Good Friday: What’s That?

Morning Governor. It’s Friday and some priests are here to see you.
Yes Sir, Friday.
What’s that?”

The former Emperor, Julius Caesar, might have altered the Roman calendar a few decades earlier but dies Veneris, or Friday as it later came to be known, had yet to be adopted by the Roman Empire.

In fact, in Pilate’s world early in the 1st century AD, the ‘Eight days a week’ (as yet unpopularised by the Beatles) of the Roman Nundinal cycle was still in play. The ‘Seven days a week’ used by the Egyptians hadn’t yet worked its way into Roman daily life – it would, over the next couple of centuries.

Years earlier, his grandfather would recall, months were measured by the moon; it was much easier that way. When there was a new moon at night, that was Kalends — the start of the month; when there was the first half moon of the month, that was Nones; and when it was a full moon, in the middle of the month, that was Ides.

Speaking of which, it was going to be a full moon that night, and if it was Martius Pilate had better tread carefully — Beware the Ides of March — wasn’t that the old saying? Julius Caesar himself was assassinated at the height of the full moon on 15 March 44BC; it was an unlucky day for the Romans.

But hold on, you say Egyptians had a seven day week — didn’t the Hebrews also: “Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath” is one of the Ten Commandments, isn’t it?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean the people of Israel had a fixed seven day week, like our Sunday to Saturday.

Like the Romans, the Hebrew people started each month with a new moon. As the cycle of the moon happens every 29.5 days, some months were 29 days long, other months were 30 days long. The middle of the month, the 15th day of each month, would always coincide with a full moon.

At different times throughout the Old Testament, the 15th day of the month had particular significance:

The 4th Commandment calls for Sabbath to be kept after 6 working days; over time it has come to be associated with Saturday. Yet every Sabbath mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures falls on similar dates in any month, and in any year – either the 8th, 15th, 22nd or 29th; irrespective of whether months were 29 or 30 days.

Put simply, unless the length of each month is exactly divisible by seven (i.e. 28), Sabbath days as we count them should not fall on the same date from month to month, year after year.

What follows is not without controversy; nor is it a key doctrine of the Christian faith. It is, however, a best fit solution to the historical and mathematical problem this apparent coincidence creates.

According to Scripture, the people of Israel were required to make special offerings at the beginning of every month, at the time of the New Moon. The month began when the first light of the crescent moon could be seen in the sky at dusk; and the day just finished declared the 1st of the month. The working week would start tomorrow.

The prophet Ezekiel instructs that the inner gate of the Temple should be opened only on Sabbath days and on the New Moons; in the book of Amos the people complain that they are not allowed to sell grain on the New Moon or Sabbath; and the vision of Isaiah ends with the declaration:

From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.

The best monthly reconstruction we can derive from biblical texts is this:

Day 1 of each month was a special day; something of a religious holiday for the people of Israel. We read, for example, about how David (of Goliath fame) was expected to feast with King Saul at the time of the New Moon in 1 Samuel 20:18.

Day 2 of the month was the first day back at work, and after 6 days working the Sabbath commandment required rest on the Seventh day, which would be Day 8 of the month. This continued every 7 days, with the regular Sabbath on Day 15, Day 22 and Day 29. After Day 29 it was the New Moon festival again.

The fact that Day 15 always coincides with the full moon is recorded by Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish historian who lived at the same time as Jesus. More importantly, Philo explains that the full moon was also always at the end of the second week in each and every month:

…a heavenly brilliancy like a full moon, at the height of its increase at the end of the second week…

If Day 30 was to be added to the month, whilst the moon was in conjunction and invisible, the New Moon feast extended over the two days of Day 30 and Day 1 – similar to a Bank Holiday weekend! The clock then started again for the next month, fully in sync with the phases of the moon.

Philo confirms that the Sabbath was to be kept four times in the month, counting from the New Moon, and complains that some only kept it once a month:

The fourth commandment has reference to the sacred seventh day, that it may be passed in a sacred and holy manner. Now some states keep the holy festival only once in the month, counting from the new moon, as a day sacred to God; but the nation of the Jews keep every seventh day regularly, after each interval of six days.

Later in the same work, Philo confirms that 15th Nisan and 15th Tishri always fell on the regular Sabbath day (also called the Seventh day), when referring to the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the Spring and the Feast of Booths in the Autumn:

But to the seventh day of the week he has assigned the greatest festivals, those of the longest duration, at the periods of the equinox both vernal and autumnal in each year; appointing two festivals for these two epochs, each lasting seven days.

And so, drawing from both Hebrew Scriptures and the contemporaneous works of Philo, we have a picture of how the Jews at the time of Pilate may have reckoned each month in line with the moon, and kept the Sabbath in accordance with the phases of the moon, as illustrated below.

The reconstruction of the Jewish calendar outlined above differs from the traditional understanding that the regular Jewish Sabbath was celebrated every fixed seven days.

Instead, it asserts that Sabbath was kept four times each month on the same dates, with a New Moon day at the beginning of the month, and an intermittent additional day (or “dark” day) at the end of the month after the Sabbath on the 29th, depending on whether or not the New Moon was sighted at dusk on the evening of the 29th.

On a plain reading of the 4th Commandment, it does not deviate from the principle that following 6 days of work there should be a 7th day of rest; yet it also allows for the keeping of Sabbath to be kept in sync with the lunar cycle of 29.5 days.

Support for this view can be seen in the writings of Stephen Langdon, in his work published in 1935 by Oxford University Press, at pages 88/89:

The days 7, 14, 21, [and] 28 in the [Babylonian] calendar of the seventh century obviously constitute the seven-day division of the month… Here the weeks DO NOT continue in a regular cycle regardless of the new moon. Each month has four weeks, beginning with the new moon. Days 29 and 30… are simply thrown out of the four-week system. I have NO DOUBT but that this was the old Hebrew scheme also. In other words the fourth week has one or two extra days.