Something that always bothered me when I was younger was that Jesus supposedly died on Good Friday, spent “three days and three nights” in the tomb (Mt. 12:40), and then rose from the dead early on Sunday morning. Let me see … Jesus dies at 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. 1 Saturday, 2 Sunday, 3 Monday. Easter, or resurrection day, should happen on Monday evening after 3:00 – or better – early Tuesday morning if you do the math.
We aren’t Jewish, so we have obviously missed something. First, we are used to our days beginning and ending at midnight, but the Jews recon the day from sunset to sunset. Secondly, there is the whole matter of what a sabbath is.
There are fifty-two Saturdays in a year, but the Jewish calendar has seventy sabbaths. We still have to account for eighteen sabbaths that aren’t connected to the day of the week. Every twenty- eight days, there is a new moon (11-13 per year), which according to several passages (Neh. 10:33 for example) were feast days or special sabbaths.
That still leaves five more special sabbaths for the high holy days specified in the law. During the week of Passover there are three: Passover happens on the fourteenth of Nisan (in March or April), the Feast of Unleavened Bread happens on the fifteenth of Nisan, and the Feast of First-Fruits happens on the sixteenth of Nisan. This is why John says they wanted to take the bodies down, because sunset was the start of a Sabbath that was a high day (see Jn. 19:31).
It was not a Friday at all; otherwise it would have been an ordinary sabbath. We can rely on the gospel accounts that Jesus was seen alive early on the morning on the first day of the week (Sunday), after at least three days and three nights in the tomb because during Passover week, you have three special sabbaths in a row – independent from the normal Saturday one.
This made it impossible for the women to wait just one day and then return with the spices and perfumes. Count three full days and nights back from his appearance at dawn on Sunday … 1 Friday, 2 Thursday, 3 Wednesday. We probably ought to celebrate Good Wednesday. It is the day Jesus had to die to fulfill all the recorded facts. Thursday was a high day – the first of three in a row – so Joseph and Nicodemus had to hurry to comply with the law requiring the burial of a hanged person before sunset (Deut. 21:22).
The days are still relatively short in March. They had to get an audience with Pilate, get the linen cloths, buy the spices, go back to the cross, take the body down, wrap it, and put it somewhere underground all between “the ninth hour” (3:00 p.m.) and sunset on Wednesday.