Holy Week: When Jesus died.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 April

Today is Palm Sunday, the start of what we Christians call Holy Week. It’s also called Great Week, Greater Week, Holy and Great Week, Passion Week, Easter Week (by those people who consider Easter the end of the week), and various other titles. It remembers the week Jesus died.

It took place 9–17 Nisan 3793 in the Hebrew calendar; and in the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April of the year 33.

PALM SUNDAY. 9 Nisan 3793
29 March 33
Jesus entered Jerusalem; the crowds said Hosanna. Mk 11.1-11, Mt 21.1-11, Lk 19.28-44, Jn 12.12-19
HOLY MONDAY. 10 Nisan 3793
30 March 33
Cleansing the temple of the merchants; cursing the fig tree. Mk 11.12-18, Mt 21.12-19, Lk 19.45-46, Jn 2.13-17
HOLY TUESDAY. 11 Nisan 3793
31 March 33
Jesus taught in temple. Lk 19.47-48, 21.37
HOLY WEDNESDAY. 12 Nisan 3793
1 April 33
Still teaching in temple.
MAUNDY THURSDAY. 13 Nisan 3793
2 April 33
The last supper; Jesus washes his students’ feet. Mk 14.12-26, Mt 26.17-30, Lk 22.7-39, Jn 13.1-14.30
GOOD FRIDAY. 14 Nisan 3793
3 April 33
Jesus arrested, tried, condemned, executed, and entombed. Mk 14.27-15.47, Mt 26.31-27.61, Lk 22.40-23.56, Jn 15.1-19.42
HOLY SATURDAY. 15 Nisan 3793
4 April 33
Sabbath and Passover while Jesus lay dead. Pilate orders a guard for the tomb. Mt 27.62-66, Lk 23.56

And the week had started so well….

Of course Jesus rose on Sunday the 5th, the day Christians now designate as Easter.

Different Christians observe Holy Week in different ways, depending on custom. The churches I grew up in, usually had a somber service on Good Friday, and a just-as-somber service on Easter Sunday, ’cause they usually had some sort of passion play where most of the service was focus was on Jesus getting killed. Lots of weeping. Lots of repentance and conversions. Happy ending, ’cause Jesus is alive, but the focus was more on him dying for our sins. Lots of churches tend to focus on the sad bits, ’cause we humans get depressing like that.

But many churches—properly—spend Holy Week on the sad bits, and Easter Sunday and the weeks thereafter rejoicing. Because Jesus is alive.

Figuring the dates of Holy Week.

In the gospels, Easter is the day after Passover. Technically Easter is Christian Passover. But because your average English-speaker doesn’t know this, you’re gonna see various claims round the internet that Easter was swiped from pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Was not. As every Christian knows, or should know, we swipe our holidays from the Jews.

Most languages’ name for Easter is based on the Hebrew פֶּסַח/pesákh, “Passover.” So in Latin and Greek it’s Pascha; Italian, Catalan, and Corsican Pasqua; Spanish Pascua; Portuguese Páscoa; Basque Pazko; French Pâques; Irish Pas; Welsh Pasg; Icelandic Páska; Swedish Påsk; Danish Påske; Finnish Pääsiäinen; Dutch Pasen; Russian, Kazakh, Kurdish, Uzbek, and Tajik Pasha; Filipino Pasko; Romanian Paşti; Turkish Paskalya; Swahili Pasaka; Xhosa iPasika.

The English and Germanic name might’ve been taken from a pagan holiday, but we certainly don’t celebrate it like ancient pagans did. Nor do we observe Passover like the ancient Hebrews and today’s Jews. Our focus is on Jesus’s resurrection, and less so on the salvation of Israel from Egypt. And the early Christians wanted to make this distinction pretty obvious. They didn’t want our Pascha to get mixed up with the Jews’ Pesach.

Why does Easter move around on the calendar? Because westerners (and now, the world) uses a solar calendar, but Passover is linked to the lunar Hebrew calendar. Passover always falls on the evening of 14 Nisan. Ex 12.6-11 Nisan starts on the first new moon of spring, which of course moves all over our solar calendar; Passover tends to take place on the full moon.

But ancient Christians wanted to divorce Easter from the Hebrew calendar, so we changed our rule for calculating Easter: It’s on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. And all the other dates of Holy Week and Shrovetide are derived from that. Since Easter has to take place after the spring equinox—but Nisan sometimes starts before it—this means some years Passover and Easter are gonna be the same weekend, and other years a month apart. Likewise the Jewish and Christian Pentecosts.

Yeah, some of the reason for this divorce has to do with antisemitism. (Like Easter ham, a tradition the Spaniards implemented to alienate kosher and halal Jews and Muslims.) The result is Easter looks even less like Passover.

As for when Jesus died and was resurrected, there are of course Christians who don’t agree with the dates in this article. Mainly because they prefer some other year than 33. They got it in their heads Jesus died at the age of 33:

  • Luke says Jesus was about 30 when he began ministering. Lk 3.23
  • John refers to three Passovers during Jesus’s ministry. Jn 2.13, 6.4, 11.55 He died during the last one.
  • Assuming these were the only three Passovers in Jesus’s ministry (and why should we?), Jesus only ministered 3 years. And 30 + 3 = 33.
  • So if Jesus was born in 4BC, he must’ve died in the year 30. Alternately if he was born in 7BC, he must’ve died in the year 27.

Once these Christians decide upon a year—27 or 30—they juggle the dates till they fit their new timeline. Some of ’em even claim Jesus died on a Thursday, not a Friday, because that fits their favorite year better… even though John totally says Friday. Jesus died on the day to prepare for both Passover Jn 19.14 and Sabbath, 19.31 ergo Friday.

Frankly the longer you listen to their explanations, the less logical they get. Whereas for centuries Christians stated Jesus died in 33. The year fits the chronology: It’s a year Passover fell on Sabbath. The only reason Christians try to claim it’s another year is because they’ve decided to interpret one favorite verse or another too literally. Plus there’s a certain amount of pride mixed up in bucking the trend.

Palm Sunday.

Holy Week begins with the rather joyous-appearing “triumphal entry of Jesus.” Roman Christians tended to confuse it a bit with a Roman-style triumph, in which a victorious Roman general paraded all his conquered victims through Rome, showing ’em off before he ritually killed them before the gods. This wasn’t that. Jesus’s entry was more reminiscent of a Messiah, an ancient Hebrew king, entering Jerusalem for his coronation. Zc 9.9 Jesus rigged it this way on purpose.

Mark 11.1-11 KWL
1 When Jesus and his students came to Jerusalem (via Beit Fagí and Beit Anya, by Mt. Olivet),
he sent out two of his students 2 and told them, “Go into the village nearest you.
Immediately once you enter it, you’ll find a colt tied up, on which no one has ever sat. Untie and bring it.
3 When anyone tells you, ‘Why’re you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he’ll send it back here soon.’”
4 The students went off and found the colt: Out in the street, tied to a door. They untied it.
5 Some who were standing there asked them, “What’re you doing, untying the colt?”
6 The students told them what Jesus said, and the people permitted them.
7 They brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their coats on it, and Jesus sat on it.
8 Many people spread their coats on the road; others, palm branches cut from the fields.
9 Those who went ahead, and those who followed, were shouting, “Save us!”
“The blessed one who comes in the Lord’s name!”
10 “The blessed Kingdom Come of our father David!”
“Save us by the Highest God!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and temple, looking round at everything.
Since it was already the evening hour, he went to Beit Anya with the Twelve.

John specifically states they waved palm branches. Jn 12.13 Hence so do we. But other parts of the world lack palms, and just use whatever branches they have available: Yew branches in colder climates, olive branches in Malta, pussy willow branches in Latvia. Sometimes they just strew flowers. And of course the kids in Sunday schools learn how to make fake palm branches out of newspaper.

Palm Sunday is mostly about about the branch-waving. But it’s also when we begin to talk about Jesus’s upcoming death.

Maundy Thursday.

For many Christians, Holy Week only focuses on the Triduum, Latin for “the three days”—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the days Jesus suffered, died, and was in the tomb. Ends Easter Sunday.

More Christians tend to observe Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Fewer observe Maundy Thursday, or as it’s also called, Holy Thursday, Clean Thursday, or Green Thursday. It remembers Jesus’s last supper—his Passover seder, held the day before Passover proper. It turned out to be the last meal he ate before he died. The old English word maundy means to wash feet, and refers to when Jesus washed his students’ feet. Jn 13.2-17

Technically the last supper took place the same day Jesus died. Y’see, middle easterners figure the 24-hour day lasts from sunset to sunset: The last supper took place after sundown, and Jesus died and was entombed before the next sundown. Everything happened on a middle eastern Friday. But for westerners these are two different days: Dinner Thursday, death Friday.

Two main customs are associated with Maundy Thursday: Foot-washing and visiting seven churches. Why seven? Likely it originated among the Catholics in Rome, Italy: You can easily find seven churches within walking distance. And thanks to all the different denominations of Christians in the United States, in many of our towns you can also easily find seven churches within walking distance. Some Christians visit 14, and at each church they can meditate on a different station of the cross.

In many liturgical churches, Easter is the day the church accepts new members. For them, Maundy Thursday is when the new members get anointed and prayed over—they, and anyone else who’s sick and needs anointing. Jm 5.14-15 And of course they wash feet. They also clear off the altars in preparation for Good Friday. And they stop ringing the church bells, which won’t ring again till Easter.

Good Friday.

Jesus defeated sin and death. But the way he defeated it… well, lots of people look at what and how he suffered, and struggle to call the day “good” anything. Sure doesn’t look good. So some Christians call it Black Friday, Holy Friday, Great Friday, Silent Friday, Mourning Friday, or even Easter Friday.

In my stations of the cross articles, I go through the events of Good Friday in greater detail. Christians observe it with memorial services, communion services, and prayer and meditation. In Jerusalem, locals and pilgrims walk down the literal road he traveled to his death, and wind up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.