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Was it ‘three days and three nights’ or, ‘the third day’?

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 A number of alternative views fly around concerning the number of days Jesus was in the tomb. It is a matter of fact that scripture cannot lie, nor can it contradict itself. So, is it true that Jesus did not arise on the third day, but arose on a fourth day? Is our understanding of this second option simply wrong?

As both statements are found in scripture, both must be true! What differs is not what scripture says, but our understanding of the statements. And our understanding depends on what the original writer meant by what he said, not on what we assume he meant.

Let us see what scripture actually says; the term ‘the third day’ appears 55 times in scripture, but for our purposes we will look only at its use in the New Testament, where it is used 16 times, because it is the New Testament meaning and words that influence our understanding.

‘the third day’ - Luke 23:46-56

This text clearly teaches that Jesus arose on the ‘third day’. We are told that a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph, asked for the body of Jesus, so that he could bury Him. Jesus died about three in the afternoon, or at least after mid-day and by about three. That is how the text reads. It was Jewish law to bury a body before the start of a seventh day Sabbath, otherwise there would be a breach of the command not to work. Note that other Sabbaths did not have this strict ‘no-work’ requirement.

As Jewish days ran from six in the evening to six the next evening, it meant that the Sabbath was due to start that evening at six. It gave Joseph only a few hours to take Jesus off the stake and to carry him to the sepulchre to bury Him. We know that the Sabbath was very close because of verse 54: “And that day was the preparation, and the Sabbath drew on”. Thus, Joseph only had a very short while to carry out these technical tasks, giving him only enough time to cover the body with linen.

Anointing with spices and oils was usually done straight away, but we are told there was no time – Jesus could only be prepared for this before the Sabbath began. This is further confirmed by what the female followers of Jesus did – after following Joseph to see where Jesus was laid and what was done with the body, they went back to their lodgings (probably inns or relative’s houses), obtained the funerary oils and spices and mixed them appropriately. This is all they had time for. Then, they ran out of time and so “rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment.”

If we take this short narrative as it is written, we can say this; Jesus died on the Friday in the afternoon. The Sabbath began at six that evening, and Jesus was placed in a tomb before the Sabbath arrived. The female followers could not anoint the body once it was six in the evening, the beginning of the Sabbath.

Next day – the seventh day Sabbath – the women rested and Jesus lay alone in the tomb. The Sabbath ended at six in the evening the following day – Saturday. Women again went to the tomb ready to anoint Jesus, early the following day, Sunday, having observed the Sabbath laws. In other words, Jesus died on the Friday afternoon and arose again on the Sunday morning – “the third day”. If a fourth day is insisted upon, then this text in Luke would be contradicted!

Other Texts: “the third day”

The phrase, “the third day” is found in ALL the other New Testament instances. In each of these verses the word tritos, third, means either a full day or a part day, hence, the Luke 23 instance is correct: part of Friday, all of Saturday and part of Sunday; therefore Jesus arose on “the third day”. In the Luke text the word is used as an adjective. What fixes these days as described is the mention of the seventh day Sabbath... the Sabbath is Saturday; therefore the day before, up to sixish, was Friday, and the ‘third day’ therefore had to be Sunday.

Jesus Himself confirms this idea in Luke 13:32, where He responded to scheming Pharisees: “And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third [day] I shall be perfected.” He said TODAY I will heal people AND tomorrow, AND THE THIRD DAY I will be perfected.

The text therefore mentions a third day rather than three whole days and three nights. The words ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ refer to normal time periods. Jesus was already healing and preaching when the Pharisees made their demand, so that day (‘today’) was already partial. If the Hebrew did not accept a part day the same as a whole day, then Jesus could not have said ‘today’.

Matthew 16:21 tells us He was raised again on ‘the third day’. Matthew 17:23 repeats the same thing, as does Matthew 20:19. Even the murderous chief priests referred to the ‘third day’ (Matthew 27:64). These facts are repeated by Mark, 9:31; 10:34. The same is said in Luke 9:22, and in chapters 13, 18, 24. Paul reiterates this in Acts 10:40 and 1 Corinthians 15:4. In each text the phrase “the third day” is used.

By way of contrast, the phrase “three days and three nights” is used only once in the New Testament. As scripture cannot, by definition, contradict itself, this different phrase CANNOT mean anything different from all the other texts that say Jesus would arise on the third day... and as I have shown in Luke 23, the ONLY meaning is that the third day follows the Sabbath and, before that, Friday afternoon.

“Three days and three nights”: Matthew 12:40

We can agree, then, that all the other texts in the New Testament refer to one whole day (the Sabbath) and one part of a day either side (Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning), making His rising occur on the third day. We must also agree that if scripture is God’s word, then no text can contradict another text. Rather, any differences are caused by an inadequate understanding of the texts. What, then, is causing this single phrase to be taken differently? I put it to you that the problem is not in the words, but in how we interpret them. Or, rather, in how the Jews at the time interpreted them. Jesus said this:

“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

This is where some get the idea that Jesus was dead for three whole days and three whole nights – hence the notion of a fourth day. Now, if we take this as the meaning, then ALL the other texts must be false. This cannot be! If it does NOT mean the same as the other texts, then we have no other option but to say the other texts are ALL wrong. This cannot be the case! What then, are we looking at? We are looking at a statement that may have no connection with ‘the third day’, or a connection that depends on Hebraisms. How? To answer this we must look to how the Hebrews looked at it.

When Jesus spoke these words, He was answering the evil Pharisees who demanded He show them a sign of His godhood. He refused – surely His powerful preaching and understanding were enough, alongside His countless miracles?

Rather, Jesus gave them a verbal ‘sign’, by referring to Jonah. “For as Jonas was three days and three nights...”. The word ‘three’, treis, means – three. Now, some interpret this as referring to a symbolic fullness or manifestation. To quote Vine’s Expository Dictionary, concerning the use of ‘the third day’ in Mark:

“In Mar 9:31; 10:34 the best texts have meta treis hemeras, "after three days," which idiomatically expresses the same thing as te trite hemera, "on the third day," which some texts have here, as, e.g., the phrase "the third day" in Mat 17:23; 20:19; Luk 9:22; 18:33, where the repetition of the article lends stress to the number, lit., "the day the third".

In other words, meta treis hemeras is the SAME as te trite hemera. That is, ‘after three days (and three nights)” is the same as “the third day”.

If we then go to the source of Jesus’ statement, we read Jonah 1:17.

“Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”

While the English translation says what it says, the meaning is somewhat different to our English understanding... bearing in mind that no singular text can contradict the majority of other texts (16 in the New Testament). And, no New Testament writer would have included a contradictory statement, either.

In the Old Testament the word ‘three’ in Jonah can have several other meanings. One, šilšôm, is interpreted as ‘three days ago’ or ‘the day before yesterday’, which can imply less than three periods of 24 hours. The Jonah text uses the noun shalowsh. This can mean either ‘three’ or a ‘triad’. A triad of days need not necessarily mean three days. The word ‘three’ meant the smallest complete cycle, so its use does not necessary refer to actual hours, but to a small length of time.

And Strong’s speaks of such a period as a time of preparation (note how the women prepared for anointing). ‘Three’ is also, at times, used to show that justice has run its course (‘Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament’) – that is, retribution followed by restoration, re Jesus’ laying in death until He arose.

We can see that ‘the third day’ is very different in ethos to ‘three days and three nights’, for in the latter the actual days and nights are almost irrelevant as numbers. What appears to matter is what happened: the testing and judgment of Jonah followed by His restoration and triumph.

As we know from science, comparisons are only possible like-with-like. We cannot compare two different things with different composition or definitions. The two texts in this article are unlike each other and so we cannot say that one supersedes the other. In reality, both are the same in essence but not in meaning. Jesus used a phrase denoting judgment of sin and a following triumph of grace, whereas ’the third day’ refers to an actual time period.

Many cling to the supposedly missing third night... which would be accurate if the statement about Jonah means three actual days and three actual nights, all of equal length. This kind of argument is put forward by such groups as the United Church of God, which advocates we keep the festivals of the Jews! For this reason it ‘sees’ the ‘third day’ argument as wrong – instead, they say, the death of Jesus took place during two Sabbaths. If a ‘church’ advocates the keeping of Jewish festivals, I would suggest not spending too much time on their interpretation of scripture, which must be pseudo-Judaistic.

These people say that the ‘third day’, could NOT have meant Sunday, or, that Jesus must have died a day earlier, on a Thursday. But, this would then confound the Luke testimony as well as all the other testimonies. It also contradicts what John said in 20:1... that though it was “still dark”, it was also “the first day of the week” – which had to be Sunday! They argue that because it was still dark, it contradicts the idea of a new day. Is not daybreak at different times, depending on season? Is not six in the morning light in summer but dark in winter? Remember – the United Church of God is Judaistic in its teaching.

Another possible explanation is that as the Sabbath day ended at about six in the evening, and the start of the week, Sunday, began just after, it could well have been dark because it was evening. Therefore Jesus could have arisen at any time after six in the evening and dawn twelve hours later! However, the real point is very simple – Jesus arose on the beginning of the week, Sunday. The rest depends on how much we love to argue meagre guesses!

Other Notes

In modern Greek paraskeue means ‘Friday’, just as it did two thousand years ago in scripture. The idea of a fourth day runs contrary to all the other texts that say Jesus arose on “the third day”. The United Church of God insists that preparation was made before ALL other sabbaths, so that work stopped. This is an error, for ordinary work could be done prior to all the other Sabbaths, but could NOT be done prior to the seventh day Sabbath. This is why the chief priests ordered the sepulchre to be guarded ‘on the third day’, NOT ‘until the fourth day’. Jesus was using Hebrew idiom and not actual numbers.

Also ( we have this: ‘It is probably significant that “Every occurrence of the ‘the third day’ with reference to Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels is put in the dat. (dative case) without an accompanying preposition” (Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basic, Zondervan, p. 156). The significance of this is that nouns used in the dative case like “the third day” express a point in time rather than duration of time. So it means, “at a point in time, on the third day”.’ thus, Jesus arose ON the third day and not AFTER the third day.

Please be advised, that cultists and those with improper belief tend to misuse scripture. Be careful what you read and how you might inadvertently support a cult! Those who move the days of scripture serve to dislodge the hearts and minds of genuine believers, creating a hidden well of doubt in scripture as it is written, and building a false basis for understanding.

Difficult though these two arguments can be to some, it is my view that the text in Luke 23 clinches belief in ‘the third day’, and that Jesus died on Friday and rose again early on Sunday. The days are, after all, very tightly described. So, to suddenly say Jesus Himself contradicted His own word in his Jonah statement is impossible. It has to EITHER refer to something different, OR, it must mean exactly the same.

As always, what is clearly shown in scripture MUST be taken as the fact. The Jonah statement is not very clear to modern minds, so must conform to all the other uses of the term ‘the third day’... this is proper interpretive activity. The rest is speculation. Remember – Jesus cannot contradict His own word. To ignore ALL OTHER texts that clearly refer to the ‘third day’ and substitute a fourth day idea (which does not actually appear in scripture), is not just folly, it is heresy.

© April 2013

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