DID CHRIST REALLY SPEND THREE (3) DAYS IN THE TOMB?
-A RESPONSE TO AN EASTER QUESTION
I had a chat with an old friend yesterday, after exchanging pleasantries he brought up the issue of the 3 days in the tomb, demanding for a clarification; that if we claim that Jesus died on Friday (or as we call it Good Friday), why then, are we celebrating his resurrection on Sunday if we also claim that he spent 3 days in the tomb. He even referred me to a passage which says “after three days” (Mk. 8:31); Therefore, he said that Jesus should have risen on Monday. I tried to clarify him in parts after which I decided to restructure my response into an article since some other persons too may share his view.
Dear friends, it is important to note that the 3 days and nights used in the scriptures is contextually based in relation to the ancient Jewish culture; hence, a proper understanding of the scriptures is also based on understanding the language and culture of the ancient Jews, since Christianity is a product of the Jewish culture.
It is very apparent to us (the 21st-century reader) that the phrase “after three days” (Mk 8:31; Mt. 27:63) and “in three days” (Jn 2,19; Mk 9:31; Mt 16:21) as stated in the Bible may initially appear to contradict one another, but in reality, they harmonize perfectly if one understands the different and more liberal, methods ancients Jews often used when reckoning time. For the ancient Jews, any part of a day could be computed for the whole day and the night following it. More importantly, the ancient Jewish day was measured from the rising of the sun to its setting. Hence, 7am of our day is usually the first hour of the day, while 12noon is usually the 6th hour. The day ends at 6pm, which is known as the 12th hour… While the remaining 12hours belong to the night. That is why the Bible usually makes use of the term “days and nights”(for example, forty days and forty nights) to refer to events.
The Jerusalem Talmud quotes rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who lived around A.D. 100, as saying: “A day and night are an Onah (a portion of time) and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it”
Thus, as awkward as it may sound to the contemporary man living in the 21st century, a person in ancient times could legitimately speak of something occurring “on the third day,” or after “three days and three nights,” yet still be referring to the same exact day. How do I mean? The Scriptures contain several examples which clearly show that in Bible times a part of a day was often equivalent to the whole day. In Acts 10, we can glean further insight into the ancient practice of counting consecutive days (in part or in whole) as complete days. Luke recorded in “Acts”, how an angel appeared to Cornelius at “about the ninth hour of the day” (approximately 3:00 p.m.; Acts 10:3). “The next day” (10:9) Peter received a vision from God and welcomed visitors sent by Cornelius. “On the next day” (10:23) Peter and the servants of Cornelius departed for Caesarea. “And the following day they entered Caesarea” where Peter taught Cornelius and his household the Gospel (10:24). At one point during Peter’s visit, Cornelius spoke about his encounter with the angel of God. Notice carefully how he began the rehearsal of the event. He stated: “Four days ago to this hour, I was praying in my house during the ninth hour…” (10:30) Although the event actually had occurred only 72 hours (or three literal days) earlier, Cornelius spoke of it as taking place “four days ago to this hour.” Why four days instead of three? Because according to the first-century method of reckoning time, a part of the first day and a part of the fourth day could be counted as whole days.
Surely one can see how this information aligns itself perfectly with Jesus’ burial taking place on Friday and His resurrection occurring on Sunday. A part of Friday, all day Saturday, and a part of Sunday would be considered three days in ancient times, not one or two.
The idiomatic expressions that Jesus and the Bible writers employed to denote how long Jesus would remain in the grave (after three days or on the third day) do not mean that He literally would be buried for 72 hours. Thus, we interpret the account of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection in light of the cultural setting of the ancient Jews, and not according to our contemporary view. Even the chief priests and the Pharisees understood the concept of the “three days” and asked Pilate to place guards at the tomb until the third day (cf. Mt. 27:63)
Therefore, in our counting, we commence with Good Friday (the day He died, at about the 9th hour which is 3pm) as DAY 1; DAY 2 happens to be the ancient Sabbath Day (Saturday), while DAY 3 falls on the first day of the week (Sunday) which we all understand as Easter.
HAPPY EASTER TO YOU ALL!!!