To read more from Jeff, visit his blog: Mormanity.
An archaeologist and professor at BYU, Dr. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, published an article that provides a great example of how the Book of Mormon can help us better understand the Bible: “Dating the Death of Jesus Christ,” BYU Studies 54, no. 4 (2015): 135-91 (PDF also at BookofMormonCentral.org). In this case, he takes up the debate on which day Christ was crucified. The standard answer we’ve grown up with, one that is also favored by many scholars, is that Christ was crucified on Friday. But there are also a fair number of scholars who argue for Thursday, and even some who think it was Wednesday. The New Testament record does not make it crystal clear and leaves plenty of room for debate. A key challenge is that the record does not make year of either Christ’s crucifixion nor His birth absolutely clear. The year of the Crucifixion is important because that affects the day of the week for the Passover, a key element in the chronology of events around the death and resurrection of Christ. Several years before taking up the debate on the day of Crucifixion, Chadwick had published a highly acclaimed article on the birth of Christ providing clear evidence for a 5 B.C. date. See “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” BYU Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 5–38.
Building on the 5 B.C. most likely date of Christ’s birth, Chadwick shows that a Crucifixion date of 30 A.D. is the most plausible choice, which is also the most common preference of scholars, with 33 A.D. being the second most popular choice. Part of the reason for this is information from the Book of Mormon indicating that Christ lived 33 full years. The Book of Mormon account helps rule out 33 A.D.:
Knowing from the Book of Mormon that Jesus lived thirty-three full years, but not thirty-four years or longer,48 rules out AD 33 as a possible year for Jesus’s death and indeed rules out any year later than AD 30. This is a matter of simple addition. Here is why. It is a historical fact that the death of Herod the Great occurred in April of 4 BC but the birth of Jesus occurred prior to Herod’s death (see Matt. 2:1–20). And as demonstrated in the earlier study, Jesus’s birth cannot have occurred later than eight weeks prior to Herod’s death, meaning that the latest date Jesus can have been born was very early February of 4 BC (although I suggest it was even several weeks earlier, in December of 5 BC).49 Calculating forward to a Passover that fell thirty-three full years after the absolute latest birth date possibility of early 4 BC yields a result of AD 30 as the latest possible year that Jesus can have died. (In counting this, remember that there was no “year zero”—there was only one year from 1 BC to AD 1). Thus, AD 31, AD 32, and AD 33 are all ruled out as years when Jesus can have died. They were too late to accommodate the life span reported in the Book of Mormon. Of the two candidates to which Raymond Brown [a famous biblical scholar who had explored the issue in detail and concluded the Crucifixion had to be in either 30 or 33 A.D.] had narrowed his preferences, the New Testament and the Book of Mormon combine to demonstrate that only AD 30 is a possibility for Jesus’s death.
Then he examines how the details given in the New Testament regarding the day of the week for the Crucifixion. This is quite challenging, for many scholars believe the New Testament provides contradictory accounts, pointing to either the 14th or 15th of the month Nisan for the Crucifixion.
Chadwick digs into these details and departs from the traditional view of a Friday Crucifixion:
A small number of New Testament scholars have suggested that the crucifixion took place on a Thursday (Brown refers to them as “a few dissenters”),95 but the overwhelming majority of New Testament commentators are strongly committed to the model of Byzantine origin—the traditional Good Friday—as the day of crucifixion, perhaps more so than to any other aspect of the accounts of Jesus’s passion. Two issues, embedded within the texts of the four Gospels, are key to identifying the weekday of Jesus’s death: (1) statements about the length of time from the execution to the resurrection, and (2) statements about the crucifixion having occurred on a preparation day prior to a Sabbath. We will examine these in order.
There are twelve passages in the four Gospels that refer to the length of time between Jesus’s death and resurrection. These are displayed in figure 9. Eleven of these statements are predictions made by Jesus well prior to his execution. Only one, the statement made by Cleopas96 in Luke 24, is a direct report of the time that actually passed between the crucifixion and the Sunday of Jesus’s rising. This statement is the single most important piece of evidence in identifying the day on which Jesus died, since it was originally expressed only after, and directly after, both the crucifixion and the resurrection had occurred. Speaking on Sunday afternoon and having explained how Jesus was executed, Cleopas reported that “today is the third day since these things were done” (Luke 24:21). The King James Version translation of this passage very accurately represents the tense and timing of the Greek original. And the timing is clear: Sunday being the third day since the crucifixion, Saturday would have been the second day since the crucifixion, and Friday would have been the first day since the crucifixion, meaning that Cleopas was referring to the execution as having occurred on Thursday.
An important part of the argument is that the Last Supper would have been on a Tuesday night, the Passover dinner for the Essene community, who always had the Passover on a Wednesday, independent of the phase of the moon. This provides plenty of time on Wednesday for the events between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, solving many of the problems of the traditional Friday model.
Chadwick notes that the Book of Mormon provides additional evidence confirming the Thursday date:
In addition to the evidence already examined from the Book of Mormon about the length of Jesus’s life and the year of his death, some very specific details are presented in the book of 3 Nephi that relate to the actual day of the week on which he died. The terrible storm described in 3 Nephi 8 is universally understood to have occurred during a three-hour period when Jesus was hanging on the cross outside the wall of Jerusalem, with the end of the storm coinciding with the time of his death. Centuries earlier, Nephi had specifically prophesied that three days of darkness would be “a sign [that should be] given of his death” (1 Ne. 19:10). Samuel the Lamanite foretold three important timing factors concerning Jesus’s death. The first was that a storm (“thunderings and lightnings”) would occur “at the time that he shall yield up the ghost” (Hel. 14:21). The second was that three days of darkness would be a sign of Jesus’s death and, specifically, that the onset of darkness would occur on the day Jesus would die: “In that day that he shall suffer death the sun shall darkened” (Hel. 14:20). The third factor was that the darkness would end at Jesus’s resurrection, lasting “for the space of three days, to the time that he shall rise again from the dead” (Hel. 14:20). The actual occurrence of the storm is reported in 3 Nephi 8:5–19, with the three-hour duration of that storm specified in verse 19. That same verse notes the commencement of the darkness, which is then described as having lasted for three days (3 Ne. 8:23; 10:9). That Jesus had died at the time of the storm seems confirmed by the account of his voice being heard from the heavens, during the period of darkness, by Nephite survivors (3 Ne. 9:1–10:9, esp. 9:15 and 10:3–9).
An eight-hour time difference exists between Jerusalem and the central time zone of the Americas. This means, for example, that an event that occurs in Jerusalem at 3:00 pm is timed as occurring at 7:00 am that same day in the American central time zone. The New Testament Gospels place Jesus’s death around the “ninth hour” (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:34, Luke 23:44), which would be roughly around 3:00 pm in Jerusalem. This means that his death occurred around 7:00 am in what today is known as the American central time zone (which covers the entirety of Mesoamerica, the likely venue of the Book of Mormon narrative, as well as the largest part of Mexico and the central United States). The onset of the Book of Mormon’s three days of darkness may therefore be estimated around 7:00 am on the first day of that darkness, the day of the crucifixion, with the three-hour storm having commenced around 4:00 am, two hours prior to sunrise (which occurs close to 6:00 am around the beginning of April).
Two facts become obvious from the above information. The first is that three days of darkness cannot be reconciled with a Friday crucifixion model—darkness in America would have occurred only on Friday and on Saturday prior to Jesus’s resurrection, which would have occurred prior to midnight on Saturday night, American central time.111 No darkness could have still been present in America during the day on Sunday (see fig. 11 [in Chadwick’s paper]). The second obvious fact is that a Thursday crucifixion model exactly fits the timing necessary for three days of darkness to have occurred in America prior to Jesus’s resurrection (see fig. 12 below). The evidence is clear that Jesus passed away on Thursday around 7:00 am American central time, that the first day of darkness in America was Thursday, and that the second and third days of darkness were Friday and Saturday. Jesus’s resurrection occurred prior to sunrise in Jerusalem on Sunday, which was well prior to midnight Saturday night in the American central time zone. At sunrise on Sunday in America, normal daylight once again appeared, serving as the sign that Jesus had risen more than eight hours earlier in Jerusalem.
Interestingly, Chadwick argues that the Book of Mormon also may contain a scribal error in reporting the date of the great storm. Mormon reports in 3 Nephi 8:5 that it began in “the first month, on the fourth day of the month.” But “in Jewish reckoning, as demonstrated earlier, Jesus’s death occurred on the 14th day of the biblical first month.” Chadwick cautiously but reasonably explains his speculative proposal:
The second factor (my supposition) is that a dating error existed in the plates of Nephi from which Mormon was drawing data when composing his own narrative in the book of 3 Nephi. Mormon lived centuries after the events of 3 Nephi and had no personal experience with the Law of Moses or its systemic lunar-solar calendar. In a disclaimer quite unique in his account, Mormon admitted the possibility of a calendar error for the events of 3 Nephi 8. In dating the storm to the “fourth day of the month,” he also said, “if there was no mistake made by this man in the reckoning of our time” (3 Ne. 8:2–5). Mormon was careful not to condemn the ancient record keeper, pointing out that he had been a very righteous man (3 Ne. 8:1). But that Mormon would insert his “if there was no mistake made” caveat at this very point in his text suggests, to me at least, that he indeed suspected a calendar error.112 In my opinion, such an error did exist—it was in the plates of Nephi, and it was a ten-day error in which the 14th day of the first month was mistakenly written down as the fourth day of the month.113 If this supposition is correct (and I emphasize again that it is my own theory and not to be demanded), the actual Nephite Law of Moses date on which Jesus died would have been the 14th day of the first month, which would be the same as the 14th of Nisan in the Judean calendar, in the year we know as AD 30.
I find that observation to be reasonable. It’s quite interesting that Mormon raises the possibility of error in the record at this point.
Chadwick observes that the consensus on Friday as the day of the Crucifixion represents “a curious failure” among scholars:
The notion that Jesus died on a Friday preparation for a Saturday Sabbath is incompatible with the report of Cleopas in Luke 24, where it is clear that Jesus was executed on a Thursday. In my opinion, John was aware of this potential disconnect and purposefully crafted his own report in John 19 to clarify the story presented in the synoptic Gospels, in an attempt to assure that later readers would understand Jesus had not died on a Friday preparation day prior to a Saturday Sabbath, as might be inferred from the imprecise references in the synoptics, but on a Thursday Passover preparation day prior to a Friday Passover that was also a Yom Tov festival Sabbath. That gentile Christians in subsequent centuries failed to appreciate how megalē hē hēmera (“an high day”) meant a Yom Tov festival Sabbath and also failed to consider John’s reference to the “preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14) in its correct context is a curious failure of religious history, probably due to the general gentile unfamiliarity with Jewish terminology.
John’s careful clarification of the preparation day for the Yom Tov (“high day”) Passover festival Sabbath as the day of Jesus’s death, rather than a preparation day for a Saturday Sabbath, paired with the specific report of Luke and Cleopas that the Sunday of the resurrection was the third day since Jesus had been executed, and added to the very specific prophecy of Jesus that he would be in the grave for three days and three nights as well, all combine to point to Thursday as the day of his crucifixion, the vague and less-specific references to “sabbath” in the synoptic Gospels notwithstanding. When all the evidence from both the New Testament and the sources that describe Jewish practice in the first century are considered, that Jesus was crucified on a Thursday is a clear and logical conclusion. [emphasis mine]
Chadwick’s conclusion reminds readers that there is a strong argument for Thursday that does not require faith in the Book of Mormon:
The numerous avenues of inquiry explored in this study together demonstrate that Jesus died on Thursday, April 6 (Julian), AD 30, which was the 14th day of Nisan in the Judean calendar, the day of the preparation of Passover. The evidences from the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Mishnah, and from historical, archaeological, and astronomical studies all combine to endorse this dating beyond any reasonable doubt. Jesus died at the location known popularly as Golgotha, outside the northern wall of Jerusalem, and his body was laid, late that Thursday afternoon, in a rock-hewn tomb located in an olive garden, probably just east of the crucifixion site.114
To readers of this study who may not be Latter-day Saints—those of other faiths and backgrounds, Christian and otherwise, who may hesitate to give credence to evidence from the Book of Mormon—I would suggest that the issues presented in this study from the New Testament, the Mishnah, and the historical and astronomical studies alone are more than enough to definitively demonstrate the dating of Jesus’s death to the year AD 30, to the 14th of Nisan on April 6, and to the Passover preparation on a Thursday. It is my hope that New Testament scholarship in general will take note of this evidence. That said, as a Latter-day Saint, I am not only duty-bound but personally grateful to accept and present data from the Book of Mormon, the genuine historical reliability of which I am both spiritually and materially convinced, to corroborate the evidence of the New Testament and the other avenues explored. To all this I add my additional conviction that three days later, prior to dawn on Sunday morning, the 17th of Nisan, April 9 (Julian), AD 30, that same Jesus rose from the dead, walked away from that garden and tomb, and was seen by witnesses to whom this study has referred.115
The Book of Mormon is a remarkable witness for the reality of Jesus Christ and of His divine role as our Savior and Redeemer, with eyewitness accounts of His glorious, tangible resurrected body. It also bear witness of the Crucifixion and the infinite Atonement of the Lord. This Easter, let’s ponder the profound contribution to our knowledge of the risen Lamb of God as we celebrate the Resurrection.
Update: James Tabor, professor of Christian origins and ancient Judaism and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, just published an article explaining why the Crucifixion had to be on Wednesday. See James Tabor, “The Last Days of Jesus: A Final ‘Messianic’ Meal,” Bible History Daily, Biblical Archaeological Society, April 17, 2022. One subtle point he makes is the significance of the plural “Sabbaths” used in the original Greek of Matthew 28:1:
The confusion arose because all the gospels say that there was a rush to get his body off the cross and buried before sundown because the “Sabbath” was near. Everyone assumed the reference to the Sabbath had to be Saturday—so the crucifixion must have been on a Friday. However, as Jews know, the day of Passover itself is also a “Sabbath” or rest day—no matter what weekday it falls on. In the year a.d. 30, Friday the 15th of the Nisan was also a Sabbath—so two Sabbaths occurred back to back—Friday and Saturday. Matthew seems to know this as he says that the women who visited Jesus’ tomb came early Sunday morning “after the Sabbaths”—the original Greek is plural (Matthew 28:1).
He overlooks an important argument made by Chadwick that the Last Supper could have been on a Passover dinner after all, but for the Essene community, if held on Tuesday night. This gives adequate time for the events that followed.