“And now that the evening had come, since it was the day of preparation, that is the day prior to the Sabbath,”
“Now the Jews, because it was the day of preparation and so that the bodies not remain on the cross in the Sabbath, for it was a High Day, that is the Sabbath, asked Pilate that their legs would be broken so they could be removed.”
Jewish Law, found in Deuteronomy 21:22-23 reads as follows:
“And if it comes to pass that a man has a sin upon which the judgment is death, and he is put to death, and he is hung on a tree, then his body shall not stay there overnight on the tree but you should bury him that day. For God has cursed the one so hung. You shall not defile your ground which Yahweh your God has given to you as an inheritance.”
So, there is a precedent in Jewish Law for this action of requesting the bodies be taken down from the cross, not just because of it being a Sabbath day, but because to leave the disgraced man on the tree overnight was seen as defiling the land.
I expect that more is made of the day than truly needs to be made here when the simple reading of the text indicates that this is most certainly Friday as the next day (which began at sunset) is clearly indicated as the Sabbath Day, or Saturday in the west. The question really revolves around whether the meal that Jesus celebrated with the Disciples that Thursday into Friday before was truly the Passover or a pre-Passover meal — and that is a discussion that can be had in that context. Here, the timeline seems pretty clear from the plain reading of the harmonized texts.
As we explore the matters of the exact timeline, we must not lose sight of the hypocrisy of the Jews in this event. First of all, the law God gave to Moses was clear that a body was not to remain on the cross overnight regardless of the day. This would defile the land. The Romans preferred the practice of leaving the crucified men on the cross for several days after their deaths as it was meant as a warning to the people of the land to watch their supposed liberators being pecked apart by vultures and other carrion birds. Yet, this was not supposed to be permitted in the land.
Why did God make the rule as such? Some would argue that the rule is meant to be prophetic and to spare the corpse of His Son any further indignation after the work of redemption was complete. And that truth is one of which we can be sure. But there is also something more, a principle that underlies this law in Deuteronomy. Mankind was made in the image of God, and though man might need to be put to death due to wicked actions, that divine image was to be preserved wherever possible and not left to be pecked apart by unclean animals. To allow such would defile the land because it would show such a poor view of God’s image found in us — even in the man who was dying. Further, though to watch a loved one executed for his crimes is trying enough for any family, permitting their body to be taken down after the punishment and laid in the grave was meant as a small mercy to them.
The other reminder of the hypocrisy of these Jews is found on their insistence in keeping the Sabbath as noted above. Earlier they had not entered Pilate’s palace due to the purification rituals that would be needed (see John 18:28). Yet, here they are quick to defile the land by murdering the Lord of Life, the very Son of God. How often Jesus had condemned them for seeking the letter of the Law but missing its intent entirely. Such is the case not only with all hypocrites but also with many Christians who fall into the trap of judging by human rules rather than by divine writ. “Woe to you,” Jesus would say.