Was Jesus Crucified on Friday? For centuries Christians have celebrated ‘Good Friday’ as the day Jesus died. No one disputed it; the early church agreed with it; the gospel stated it. Here is a statement from Justin Martyr about AD150.
“For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.” (First Apology, Chapter 67)
And here is the earliest gospel account.
“When evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:42-43)
So, it was the day of preparation before Saturday, ie. Friday, or was it?
The problem arises when we find an expression of Jesus which doesn’t seem to fit. He said, “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 12:40) Now, if Jesus died on Friday afternoon and rose Sunday morning, it would seem more like he was in the grave one day and two nights. That is the way it appears to our thinking anyway.
However, the issue is not as problematic as it appears because in colloquial Jewish speech a ‘day’ could mean any portion of the day, as long as it was that day. The many references to Jesus rising on the third day meant exactly that – sometime during day three – even though 24 hours had not completed its course. Similarly, when we are told Jesus died at about 3pm Friday; that was day one even though the Hebrew day finished a mere three hours afterwards.
Another example of this can be found in the account of King Rehoboam who told a delegation of people, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So they went away, but instead of returning after three days as we might expect, they came back on the third day itself. In other words, when Rehoboam gave his instruction it was the first day, and the second day they stayed away, and on the third they all came back. “So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king said, Come to me again the third day.” (1 Kings 12:5,12)
There are plenty more examples of inclusive counting in the Old Testament as well as in Rabbinic literature. The story of Esther is another case, but suffice it to say that the ‘prophet Jonah’ sign should be understood in the same way. It does not mean a strict 3×24=72 hours.