The original question was: In Matthew 12:40 Jesus states “Just as Jonah was 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of a whale, so should the son of man be 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth” (NKJV) Yet the church says Jesus was buried on a Friday and rose on a Sunday – which is only 3 days and 2 nights? Isn’t this a contradiction?
Answer by John Mackay
If this verse was the only data available, then yes it would be a disagreement at the very least, and as portrayed in the question, it could be presented as a contradiction, since the numbers 3 and 2 are not the same. However, the Bible contains much more data on Jesus’ death and resurrection than just this reference, so let’s examine them in full.
As a result of reading the reference to Jonah as 3 full days and 3 full nights, some Christians have suggested Christ was crucified on Wednesday and this claim is usually accompanied by suggestions that the Catholic Church and not Scripture is the historical source of the Good Friday burial for Christ.
The New Testament repeatedly states Jesus was raised on the third day, so the apparent problem with the Wednesday view is if he was in the grave 3 full days and 3 full nights, then he seemingly should have been raised on the fourth day. Can we resolve this apparent dilemma? Was Jesus crucified and buried on what is called Good Friday or was it a Wednesday? Let’s consider a few source texts (NKJV), take an in-depth look at a key issue on the meaning of the term ‘day of preparation’, then survey some OT history on the use of the third day.
Source: Converted Jewish Tax Collector Matthew
Matthew 16:21: From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Source: Greek Doctor Luke reporting on disillusioned disciples meeting the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.
Luke 24:19: And He (Jesus) said to them, “What things?” So they (The disciple) said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a Prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened.“
Source: Converted Pharisee Paul
1 Cor 15:3-5: For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,…
The Day of Preparation
Pastor Matt White (pers. com.) has helped considerably with the background research and references for this first section on the Greek Text so many thanks to him.
Luke’s Gospel informs us in 23:52-54, that Joseph of Arimathea “went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock, where no one had ever lain before. That day was the Preparation, and the Sabbath drew near.
Checking the Greek of verse 54 shows that ‘the day of Preparation’ is a translation of the Greek. παρασκευή, transliterated into English as Paraskeuē (note the “ē” is pronounced as a long e), ‘and the Sabbath’ which was beginning, is a translation of the Greek Sabbaton.
Luke 23:55-56: then adds that “the women who had come with Him from Galilee followed after, and they observed the tomb and how His body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment.
Then we read in Luke in 24:1 that “ …on the first day of the week (Greek: “Mia tōn Sabbatōn” literally “first of the week” in English), very early in the morning, they, and certain other women with them, came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.
The Greek word we translate as “preparation day” is παρασκευή, transliterated into English as paraskeuē (note the “ē” is pronounced as a long e). Walter Bauer’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature 2nd & 3rd editions are a standard Greek Lexicon used in NT Studies. The 1979 edition page 622 states “…to Jewish usage it was Friday, on which day everything had to be prepared for the Sabbath, when no work was permitted… For the Christians as well παρασκευή served to designate the sixth day of the week Friday …”
First century usage confirms this.
An early first or second century AD Greek treatise labelled the Didache (literally “teaching”) in discussing what days Christians should fast states: “But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday (Gk. deutera or “second”) and Thursday (Gk. Pemptē or “fifth”), so you must fast on Wednesday (Gk. Tetrada or “fourth”) and Friday (Gk: Paraskeuē)” – Didache 8:1. (Holmes, Michael. 2007. Apostolic Fathers: 3rd edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.)
We do need to note that the author of the Didache was able to write Christians no later than the second century AD, correlating days with numbers, but when writing about Friday did not use the Greek term for “sixth”, but rather the word paraskeuē meaning day of preparation. Even today in Greece the spoken language (Demotic Greek) the term παρασκευή refers only to Friday, which you can easily check with an online translator.
Additional Data From John’s Gospel
In the Gospel of John 2:19-22 Jesus is recorded answering His Jewish critics with, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” The rest of the text tells us he is referring to his body and we need to note his reference is to in three days and not to a fourth day. We also need first ask: how did those who heard Him, understand his words?
We find out when Jesus’ enemies, the Pharisees, presented to Pilate, their scheme to prevent any rumours about Christ resurrecting after His burial. They stated that Jesus had prophesied “after three days I will rise again” (Matthew 27:63), and then showed their understanding of what Jesus meant by requesting a Roman guard to be placed at the tomb until the third day. At this point it is very evident that in their Jewish mind, the phrase ‘after three days’ was not in any contradiction with an event which happened “on the third day”. If they had understood any other meaning for the Jonah reference or anything else Jesus had stated about the three days and three nights, they would have requested a guard to be placed until the fourth day.
We also find several Old Testament uses of this concept transfer where ‘three days and three nights’ is clearly used to refer to events culminating on a third day. In 1 Samuel 30:12-13 David meets an Egyptian who claims “… we had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights,” but in the very next verse the same person states; “my master left me behind… 3 days ago.”
Similarly in Esther a period described as “for three days, night and day” (4:16) is concluded “on the third day” (5:1).
Even further back in Old Testament history, Joseph who had imprisoned his brothers in Egypt for 3 days, spoke to them in Genesis 42:18: Then Joseph said to them on the third day, “Do this and live, for I fear God”. Joseph released them on the third day which is a good indication that to an Israelite mind, the phrase “after three days” and the concept “on the third day” were not considered contradictory to each other, but had simply become interchangeable terms that had entered cultural acceptance as a mode of Israeli/Jewish thought at least 1,800 years before Christ. .
This is further confirmed in extra scriptural writings of the Jews, such as “The Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish commentaries which relates that “a portion of a day is as the whole of it” (Mishnah, third Tractate B.Pesachim, page 4A). Likewise the even older Jerusalem Talmud similarly says “We have a teaching, a day and a night are as an Onah and a portion of an Onah is as the whole of it” (Mishnah Tractate J. Shabbath chapter IX paragraph 3). Onah simply refers to a period of time. For those who want further reading on this, the context of the time under discussion in these documents which date many centuries prior to the crucifixion, concern when, what and how long a man can have sexual relations with a woman. Perhaps you don’t want to go there eh?
Time frame shift – a further factor!
The original Jewish method of measuring the day as sunset to sunset, is based on Genesis chapter 1:1-5, where God’s created time commenced with “the evening and the morning were the first day”. This six hour shift forward in time from our western ‘midnight to midnight’ based day does causes confusion.
So let’s clarify this. The Roman trial of Jesus, beginning “when morning came” (Matthew 27:1) around 6am on our clock, becomes the first day of our time line. As recorded in Mark’s Gospel 15:25 Christ was then crucified (using the Jewish time frame) on the third hour which makes it 9am of that first day. So Jesus was on the cross between 12 noon and 3pm our time, which is also recorded as a period of intense darkness.
That first day on the cross concluded just before the 6pm sunset prior to commencement of the Sabbath, which is why the Jews were so keen to get him off the cross and buried. They couldn’t work on any Sabbath, let alone their ‘revealed’ first 7th day Sabbath of rest, which was given by God to commemorate their ‘rest’ from the slavery of Egypt, which is therefore associated with the first Passover, given to Moses back in Leviticus 23, and which is the one being referred to when we read of Jesus celebrating the Passover prior to the crucifixion.
It is of interest to note that Jesus had been on the cross for only a portion of the day prior to this special first Sabbath. Now add to your western understanding, the historical Jewish time concept of Onah, so by the time Jesus was removed from the cross, the time involved provably qualifies in Jewish understanding as ‘one whole day and one whole night’.
Christ’s second day began when he was taken off the cross and placed in the tomb of the rich man, prior to commencement of the 6pm Sabbath. He was still in the grave around 24 hours later, just prior to the 6pm start of the first day of the week (our Saturday evening) which commenced His third day. Then after a maximum of 12 hours of the first day of the week had passed, He rose very early on the morning just after sunrise, so the time passing was now into a third day. Again according to both Jewish and Babylonian Talmuds this also qualified as being a third onah (or third day and night), along with being the basis for the oft repeated New Testament statement in the Gospels and the Epistle writers that ‘Christ rose on the third day’. (See reference list at end)
Both the Jewish calendar sixth day, seventh day and first day, and the western calendar time frame of Friday, Saturday and Sunday meet all requirements of the data listed in Scripture and have no need of any change. Claims that they should be suspected as false because they have been promoted by the Catholic Church are no more valid than rejecting Jesus is the Son of God or the Trinity is false simply because it has historically been taught by Roman Catholics.
Similarly the Wednesday/Thursday crucifixion concepts which commence with a “non-Jewish mindset” reading of the statement by Jesus about Jonah referring to three whole days and three whole nights, then attempt to raise Jesus before sunrise on the first day of the Jewish week, just simply don’t fit. The mental gymnastics required to add new meaning to day of preparation, extra non seventh day Sabbaths etc., in order to accommodate this view or the drawing of elaborate time diagrams to join the dots are simply unnecessary.
Further references and comments are included in the PDF version of this question: Three Days, Third Day. Download PDF https://askjohnmackay.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/three-days-third-day.pdfhere.
Illustration: Jesus’ Burial and Resurrection, Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
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