“and the Sabbath was beginning.” This was not the regular weekly Sabbath, which occurred on Saturday, but the Special Sabbath that was the 15th of Nisan and the first Day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
The Greek word translated “was beginning” is epiphōskō (#2020 ἐπιφώσκω), and it literally means, to grow light. Thus it was used of “dawn,” or also idiomatically as “beginning.” Thus literally, “the Sabbath was dawning.” This phraseology can be confusing to us Westerners because the Jewish Sabbath began at sunset, not “dawn,” that is, not at sunrise. The Jews, however, used the phrase “growing light” or “dawning” idiomatically for the beginning of something. We could translate the verse as, “the Sabbath was dawning,” and understand it idiomatically, just as they did, but a less confusing way to translate the phrase is “the Sabbath was beginning.” The Jews did not have accurate clocks to tell them when Sabbath began, they just knew from the sky it was drawing close. [For more information on epiphōskō see commentary on Matt. 28:1].
According to Jewish reckoning of time, the sunset started the new day, so here in Luke 23:54, Wednesday the 14th of Nisan, the day Jesus Christ was crucified, was ending, and Thursday, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Special Sabbath, was starting. The 15th of Nisan was always a Sabbath, no matter on which day of the week it occurred (Exod. 12:16-17; Lev. 23:6-8). Since the Law of Moses decreed that the 15th of Nisan was a special Sabbath, Luke 23:54 says the “Sabbath” was beginning.
It is important to realize that the “Sabbath” in Luke 23:54 is not the weekly Sabbath on Saturday, but the Special Sabbath on Thursday, the 15th of Nisan. Knowing that will clear up a large number of apparent contradictions in the Bible. The point that Jesus was crucified before a Special Sabbath is made again in John 19:31, which tells us specifically that this Sabbath was a “high day,” meaning a special Sabbath, not the regular weekly Sabbath.
Most Christians do not realize that when the Bible says Jesus was crucified the day before the “Sabbath,” it does not mean the regular weekly Sabbath, and so tradition has taught that Jesus was crucified on Friday before the Saturday Sabbath. But that interpretation causes a number of problems. For one thing, Jesus could not have been “in the heart of the earth” for three “days” and three “nights” (Matt. 12:40) from Friday at sunset to Sunday morning when it was still dark (John 20:1). There are not three “days” and three “nights” between Friday at sunset and Sunday so early in the morning that it was still dark.
More evidence that Jesus was in the grave for three full days and nights, from Wednesday sunset to Saturday sunset comes from the fact that the women would not have had time before the Sabbath started to go and buy spices and then prepare them after watching Joseph bury Jesus without any spices (Matt. 27:60-61; Mark 15:46-47; Luke 23:53-55). Furthermore, they could not have bought the spices in the dark after the Saturday Sabbath was over either. Even if there was some special condition where they could have bought spices Saturday night, they could not have both bought them and prepared them before the Sabbath like Luke says (Luke 23:56) and also bought them after the Sabbath like Mark says (Mark 16:1).
The key to solving all the apparent contradictions is to realize that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, Passover day, and that both Thursday and Saturday were Sabbaths. In that situation, Jesus could be in the grave for three full “days” and “nights,” from Wednesday at sunset to Saturday at sunset, not just 36 hours with no third “night” at all. That also helps explain why Jesus waited two full days before raising Lazarus (John 11:6). Jesus showed through Lazarus that a person could be raised after three full days, which many people doubted at that time; (see commentary on John 11:15). Also, both Mark and Luke would be correct. The women would have bought spices on Friday, which was “after” the Special Sabbath and “before” the regular weekly Sabbath. Since the Jewish calendar had many special Sabbaths, the people of the time were used to the language that some event could be both before and after a Sabbath, and were used to sorting through the context and seeing the truth of the situation.
A Wednesday crucifixion and burial also explains why the women thought they could go to the grave to anoint Jesus on Sunday morning but had not gone on Friday after preparing the spices. Sunday morning had been more than the three days the Roman guard was supposed to be at the grave, which was Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The Roman guard had run off after seeing the earthquake and the angel, but the women did not know that when they came to the tomb with the spices expecting someone could roll away the stone for them—something the Roman guard would never have allowed.
Still another ancillary piece of evidence for a Wednesday crucifixion comes from typology. Jesus got up from the dead on Saturday evening the 17th day of the month Nisan, proving that death had no power over mankind and mankind was safe from death. It was that same day of the year (the 17th of Nisan) that Noah’s ark rested on the land and mankind was safe from evil people and from the Flood (Gen. 8:4. To understand that, we must realize that the “seventh month” in Genesis was the month Nisan, which God later changed to be the first month of the year; see Exod. 12:2). If, as tradition teaches, the 14th of Nisan was a Friday, and Jesus was crucified on Friday the 14th of Nisan and got up on Sunday morning, then that would make the day Jesus Got up Sunday the 16th of Nisan. There is no typological parallel date for his resurrection if it occurred on Nisan 16 instead of Nisan 17. but if Christ was crucified on Wednesday the 14th of Nisan, and got up Saturday the 17th of Nisan, then Noah’s ark is the perfect type of Christ’s resurrection when it comes to saving mankind. Although this ancillary fact does not prove a Wednesday crucifixion, it supports it.
Tradition is hard to change, and the tradition for a Friday crucifixion comes from John 19:31, that the crucifixion was before the Sabbath. That tradition has been bolstered by the teaching that Jesus was in the grave for 3 days, and “any part of a day can be counted as a day.” While that is true, it is not an honest handling of the text. The Bible does not say Jesus was in the grave “three days,” but “three days and three nights” (Matt. 12:40). Even if you count the tiny amount of time between when Nicodemus properly buried Jesus as a “day,” there are not three “days” and three “nights” between Friday sunset and Sunday morning before the sun came up and it was still dark—at absolute best there are only three days and two nights.
Tradition has also been bolstered by the words of the angel that “he is not here; he has risen” from the dead (Matt. 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6). It has been assumed that Jesus had just gotten up a short while before that, but Scripture never says that. The three days and nights ended Saturday before sunset. If Jesus got up at that time, then what the angels told the women was true. They never said he had just gotten up; only that he was raised from the dead and therefore not in the tomb when the women arrived.
It is also important to remember that Jesus was quoting the book of Jonah when he said he would be “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth (Jonah 1:17). It is likely that Jonah was thrown into the sea in the afternoon (perhaps even the late afternoon around when Jesus was buried), because the sailors tried hard to row to land so they would not have to throw Jonah into the ocean, but they eventually realized they were not getting anywhere and gave up (Jonah 1:13). Would the book of Jonah really have said that Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights if he was only there for three days and two nights? There would have been no need for that misstatement. The only reason that Christians have tried to force three days and nights into the short time from Friday sunset to Sunday morning while it was still dark is they know Jesus was up from the dead by Sunday morning and they assume Scripture teaches he was buried on Friday, the day before the weekly Sabbath.
In light of the teaching of Scripture on the subject, it is time to let tradition go. Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday and buried that day before Sunset. Then, three days and three nights later, Saturday before sunset, God raised him from the dead.