When Did Jesus Die ? (Day)

We have looked at what the Gospels have to say about the time that Jesus died in a post below. In this one, we take the next step and look at what they say about the day of the week.

Mk 15:42 is clear that Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath (PROSABBATON). Mt 27:62 and 28:1 indicate that day after Jesus’ death was the Sabbath. Lk 23:54 says that Jesus was buried on the “preparation,” that is, the day before the Sabbath. Jn 19:31 says that precautions were taken to ensure that Jesus’ corpse did not remain on the cross on the Sabbath.

All of the Gospels, then, are unified, indicating that Jesus spent some time with his disciples on what we would call Thursday evening and was arrested later that night. He was crucified the next day, which was Friday, and died before the beginning of the Sabbath at sunset.

I have used the expression “what we would call Thursday evening” just for clarity. In fact, the Jewish day started at sunset and ran to the next sunset. So provided this meal was celebrated after nightfall, the activities from that event until his death took place on one day – the day before the Sabbath.

What are the theological implications of this timing? The fact that Jesus died on an afternoon, just before the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown, sets the stage for the urgency that characterizes his burial. I think two things are worked out here.

First, the irony developed earlier in each PN (passion narrative) now become excruciating as it spills over and splashes just about everywhere. In each case, Jesus is buried by just about the oddest people you could imagine, with all that implies about the disciples and discipleship.

Second, the burial narratives give the alert reader some major hints that the story is not over, as I alluded to in my third response on the “hour.” And more interestingly, they also give some hints about what the future will hold for the followers of Jesus – not for the old disciples in the Gospels, who are pretty much out of the picture at the moment, but for the new disciples who will shortly rise to join them.

Now, however, I have to prepare my GD lesson for tomorrow. We are reading the Matthean infancy narrative together, and I must organize my thoughts on that matter. Please, please, add your own thoughts. I look forward to reading them late tomorrow afternoon, when I come back and try to finish my own.

3 Replies to “When Did Jesus Die ? (Day)”

  1. Let’s pick up with the burial narrative in Mark, and I’ll try to get to John tomorrow if I get enough done tomorrow so that I can play.

    Although Mark’s primary interest is Jesus / God, he does not write his theology in a vacuum. Associated with each “christological moment” is some sort of a response from the various folks who inhabit the narrative – God, demons, the Jewish leadership, common people, or the disciples.

    The basic calling of a disciple in Mark is to be “with him.” This is less a matter of physical proximity than a call to be a witness of the proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of God. The “with him” of the disciples begins to break down in the aftermath of Peter’s confession as he exposes his ignorance of Jesus’ true identity and mission as the suffering Son of Man (Mk 8:31-33).

    This breakdown is finally formalized in Jesus’ prophecy that the Shepherd would be struck, and the sheep scattered (Mk 14:27). Although James and John have asserted that they can drink the cup Jesus will drink (Mk 10:35-40), and Peter is adamant that he will not leave Jesus (Mk 14:29-31), by the end of chapter 14, James and John are gone, and Peter is following “from a distance,” not quite what “with him” requires. By the time Jesus dies, even Peter is gone, leaving the women as the last disciples and even they are watching “from a distance,” again, not quite what “with him” requires.

    But this does not mean that Jesus is actually alone. Instead, the solitude in which he suffered and died is sharpened by the irony which ensues when the missing Peter, James, and John are replaced by Pilate, the centurion, and Joseph of Arimathea, for burial is the responsibility of a disciple. But while Pilate is the voice of the state, exercising its last legal prerogative, the centurion and Joseph of Arimathea, a gentile and a Jew, respectively, are a little more.

    The centurion is formally called upon by Pilate as a witness to the fact that Jesus is actually dead. His authority in this matter is absolute, because he is, in Mark’s narrative, the most trustworthy human witness. Although both God and various demons have correctly identified Jesus, the centurion is the first person to catch on and report who Jesus actually is – the Son of God, crucified, fully compliant in the role for which God destined him (Mk 15:39).

    (Public service announcement for those who are into the Gethsemane thing: Mark’s testimony is that you don’t really know who Jesus is until you recognize and respond to him as the Son of God on the cross. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.)

    Joseph of Arimathea is characterized as an “honorable counselor” and as someone who “waited for the kingdom of God” (Mk 15:43) His office as a counselor may, or may not, be identified with the Sanhedrin; it is his anticipation of the kingdom of God which is interesting, for in Mark Jesus is God’s great herald of the approach of that same kingdom. Ah, the irony, again… Can it be that in this carefully worked out plan, Joseph’s role is to bury his own righteous desires?

    Not! What we have here, ostensibly dealing with the details of a common criminal death, are really the first shadowy, indistinct, indications of the disciples who will soon appear. They will be Jews, and they will be Gentiles, powerful in their own right, or rendered powerful by their witness to the truth. The important things is this: they will recognize and respond appropriately to Jesus as the crucified Son of God – they will be “with him,” lesser heralds of his kingdom, even in his death.

  2. For a change of pace, I’m going to shift to a slightly more historical-critical approach over the narrative arguments I used above for Mark…

    In John, as in Mark, the urgency behind the account of Jesus’ burial is linked to the day of the week. Since it is “preparation,” Jesus must be buried before sunset. Not just anyone could make that happen. Wealth, power, and / or access to Pilate are the minimum requirements.

    In Mark, the burial narrative sets the scene for the resurrection narrative. It makes clear that Jesus was actually dead, that he was buried by a public figure, that his tomb was identifiable, and that the women had marked the place correctly. It also points ahead to the future of the Marcan community – the “now” for which Mark intended his text, a community composed of Jews and Gentiles who had to stand firm in their witness that, with regard to the crucified Jesus, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39)

    John’s account, however different in detail, is also concerned with the future Johannine community. In this community of the late 1st century, there were probably two kinds of disciples: those who are open in their commitment, and those who are crypto-disciples, secretly supportive, but unwilling to make the required public commitment now that the separation between Christianity and Judaism was hardening and the costs of being a Christian were mounting.

    This situation is, as we will see, written back on the narrative of the Fourth Gospel. The Beloved Disciple (whoever he was?!) is an example of the first group, while those who come to bury Jesus have, until now, been in the second group of secret followers.

    In John, two Jews work together to accomplish the burial of Jesus. First, Joseph of Arimathea appears again, and is said to be (1) a disciple of Jesus and (2) hidden because of the fear of the Jews. His companion is Nicodemus, “the one who had first come to him at night” (Jn 3:1-2) (Jn 19:39). Nicodemus is also said to have dissented from the position of the Sanhedrin with respect to the debate over Jesus (Jn 7:50-52). The point here is that both men are sympathetic to Jesus, but both are crypto-disciples.

    That situation, however, is about to change. At the death of Jesus, these two gentlemen move out of the shadows. First, Joseph will go up against the Jews, requesting the body of Jesus, and receiving it from Pilate (Jn 19:31, 38). (Did Pilate do that to irritate the Jewish leadership?)

    Then he will be joined by Nicodemus, who comes before sundown, breaking his tradition of associating with Jesus “by night” (Jn 3:1-2; 7:50-52). He brings 100 pounds of spices to render a burial appropriate to Jesus, who was glorified “with the glory he had before,” when lifted up.

    [Public service announcement for those into the Gethsemane thing: Note John’s witness that Jesus is only glorified when lifted up on his cross. We now return to our regularly scheduled program.]

    Together, they will lay Jesus in a nearby garden tomb, forming an inclusio with the arrest in another garden. This reversal on the part of Joseph and Nicodemus is the earliest fulfillment of Jesus’ own words, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all to myself” (12:31-34). John and Nicodemus are just the first two drawn from among those who had not yet publicly embraced their convictions.

    And so we see that “unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bear much fruit”(Jn 12:24).

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