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TIME OF THE CRUCIFIXION AND RESURRECTION
THE SIGN OF JONAH
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
Is the "Good Friday, Easter Sunday" tradition a fact or a fable? Few Christian churches believe that this tradition is truly a fable devoid of Biblical support. This belief rests first of all on the interpretation of the so-called "sign of Jonah."
In response to a request for a sign by some doubting scribes and Pharisees, Christ made a startling statement: "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall 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 whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matt 12:39-40).
I. THE DURATION OF THE ENTOMBMENT
What is the sign of Jonah that Christ gave to His unbelieving generation as a proof of His Messiahship? Wednesday Crucifixionists firmly believe that the sign consisted not simply of the resurrection which Christ, like Jonah, would experience after a temporary burial, but primarily of the exact period of 72-hour entombment in the heart of the earth.
An Exact Length of Time. This conviction is emphatically expressed, for example, in the booklet The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday, published by the Department of Theology of Ambassador College: "Jesus offered but one evidence [of His Messiahship]. That evidence was not the fact of the resurrection itself. It was the length of time He would repose in His grave, before being resurrected."1
The implication of this contention is clearly stated in the next paragraph which reads: "Jesus staked His claim to being your Savior and mine upon remaining exactly three days and three nights in the tomb. If He remained just three days and three nights inside the earth, He would prove Himself the Savior—if He failed in this sign, He must be rejected as an impostor."2
72-Hour Entombment. Statements such as the ones just quoted clearly reveal the fundamental importance attached to a 72-hour duration of Christ’s entombment. This conviction rests on the assumption that when "days and nights" are explicitly mentioned in the Bible, they represent literal 24 hour days. Appeal is made to the creation week where each day consists of "evening and morning" that is, of a day and a night.
The designation of each creation day as "evening and morning" is seen as "the only Bible definition which explains and counts up the amount of time involved in the expression ‘the third day.’ It includes three dark periods called ‘night’ and three light periods called ‘day’—three days and three nights, and Jesus said they contained twelve hours for each period [John 11:9-10]—a total of 72 hours."3
II. THE SIGN OF THE RESURRECTION
The interpretation which views the sign of Jonah as being primarily an exact 72-hour period of Christ’s entombment is discredited by three major reasons. These, as we shall now show, indicate that the sign of Jonah consisted not in a 72-hour entombment but in the miracle of the Resurrection.
Absence of Time Reference. The first significant reason is the absence of any time reference in the other two passages mentioning the sign of Jonah (Matt 16:4; Luke 11:29-32). In Luke 11:29-30 Jesus says: "This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation."
Note should be taken of the fact that in Luke there is no reference to the length of time Jonah survived in the whale’s belly. If the sign of Jonah consisted of the time factor, Luke could hardly have ignored it. The comparison in Luke between Jonah and Christ is not in terms of identical duration of entombment, but of similar miraculous Resurrections: "as Jonah . . . so will the Son of man be."
The book of Jonah suggests that Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites through the miraculous way in which God raised Jonah out of the whale’s belly and cast him alive on shore. This experience gave Jonah the compulsion to preach, and the Ninevites the conviction to repent. In the same way as God’s rescue of Jonah revealed Jonah’s prophetic mandate which led many Ninevites to repent, so Christ’s Resurrection would reveal His Messiahship which would lead many to believe.
The vast majority of commentaries consulted agree in viewing the sign of Jonah as being primarily the sign of Christ’s Resurrection. Norval Geldenhuys, for example, writes in The New International Commentary on The Gospel of Luke: "Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, because he appeared there as one sent by God after having been miraculously saved from the great fish (as it were raised from the dead) as a proof that he was really sent by God. So also Jesus will by His resurrection prove conclusively that He has been sent by God as the Christ, the promised Redeemer."4
A Parallel Example. A second significant reason is found in the similar passage of John 2:19 where in response to the same request by the Jews for a sign Jesus replied: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." In this statement Christ makes His Resurrection the unmistakable sign of His Messiahship. By virtue of the parallelism between this text and Matthew 12:40 (in both places a sign is asked for and given), it seems legitimate to conclude that the sign of Jonah is essentially the same in both places, namely, the sign of the Resurrection, which is implicit in the first text and explicit in the second.
The Testimony of the Catacombs. A third reason is provided by the early Christians’ pictorial representation of the sign of Jonah. In numerous frescos of the catacombs, Christ’s Resurrection is symbolically represented as Jonah being spewed out by the whale. In fact, the scene of Jonah (known as "Jonah’s cycle" because it consists of different scenes) is perhaps the most common symbolic representation of Christ’s Resurrection.
The catacombs indicate, then, that the early Christians identified the sign of Jonah with the event of the Resurrection and not with its time element. Paul himself indirectly confirms this view when he writes that Christ was "designated Son of God in power . . . by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom 1:4).
In the light of the above considerations we conclude that the sign of Jonah given by Christ as a proof of His Messiahship consists primarily in His future Resurrection and not in an exact 72-hour entombment. Christ’s Resurrection was the unmistakable vindication of His Messiahship, of which the emergence of Jonah from what was a temporary living burial was in some sense a foreshadowing.
III. INCLUSIVE RECKONING
The literal interpretation of the phrase "three days and three nights" as representing an exact period of 72 hours ignores the abundant Biblical and Rabbinical evidence on the idiomatic use of the phrase "a day and a night," to refer not to an exact number of hours or of minutes, but simply to a calendrical day, whether complete or incomplete. Matthew, for example, writes that Jesus "fasted forty days and forty nights" in the wilderness (Matt 4:2). The same period is given in Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:2 as "forty days," which does not necessarily require forty complete 24 hour days.5
It is important to note that in Biblical times a fraction of a day or of a night was reckoned inclusively as representing the whole day or night. This method of reckoning is known as "inclusive reckoning." A few examples from the Bible and from Rabbinic literature will suffice to demonstrate its usage.
An Abandoned Egyptian. 1 Samuel 30:12 speaks of an abandoned Egyptian servant who "had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights." The idiomatic usage of this expression is shown by the following verse, where the servant states that his master had left him behind "three days ago" (v. 13). If the "three days and three nights" were meant to be taken literally, then the servant should have said that he had been left behind four days before.
Esther’s Visit to the King. Another explicit example of inclusive day reckoning is found in the story of Esther’s visit to the king. When Queen Esther was informed by Mordecai about the plan to exterminate the Jews, she sent this message to him: "Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the King" (Esther 4:16).
If Esther intended the three days and three nights to be taken literally as a 72-hour period of fasting, then she should have presented herself before the King on the fourth day. However, we are told a few verses later that Esther went before the king "on the third day" (Esther 5:1). Examples such as these clearly show that the expression "three days and three nights" is used in the Scriptures idiomatically to indicate not three complete 24-hour days, but three calendric days of which the first and the third could have consisted of only a fraction of a day.6
Rabbinical Literature. Explicit examples for inclusive day reckoning are also found in Rabbinic literature. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who lived about A.D. 100, stated: "A day and a night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it."7 There are other instances in Rabbinic literature where the "three days and three nights" of Jonah 1:17 are combined with Old Testament passages which mention events that took place "on the third day."8 "It is in this light," writes Gerhard Dilling in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, "that we are to understand Matthew 12:40."9
Jewish Practice. The practice of inclusive day reckoning, according to The Jewish Encyclopedia, a standard Jewish reference work, is still in vogue among the Jews today. "In Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day; e.g., the day of the funeral, even when the latter takes place late in the afternoon, is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning; a short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though on the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day."10
The examples cited above clearly indicate that in Biblical times the expression "a day and a night" simply meant a day, whether complete or incomplete. Thus, in the light of the prevailing usage, the expression "three days and three nights" of Matthew 12:40 does not require that Jesus be entombed for 72 hours, but for a full day and two partial days.
IV. ON THE THIRD DAY
A conclusive confirmation of the Biblical method of inclusive day reckoning is provided by the two most common Greek phrases used in the Gospels to describe the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, namely, te trite hemera and meta treis hemeras, which can be literally translated as on the third day and after three days, respectively. The latter phrase, which is used four times in the Gospels (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; Matt 27:63), if taken in isolation would confirm the literal interpretation of "three days and three nights" (Matt 12:40), since the latter requires the Resurrection to take place after three whole days from the time of the Crucifixion.
A Parallel Usage. This interpretation, however,
is discredited by the fact that the very same statement of Christ which
contains the phrase "after three days" in one Gospel, is reported in another
Gospel with the phrase "on the third day." To clarify this point, in the
following table we shall set out the occurrences of these two phrases in
the parallel passages of the Synoptic Gospels:
Identical Meaning. This comparison clearly indicates that Matthew and Luke understood Mark’s "after three days" as meaning "on the third day." Further evidence for the basic identity of the two phrases is provided by Matthew 27:63-64. In verse 63 the Jewish leaders tell Pilate that Christ had said, "After three days I will rise again." In actual fact, up to this point only the expression "on the third day" occurs in Matthew (16:21; 17:23; 20:19), which suggests the identical meaning of the two phrases.
Verse 64 provides additional confirmation when the Jewish leaders request Pilate to have the tomb guarded "until the third day." David Clark keenly observes in his article "After Three Days," published in The Bible Translator, that "Unless this expression [‘until the third day’] referred to a space of time identical with, or at least as great as, that referred to by ‘after three days’ in the previous verse, then the guard would not extend over the whole of the critical period, and the entire paragraph would thus lose its point."11
The same author expresses astonishment at the fact that translators of all major English versions have entirely overlooked "the awkward fact that after three days/three days later does not mean the same thing in English as on the third day."12 Thus, for the sake of accuracy, Clark proposes to use the phrase "on the third day"consistently in all the passages mentioned above.
V. FIRST DAY APPEARANCES
The literal interpretation of the "three days and three nights" is also discredited by Luke’s account of Christ’s appearance on Sunday evening to the two disciples who were going to the village of Emmaus. Christ, whom they had not recognized caught up with them and asked them, "What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?" (Luke 24:17).
The two men, surprised at Jesus’ unawareness of what had happened in Jerusalem, recounted to Him "how our chief priests and rulers delivered him [Christ] to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is not the third day since this happened" (Luke 24:21).13
Third Day on Sunday Evening. To appreciate the significance of the last statement, notice must be taken of two facts. First, the statement was made on the "evening" of the first day when the day was "far spent" (Luke 24:29). Second, "the third day" refers specifically to the events mentioned in the immediate context, namely, Christ’s condemnation and Crucifixion. It is obvious, then, that if Christ had been crucified on a Wednesday afternoon, those two disciples could not have referred to that event on a Sunday night, saying: "It is now the third day since this happened." According to the Jewish inclusive day-reckoning, it would have been the fifth day and not the third.
VI. CHRONOLOGY OF PASSION WEEKEND
The chronology of the Passion weekend provides further evidence of the idiomatic usage of the phrase "three days and three nights." The days of the Crucifixion, entombment, and Resurrection are given in clear sequence and with considerable clarity in the Gospels as Preparation day, Sabbath, first day.
Mark, who writes for a Gentile readership less familiar with Jewish terminology, explains with utmost clarity that Christ was crucified on "the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath" (Mark 15:42). In the following chapter it will be shown that both the term "preparation" (paraskeue) and "Sabbath-eve" (pro-sabbaton) are two technical terms used unmistakably to designate what we call "Friday."
Mark, then, is most precise in explaining that the Crucifixion took place on what today we call "Friday." The next day is designated by Mark as "sabbath" (Mark 16:1) which in turn is followed by the "first day of the week" (Mark 16:2). Mark’s chronological sequence leaves absolutely no room for a two-day interval between the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Similarly Luke makes it clear that the day of Christ’s Crucifixion was followed, not by a Thursday or a Friday, but by a weekly Sabbath. He writes: "It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning" (Luke 23:54). By linking the beginning of the Sabbath to the end of the day of Preparation, and the beginning of the "first day of the week" (Luke 24:1) to the termination of the Sabbath (Luke 23:56), Luke leaves absolutely no room for two full days to intervene between the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
No Two Sabbaths. Some wish to make room for intervening days by arguing that between the Wednesday Crucifixion and Saturday afternoon resurrection there were two Sabbaths: the first, a Passover Sabbath which fell on a Thursday; the second, a weekly Sabbath which fell on the regular Saturday. Such an argument is based on pure speculation because nowhere do the Gospels suggest that two Sabbaths intervened between the day of the Crucifixion and that of the Resurrection.
Support for the two-Sabbath view is sought in the plural form the Sabbath in Matthew 28:1 takes, which literally reads "at the end of the Sabbaths." This text is viewed as "a vital text" which "proves that there were TWO Sabbaths that week with a day in between." The first Sabbath, Thursday, allegedly was "the annual high-day Sabbath, the feast day of the days of Unleavened Bread," while the second was "the weekly Sabbath, Saturday."14
This conclusion is untenable, because, as Harold W. Hoehner points out, "The term Sabbath is frequently (one-third of all its New Testament occurrences) in the plural form in the New Testament when only one day is in view. For example, in Matthew 12:1-12 both the singular and plural forms are used (cf. esp. v. 5)."15 There is then no Biblical basis for a Passover Sabbath which occurred two days before the regular weekly Sabbath.
The clear and uninterrupted chronological sequence of days given in the Gospels is: Preparation day, Sabbath day, and first day. This sequence leaves absolutely no room for a literal interpretation of the phrase "three days and three nights" as representing an exact period of 72 hours.
Conclusion. The foregoing considerations have shown, first, that the sign of Jonah given by Christ to prove His Messiahship consisted not in an exact 72-hour entombment, but in His Resurrection on the third day after His death. Second, the phrase "three days and three nights" (Matt 12:40) is an idiomatic expression which in Bible times meant not necessarily three complete 24-hour days (72 hours), but rather three calendric days, of which the first and the third could have consisted of only a few hours.
The latter conclusion is supported by the prevailing inclusive method of day-reckoning, by the parallel usage of the phrases "after three days" and "on the third day," and by the uninterrupted chronological sequence of days which does not allow for three complete 24-hour days. A recognition of these facts adequately explains how Jesus fulfilled His prediction of a "three days and three nights" entombment by being buried on Friday afternoon and rising early on Sunday morning.
NOTES ON CHAPTER II
1. Herbert W. Armstrong, The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday (Pasadena, California: Ambassador College, 1972), p. 4; emphasis supplied.
2. Ibid., p. 4.
3. Ibid., p. 6.
4. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1983), p. 334. Similarly Leon Morris comments: "For the Ninevites the sign was the reappearance of a man who had apparently been dead for three days. For the men of Jesus’ day the sign would be the reappearance of the Son of Man on the third day after His death" (The Gospel According to St. Luke, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids, 1982], p. 201.
5. Similar examples are found in Gen 7:4, 12; Ex 24:18; 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8; Job 2:13.
6. For more examples and a discussion of the inclusive reckoning, see Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. II, pp. 136-137; vol. V, pp. 248-251.
7. Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbath 9, 3; cf. also Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 4a.
8. See Midrash Rabbah: Genesis 56,1 (on Gen 22:4); Genesis 91,7 (on Gen 42:17-18); Esther 9,2 (on Esther 5:1).
9. Gerhard Dilling, "hemera," in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, 1974), vol. II, p. 950.
10. The Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. "Day," vol. IV, p. 475.
11. David Clark, "After Three Days," The Bible Translator 30 (July 1979): 341.
12. Ibid., pp. 342, 343.
13. Emphasis supplied.
14. Herbert W. Armstrong (n. 1), p. 13.
15. Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids, 1977), pp. 69-70.