Three Days and Three Nights

“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” (Matthew 12:40).

I was talking with a man on a Christian site six years ago.  This man was becoming familiar with Armstrongite doctrine.  As often happens with people who learn Armstrongite doctrine, he was trying to show other Christians on the site the error of their ways.

Like Herbert W. Armstrong and his followers, the man was challenging the idea that Christ was crucified on Good Friday and rose on Sunday morning.  Jesus said in Matthew 12:40, after all, that he would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.  Friday to Sunday morning is not three days and three nights.  It is not even one-and-a-half days, for that matter!  It is one full day, two nights, and a morning.  Such was this man’s argument.  Such was the argument that I had heard when I was in Armstrongism.

This man was arguing that Christ was in the tomb for a full three days and three nights: seventy-two hours.  In this scenario, Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday, was buried close to Wednesday evening, and rose from the dead late on Saturday.  (The Thursday was the first Day of Unleavened Bread, a Sabbath.)  As I talk about in my post here, Armstrongites, who were seventh-day Sabbatarians, contended against the claim of many Christians that Jesus rose on Sunday and thus we should honor Sunday to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection.  For Armstrongites, Jesus rose on the seventh-day Sabbath.

I responded by referring to Luke 24:20-21: “And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him.  But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done.”  These are the words that two men are telling an unknown traveler, who turns out to be the resurrected Jesus.  This passage seems to be saying that Jesus is alive on the third day after his crucifixion.  This third day after the crucifixion is a Sunday, as Luke 24:1 indicates.  But, if Jesus rose late on Saturday and after seventy-two hours, would Sunday be the third day after his crucifixion, as the passage seems to suggest?  Would not Saturday be the third day?  Yet, the passage appears to be saying that Sunday was the third day.

The man responded in a variety of ways.  He told me to get a piece of paper and put down the three days and three nights so I could see that Good Friday-Sunday morning did not fit that.  I found that to be extremely condescending on his part: I grew up hearing this argument over and over, and I had said so much to him, so I was familiar with what it said and the basis for it.  I do not appreciate being talked to as if I were not familiar with it, or as if I were a kindergartener, for that matter!  He responded to my question about Luke 24:20-21 with a complex grammatical argument.  The argument itself did not hold water, but he had to know Greek, on some level, to make it, which was somewhat impressive!  He also said that the New Testament contradicts itself on when Jesus rose: one passage says he rose after being buried for three days and three nights, and the other says he rose on the third day.  I doubt that he really believes the New Testament contradicts itself, though.

Indeed, the New Testament says a variety of things about when Jesus rose.  There is the passage that says Jesus was in the tomb for three days and three nights: Matthew 12:40.  In Mark 8:31, Jesus says he will be raised after three days, from the time that he is killed.  Then there are passages that say Jesus will rise on the third day after being killed (e.g., Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 24:7, 21, 46; Acts 10:40; I Corinthians 15:4).  Do these passages contradict each other?  Does Jesus being raised on the third day contradict Jesus rising after three days?  Is not “after three days” after the third day, not on the third day?

Armstrongites had their ways of addressing such issues.  One way was to suggest that Jesus rose right at the moment when the third day was ending and the fourth day was beginning.  That way, Jesus was raised on the third day and after three days, and the three days and three nights are kept intact!  That does not work, though, in light of Luke 24:20-21, in which Jesus has already risen, it’s Sunday, and Sunday is called the third day.

I looked at Herbert W. Armstrong’s The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday.  Armstrong offered different solutions.  For one, Armstrong interpreted “third day” in light of Genesis 1:13: “and the evening and the morning were the third day” (KJV).  This was the third day of creation.  Seventy-two hours of creation had passed.  The evening and the morning marked the third day.  Armstrong may be implying here that the “third day” is consistent with “after three days” and “after seventy-two hours.”  Three evenings and mornings have passed, and that marks the third day.  If that is the case in Genesis 1, why not in Jesus’ resurrection accounts?  There is a problem with Armstrong’s argument here, if I am understanding it correctly.  Armstrong believes that Christians are commanded to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, a la Genesis 2:2-3, Exodus 20:10, etc.  In this case, he rightly interprets the seventh day as the seventh day, not as the time after the seventh day is completed.  “On the nth day” in the Bible means on that day, not after that day has been completed!

Second, regarding Luke 24:20-21, Armstrong says that the “these things” in “to day is the third day since these things were done” include the sealing of Jesus’ tomb on a Thursday (Matthew 27:62-66).  According to Armstrong, Sunday was the third day after the sealing of Jesus’ tomb on Thursday.

I have been reading C. Marvin Pate’s 40 Questions about the Historical Jesus, which Kregel Academic sent me to review.  Pate defends the view that Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose from the dead on Sunday, and he believes that is consistent with Jesus being buried for three days and three nights and rising after three days and on the third day.  Essentially, he argues that Jesus rose on the third day, a Sunday, and that we should take “three days and three nights” and “after three days” not-so-literally, since the Jews did not take these phrases literally.  “Three days and three nights,” for Pate, could mean part of the three days, not necessarily their entirety, and that would fit Jesus being crucified on Friday and rising on Sunday.

Pate cites the following biblical passages to show that, for ancient Jews, part of a day could count as a full day and night:

Esther 4:16-5:1: “(16) Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.  (17) So Mordecai went his way, and did according to all that Esther had commanded him. (5:1) Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house: and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the gate of the house” (KJV).

The Jews, Esther, and Esther’s maidens fast for three days and three nights; Esther goes to the king on the third day.

Genesis 42:17-28: “(17) And he put them all together into ward three days.  (18) And Joseph said unto them the third day, This do, and live; for I fear God” (KJV).

Joseph’s brothers are in the ward for three days.  Joseph lets them out on the third day, yet they are still said to be in the ward for three days.

I Samuel 30:1, 12-13: “(1) And it came to pass, when David and his men were come to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had invaded the south, and Ziklag, and smitten Ziklag, and burned it with fire; (12) And they gave him a piece of a cake of figs, and two clusters of raisins: and when he had eaten, his spirit came again to him: for he had eaten no bread, nor drunk any water, three days and three nights.  (13) And David said unto him, To whom belongest thou? and whence art thou? And he said, I am a young man of Egypt, servant to an Amalekite; and my master left me, because three days agone I fell sick” (KJV).

David and his men had not eaten or drank for three days and three nights when they came to Ziklag on the third day.

I Kings 20:29: “And they pitched one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day” (KJV).

The pitching for battle occurred for seven days, and the battle was joined on the seventh day.

II Chronicles 10:5, 12: “(5) And he said unto them, Come again unto me after three days. And the people departed. (12) So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day, as the king bade, saying, Come again to me on the third day” (KJV).

Rehoboam tells Jeroboam and the Northern Israelites to come back after three days.  They return on the third day, and that is said to fulfill Rehoboam’s command.  Here, “after three days” and “on the third day” are synonymous.

Pate also says that “Josephus uses ‘the third day’ and ‘after three days’ synonymously (Antiquities of the Jews 7.11, 6; 8.8, 1-2)” (page 344).

The key passage in Antiquities 7.11, 6 is Antiquities 7.280-281:

“(280) He also appointed Amasa for the captain of his forces, and gave him the same high office which Joab before had; and he commanded him to gather together, out of the tribe of Judah, as large an army as he could, and come to him within (meth can mean ‘after’) three days, that he might deliver to him his entire army, and might send him to fight against [Sheba] the son of Bichri.  (281) Now while Amasa was gone out, and made some delay in gathering the army together, and so was not yet returned, on the third day the king said to Joab, “It is not fit we should make any delay in this affair of Sheba, lest he get a numerous army about him, and be the occasion of greater mischief, and harm our affairs more than did Absalom himself” (Whiston’s translation; emphasis and note are mine).

The key passage in Antiquities 8.8, 1-2 is Antiquities 8.214, 218:

“(214) but Rehoboam told them they should come to him again in three days’ time (note: literally ‘after three days’), when he would give an answer to their request. This delay gave occasion to a present suspicion, since he had not given them a favourable answer to their mind immediately; for they thought that he should have given them a humane answer offhand, especially since he was but young. However, they thought that this consultation about it, and that he did not presently give them a denial, afforded them some good hope of success. (218) The king was pleased with this advice, and thought it agreeable to the dignity of his government to give them such an answer. Accordingly, when the multitude was come together to hear his answer on the third day, all the people were in great expectation, and very intent to hear what the king would say to them, and supposed they should hear something of a kind nature; but he passed by his friends, and answered as the young men had given him counsel. Now this was done according to the will of God, that what Ahijah had foretold might come to pass” (Whiston’s translation; emphasis and note are mine).

Some may take issue with Pate’s analysis.  After all, in Esther 4:16-5:1, maybe the Jews continued fasting even after Esther appeared before the king on the third day—-they kept fasting until the third day was over.  I cannot come up with an argument against that proposal.  At the same time, some of the passages that Pate presents do seem to show that the Jews were pretty fluid in their understanding of “after three days” and “on the third day,” and that they seemed to equate the two.  Plus, “on the third day” seems to mean “on the third day,” as opposed to some time after the third day.  After all, the seventh day of the week in the Bible is the Sabbath; the Sabbath is not sometime after the seventh day, but it occurs on the seventh day.  The vast majority of interpreters of the Bible acknowledge this.  “On the nth day” apparently means “on the nth day,” in the Bible.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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