Monday, April 02, 2007

On the Theory of a Wednesday Crucifixion: 3. Interpretation

This is the third in a series on the theory of a Wednesday crucifixion. We've reviewed the relevant scriptures and some logical considerations. Here we come to the interpretation of the scriptures dealt with in the first part.

A. μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας, "after three days."
Aside from the reference to the "sign of Jonah" in Matthew 12:40, there are only three scriptures that seem clearly to imply a literal three days in the tomb. These "after three days" passages are all in the Gospel of Mark, and reflect the "three major passion predictions" found in all three Synoptic Gospels. What is notable about each of these passages in Mark is that they all find parallels in Matthew and Luke, and in these parallel passages the expressions found in Matthew and Luke never retain the meaning "after three days." In all five cases where the time factor is mentioned (Luke omits the temporal reference entirely from the third prediction), the expression is uniformly, "on the third day" (Matt. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19; Luke 9:22, 18:32-33).

On the theory of the priority of Mark (Stein, 45-88; Carson, Matthew, 11-17) Matthew and Luke each "cleaned up" Mark's rather erratic Greek, and this would account for the misleading "after three days" to be altered to "on the third day." On the theory of Matthean priority, Mark altered Matthew's expression while Luke chose to retain it. In any case, the evangelists themselves evidently saw "after three days" and "on the third day" as equivalent expressions. Since Jewish reckoning was inclusive, something happening "on the third day" after something else (the day after the day after the original event) would have been counted as three days later, or "after three days" (Foster, 599; Carson, Matthew, 296).

B. Ambiguous or oblique references
1. Jesus' prediction to raise the temple "in three days"
John 2:19 records Jesus' prediction that he would raise the temple "in three days." Verse 21 goes on to explain that "the temple he had spoken of was his body." The phrase "in three days" would seem to be ambiguous, potentially referring either to the "temple" being raised on the third day after it was destroyed, or after three full days; again, Jewish inclusive reckoning would seem to favor the first understanding. But in light of the potential ambiguity, it would be unwise to base a decision on this verse, and still more unwise to base it on the verses which report hostile witnesses repeating Jesus' words (v. 20; Mk. 14:58; Matt. 26:61; 27:40).
2. The guarding of the tomb
One particular case of such "hostile repetition" merits additional note: in Matthew 27:62-64, the chief priests and Pharisees ask for "the tomb to be made secure until the third day," because they remember his claim that "after three days I will rise again." Although we have here a fourth example, and in a different Gospel, of the formulation "after three days," it occurs immediately in context with the formulation "until the third day"; i.e., we seem to have here an explicit equating of the two expressions, "after three days" and "until the third day," which would reconfirm the idea that according to Jewish inclusive reckoning, "after three days" would mean "until the third day," and not "until the fourth day," as it would naturally mean in modern English.

It is possible to argue that "until the third day" would mean the third day from the time they were speaking--i.e., the day "after Preparation," or after the crucifixion. Granted a Wednesday crucifixion and Jewish inclusive reckoning, they would only be asking for a guard until Saturday; one would further have to postulate that by "until the third day," they meant for the guard to remain at the tomb throughout Saturday night (technically, the beginning of Sunday). It would be much more natural to suppose that "after three days" and "until the third day" are intended to be synonymous expressions (as the Matthew-Mark parallels make clear that they are), so that "until the third day" contextually refers to the third day from the crucifixion, not the third day from their conversation. Again, it would be unwise to base a teaching on an ambiguous reference, and especially one that comes from the mouths of Jesus' enemies.
3. Jesus' response to Herod's threats
The ambiguity of the final reference is largely due to the fact that the passage itself is a veiled reference to Christ's passion, and some could argue that it is not a reference at all. In Luke 13:32, included in a response to a threat from Herod, Jesus refers to "today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal." Although there is no explicit mention of the passion, Jesus refers to his death in the following verse, after mentioning again "today and tomorrow and the next day." If anything, this passage would tend to support a Friday crucifixion, but again, no dogmatic conclusions should be drawn.
C. τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ, "on the third day."
If the above analyses are correct, only one scripture seems clearly to indicate a full three-day entombment: the "sign of the prophet Jonah" in Matthew 12:40. Against this lone verse must be weighed the preponderance of scriptures that unambiguously indicate that Jesus rose "on the third day." These include at least ten separate scriptures, representing the pens of Matthew and Luke (writing both in Luke and in Acts) and Paul.

Five of the ten--parallels with Mark's passion predictions--have already been discussed. Their value lies in calling into question the implication that could be drawn from Mark that Jesus lay entombed for three full days. Two other references--Acts 10:40 and 1 Corinthians 15:4--also clearly state that Jesus rose on the third day. It is important to note that in every one of these predictions and recollections (except, arguably, 1 Corinthians 15:4), Jesus is represented as rising on the third day after his crucifixion and death, not after his burial. The Thursday-to-Saturday scheme mentioned in section II, even if plausible on its face, would only account for Jesus rising on the third day from his burial, not from his crucifixion and death. Moreover, the three remaining references, all from Luke's post-resurrection account, make it clearly impossible that the Crucifixion occurred on Wednesday.

Luke 24:6-7 and 24:46 assert (from the mouths of an angel and from the resurrected Christ, respectively), that Jesus would rise on the third day. In itself, this is no greater proof than the pre-resurrection predictions. But Luke 24:21 records the disciples on the road to Emmaus telling Jesus (whom they do not yet recognize), "This is the third day [τρίτην ταύτην ἡμέραν] since all this took place." This conversation is clearly located after the morning visits to the empty tomb (vv. 22-24), which undisputedly took place "on the first day of the week" (v. 1). Since "all this" cannot refer to Jesus' entombment, but rather refers to his sentencing to death and crucifixion (v. 20), it is impossible to suppose, on the theory of a Wednesday crucifixion, that Sunday is the "third day since all this took place"; by Jewish reckoning, it would in fact be the fifth. It is simply impossible to construe events clearly taking place on Sunday--the conversation of the disciples with Jesus on the road to Emmaus--as being on "the third day" from events--Jesus being sentenced to death and being crucified--supposed to have occurred on a Wednesday.

D. "Three days and three nights"
In light of the preponderance of scriptures indicating that Jesus rose on the third day, it would seem more reasonable to search for an alternative interpretation of the sole verse that states that Jesus was in the tomb for "three days and three nights" than it would be to insist on literalism for this verse at the expense of having to reinterpret all the others.

In fact, the context of Matthew 12:40 rather clearly indicates the possibility that the time period is not to be taken strictly literally. Jesus is responding to the religious leaders' unbelieving demand for a "sign" by referring to Jonah as a type of his own passion. Quoting Jonah 1:17, Jesus draws the analogy by applying the "three days and three nights" terminology to his own passion, knowing that "in rabbinical thought a day and a night make an õnâh, and a part of an õnâh is as the whole" (Carson, Matthew, 296); i.e., his audience (the Jews) would not have been confused; and we may suppose that Matthew's audience was more familiar with this time reckoning than was Luke's, which may be why Luke chooses another rendering in the parallel passage of Luke 11:29-32. The Old Testament records examples of such reckoning, notably in 2 Chronicles 10:5, 12:
And he said to them, "Return to me again in three days." So the people departed. . . . So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day as the king had directed, saying, "Return to me on the third day." (NASB; similarly RSV KJV NKJV)

Here, not only do Jeroboam and all the people understand Rehoboam to intend for them to return on the third day, when he had said, "in three days," but they even repeat his words back to him, paraphrased as "on the third day." Other similar examples include 1 Sam. 30:12-13 and Esther 4:16, 5:1.

In light of the precedent of such language, it is reasonable to suppose that Jesus' resurrection "on the third day" was close enough for those familiar with Jewish time reckoning to be regarded as a fulfillment of the Jonah typology.

The final installment of this series will deal with a few ancillary issues and wrap it up with a final conclusion.


Works Cited

The Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984. (All scripture references unless otherwise noted.)

------. New American Standard Bible. La Habra, CA: Collins-World, 1973.

Carson, D.A. "Matthew." The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 8. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Regency-Zondervan, 1984. 1-599.

------. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Foster, Lewis A. "The Chronology of the New Testament." The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 1. Ed. Frank E. Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Regency-Zondervan, 1984. 593-607.

Stein, Robert H. The Synoptic Problem: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987.

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  1. Wow, and to think i thought three days and three nights meant three days and three nights. Good to know Jonah only had to spend a day and a half in the whale also.....oh that would be news to him!!!

  2. Wow, and to think I thought "on the third day" meant "on the third day." And since that expression is used far more frequently.....

    I have no idea why some people insist on reading the whole of scripture through the lens of just a few verses. That's a much larger problem than just in these passages.

  3. I appreciate your research, this is not an issue for me but was smacked with it this morning in a service while visiting another church, It was used to build a basis for a teaching and take a few swipes at many others.I will use this for my further study. Thanks again it is a great help..

  4. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your kind comments. It's not a serious issue for me either; but those who want to make it into a serious issue end up causing division and strife, as you've already seen. I'm grateful that my little study has been a benefit.

  5. Thank you for your observations; the issue is Liturgical for me, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday for a significant liturgical event. We're not troubled by members of our own church on this matter, but some visit our message board(s) and seek to promote a Wednesday crucifixion for the purposes of causing divisions and to condemn anything that doesn't match their perspective on the "Three days and three nights" throey.