The Chronology of Holy Week

Photo by KOREphotos via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Have you ever tried to teach Holy week? It can be confusing to nail down the chronology. Looking at the narrative and laying it out against what we celebrate reveals that we might not be counting the days exactly the way the four Gospel writers counted days.

  • Palm Sunday – Jesus enters Jerusalem (Luke 19 – check)
  • Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – Jesus teaches at the Temple. (Luke 19:45-Luke 22:6 – check)
  • Maunday Thursday – Last Supper, praying in the garden, arrested, late night trials. (Luke 22:7-65 – check)
  • Friday – Further trials and Crucifixion (Luke 22:66-Luke 23)
  • Friday sundown – Saturday sundown – Nothing happened because it was Sabbath (check)
  • Sunday morning – Resurrection (Luke 24 – check)

So what’s the problem? That all makes sense in the narrative once you work it out.

The problem is that our written and oral tradition says that Jesus rose on the “third day.”

The way we say (sing, read, write songs, print Easter cards) “three days later” would be Saturday, Sunday… Monday. That would imply that three days after Jesus died would be Monday, not Sunday morning.

It’s confusing. So confusing that you find this story in today’s USA Today.

As Christians worldwide prepare to celebrate Easter, they will follow a familiar chronology: Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead on “the third day,” in the words of the ancient Nicene Creed.

But if Jesus died at 3 p.m. Friday and vacated his tomb by dawn Sunday morning — about 40 hours later — how does that make three days? And do Hebrew Scriptures prophesy that timetable?

Even Pope Benedict XVI wrestles with the latter question in his new book, Jesus: Holy Week, about Christ’s last days. “There is no direct scriptural testimony pointing to the ‘third day,’” the pope concludes. read the rest

The article goes on to propose how 40 hours can be called three days.

Literalist – It’s 3 days because they counted Friday as Jesus died before sunset.

Figurative – In those days “three days later” was a phrase of inexact length. Kind of like “See you in a few days.

Either one of those are fine with me. They both make sense.

But here’s my last difficulty with calling it Holy Week. If Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday… it’s really eight days so it should be called “Holy Weeks.”

No matter how you look at it, if Palm Sunday is included that’s two weeks!


If you want to blow your mind today– check out the Wikipedia page on weeks. 5 day weeks, 10 day weeks… 3 day weeks! There’s a lot of ways to divide 365 days.





10 responses to “The Chronology of Holy Week”

  1. William Brinker Avatar
    William Brinker
    Matthew 12:40
    What about the three nights???????????

  2. adam mclane Avatar

    That seems more specific, so maybe it was 3 days and 3 nights literally. I’m intrigued by this,too. It’d be a fun study to know which ones are literally 3 days and which ones are figuratively “three days.”

    Kind of like the phrase, “weekend.” Some people include Friday night and others don’t.

  3. Matt Cleaver Avatar

    Friday was the first day, Saturday the second day, Sunday the third day.

  4. adam mclane Avatar

    Or so you think…

  5. A Drive-by Toga Avatar
    A Drive-by Toga

    Hmmm…what is more troubling is the Synoptics have Jesus killed on Passover (Passover being on Friday), with the Thursday evening meal (commonly referred to as “Last Supper”) being Seder. However, John has Jesus killed on the day BEFORE Passover, being the Preparation Day. Still on Friday, John just puts Passover on Friday rather than Thursday. See John 18:28, 19:14, 31 & 42.

    Understand the priests killed the lambs for the Seder on the day before Passover (remember, under the Jewish calendar, “day” starts as sundown) so the chronology would be:

    1) Kill lambs during daylight.
    2) Sundown.
    3) Seder. Passover begins

    All done on what we would call Thursday (with Seder and Passover starting on Thursday, sundown.)

    The common explanation is that John, for theological purposes, wanted Jesus killed at the same times the lambs were killed for Passover (who is the only canonical Gospel author to call Jesus the “Lamb of God”? Can you guess?) so he moves the crucifixion date to the Day of Preparation—the day before Passover—instead of the day of Passover like the Synoptic Gospels.

    I wonder how many people realize if we took the Gospels as inerrant, the harried and frantic pace of all the events that must fit in between Thursday evening (say 7 pm.) and Friday Morning at 9 a.m. The Last Supper, Trip to Gethsemane, Jesus prays, Capture by Judas (with a small skirmish), trial before Sanhedrin, trip to Pilate, trip to Herod, back to Pilate, release of Barabbas, coupla beatings, Pilate’s washing of hands, trip to Golgotha and then Jesus on the cross.

  6. adam mclane Avatar

    Well, I do take the Gospels as inerrant.

    I just weigh that against a few realities. a. The authors purposes/abilities were different than to document things for modern, scientifically-fascinated minds to try to systematize later. The Bible does stand up amazingly well to the scrutiny of modernism, all things considered. This is an ancient text… so it’s always important to start with that, John’s purpose and time of writing was different than Matthew’s. And Matthew and Mark were probably the baseline started for Luke, whose job it was to try to put all of the event in order for his narrative. (As it says in Luke 1, he tried to put it all in order, and went and talked to as many eye witnesses as he could find.)

    The whole chronology of the week is really interesting because you have 3 layers.
    1. The Gospel narratives are a bit fuzzy when you lay all of the timelines against one another, IMO. (For this post I just looked at Luke!) As the USA Today article referenced, part of the problem is that it was an event-based culture, so the exact dates and stuff weren’t as important to them as it is to us. No one had a sundial Seiko writing down all the day/times.
    2. We have 1000+ years of church history which calls one Sunday Palm Sunday and the next Easter Sunday. Most of us grew up with that, plus Maunday Thursday and Good Friday. So we have an expectation in us that is looking for a “Holy Week” when that term isn’t used in the Gospels. As Matt pointed out (and a few on twitter) Friday today might have been Wednesday back in the day.
    3. Our culture loves time stamps. We are ultra time-oriented culturally. If we say church starts at 8:30, the organ better be playing at 8:30 or I’ve wasted my time getting here “on time” and the organist is a twit. It makes us a little batty when we look at the chronology of things and it doesn’t line up into our firm grid.

    That’s why teaching the chronology is a bit crazy. I’ve done it a few times and I’m always hoping no one asks any questions that start with, “how come in Matthew…” 🙂

  7. A Drive-by Toga Avatar
    A Drive-by Toga

    Oh, I quite agree the New Testament writers had no intention of writing “histories” as we perceive them in the 21st Century. They wrote as persons of their times. Which meant they felt free to add, subtract or modify events as required by the intended recipients.

    Including John’s moving the day of Passover to fit his doctrinal theme surrounding “Lamb of God.” Or Matthew adding soldiers to present an apologetic for the Empty Tomb. Or Luke adding the second trial with Herod to include Jewish government. Or Mark having the tomb found by women to support his themes of expectation reversal.

    This only becomes a problem when someone desires to align these accounts under the doctrine of inerrancy. Or worries about framing a realistic chronology when none was ever intended. *wink*

  8. James Martin Avatar
    James Martin

    Don’t forget that Passover is celebrated as a high sabbath along with the Sabbath (7th day). So Thursday could have been Preparation Day for a Friday Passover and Saturday Sabbath.
    Passover is based on Lunar Month time, Sabbath’s on multiples of seven.
    Confusing, huh?

  9. Becky Avatar

    Every year, this drives me crazy. Yes, I know there’s a billion explanations. No, I don’t let it trip me up. But still.

    Every year I just conclude: whatever. It happened. I wasn’t there. Happy Easter.

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