Holy Week Timeline Explained

The Holy Week, describing the events that led to Jesus of Nazareth's death, is the most important record of happenings that founded Christian religion. According to Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D., Christianity branched out in many directions afterwards, mainly into Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican churches. The differences in interpretations have been a point of conflict for 2,000 years.

But regardless of different perspectives on Jesus' life and his origin, the New Testament, the second division of the Christian biblical canon, contains historical events that led to Jesus' crucifixion. The testament comprises 27 books, the epistolary part, the prophetic part, and the historical part. The last part is formed by four gospels attributed to four different people: Apostle Matthew, Mark the Evangelist, Luke the Evangelist, and John the Evangelist. The documentations attributed to them of the events are used as a main source for the timeline in this article.

Another reason why this timeline often becomes very confusing are simple differences in recording time, changing from culture to culture and over time. According to Christianity, one counting follows First Century Jewish day, which measures a day from sunset to sunset. The second counting follows time perception of Galilean Jews, from sunrise to sunrise. The last is a modern time count, which defines times between midnight and midnight.

Here is the timeline of the Holy Week explained.

Palm Sunday

This is the start of the Holy Week. Beside the term Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday is used as well. Jesus left Bethphage and traveled to Jerusalem as king, where he was greeted by people. He rode on a donkey, as prophecies predicted. According to Christianity, the donkey signifies Jesus' gentleness and his down to earth nature – he is a king, but not the expected kind, quite the opposite: by riding a donkey, he subjects himself to mockery, and reveals the shallow nature of how people perceive others. 

The crowd started to grow, as many people wanted to follow Jesus on his journey. They started to place cloaks and plants on the road ahead of him. Palm branches were used, a tradition which is still in place today. When Jesus caught a sight of Jerusalem, he started to weep. In the evening, Jesus journeyed to Bethany and met his friends and disciples.

According to Time, celebrating Palm Sunday goes back to at least the late 4th century A.D. The earliest documentation of Holy Week celebrations were written by Egeria, a nun, who wrote a travel diary of her pilgrimage. In her writing, she mentions the exact rituals that happened on that Palm Sunday she was present, including gospel reading, singing of hymns, carrying of olive and palm branches – all of them still exist today. The opening procession on the other hand, was added to the liturgy later, and was initially performed after the palm blessing. 

Holy Monday

Jesus returned to Jerusalem the next day and on his way, spotted a fig tree. Being hungry, he searched for some fruit, but in vain. He cursed the fig tree. When they reached the Temple, he spotted different people in the place of worship, none of them were there for God. 

According to the Learn Religions, Jesus was appalled by the number of money changers and merchants who were making business at the Temple. On the top of that, money changers were trading local currencies to Tyrian shekels, the only coins accepted for the temple tax, making a profit along the way. But high priests as well were profiting from all this trade, which opposed their role as spiritual leaders. This angered Jesus to the point where he ran around with a small whip, overturning tables and criticizing everyone involved. He drove everyone out of the Temple. But, by doing this, he created a conflict and more opposition with the authorities.

As explained by Kenny Burchard, a Bible teacher, in his review of "Killing Enmity: Violence and the New Testament," written by Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, the anger Jesus displayed wasn't necessarily an act of violence, but a restorative and reparative action. He didn't use his whip to hurt any people or animals, but to create movement, and by that, "he forces out, cleanses, and aggressively removes that which impedes personhood, worship, relationship, and mission." With attack, he mirrored back the destructive forces that were, in his opinion, destroying the equilibrium of the world.  

Holy Tuesday

After spending another night in Bethany, Jesus returned to Jerusalem. On his way he noticed the fig tree he'd previously cursed, which had dried up. Arriving back to the Temple, the Jewish religious leaders were angered with Jesus and his behavior as spiritual leader of the people. They tried to arrest him, but he eluded their ambush and called them hypocrites.

Jesus continued his journey and visited the Mount of Olives. According to Britannica, the peak can be found east of the Old City of Jerusalem and it's 2,694 feet high. Important for many different religions, the place is inhabited by a combined mosque and Christian chapel, while sacred Jewish burial grounds cover the mountain's slopes.  On the Mount of Olives, Jesus shared one of his famous prophecies, speaking about the downfall of Jerusalem and the end of the epoch, which will bring natural disasters, even stars falling from the sky. 

Just recently, in 2020, a Jewish ritual bath was unearthed at the foot of Mount Olives, dating back to around 2,000 years ago, which corresponds with the time of Jesus' life. Although many ritual baths were found across the ancient Jerusalem, this was the first archaeological evidence found from that exact period: "The latest excavations conducted on this site have confirmed the antiquity of the Christian memory and tradition linked to the place, and this is very important for us and for the spiritual meaning connected with the archeological findings," explained Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land (via Haaretz).

Holy Wednesday

Not much is written in the scriptures about this day. The day prior to the Last Supper, also known as Passover, could be spent by preparing everything necessary for the event. But many believe this is the day on which Judas Iscariot plotted his betrayal of Jesus Christ. In remembrance of this event, the day is sometimes called Spy Wednesday:

"Then went one of the 12, who was called Judas Iscariot, to the chief priests, and said to them: What will you give me, and I will deliver him unto you? But they appointed him 30 pieces of silver. And from thenceforth he sought an opportunity to betray him." (Matthew 26:14-16)

According to Hope Bolinger, this event is mentioned in the Old Testament — the text written hundred years before –- as well. In that scripture, Zechariah predicts the exact amount of money for which Judas would sell Jesus out: 30 pieces of silver. "I told them, 'So they paid me 30 pieces of silver.' And the Lord said to me, 'Throw it to the potter.'" (Zechariah 11:12-13) This resonates with the later events in the New Testament, where Judas donated money he got from betraying Jesus, 30 silver coins to the Temple, but the priests use it to buy a potter's field.

The Last Supper

On Thursday, Jesus organized a Passover meal for 12 of his closest disciples. As explained by Mary Fairchild for Learn Religions, the Passover Feast is an important part of Jewish tradition. An 8-day celebration is prepared in memory of Israel's emancipation from Egyptian slavery and the freedom of the Jewish people. During the dinner, Jesus explained to his devotees that this would be his last meal. Jesus shared bread and wine with everyone, describing how bread stands for his body, and wine for his blood. This event is the foundation for the Communion ritual, the Eucharist, an important part of different church practices, which include drinking sacramental wine and eating sacramental bread, the host. After the meal, Jesus washed the feet of all of his disciples and told them they should do the same, since "no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him." (John 13:13-17)

As per Live Science, Jesus and his disciples helped themselves to "cholent – a bean stew, lamb, olives with hyssop, bitter herbs with pistachios, a fish sauce, unleavened bread, date charoset and aromatized wine," during Jesus' last dinner. Generoso Urciuoli, archaeologist, and Marta Berogno, archaeologist and Egyptologist, combined historical data and clues from catacombs frescoes. They disagree with the idea that the meal was eaten during the Passover Festival, but they were celebrating "the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, an autumn feast commemorating the years the Israelites spent in the desert in fragile dwellings after the exodus" instead. 

Judas' betrayal

The Chief Priest and the elders had already decided they wanted to see Jesus dead, but they agreed to wait until Passover festivities were over. According to Christianity, during the Passover dinner, Jesus predicted that one of the disciples, the one that will be given the piece of bread, will betray him. He gave bread to Judas Iscariot, and at that moment, Satan entered Judas and Judas left the dinner. He went to the Chief Priest, who wanted to see Jesus dead, and asked him how much he is willing to pay.

Later, while Jesus was praying in the garden, Judas entered with the guard, after he got the promised 30 pieces of silver from the Chief Priest in return. To show the guards which man is Jesus, Judas identified him with a kiss

As Hershel Shanks, biblical archaeology expert, summarizes in his review of the latest translation of an eighth-century Gnostic gospel, translated by the Dutch scholar Roelof van den Broek, the kiss had to happen because of Jesus' shapeshifting abilities – it would be hard for Romans to know if they had the right man just by his description. Three out of four canonical gospels describe how Jesus' appearance can vary in size, color of the skin, age, he can even become bodiless. The idea of Jesus as a shapeshifter was first mentioned in Contra Celsum, written by Origen, a theologian who lived A.D. 185-254. He claimed that "to those who saw him [Jesus] he did not appear alike to all" (via Live Science).

The trials

The next morning, Judas realized what he had done and felt guilty. He returned the 30 silver coins, threw them into the temple and hanged himself

According to On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ research paper, it was too late, as the trials already started for Jesus. For several hours, Jesus tried to defend himself before the Jewish high priest Caiaphas and the Jewish political tribunal of elders, Sanhedrin, but the verdict is clear: he is guilty of blasphemy. Another trial followed, before the religious Sanhedrin this time, but the verdict is the same, he is accused of blasphemy once again. But, by law, the order for execution could only come from the Roman government, so they sent Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea, and accused him of the attempt to undermine the Roman government. Pilate did not find any evidence, sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, the story repeated and Jesus was back with Pilate. Pilate gave in and ordered the execution.

Since Jesus traveled by foot from Palestine, it is reasonable to assume he was in good health before the trials started, but his health deteriorated rapidly during the  12 hours of legal proceedings. As explained further by Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer, Jesus was deeply affected by the six trials, suffering from "great emotional stress (as evidenced by hematidrosis – blood sweat), abandonment by his closest friends (the disciples), and a physical beating (after the first Jewish trial)." 

Journey to Golgotha

As if the execution punishment wasn't enough, the soldiers continued to mock Jesus:

"The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, 'Hail, king of the Jews!' Again and again, they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him." (Mark 15:16-20)

As per Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer, the journey to the execution place was long and exhausting. Weakened from torture, the accused had to carry a cross from the flogging site to the site of crucifixion outside of the city. The heavy wooden cross weighed 300 lbs. in total, but what Jesus actually had to carry was the middle part, crossbar, which weighed around 75 to 125 lbs. Accompanied by a Roman guard, naked and depleted, Jesus slowly continued his journey, supported by his loved ones from afar.

There is still a debate where the exact place of the crucifixion, Golgotha, was located. But according to Joan E. Taylor, professor and writer, the site was an "oval-shaped disused quarry located west of the second wall of Jerusalem, north of the first wall."

The Crucifixion

According to Edwards, Gabel, and Hosmer, the ancient crucifixion and pre-crucifixion practices were intended to cause intense agony and each phase could cause death on its own. Jesus' physical condition before he was put on a cross was "at least serious and possibly critical." Since the rules dictated that every execution should start with flogging, Jesus was severely beaten before crucifixion, which not only weakened him, but subjected him to severe blood loss and circulatory shock. The actual cause of death of Jesus could be hypovolemic shock, heart failure, cardio-respiratory failure, or something else.

"It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last." (Luke 23:44-46)

The exact time of Jesus' death is still debated. Some interpretations claim that the crucifixion took place earlier, so the exact time of death should be on Wednesday afternoon, at 3 pm. This way, Jewish law, which stated that a person is legally dead only after three days would be fulfilled, along with the prophecies, which saw Jesus resurrected after three nights and days. Others see contrasting time counts, which define how long a day lasts differently. Nevertheless, the general view of the matter as well as contemporary celebrations count Good Friday as the day of Jesus' crucifixion and death (via The Huffington Post).

Holy Saturday

After Jesus' death, his body was put in a tomb and sealed. The guards were worried that Jesus' disciples would steal his body and tell the people he had risen from the dead. Jesus' devotees and close ones held a 40-hour-long vigil outside of the tomb, waiting for his resurrection. Most people refrained from activity that day because it was Sabbath, the day of rest.

In the evening, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James' mother), and Salome went and bought some burial spices, to anoint Jesus' body. According to "Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian's Account of His Life and Teaching," they were there for the whole process of Jesus' crucifixion and death; while his male disciples fled, the women are the only members of the group who stuck by Jesus' side, even if only from afar. Female devotees formed a big part of Jesus' followers, although they are rarely mentioned in interpretations. According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene was Jesus' closest disciple.

As per Birger A. Pearson, professor of religious studies, numerous theologians (and priests) intentionally downplayed the role of Mary Magdalene throughout history, turning her into a sinful woman, a sex worker. Although there is not a single place in the scripts that would mention her as such, Pope Gregory the Great (540–604) identified her as the unknown adulteress mentioned in John's gospel, and since then that story was told as the truth. The idea of Mary Magdalene as a sex worker is specific only to the Western Church interpretations. 

The Resurrection

Early in the morning, Mary Magdalene visited the tomb and noticed that the stone was removed from the entrance. She called to other disciples, and together they entered the tomb. They saw the linen in which Jesus' body was wrapped, but no body. While Mary Magdalene was crying, she saw two angels and a figure of a man. The man turned out to be Jesus, who told her not to touch him, since he had not ascended yet. Mary Magdalene notified the rest of the group about the event

According to "The Jesus Family Tomb Examined: Did Jesus Rise Physically?," despite numerous theories and perspectives on Jesus' resurrection, "the evidence demonstrated that the Bible can be trusted as a historical document, and therefore it gives credence to the resurrection accounts of Jesus of Nazareth." The event is described in many different sources, such as in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Scriptures from a second-Temple period, Jewish literature written in the period from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., and Rabbinic literature. Lopez concludes that "people would rise bodily from the dead was the predominant view and background of the period when the witnesses of Jesus' resurrection recorded the NT. A reading of the evidence makes this point indisputable."