With the Passover-Easter season drawing near, I’m getting ready for a question I hear almost every year: How can Christian tradition say that Yeshua was crucified on a Friday and rose again Sunday morning, when Yeshua himself said that he would be “three days and three nights in the depths of the earth” (Matt 12:40)? Since Yeshua rose before dawn on the first day (which we call Sunday), he must have been crucified on a Thursday, and spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights in the tomb.
That seems to be the literal sense of Matt 12, but taking an isolated biblical passage in its simple literal sense doesn’t always produce the best interpretation. Yeshua cites “three days and three nights” just once. The Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 say a dozen times or more that Yeshua rose “on the third day,” and the two statements don’t jibe. If Yeshua stayed in the grave three days and three nights, he’d rise on the fourth day. Just to be sure, let’s see how Yeshua himself defines “third day.”
Just at that moment, some P’rushim came up and said to Yeshua, “Get out and go away from here, because Herod wants to kill you!” He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Pay attention: today and tomorrow I am driving out demons and healing people, and on the third day I reach my goal.’ Nevertheless, I must keep travelling today, tomorrow and the next day; because it is unthinkable that a prophet should die anywhere but in Yerushalayim.” (Luke 13:31–33)
Day one is today, day two is tomorrow, and then comes the third day. By this chronology, in Yeshua’s final days, Friday would be “today”, Shabbat would be “tomorrow”, and Sunday would be the third day. “Three days and three nights” is apparently an idiomatic expression, and if you want to be more precise, you have to go with “on the third day.” This same usage appears in the Tanakh, if you compare Esther 4:16 with 5:1, or 1 Samuel 30:12 with 30:13.
Moreover, “On the third day” had tremendous significance even before the resurrection. Rav Sha’ul writes,
For among the first things I passed on to you was what I also received, namely this: the Messiah died for our sins, in accordance with what the Tanakh says; and he was buried; and he was raised on the third day, in accordance with what the Tanakh says. (1 Cor. 15:3–4)
Paul says that Messiah’s resurrection “on the third day” is in accordance with Scripture, but there are actually few, if any, direct references to a third-day resurrection of the Messiah in the Tanakh. Hosea 6:2 speaks of a general resurrection on the third day, and this may be part of Paul’s thinking, but the background of the third days goes well beyond that.
In Midrash Genesis 56.1 the rabbis discuss the third day as the day of revelation, starting with the story of Abraham traveling to Moriah to offer up Isaac.
“On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes…” (Gen 22:4). It is written “He will revive us after two days; on the third day He will set us up, and we will live before Him” (Hos 6:2). On the third day of the tribes it is written, “On the third day, Joseph said to them…” (Gen 42:18). On the third day of the spies, as it says “…and hide yourselves there three days…” (Josh 2:16). On the third day of the giving of the Torah, as it says “It came to pass on the third day…” (Exod 19:16). On the third day of Jonah, as it is written “…and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights” (Jon 2:1). On the third day of the resurrection of the dead, as it is written “He will revive us from the two days, on the third day He will set us up, and we will live before Him” (Hos 6:2). On Esther’s third day, “Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther clothed herself regally…” (Est 5:1).
The third day clearly enjoys a special status, and the rabbis ask how it comes to merit such favor.
The Rabbis say: in the merit of the third day of the giving of the Torah, as it says “It came to pass on the third day when it was morning…” (Exod 19:16). Rabbi Levi said: in the merit of the third day of our father Avraham, as it says “On the third day, Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar” (Gen 22:4). What did he see? He saw a cloud attached to the mountain. He said: it appears that this is the place where the Holy One told me to offer up my son.
“The third day” has been the day of revelation ever since Avraham saw the glory-cloud in the mountain and knew this is to be the place of Isaac’s sacrifice on the third day. In Paul’s time, rabbinic discussion was already linking the offering of Isaac with the resurrection (as in Hosea 6). When Avraham tells his servants “I and the boy will go there, worship and return to you” (Gen 12:5), he is hinting that Isaac will be raised again after he offers him up in sacrifice. In this midrash the offering of Isaac receives preeminence even over the giving of Torah. The stage is set for the resurrection of Messiah on the third day, and for all to recognize that this miracle that changes everything is already foretold in the Hebrew Bible.
All Scripture references are from Complete Jewish Bible.
Illustration: Resurrection at the River, Marc Chagall.