Yesterday while I was at services in my usual congregation, I was asked by one of my fellow brethren to help him with a question a Quaker had asked him concerning the expression “three days and three nights” in Hebrew. Although a full explanation of this doctrine exists , perhaps the most obvious place to begin is this discussion of Fundamental Belief of the United Church of God #7, which states: “We believe that the Father raised Jesus Christ from the dead after His body lay three days and three nights in the grave, thus making immortality possible for mortal man. He thereafter ascended into heaven, where He now sits at the right hand of God the Father as our High Priest and Advocate (1 Peter 1:17-21; 3:22; Matthew 12:40; 1 Corinthians 15:53; 2 Timothy 1:10; John 20:17; Hebrews 8:1; Hebrews 12:2).”
My proposal is not to discuss this belief in depth, but rather to provide something far more focused. Namely, what I would like to do is discuss the specific language, as best as it can be determined from the original language, that looks at the expressions used to describe Jesus’ time in the grave. This task is sufficiently serious to merit one’s attention and I will leave it to those who have greater leisure than I do to discuss the doctrine of three days and three nights in more detail or to give polemical discussions about how this doctrine relates to other areas of interest. Suffice it to say that our belief on three days and three nights has a great deal of significance in our view of the chronology of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not least because it was the only sign (Matthew 12:40) that he gave concerning his death and resurrection.
And it is worthwhile to begin with that passage. Matthew 12:38-40 tells us: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”” The Greek expression here is τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας. This expression means, quite plainly, three days and three nights, and is fascinating to read the commentaries and note how this expression of continuous time is torturously interpreted to mean something other than that which it quite plainly means, a continuous and unbroken period of three daytime periods as well as their corresponding nighttime periods, or what we would consider as 72 hours.
This is not the only expression used to describe this time period, we should note. Mark 9:31 tells us: “For He taught His disciples and said to them, “The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him. And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.”” This expression “the third day” comes from the Greek expression τη τριτη ημερα, which, as we can see, is slightly different but very close to the above expression for three days and three nights. Likewise, 1 Corinthians 15:4 and Luke 18:33 tell us that he rose on the third day, and this expression in the Greek is τη ημερα τη τριτη, which, as can be seen, is very similar to the expression above for “the third day,” with an additional word in the Greek to signify that it was on the third day.
Yet strangely, the question asked of my fellow congregant was not about the three days and three nights in the Greek, which is consistently worded as seen above, but rather about the expression in Hebrew, which can only come from the reference that Jesus made to the experience of Jonah in Jonah 1:17, which reads: “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” In the Greek, the expression three days and three nights is translated as τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας, which is exactly what we see in Jesus’ statements about how long he would be in the earth. This is a translation of a complex Hebrew expression that means, as it does in Greek, three days and three nights. Although the idiom is unusual, the expression three days and three nights appears to be a way of overcoming the ambiguity of days in the Hebrew. After all, if someone says something will happen in three days, do they mean to count inclusively or exclusively? Something could take place after three days or before three days on the third day, and this sort of ambiguity can be resolved by making it plain that one means three 24 hour periods of day and night that total 72 hours, which is a vastly more precise schedule.
Perhaps the most obvious question to ask is why this plain meaning of the text is so difficult for some to accept? After all, the various ways that the Bible has of referring to the time that Jesus Christ was in the earth–three days and three nights, on the third day, after the third day, all resolve to exactly 72 hours, the only time period where all such formulations can be simultaneously true. Yet most people assume that Jesus Christ was crucified on the sixth day of the week as the weekly Sabbath approached and was resurrected around dawn on the first day of the week, after only about 36 hours in the tomb. And here it is unclear exactly how the three days and three nights are to be meant even by less demanding formulations than the biblical expressions reviewed above. After all, if one takes the biblical conception of time in mind, we see plainly from the resurrection accounts that Jesus Christ was already resurrected by the time that day broke on the first day of the week, which means that we only have the nighttime and daytime portions of the Sabbath and part of the nighttime portion of the first day of the week to provide the time Jesus Christ was in the tomb. There is simply not enough time to make three days and three nights out of that period, and yet instead of believing the scriptures, people would rather wish to force 72 hours into 36 hours and do violence to the clear biblical text.
And that is what is most mysterious about this text. There are many cases  where the Bible is genuinely mysterious, especially in translation. Yet in this particular time the translation is adequate to the Greek and Hebrew words involved, which specify three daylight and three nighttime portions of time of continuous duration, or what we would specify with an expression like “three full days,” but the difficulty on the part of many interpreters is accepting and acknowledging what the Bible clearly says, which would require them to abandon their desires to conflate the biblical record with the heathen festivals they wish to baptize and adopt into Christianity. To be sure, the Bible does leave the reader with a genuine mystery, and that is what did Jesus Christ do between his resurrection on Sabbath evening around sunset and his conversations on the first day of the week with Mary Magdelene and others after a brief ascension to serve as the wave sheaf offering to signify his position as the first of the firstfuits. Yet at least that is a genuine mystery, as the Bible does not give us all of the details we would wish about a story, only that which is needful for us.
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