No one really knows for sure. The ancient Christian fathers debated it. Modern Christian scholars still debate it.

The reason is simple. The historical evidence is not sufficient to define it exactly.

Benjamin Adams made this remark to Sadler:

"It is only fair to note that the Urantia Book does not claim to be infallible (p.1008). It is also fair to note that on the other side of the ledger are literally thousands of amazingly accurate details harmonizing perfectly with known geographical and chronological facts. For instance, the U.B. states in opposition to a tremendous weight of tradition that Jesus did not die on Passover Day, but on the day preceding that, in 30 A.D. Passover began at Sunset on Friday, April 7 and continued until sunset Saturday, April 8. This agrees with the point-of-view of John's Gospel but disagrees with the synoptics. Moreover, astronomy bears witness that the first visibility of the preceding new moon was at sunset on Friday, March 24. This would then be the beginning of Nisan 1 in the Jewish calendar. This would bring Nisan 14, the "Preparation for the Passover," to the day beginning sunset April 6 (Thurs.) and Nisan 15, the Passover itself to the day beginning at sunset Friday, April 7, continuing throughout Saturday. This agrees with the Gospel of John and the Urantia Book."

To which Sadler replied:

The intricacies of Jesus' crucifixion and the Day of the Passover I am not competent to appraise. In fact, I was not aware that there was any difference in the Gospel of John and in the Synoptics, but I am glad that you are inclined to agree with the Urantia Book.

The relationship of the Gospels is not quite as simple as that described by Adams. His remark is based on notions commonly held by a large segment of educated Christianity.

My purpose here is to evaluate the historical record against the account given in the Urantia Papers. Is it possible that the Papers were designed to pacify common notions about the date of the Crucifixion, but do not reflect the true date? If so, this would be another example of tampering with reality to provide revelation. Will examination of the conflict between the synoptic Gospels and John's account provide information to enlighten our query?

The study is fairly complex. It requires careful examination of all of the historical evidence, weighed against astronomical dates, and early Church traditions. I shall try to reduce this to manageable comprehension.

First, we should establish the rules.

  1. Jews observed their days from sunset to sunset.
  2. They had no names for the days of the week. Day One was our Sunday; day Seven was our Saturday.
  3. The seventh day of each week, Saturday, was a sabbath day. It began on Friday evening and continued to Saturday evening. (Some time in the early centuries Christians decided to observe Sunday as the holy day, or sabbath, because Jesus' resurrection and first appearances occurred on the first Sunday after the Passover crucifixion.)
  4. Sabbath days were holy days. All secular activity was prohibited. Travel distance in and around Jerusalem was limited to approximately three hundred meters, for example from the city to the Mount of Olives, a "sabbath day's travel." Outlying districts were not so strict. Academic minds and priests, living in urban environments, without the practical demands of livestock and rural environments, could create such artificial "laws," but country people were caustic about such strict observances.
  5. Festival days were also holy days, and were classified as sabbaths. Since these festival days were clocked to the cycles of the moon, they might fall on any day of the week. Biblical scholars regard John's remark of a "high" sabbath in 19:31 as the coincidence of the Passover sabbath with the Saturday sabbath. This may, or may not, be a correct assumption.
  6. Sometimes the expression "sabbath" was used to denote an entire week. Thus seven sabbaths could mean seven weeks.
  7. The Greek word for the sabbath, sabbaton, was taken directly from the Hebrew word for the sabbath, sabbat which meant "to desist," "cease," or "rest". The Greek word had various inflections: sabbato, sabbatou, sabbasin.
  8. Although the Greek use in the New Testament was in both singular and plural, the word is invariably translated in the English versions as singular. Virtually all biblical scholars understand the use as singular. This has caused appalling misunderstanding of the context of the New Testament accounts.
  9. The Day of Preparation (Greek paraskue) was the day preceding the holy day.
  10. As part of their customs and laws, Jews held to other secular proscriptions on the Day of Preparation. They would not enter a gentile home, and they would not carry arms. John 18:28 states that "They themselves did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover."
  11. The beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, extending one week, (or sabbath), was reckoned at the same time as the Passover meal. Exod 12:18 states: "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, and so until the twenty-first day of the month at evening."
  12. Crucifixion of Jews by the Romans never took place on a holy day. They respected the Jewish religious laws. Josephus, Ant. b. 16 c. 6, s. 51, recites an edict of the Emperor Augustus in favor of the Jews, which orders, "that no one shall be obliged to give hail or surety on the Sabbath day, nor on the preparation before it, after the ninth hour." The "ninth hour" meant three o'clock in the afternoon of Preparation Day.

We are now in a position to examine the various New Testament texts regarding the event of Jesus death.

The biggest stumbling block, and the point of such dramatic difference between the synoptic gospels and John's account, comes in the statements that --

Matt 26:17 -- Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where will you have us prepare for you to eat the passover?"

Mark 14:12 -- And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb, his disciples said to him, "Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?"

Luke 22:7-9 -- Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it." They said to him, "Where will you have us prepare it?"

These statements are accepted at face value by many Christians. But they lead to blatant contradictions.

Later in the evening, after the Last Supper, at Gethsemane, Judas returns with a crowd armed with swords and clubs, Mark 14:43. This would violate the proscriptions for carrying arms on the Passover holy day. Therefore, that evening could not have been the Passover evening.

He was arrested in the evening, went on trail before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin during the night, and on to Pilate's examination the next morning, Mark Chapter 15. Such action by the Sanhedrin would violate the Jewish holy day, and the Roman edict of respect for the Jewish holy day. Again, that evening could not have been the Passover evening.

To understand the above three statements literally would force the crucifixion of Jesus to the following day, a Passover holy day. That could not be correct.

But far more devastating to synoptic literal supposition is the statement in Mark 15:42 (see Luke 23:54) that "evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath . . .," when Joseph of Arimathea had requested the body in order to bury it before the beginning of the Passover sabbath at 6:00 PM. Therefore, Jesus could not have been arrested on the Passover evening. He was dead on the day of Preparation, before Passover came.

Clearly, the accounts are not internally consistent; they cannot be correct. Jesus and the apostles could not have eaten the Passover meal the evening of the first day of Unleavened Bread, that is, at the time of the eating of the Pashal lamb, and then go on to the crucifixion on Passover day with the body removed on the Day of Preparation.

John does not make this error. The events of the Last Supper are in Chapter 13. John states, 13:1 -- "Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come . . ." Hence John shows us that Jesus ate the Passover meal with his apostles "before the feast of the Passover," not at the Passover.

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, in their Commentary, make these remarks:

[Now before the feast of the Passover.] This raises the question whether our Lord ate the Passover with His disciples at all the night before He suffered; and if so, whether He did so on the same day with other Jews or a day earlier. To this question we adverted in the Remarks prefixed to the exposition of <Luke 22:7-13>, where we expressed it as our unhesitating conviction that He did eat it, and on the same day with others. That the First Three Evangelists expressly state this, admits of no reasonable doubt; and it is only because of certain expressions in the Fourth Gospel that some able critics think themselves bound to depart from that opinion.

Unfortunately, the need for literal perfection in the Bible leads to such contradictory logic.

In their remarks on Luke 22:7, JFB state the following:  

[Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the Passover must be killed.] The day here, alluded to-- "the first day of unleavened bread" <Matt. 26:17>-- was the 14th Nisan, when, about mid-day, labor was intermitted, and all leaven removed from the houses <Exo. 12:15-17>. Then, "between the two evenings" (<Exo. 12:6>, margin)-- or between three and six o'clock-- the paschal lamb was killed, and in the evening, when the 15th Nisan began, was eaten. And though "the days of unleavened bread" properly began with the 15th, the preparations for the festival being made on the 14th, it was popularly called, as here, the "first" day of unleavened bread-- as we learn from Josephus, whose way of speaking agrees with that here employed. The two disciples being sent from Bethany to make the necessary preparations on the Thursday, our Lord and the other disciples followed them to the city later in the day, and probably as evening drew near.

Thus we would have justification for interpreting the passages in the synoptic gospels differently, accepting that the "Feast of Unleavened Bread" did not begin on the Passover evening, but, according to popular understanding, on that day, prior to evening. Or, to stretch understanding, even to the preceding evening. Although technically incorrect, the gospels might have been expressing this popular view of the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. However, most Christian interpretations do not take this view, as indicated by Adams in his letter to Sadler, and as shown by the remarks from JFB above.. In order to go this far one must push interpretation to the extreme. Mark 14:12, "on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb," and Luke 22:7, "Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed," just make this extreme view unpalatable to common sense.

This discrepancy on dates is described also in Barnes' Notes:

Matthew 26:17-19 -- 3. In <John 19:31>, the day in which our Lord lay in the grave was called the great day of the Sabbath-- "a high day;" that is, the day after the Passover was killed, the Sabbath occurring on the first day of the feast properly, and therefore a day of special solemnity; yet our Saviour had partaken of it TWO days before, and therefore the DAY BEFORE the body of the people. If this opinion be true, then the phrase "my time is at hand means my time for keeping the Passover is near. Whether this opinion be true or not, there may be a reference also to his death. The man with whom they were to go (to find the upper room) was probably a disciple of his, though perhaps a secret one. Jesus might purpose to keep the Passover at his house, that he might inform him more particularly respecting his death, and prepare him for it. He sent, therefore, to him and said, "I will keep the passover 'at thy house. '"

Other evidence exists to show that Jesus was not crucified on the Passover Sabbath.

Matt 26:3-5 -- Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Ca'iaphas, and took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, "Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult among the people."

See also Mark 14:2.

The "feast" would have included the Day of Preparation. Their plan was to arrest him before the Day of Preparation.  

Luke 23:26 -- And as they led him away, (to the crucifixion), they seized one Simon of Cyre'ne, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus.

This Simon would have been coming into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, hence no later than the Day of Preparation.

During the Passover meal which Jesus held with his apostles, he made private remarks to Judas.

John 13:29 -- Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, "Buy what we need for the feast"; or, that he should give something to the poor.

This surmise by the other apostles would not have arisen unless the private Passover meal was celebrated the day before the regular Passover celebration.

Numerous other passages speak to the crucifixion on the Day of Preparation.  

Matt 27:62 -- Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate . . . (When they sought to secure the tomb. This would have been Passover Day.)

Mark 15:42-45 -- And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathe'a, 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.

Luke 23:52-56 -- This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud, and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning.

John 19:14 -- Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He (Pilate) said to the Jews, "Behold your King!"

John 19:31 -- Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.

John 19:42 -- So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Clearly, the literal acceptance of Matt 26:17, Mark 14:12, and Luke 22:7-9 is openly contradicted by these other statements in the synoptic gospels.

Another element of the date is found in the work of the women to prepare Jesus's body to prevent putrefaction.

Mark 16 -- And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.

Luke 23: 55f -- The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared.

"When the sabbath was past" would have been the evening of Passover Day, when another day began. Thus their secular purchase of spices would not violate the Sabbath.

However, there appears to be a contradiction in the record of events.

John 19:38-20:1 -- After this Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds' weight. They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there. Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus' body in a tomb close at hand because of the lateness of the hour. Jesus died about 3:00 PM. Time would have been required to go to the Praetorium to seek Pilate's permission, for Pilate to inquire of the Centurion if Jesus was dead, and then to give his official order. Certainly an hour or two was thus consumed. The men then had to return to the hillside to carry the body to the tomb. There simply was not enough time to prepare the body properly for burial before 6:00 PM, the accepted time of the beginning of the Passover sabbath.. Furthermore, a hundred pounds of spices is highly doubtful. Nicodemus, as the person who brought the spices, is not mentioned in the synoptic gospels, and the picture there portrayed shows the woman bringing the spices the following Sunday morning.

(The account in the Urantia Papers incorporates all of these elements, without the contradictions, both the details from John's Gospel, and from the synoptic gospels.  Whoever wrote the UP account was thoroughly familiar with all of the biblical elements, more so than most Christian theologians, and more than Sadler, who was surprised by the information from Adams.)

The record in Matthew says the tomb had been sealed by the Jews during the sabbath Passover.

Matt 27:62-66 -- Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.

In spite of the contradictions we can see that the writers of the gospel accounts took into consideration the fact of the Passover Sabbath Day as the period in which Jesus lay in the tomb, and hence that his crucifixion had to be on the Day of Preparation.

No serious student of the Bible questions the Sunday resurrection.

Matt 28:1 -- Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre.

Mark 16:2 -- And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen.

Luke 24:1 -- But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared.

John 20:1 -- Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

In Matt 12:40 Jesus said:

"For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

This statement is explicit. This remark, attributed to Jesus, says that we must account not only for three days but also for three nights. The traditional scenario does not include three nights -- only two.

If we take the strange view forced by a literal interpretation of Matt 26:17, Mark 14:12, and Luke 22:7-9 the problem of Jesus being in the tomb "three days and three nights" in exacerbated. If he was crucified on a Saturday Passover sabbath holy day, and he arose Sunday morning, he could have laid in the tomb only one night. According to this scenario the only way for him to lay in the tomb more than one night is to push the Passover Sabbath ahead to Friday, and his crucifixion on that Friday, instead of Saturday, thus creating two sabbath holy days in sequence. Then John's remark about a "high day" would mean a double sabbath, occurring on two different days.

However, the weight of the evidence places the crucifixion of Jesus on the Friday Preparation Day, and his resurrection on a Sunday. Still, many people have trouble getting "three days" out of that arrangement. They take Friday afternoon as counting one day, the Sabbath as the next, and early Sunday morning as the third, with only two intervening nights.

The Commentators don't like the remark. It doesn't fit their Friday-Sunday scenario.

Matthew Henry stated:

"He continued in the grave just as long as Jonah continued in the fish's belly, three days and three nights; not three whole days and nights . . . he was buried in the afternoon of the sixth day of the week, and rose again in the morning of the first day. It is a manner of speech . . .

Adam Clarke said:

"Our Lord rose from the grave on the day but one after his crucifixion: so that, in the computation in this verse, the part of the day on which he was crucified and the part of that on which he rose again, are severally estimated as an entire day . . .The very same quantity of time which is here termed three days and three nights, and which in reality, was only one whole day, a part of two others, and two whole nights . . . Many examples might be produced, from both the sacred and profane writers, in vindication of the propriety of the expression in the text."

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown in their commentary said:

"The period during which He was to lie in the grave is here expressed in round numbers, according to the Jewish way of speaking, which was to regard any part of a day, however small, included within a period of days, as a full day.

All commentators offer several biblical passages to support their contention that two nights, one whole day, and parts of two days make three days and three nights, but I cannot follow their reasoning.

(Most everyone agrees that by "three days and three nights" Jesus did not mean a literal 72 hours.)

Why do the commentators and most Christians make such an issue out of transforming two nights and two partial days into three nights and three days? Because they are firmly committed to the crucifixion on Friday, and the resurrection on Sunday.

In attempts to understand the gospel accounts a primary assumption is made. Virtually all interpreters assume that the "Sabbath" was a Saturday sabbath, and that the Passover sabbath fell on the same day. They base their belief on John's remark about it being a "high sabbath," meaning that both sabbaths fell on the same day. The interpreters and commentators do not give room to the possibility that the "Passover sabbath" was a day different from the Saturday sabbath, and that John's "high sabbath" might have meant two sabbath days in sequence.

I shall now examine the "sabbath" statements. They are important to our understanding of the date that Jesus died. Unfortunately, the translations do not convey important elements from the Greek texts because they ignore the plural sabbaths.

In the following discussions I use the Analytical Greek New Testament, edited by Barbara and Timothy Friberg, and published by Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1981. This work lists all the grammatical features of every word in the New Testament, based on the authoritative Greek edition, edited by Kurt Aland et al., United Bible Societies, 1975. This critical edition includes reference to all known Greek manuscripts to that date.

The New Testament contains the word "sabbath," and its inflectional variations, 68 times. Most of those are in the gospels. To repeat, every occasion of this word, singular or plural, is translated singular in the KJV, NIV, NAS, TLB, and RSV. Only in the NKJ version is the word translated in the plural on one occasion, Luke 4:31.

In many cases the plural is easy to discern because of the modifying article which precedes the word. For example, tois sabbasin, literally says "on the sabbaths," not "on the sabbath" as shown in the translations. This form occurs more than a dozen times. The form tou sabbatou occurs about ten times, is singular, and means "of the sabbath." The form to sabbaton occurs about a half-dozen times, is singular, and means "the sabbath."

Now consider the following verses.

Mt. 28: 1 states in the Greek "At the end of the sabbaths (opse de sabbaton), as it was dawning into the one of the sabbaths (mian sabbaton) . . ."

In the second phrase, the Greek word "mian (mian)" is the cardinal number "one." Here it meant the "dawning into the number one" of the sabbaths, meaning the seven weeks (sabbaths) which were to follow to Pentecost. But the translations do not tell us that. In order to preserve the singular they substitute the phase, "the first day of the week."

In the first phrase the word "opse" means late, as "late in the day," or "after the close of the day," or "at the end." But the sabbath word is plural. Therefore, the translators should have told us that "late of the sabbaths," or "at the end of the sabbaths" was the proper way to express the statement. But they could not do so for two reasons: first, they would violate their need to keep singular sabbaths, and second, the translations would alarm everyone of the possibility that there was more than one sabbath at the time of Jesus' death.

Indeed, there may have been. If Friday was not the Day of Preparation, but rather the Passover Sabbath, with the Day of Preparation and Passover eve on Thursday, then there would have been two sabbaths, following in sequence on one another, with the second the regular Saturday Sabbath. If so, Jesus would have lain in the tomb three nights, not two. And Matthew 12:40 would be correct.

Thus we can more clearly recognize the intent of the writer of Matthew. He was precisely identifying the day of the week, and its relation to the omer count to Pentecost. And he was intending to express more than one sabbath preceding that dawning. But the translations fail to give us that important information. Our modern English Bibles are "polished" to suit our current notions.

(Some persons argue that if the Passover sabbath fell on the Saturday sabbath the author might have called them plural sabbaths.)

The other gospels do not have this last phrase, although they denote the plural of the "(number) one of the (following feast of weeks) sabbaths."

As John said:

John 19:31 -- Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.

(If the legs were broken they could no longer support themselves on the foot-rest on the cross, and they would suffocate from the weight of the body hanging from their arms, and from the stress placed on their hearts.)

Now consider the astronomical evidence.

If we calculate Passover moon dates we can recognize that a strong possibility exists that the Passover took place on Friday, (from Thursday evening), not on Saturday (from Friday evening).

From Hastings: AD 30 Friday (6) 7 April
From Lingle: AD 30 Thursday 6 April

Thus the calculations by Lingle would make the beginning of Passover in that year fall on a Thursday evening. However, in his discussion he does not hold to that day because of the uncertainty in finding the first crescent moon.

If we return to John's statement we find that the Greek word is megali, or "great" day. In other words, an unusual holy day. Almost universally this is taken to mean that the Passover sabbath was the same day as the Saturday sabbath.

This view is seen among the Commentators.

According to Adam Clarke:

1. Because it was the Sabbath.
2. Because it was the day on which all the people presented themselves in the temple according to the command, <Exo. 23:17>
3. Because that was the day on which the sheaf of the first fruits was offered, according to the command, <Lev. 23:10-11>.
So that upon this day there happened to be three solemnities in one. It might be properly called a high day, because the Passover fell on that (Saturday) Sabbath.

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary stated:

For that sabbath day was an high day, (megalee) or 'a great day' as being the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the most sacred season of the whole Jewish ecclesiastical year. This made those hypocrites the more afraid lest the Sabbath hour should arrive before the bodies were removed.

Barnes' Notes says:

[Was an high day] It was:
1. The Sabbath.
2. It was the day on which the paschal feast properly commenced.
It was called a high day because that year the feast of the Passover commenced on the Sabbath. Greek: "Great day."

These remarks are strictly speculation. We simply will not be able to determine the exact date of the crucifixion from the historical evidence.

Thus the account in the Urantia Papers may be correct.