A Working Chronology of the Savior’s Final Days

by Eric D. Huntsman

For most traditional Christians, the basic chronology of Jesus’ last week is fairly clear: he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; taught and prophesied for two or more days; held the Last Supper and was arrested on Thursday evening; died on Good Friday; and rose from the dead the morning of Easter Sunday.  To make a devotional study of the Savior’s Final Week simpler, in past years and in my 2009 Ensign article,[1] I avoided detailed chronological discussions.  Here, however, I have drawn upon some of the conclusions that I drew in God So Loved the World (pp. 129-133) to propose a basic, working chronology that can be used for devotional purposes.

The only securely established day is the day of the Resurrection, which is explicitly identified as “the first day of the week” in all four gospels (Mark 16:2; parallels Matt 28:1 and Luke 24:1; John 20:1).  The gospel of Mark, widely assumed to be the earliest of the written Gospel accounts, provides relative time markers, which, calculating back from the resurrection on the first day of the week, place Jesus’ triumphal entry on the previous Sunday.[2]

Sunday:          “And when they came nigh unto Jerusalem” (11:1)

Monday:         “And on the morrow, when they were come back from Bethany” (11:12)

Tuesday:        “And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree” (11:20)

Wednesday:  “After two days was the feast of the Passover” (14:1)

Thursday:      “And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the Passover” (14:12)

Friday:            “And straightway in the morning” (15:1)

Saturday         the “Sabbath’” (15:42; 16:1; more below)

Sunday:          “and very early in the morning the first day of the week” (16:2)

In reality, establishing a secure chronology is a little more complex.  Other day markers beyond resurrection on Sunday morning, such as Passover and the Sabbath, are not as clear as they might at first appear.  Although the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke make the Last Supper a Passover meal, traditionally placed on Thursday, John suggests that Passover began the evening after Jesus was crucified.  Likewise, Mark’s references to the Passover are sometimes obscure.  Should the “two days before the Passover” (14:1) be counted inclusively or exclusively?  The day that the Passover lamb was killed (14:12) was in fact the afternoon before the Passover, which was also the first day of the feast of unleavened bread.

Also, while it is true that Luke 23:53 says that “the Sabbath drew on” at sunset after Jesus was buried, John and Mark present potentially conflicting data.  John 19:31 refers to the Sabbath as a high day, connecting it with the “preparation day” of the Passover (see also 19:42), suggesting that perhaps it was a festal sabbath and not necessarily the weekly Sabbath (contrary to the explanatory LDS KJV note for 19:31c, it is just as likely that the “high day” was the Passover and not the day after the Passover meal).  Mark 15:42 also speaks of a preparation day in connection with Jesus’ death, which was “the day before the Sabbath.”  The Greek here is unclear on whether the day before the Sabbath was the day on which Jesus had just died or whether it was the day which, in accordance with Jewish tradition, had just begun with sunset.  Finally, and perhaps significantly, Matthew 28:1, which reads “In the end of the sabbath” in the KJV, actually has “sabbaths” (sabbatōn, genitive plural form) in Greek.  While some argue that the weekly Sabbath could be referred to in the plural, the form leaves open the possibility that there had been both a festal and a weekly Sabbath that week.

This ambiguity has led some to propose that Jesus actually died on a Thursday, sundown Thursday to sundown Friday being a festal Sabbath, the first day of Passover, and sundown Friday to sundown Saturday being the weekly Sabbath.  This proposal is attractive to some, particularly to a few in evangelical circles, because it preserves more completely Jesus’ prophecy of being in the tomb for three days and three nights (Matt 12:40) better than the standard explanation that Jesus’ body was in the tomb for only parts of three different days.  While this chronology may also be attractive to some Latter-day Saints because of its apparent correlation with the Book of Mormon’s account of three days of darkness (Helaman 14:20, 27 and 3 Nephi 8:19–23), early Christian tradition nevertheless placed Jesus’ death on Friday from a very early time.

These rather complex chronological discussions are matters of detailed study or a scholarly investigation, not of a devotional (and hopefully inspirational), approach to the Easter season.  I mention them only because the symbolic potential of the events of the last week is sometimes greater if one is not too rigidly attached to a specific chronology.  However, in order to foster greater solidarity with other Christians who are observing Holy Week, and for purely practical reasons of convenience, my approach to the week before Easter follows a more-or-less traditional sequence of events.

Two final notes.  First, most treatments of the anointing of Jesus assume that the versions portrayed in John 12:1–8 on the one hand and in Mark 14:2–9 (par Matt. 26:6–13) on the other represent the same event.  I feel, however, that the details are different enough that they warrant separate treatment.  Even if historically there was only one anointing, the fact that John places it before the Triumphal Entry, and Mark and Matthew place it after the Olivet Discourse,[3] suggests that the Evangelists were using its symbolism to stress different theological and symbolic points (see The Symbolism of Jesus as Anointed King and Priest in God So Loved the World, 133-135).

Second, many Latter-day Saint harmonies of the final week list “No Events Recorded” for Wednesday,[4] but the sequence in Mark strongly suggests that the plot to kill Jesus, the unnamed woman’s anointing of Jesus, and Judas’ decision to betray Jesus happened on this day.  This is also in accordance with Christian tradition, which has since the Medieval period referred to Wednesday as “Spy Wednesday” because of Judas’ actions.

[1] Eric D. Huntsman, “Reflections on the Savior’s Last Week,” Ensign, Apr 2009, 52–60.

[2] See Marcus Borg and john Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus’ Final Week in Jerusalem (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), ix–xi.

[3] Compare this with the traditional harmonization of the Cleansing of the Temple, which John places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and all three Synoptic Gospels place at the end.  Even if one assumes that there was only one cleansing, most recognize that John and the Synoptics provide different emphases about the nature of Jesus’ public career and the timing and nature of the opposition that it inspired.

[4] See President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. Our Lord of the Gospels: A Harmony of the Gospels (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), which was, in turn, based upon late nineteenth century Protestant commentaries.

This post is excerpted from Dr. Huntsman’s blog, http://huntsmanseasonal.blogspot.com/p/preparing-for-easter.html.