A Theological/Bible Related Commentary
The New Testament actually provides two answers as to when Jesus was to arise from the dead.
In the one instance, Jesus tells his disciples:
“They will kill him [i.e.,the Son of Man], and ON the third day he will be raised to life.” (Matthew 17:23; NIV; emphasis mine)
and in another, Jesus says this:
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and ON the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:22; NIV; emphasis mine)
Thus, it seems pretty clear that since Jesus was crucified on (Good) Friday, his resurrection was to take place on the following Sunday, i.e. the “third day.”
But elsewhere we read this:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and AFTER three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31; NIV; emphasis mine)
Now, interestingly enough, scholars fully recognize that Mark was the first written gospel, and that both Luke and Matthew used Mark’s gospel as an exemplar as each was composing their own version of events. So it seems rather odd that Luke and Matthew would both chose to alter the text of Mark to read “on the third day,” instead of keeping intact Mark’s original “after three days.” Why do such a thing remains quite the mystery; a mystery we will attempt to solve later in this article.
Short of midway in Matthew’s gospel, we also find Jesus declaring :
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days AND three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40; NIV; emphasis mine)
Thus, even Matthew’s gospel points to a fourth day! That leaves us with two clearly conflicting indications as to when Jesus was to arise from the dead. The question now becomes: How have Christian apologists managed to ” resolve” this thorny issue?
The Christian Apologists Respond
The most accepted explanation put forth by Christian apologists, when they’re brave enough to even tackle the issue at all, is that “On the third day,” and “After three days’ are to be actually understood to mean one and the same day!
Christian apologist, Eric Lyons, at the popular website, Apologetic Press,* argues that both phrases are simply Jewish “idiomatic expressions” used on the part of Jesus to signify the very same day. Eric first cites Matthew 27:63:
“Sir,” they [i.e., the chief priests and the Pharisees] said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again,” (NIV; emphasis mine)
which certainly finds full agreement with the statements found in Mark’s gospel. But then he adds the next verse, where we read:
“So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” (Matthew 27:64 – NIV; emphasis mine)
What Eric does next is remarkable. He argues that since the tomb was to be “made secure” for just three days, and not four, it must surely mean that ON the third day, and AFTER three days both mean one and the same day. He writes:
“The phrase “after three days” must have been equivalent to “the third day,” else surely the Pharisees would have asked for a guard of soldiers until the fourth day. Interesting, is it not, that modern skeptics charge Jesus with contradicting Himself, but not the hypercritical Pharisees of His own day.”*
Eric attributes the skeptic’s “misunderstanding” of scripture to a lack of understanding ancient Jewish idiom and how “days” were actually reckoned at the time. He writes:
“While to the 21st-century reader these statements [“On the third day” versus “After three days”] may initially appear to contradict one another, in reality, they harmonize perfectly if one understands the different, and sometimes more liberal, methods ancients often used when reckoning time.“
Eric then concludes:
“The idiomatic expressions that Jesus and the Bible writers employed to denote how long Jesus would remain in the grave does not mean that He literally was buried for 72 hours. If we interpret the account of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection in light of the cultural setting of the first century, and not according to the present-day (mis)understanding of skeptics, we find no errors in any of the expressions that Jesus and the gospel writers used.”*
End of Part I
Next Time: More Christian apologetics. And later, My rebuttal. (Part II here.)