeed fulfilled.
Jesus was crucified “the day before the Sabbath” (Mark 15:42; John 19:31), i.e., Friday. His corpse was in the tomb on the Sabbath, i.e., Saturday. He arose early on the first day of the week (Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), “after the Sabbath” [opsè …sabbátōn] (Matt. 28:1),11 i.e., Sunday. On the day of the Lord’s resurrection, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, having just described his death, said to Jesus, “today is the third day since these things happened” (Luke 24:20-21).12
The death and resurrection of Jesus provide the cornerstone of the Christian faith (Rom. 6:3-5; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; 1 Pet. 3:21), without which our entire belief system is empty and futile (1 Cor. 15:14-19). Every first day of the week (Sunday) thereafter has been a special day of significance for followers of Jesus Christ (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; cf. Acts 2:1; Rev. 1:10).
--Kevin L. Moore
1The first Passover during his ministry was 46 years after Herod had begun construction on the temple (John 2:13, 20), which was about 20/19 BC, the 18th year of Herod’s reign (cf. Josephus, Ant.15.11.1).
2The traditional date of AD 33 is based on the assumption that the Lord’s ministry began at year 30, even though the biblical record says he was “about” 30 (Luke 3:23), not to mention the 6th-century miscalculations of Dionysius Exiguus.
3Sometimes the term “procurator” is used, but procurators were usually civilian financial officers, whereas prefects were military men. The “Pilate Stone,” an inscription discovered at Caesarea Maritima in 1961, identifies Pontius Pilate as “prefect” of Judea.
4See Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Josephus, Ant. 18.4.1-2.
5Cf. also Matt. 27:11, 29, 37, 42; Mark 15:2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32; Luke 23:37, 38; John 18:33, 39; 19:3, 14, 15. “Ideologically, the Pax Romana [Roman Peace] was predicated upon the universality of Rome’s political and military authority, as well as its laws, institutions, customs, and cultural mores…. the Romans genuinely believed that whatever means had been used to impose this peace, and however great its human and material costs, the Pax Romana they had established was characterized by prosperity and by physical and spiritual concord. Accordingly, it justified Rome’s imperium and legitimized every effort to sustain it” (A. Parchami, Hegemonic Peace and Empire 26, 30).
6See K. L. Moore, “Barabbas,” Moore Perspective (30 Nov. 2012).
7For a well-researched medical and historical analysis, see William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” JAMA 255:11 (21 March 1986): 1455-63. For a more recent medical anthropological perspective, see Emanuela Gualdi-Russo, Ursula Thun Hohenstein, Nicoletta Onisto, Elena Pilli, and David Carmelli, “A multidisciplinary study of calcaneal trauma in Roman Italy: a possible case of crucifixion?,” Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (April 2018): 10.1007/s12520-018-0631-9 <Link>.
8Early patristic authors, writing about the “cross” upon which Jesus was crucified, unanimously describe it as having a crossbeam (e.g. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 15; cf. Epistle of Barnabas 9.7-8).
9Matt. 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-2. On the textual integrity of the ending of Mark’s Gospel, see K. L. Moore, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament 71-79.
10Saying to a friend in a modern-day western culture, “I’m here for you 24/7,” is simply an expressive way of conveying long-term loyalty and care, but not intended or understood as a literal commitment of unceasing presence. To say that a job was completed “at the eleventh hour” has nothing to do with precision of time. The same is true of other modern idioms, like “fifteen minutes of fame,” “four letter words,” “put two and two together,” “scattered to the four winds,” “six feet under,” “the whole nine yards,” “six of one and half a dozen of the other,” et al.
11CSB, ESV, NASB, NET, NIV, NKJV, N/RSV. Some English translations have obscured this reference, e.g., “in the end of the sabbath” (KJV); “now late on the sabbath day” (ASV). According to Jewish convention, the Sabbath began at sunset (Friday p.m.) and ended at the following sunset (Saturday p.m.), leading into the early hours of the first day of the week.
12Over a period of 40 days Jesus was seen alive by more than 500 eyewitnesses in Galilee and Judea prior to his ascension into heaven (Matt. 28:1-20; Mark 16:1-19; Luke 24:1-51; John 20:1–25:25; Act 1:11; 1 Cor. 15:3-7). The Passover was on the 14th day of the first Jewish lunar month (Ex. 12:6), and the church was established 50 days later on Pentecost (Lev. 23:16; Acts 2:1-47).
Related Posts: Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Image credit: https://www.newyorkapologetics.com/arguments-against-the-empty-tomb-of-jesus/