Holy Week: When Jesus died.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 March 2024

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. In the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April of the year 33.

9 Nisan 3793
29 March 33
Jesus enters Jerusalem; the crowds say Hosanna. Mk 11.1-11, Mt 21.1-11, Lk 19.28-44, Jn 12.12-19
10 Nisan 3793
30 March 33
Jesus cleanses the temple of merchants; curses the fig tree. Mk 11.12-18, Mt 21.12-19, Lk 19.45-46, Jn 2.13-17
11 Nisan 3793
31 March 33
Jesus teaches in temple. Lk 19.47-48, 21.37
12 Nisan 3793
1 April 33
Still teaching in temple.
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
14 Nisan 3793
3 April 33
Jesus is 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
15 Nisan 3793
4 April 33
Sabbath and Passover while Jesus lays 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 you’ll notice a lot of languages call it some form of Pesákh.

Easter in other languages
What Easter is called throughout Europe and western Asia. It’s also called iPasika in Xhosa, and Pasaka in Swahili. Mapologies

The English and Germanic name Easter might’ve come 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 the Gregorian solar calendar. But Passover is linked to the lunar Hebrew calendar, and 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. 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. Some of ’em 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 and 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 all the other 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, Jn 19.31 ergo Friday.

Frankly the longer you listen to their explanations, the less logical they get. Whereas for centuries Christians bluntly 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 confused it 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 his gods. This is definitely not that. Jesus’s entry was 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 NRSVue
1 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2 and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3 If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this: ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4 They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5 some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6 They told them what Jesus had said, and they allowed them to take it. 7 Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.
9 Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany 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 or butcher paper.

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, both today and in ancient times, 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 night, death Friday afternoon.

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. (I certainly can, even in “liberal, pagan” California.) 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.