When Did Jesus Die?

This year [2016] at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Easter commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection took place a month out of sync with the Jewish observance of Passover. Yet according to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified at the same time the priests would have been killing the Passover lambs. So why the difference, and why does it matter?

In 2016 Christians around the world remembered Christ’s death four weeks before the annual Jewish Passover commemoration. While this wide gap in timing doesn’t happen every year, it’s still rare that the two commemorations coincide exactly. Why is this? The answer leads to some important conclusions for those who want to faithfully remember Jesus’ sacrifice.

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion show that He died around three o’clock in the afternoon. This was about the time that the Jewish authorities were killing the lambs for the Passover meal to be eaten that evening after sunset. Yet the night before He died, Jesus ate the same commanded Passover meal with His disciples. He’d instructed some of them earlier that day to “go and prepare the Passover for us” (Luke 22:8). He did this in accord with the Hebrew Scriptures governing the commemoration of ancient Israel’s deliverance, when God “passed over” the Israelites.

Why did the Jewish authorities keep the Passover a day later than Jesus, when the Torah is very clear that the Passover lamb was to be killed and eaten at the beginning of the 14th day of the month of Nisan? The answer is that first-century Jews did not have a single approach to the Passover as they do today. Some, like Jesus and His disciples, observed it at the beginning of the 14th of Nisan. Others, such as the Pharisees, observed it at the beginning of the 15th.

In the Bible, days begin and end at sunset, so the 14th day began at evening, not midnight. The following afternoon, Jesus died and the priests killed the lambs. Jesus was put in the tomb just before sunset on the 14th, and the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem started the Passover meal once the 15th began. This explains the apparent contradiction in the Gospel accounts.

The reason that Judaism and Christianity today do not usually coincide in their respective celebrations has to do in part with their calendar systems. The Jews calculate their years on a lunar calendar, which is based on the monthly cycle of the moon. Passover generally falls on the first full moon after the March equinox; that is to say, on the 14th day of the month, as months of the Hebrew calendar always begin with a new moon. Every few years an adjustment is needed, however, to bring the Hebrew calendar into line with the annual revolution of the earth around the sun, and an extra month is added to the year; 2016 is such a year.

By contrast, Christianity has followed the solar calendar and dates Easter based on the March equinox alone. Easter was therefore one month earlier than Passover.

In all of this it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that to be in line with Jesus’ command and with the original Passover dating, His followers will want to recall His death annually according to His practice on the 14th of Nisan and avoid resurrection celebrations on a day and at a time He never sanctioned.