The Timing of Passover

During the Feast of Unleavened Bread


During the Week of Jesus' Death

by Frank Daniels


There are two points of ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible accounts of the institution of Pesach (Passover) and its celebration that sparked debate among ancient scholars as to precisely on which day the lamb should be eaten. This in turn has created ambiguity regarding the timing of Jesus' death during the feast. This paper hopes to remove those points of ambiguity.


"On the tenth day of this month, each man must take an animal from the flock, one for each family: one animal for each household...You must take into account how much each can eat in deciding the number for the animal. It must be an animal without blemish, a male one year old; you may take it from either sheep or goats. You must keep it until the fourteenth day of the month, when the whole assembly of Israel will slaughter it between the two evenings. ... That night, the flesh is to be eaten, roasted over the fire; it must be eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. ... You must not leave any of it over until morning: whatever is left until morning you are to burn." (Ex 12:4-10)

Verse 46 adds the stipulations that "It will be eaten in one house; you will not carry any of the flesh outside the house. And you will not break a bone of it." Also, no travelers, hired servants, or uncircumcised people may eat the passover lamb. The first ambiguity occurs in the phrase "between the two evenings." Some (notably the Samaritans) interpreted this to signify "between sundown and dusk," while others (notably the Perushim) believed that the expression meant "during late afternoon" (between 3:00 and sundown). I adopt the latter explanation, which is now the majority opinion among scholars. This view indicates the following:

*Remember that each day was regarded as beginning at sundown.


"For seven days you will eat unleavened bread. On the first day, you will purge the leaven from your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person will be cut off from Israel. On the first day you will hold a holy assembly, and on the seventh day you will hold a holy assembly; no work will be done on those days (but what everyone must eat, you may prepare that alone)....In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at evening, you will eat unleavened bread, and so until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven will be found in your houses...." (Ex 12:15-18)

Here, the "evening" is the evening which begins the day. From the beginning of Nisan 14 until the beginning of Nisan 21, unleavened bread must be eaten. Also, on Nisan 14, all leaven is to be purged from every house. Thus, the first day of the Feast is the day that the Passover lamb would be slaughtered. Another point of ambiguity arises in the account in Lv 23:4-8. There it appears as though the feast does not start until the day after the lamb is slaughtered. However, this can be read and translated two ways, either to indicate that the feast continues after the slaughter (and contains the slaughter) or that it does not begin until afterward. Ex 23:15-18 provides no help, since it only indicates that the feast is to be celebrated "at the appointed time." By examining the timing of Passover during celebration, we will remove the ambiguity.


"Let the sons of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. The fourteenth day of the month, between the two evenings, is the appointed time for you to keep it....They kept it, in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, between the two evenings." (Num 9:1-4)

Here, God directs Moses to have the Israelites keep Pesach. When do they slaughter the lamb? At the exact time mentioned in Exodus 12: during late afternoon of 14 Nisan. The account indicates that the people kept the Passover at that time.

2 Chr 30:15 and 2 Chr 35:1 also indicate that the lamb was killed on the afternoon of Nisan 14, as does the later account in Ezr 6:19-22, indicating that the time for the slaughter had not changed during Ezra's day (c. 398 BCE).


"Now the day of Unleavened Bread came, during which it was necessary to sacrifice the Passover lamb. And he sent out Peter and Johannes, saying, 'Go and prepare the Passover for us, so that we may eat.'....Now they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover." (Lk 22:7-13)

This was the evening which began Nisan 14, and NOT the afternoon which ended Nisan 14. Luke indicates (22:1) that the entire feast (Nisan 14-20) was called "Passover" colloquially. Matthew uses this colloquial term every time. In a while, we will examine Jesus' timeline in more detail and will see that this is the case.

Matthew 26:17 also indicates that it was the evening which began the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread--i.e., it was the beginning of Nisan 14. Their lamb had already been slaughtered (on the afternoon of the 13th). Now, on the evening of the 14th, they were going to prepare and eat the lamb--one day earlier than normal. The accounts give no reason, but it may have been simply that Jesus wanted to eat the feast one more time before he was crucified (Lk 22:15).

John tells us further that it was not yet the day of Pesach ( 13:1, which John always uses correctly) when Jesus and his students had their meal. However, it was the day before the feast (Nisan 14, when the slaughter was to occur) as Jesus and his students ate the meal. Both John and Luke refer to this as the "Day of Preparation" -- (Jn 19:14, 31, 42; Lk 23:54). Both John and Luke indicate that the day of Jesus' crucifixion preceded a Sabbath, with John providing the further detail that this was a "great sabbath"--called such because it was also the feast day of Nisan 15.

Matthew's account does not indicate that it was the Day of Preparation during which Jesus was slain, but he does say that the next day, Sabbath/Passover, was "after the preparation" (27:62), implying that the day of Jesus' death was the same Day of Preparation mentioned by the others.

For the record, Mark also indicates that the Passover lamb was killed during the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (14:12), affirming the Exodus 12 account. It was this evening during which Jesus ate his dinner one day early. Mark further mentions that Jesus died on the Day of Preparation (15:42). Some people have deliberately tried to introduce a contradiction by claiming that John uses "Day of Preparation" differently than the other three. However, John clearly indicates that it was the day before the Sabbath, as do each of the others. John mentions that the Sabbath was also Passover. We also have the testimony of the Leadership that they wanted to kill him before the feast, because they feared a riot (Mk 14:1; Mt 26:5). Thus, in Matthew and Mark (and by parallel, in Luke), it is also the day before Nisan 15 when Jesus dies: Jesus dies on the afternoon of Nisan 14.


Some have suggested that the trial of Jesus must have lasted more than one day. However, all four accounts indicate that it was the same day (Nisan 14) when Jesus ate his meal as when they took him down from the cross: the Day of Preparation of the Passover, the day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered (compare, for example, Lk 22:7 and 22:54). John provides the further detail that Jesus was crucified at the time when the Passover lambs were slain by citing Ex 12:46 at John 19:36: "For these things happened so that the writing might be fulfilled: 'No bone of his will be broken.'" Paul further refers to Jesus as "our Passover lamb."

The trial of Jesus lasted less than one day, from some time in the middle of the night of Nisan 14 until he was placed on the cross around noon of Nisan 14.


Because of an error in transmission, the text of Mark currently indicates that Jesus was crucified at about the third hour (15:25). While this could be a contradiction, it is probable that the Greek letter digamma, which had fallen into disuse and was about to be discontinued altogether, was mistaken for the common letter gamma. Thus, an early scribe mistook F for G and copied "third" instead of "sixth" at that location. The other accounts all indicate Jesus taking the cross at around noon (the sixth hour). All four accounts clearly agree at his death at around the ninth hour, the time when the Passover lambs would be slain. John indicates (with agreement from the others) that the bodies were taken down before the Sabbath because it was also Passover.


As we have shown, all four accounts agree that it was the afternoon before the Sabbath (i.e., Friday afternoon) when Jesus was crucified. All four accounts also agree that it was around dawn on the first day of the week (Sunday morning) when the empty tomb was discovered (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1-2; Lk 24:1; Jn 20:1). Even so, because of the wording of Mt 12:40, some people have claimed that Jesus must have remained in the tomb an extra day. All four accounts contradict this.

The passage in question reads
"An evil and adulterous generation hunts for a sign, and a sign will not be given to it except for the sign of Yonah the prophet. For just as "Yonah was in the abdomen of the great fish for three days and three nights," in the same way the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights."

The passage continues, relating to the reader that the Nineveh of Yonah's day would stand up in judgment against the Jews of Jesus' day.

Here, Jesus' point is not the exact time that he would spend underground. Instead, his point is that Jesus himself would provide no more signs for those people who were rejecting what he'd already shown them. Well, there'd be one more sign: the resurrection.

This is the one occurrence that uses the phrase "three days and three nights" to relate to the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Jesus spoke often enough about his resurrection that several conversations have been preserved for us. In Matthew, when Jesus wants to speak precisely about the timing of his resurrection, he says "during the third day." Consider the following:

The Jews misquote Jesus in Mt 27, but that this saying is to be understood as meaning the same thing as "during the third day" is evidenced by the fact that the tomb is to be guarded until the third day.
The account in Luke 9, parallel to Mt 16, has, "It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected by the older people and high priests and scribes, and to be killed, and to be raised up during the third day." At 18:31f., Luke records Jesus telling the Twelve, "Look, we are going up into Jerusalem, and all of the things that were written through the prophets will be completed by the Son of Man. For he will be delivered up to the gentiles, and he will be mocked, and he will be reproached, and he will be spit on, and after whipping him they will kill him, and he will resurrect during the third day." This appears to be Luke's confirmation of Mt 20:17-19.

But Luke contains information not paralled by Matthew:

Luke clearly confirms after the fact that not only was Jesus to resurrect during the third day but also it was the third day passing since he had been crucified. The men on the road to Emmaus were unaware that he had resurrected, but the third day (not the fourth or fifth) since the crucifixion was happening. Matthew's "after three days" (also Mark) and "three days and three nights" are to be understood in light of what happened. When Matthew shows us Jesus predicting the timing of the resurrection, Jesus always refers to it as "during the third day." Then, Jesus resurrects during the third day; this should be no surprise. Luke affirms this timing and provides us with an independent account of the resurrection on Sunday morning, the "third day" after the crucifixion.

How are the days reckoned?

Most Christians now know that the Jews began their days with sundown. It is also well known that portions of a day were counted as a day for the purpose of reckoning time. Jesus spent part of one day, all of the next, and part of the next in the tomb. These are regarded as the first, second, and third days. The daytime period of the final day was on Sunday, the "first day of the week," making his crucifixion coincide with the traditional time of Friday afternoon.


Sunday, 9 NisanJesus arrives in BethanyJn 12:1
Monday, 10 NisanJesus enters JerusalemJn 12:12f; Lk 19:37f.; Mk 11:7f.; Mt 21:8f. This was the day when the Passover lamb
was to be brought into the household. (Ex 12:4)
10 - 13 NisanJesus summarizes his teachingsMt 21-25 and parallels
Thursday, 13 Nisan, daytimeconspiracy to kill Jesus before the 15thMt 26:1-5; Mk 14:1-2
Thursday, 13 Nisan, laterJudah is bought offLk 22:1-6
Thursday, 14 Nisan, eveningJesus and his students
celebrate Pesach early
Jn 13-14; Lk 22:7-38; Mt 26:17-29; Mk 14:12-25
Thursday, 14 Nisan, laterJesus at the Mount of Olive TreesMk 14:26-31; Jn 15-17; Mt 26:30-5; Lk 22:39
Thursday, 14 Nisan, near midnightJesus arrested at GethsemaneJn 18:1-12; Lk 22:40-53; Mt 26:26-5; Mk 14:32-52
Friday, 14 Nisan, after midnightJesus before AnnasJn 18:13-24
Friday, 14 Nisan, a few hours laterJesus before Kaiaphas and the old peopleJn 18:25-27; Lk 22:54-71; Mt 26:57-75; Mk 14:53-72
Friday, 14 Nisan, around dawnJesus taken to PilatusMk 15:1-20; Lk 23:1-25; Mt 27:1-31; Jn 18:28-19:16 trial ends around noon (Jn 19:14 and parallels)
Friday, 14 Nisan, c.noon-c. 3PMJesus on the cross, darknessJn 19:17-30; Mt 27:32-50; Mk 15:21-39; Lk 23:26-49Jesus dies when the
lamb would be slaughtered
Friday, 14 Nisan, late afternoonYosef has Jesus' body buriedLk 23:50-56 and parallels; Jn 19:31-42
Saturday, 15 Nisan, morningThe tomb ordered guardedMt 27:62-66
Saturday, 16 Nisan, night
orSunday, 16 Nisan, night
Jesus resurrectsNo accounts tell exactly
when this happened.
Sunday, 16 Nisan, around dawnEmpty tomb discoveredJn 20:1f.; Mk 16:1-8; Mt 28:1f.; Lk 24:1f"during the third day" (Lk 24:7)
Sunday, 16 Nisan, laterJesus sightedJn 20:11f. and parallels

As you can see, there is no point of contention as to the timing of the crucifixion and resurrection during the Passover week, or during our seven day week. Although some details are omitted in some accounts by those who were not present when they happened, all four accounts provide the same time line.

Certain Objections Answered

Since the original publication of this treatise in 1998, an article has been written which questions certain points made here. To read that article in its entirety, select this link. This author finds it amusing that among all of his material which might be termed "controversial", it is this article -- in which he adopts the traditional view -- which has been singled out for comment.

In the paragraphs below, we shall answer the objections raised by the article mentioned above.

Eating unleavened bread had to begin on 14 Nisan at evening and continue until 21 Nisan at evening. Daniels says here the evening is the evening which begins the day, whereas Jewish interpretation is that it is the evening which begins the following day.

It is well known that the Jewish understanding of the passage has changed, due to the point of ambiguity mentioned in this article. The day begins at evening, and the evening of 14 Nisan begins that day, as do all evenings in OT Jewish reckoning.

In the account in Leviticus 23:6, the Unleavened Bread does not start until the day after the lamb is slaughtered, but Daniels says this can be read the traditional way, that it does not begin until after the slaughter of the lamb, or that the feast includes the slaughter. The traditional Jewish interpretation is practical since it allows leaven to be cleared from the house first (on 14 Nisan) before the festival begins on 15 Nisan.

Actually, the opposite is true. It is practical to purge the house of leaven before the first day of the feast -- before the lamb is slaughtered. If the lamb were to become contaminated with leaven, it would be unusable on the following day. Therefore leaven should not be found near the lamb during the time of its slaughter. The ceremonial "search for leaven" is something that was added by later Jews and is not part of any Biblical directive, nor is it part of the actual cleansing of the home, since that had been done earlier.

The author himself confirms this timing when he writes:
Mark also indicates that the Passover lamb was killed during the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (14:12). Certainly these passages confirm, Daniels' idea that 14 Nisan was the first day of Unleavened Bread..... Also see below.

Luke 22:7-13 states that there came "the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed, and Jesus sent out Peter and John to prepare the Passover meal". Daniels claims this is the evening which began 14 Nisan, not the afternoon which ended 14 Nisan, though he gives no reason except a conjecture that Jesus wanted to eat the Passover early because he knew he would be crucified!

  1. Luke's account clearly establishes that the first day of the feast, during his day, was the day on which the lambs were slaughtered.
  2. The account says that it was the evening of this day. The lambs were slaughtered on the afternoon following that evening. The author of the article is deliberately attempting to introduce a contradiction between Luke and John which does not exist, for Luke follows John's chronology (meticulously in places). We will see more of that author's anti- Johannine sentiment shortly.
    Also, the dinner would normally be prepared between sundown and dusk. Since Jesus' students were preparing the meal, it was between sundown and dusk -- and Luke indicates that it was the preparation day for the passover. Of course, Luke also says this after the crucifixion (23:54) the following afternoon, in agreement with John who posits that Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon, on the day of preparation for the Passover.

After a complete rundown of the four accounts, illustrating that they do indeed point to the same chronology of the events, the author reverses course, asserting:
Forever after, this became the tradition but it was not uniform because some tales were already circulating which were closer to the truth. John plainly makes Jesus a pascal lamb. Despite the efforts of Daniels, the others seem to have a different chronology. For this reason Daniels tells us to prefer John's gospel though it is likely to be the least accurate.

Again, we see the author's anti-Johannine bias. Here is an assertion with nothing to back it up. Although author Magee (?) indicates that the accounts do appear to harmonize, that the tradition of the fathers fully backs up said chronology, and that both John and Paul point to Jesus as paschal lamb, still he claims "the others seem to have a different chronology," driving a wedge between "the others" and John.

John's gospel is to be preferred for several reasons:

Regarding the timing of the crucifixion, neither Matthew nor Luke place Jesus on the cross prior to noon ("the sixth hour"). Quite the contrary, there is an implication that Jesus had not been on the cross very long before noon, when it went dark. We see for example, that Luke places Jesus on the cross (23:33), describes his surroundings (23:34-38), records a brief interchange with those who were crucified with him (23:32, 39-43), and then explicitly mentions the darkness occurring. His account is backed up by that of Matthew, who places Jesus on the cross (27:35), describes his surroundings (27:36-44), then mentions the time and darkness (27:45). This fully connects with what John wrote (19:14) -- that it was almost noon when Jesus was sent to the cross. It is Mark who appears to provide the different time of the third hour.

Notice that Magee deals with the apparent contradiction between Mark and John by dismissing John as simply wrong. Given Mark's secondary character (written anonymously, attributed to someone who never met Jesus, and only by tradition connected in any way with someone who met him but was not present at the crucifixion) and the arguments mentioned above in favor of John's timing, if indeed the two simply contradict, we should accept the other three against Mark's timing. However, the simple and plausable explanation that a digamma was misread by later scribes of Mark as a gamma resolves any apparent conflict between the two authors. If the two authors were in conflict, one should ask what caused this conflict. If that cause is hearsay, one should reject Mark's secondary account in favor of John's, but if that cause were scribal error, then the two accounts agree on the timing.

Next, Magee introduces the possibility that Jesus spent several days on the cross:
Daniels assures us that all four gospels agree Jesus was hung on the afternoon before the Sabbath—Friday afternoon. In fact, they agree that he died on the Friday afternoon. If the timings were romanticised for the benefit of Romans, he could have been hanging on the cross for days.

Although all four accounts clearly depict Jesus as dying within a few hours of being placed on the cross, Magee rejects them all in favor of a theory unsupported by any early tradition and repudiated by the accounts themselves. Rather than dealing with Mt 12:40 (the Jonah quote), Magee dismisses it as well, claiming without support that those words "were added in the second century."

Regarding Luke's confirmation of the timing of the resurrection after the crucifixion, Magee affirms that Luke gives corroboration of Matthew's and John's testimony that Jesus was crucified and died on Friday afternoon and rose during the predawn hours of the first day of the week. Then he adds a curious comment that Luke was "trying to suppress" the idea that a "general resurrection" (i.e., of all the faithful) was supposed to happen! Of course, neither Luke nor the others express anything of the sort, and it is clear from the beginning of Acts that Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus were expecting the restoration of the kingdom promised by Joel -- something that would shortly happen (Acts 2).

Magee brings up one interesting point, however:
What Daniels does not examine is how the band of Jesus and his companions counted days. It is all very well saying Jews counted days from sunset to sunset, but not all of them did. It seems that the first Christians did not. Yet if their religion were originally Jewish, why should this be? In Palestine at the time there are reasons for thinking the Essenes counted days from sunrise. If Jesus and his companions were Essenes, is that why the first Christians did the same?

Magee's objections appear to be directed at the fact that the four accounts do harmonize -- something that I consider incidental. Apparently there is a doctrine lurking here that Magee wishes to support with his different chronology. I would not call this a "Christian" doctrine, since his site purports to be "ex-Christian", but Magee seems to distort Christianity into a strange cultic fringe associated with the Qumran group's unusual ideas. In another article on his website, he writes:
"All scholars, Christians and critics, accept that the gospels were not written as history but to persuade their readers to believe the claims of the church. They are admitting the gospels are not necessarily true. Put bluntly, they contain lies, but they are lies intended to convince people Jesus was the divine saviour, so Christians believe they are acceptable lies. Let the question of the historicity of the gospels be asked and Christians admit to pious lying." He depicts Christianity in as unflattering a light as possible, putting forth vague and unsupported assertions as though they were universally recognized by scholars. He even says things like, "No scholar will deny that the books of the New Testament have been repeatedly edited," something that the vast majority of NT scholars do deny (or even refute) -- as he uses the term "edited." In analysis, I find Magee's "ex-Christian" writings on this topic to be similar to those of fringe Christian groups in the respect that he wishes to change the chronology in order to suit his pre-existing opinion (in his case, that Christianity itself is suspect).

The following conclusion is part of my original article:

It doesn't. Some people appear to enjoy casting arbitrary doubt over the matters in question. The passages taken together cite several different expressions, all meaning the same thing. The accounts agree as to the timing. John is the most time-conscious of the four; it is important throughout his work. His account should be allowed to set the stage for Luke, Matthew, and then Mark. As to the Passover week, there is still some doubt as to when each task is to be accomplished during the week, but the first account (Ex 12) indicates that leaven is to be purged during the first day of the feast. Tradition holds that this must be done during the afternoon, after which follows the evening during which the lamb is prepared and eaten.

© 1998, 1999 Frank Daniels