On What Day Did Jesus Rise?

The May/June 2016 Biblical Archaeology Review Biblical Views column

On what day did Jesus rise? After three days or on the third day? In his Biblical Views column “It’s About Time—Easter Time” in the May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ben Witherington III examines this question. Read his Biblical Views column in full below.—Ed.

“It’s About Time—Easter Time”

by Ben Witherington III

One of the problems in reading ancient texts like the Bible in the 21st century is the danger of anachronism—by which I mean bringing unhelpful modern ideas and expectations to our readings. This problem becomes all the more acute when dealing with ancient texts on which much historical import hinges.


On what day did Jesus rise? On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome came to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (Mark 16:1–2), as depicted here in Henry Osawa Tanner’s “The Three Marys” (1910). Photo: Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, Tennessee.

For example, we are a people obsessed with time—and with exactness when it comes to time—down to the nanosecond. In this regard, we are very different from the ancients, who did not go around wearing little sundials on their wrists and did not talk about seconds and minutes. They did not obsess about precision when it comes to time.

Take a few examples from the Gospels that may help us read the stories about Jesus’ last week of life with more insight.

Some texts tell us that Jesus predicted he would rise “after three days.” Others say he would rise “on the third day.” In Matthew 12:40 Jesus mentions, “three days and three nights,” but this is just part of a general analogy with the story of what happened with Jonah and the whale, and as such the time reference shouldn’t be pressed. Jesus is just saying, “It will be like the experience of Jonah.”

On the other hand, in Mark 8:31 Jesus says, “The Son of Man will rise again after three days.” He mentions the same event in John 2:19 as “in three days,” and on various occasions the Gospel writers tell us Jesus used the phrase “on the third day” (see, e.g., Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 24:46). On the face of it, this might seem to involve a flat contradiction. While both predictions could be wrong, is it really possible both could be right?

In our free eBook Easter: Exploring the Resurrection of Jesus, expert Bible scholars and archaeologists offer in-depth research and reflections on this important event. Discover what they say about the story of the resurrection, the location of Biblical Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the ancient Jewish roots of bodily resurrection, and the possible endings of the Gospel of Mark.


The problem with this sort of modern reasoning is that it assumes the Gospel writers intended always to write with precision on this matter. In fact the phrase “after three days” in the New Testament can simply mean “after a while” or “after a few days” without any clear specificity beyond suggesting several days, in this case parts of three days, would be involved. In fact, the Hebrew Bible provides us with some clues about these sorts of differences. Second Chronicles 10:5, 12 clearly says, “Come to me again after three days … So … all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day because the king had said ‘Come to me again the third day.’” Apparently “after three days” means the very same thing as “on the third day” in this text. Is this just carelessness, or is it in fact an example of typical imprecision when it comes to speaking about time? I would suggest that the phrase “after three days” is a more general or imprecise way of speaking, whereas “on the third day” is somewhat more specific (though it still doesn’t tell us when on the third day). These texts were not written to meet our modern exacting standards when it comes to time.

One of the keys to interpreting the time references in the New Testament is being aware that most of the time, the time references are not precise, and we must allow the ancient author to be general when he wants to be general and more specific when he wants to be more specific. Especially when you have both sorts of references to the time span between Jesus’ death and resurrection in one book by one author, and indeed sometimes even within close proximity to each other, one should take the hint that these texts were not written according to our modern exacting expectations when it comes to time references.

Isn’t it about time we let these authors use language, including time language, in the way that was customary in their own era? I would suggest it’s high time we showed these ancient authors the respect they deserve and read them with an awareness of the conventions they followed when writing ancient history or ancient biography and not impose our later genre conventions on them.1


“Biblical Views: It’s About Time—Easter Time” by Ben Witherington III originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2016. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily on April 18, 2016.

Ben Witherington III is the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland.



1. For help with understanding how to read the Bible in light of its original contexts, see Ben Witherington III, Reading and Understanding the Bible (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014).

In our free eBook Easter: Exploring the Resurrection of Jesus, expert Bible scholars and archaeologists offer in-depth research and reflections on this important event. Discover what they say about the story of the resurrection, the location of Biblical Emmaus, Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, the ancient Jewish roots of bodily resurrection, and the possible endings of the Gospel of Mark.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

When Was the First Communion?

Jesus’ Last Supper Still Wasn’t a Passover Seder Meal

Tour Showcases Remains of Herod’s Jerusalem Palace—Possible Site of the Trial of Jesus

The “Strange” Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes All the Difference

How Was Jesus’ Tomb Sealed?


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5 Responses

  1. Brianroy says:

    Jesus died upon the Cross at the ninth daylight hour on March 23, A.D. 30; the tenth of the Kalends of April (Lactantius, Letter to Donatus, .2). This de facto fell on a Wednesday, the 14th of Nisan, in a properly reckoned calendar because those who with Bachelors who write the Software, such as at NASA, screw it up.
    At Sunset (Shkias HaChamah) Joseph of Arimathea and Nico-demus (a Greek translation for “Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel”– of all Israel outside Jerusalem) embalmed Jesus’ body just south of the Olivet fault, near the Kidron & Hinom Juncture on Olivet, just north of En Rogel. They finished by the time of the appearance of the first three small stars at which time was called “Tzais HaKochavim”.

    The time between Shkias HaChamah and Tzais HaKochavim is called “between suns”. It is at this time that we are in the twilight zone in which the days change, a time of erev or disorder (as we find implied in Genesis 1).

    Jesus was buried from Tzais HaKochavim Wednesday night (now the 15th of Nisan) through Thursday night (now the 16th), through Friday night (now the 17th), through to Saturday night (now the 18th): three nights and three days.

    In all likelihood, He rose again from the dead in the third watch of the night. Jesus was indeed in the earth for an entire three nights and three days.

    When the first light began to break on the eastern sky, but while it was still dark, we see the passages of Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, and John 20:1 in this reverse sequence called “Alos HaShacar”: which is defined as “first light which appears before the sun itself is visible”.
    The time in which the women left for the tomb was at this point, but on the leeward or western side of Olivet, the tomb and the valley of the Kidron would have remained in darkness even after that “Naitz HaChamah” (the rising of the sun as it slips upon and above the horizon). Therefore, there is no discrepency in the Gospel accounts: none.

    At such a point as Alos HaShacar, Jesus had long since arisen, probably at about 3 am, such as when the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee once thought Him a ghost walking upon the water. 3am would follow the last passing of the Centurion (cf. Polybius Book 6.36) visiting the various sentry posts, The women and the apostles come to the tomb before 6am, meaning that the last watch of 3am, the Third Watch, had been verified by at least 2 witnesses as to the security and alertness of the Tomb of Jesus.

    Therefore, we are able to isolate a time of about 4:42-5am for the appearance of the women at the tomb, and the arrival of the apostles as likely between 5am-5:40am…the times being very general and approximate.

  2. Gerald Ford says:

    One matter to consider, though I agree, we don’t need to be obsessive about it. (I can daydream about those sundials on the wrists of the people in the first century.) But seriously, the matter I refer to is the reference to the “preparation day” for the sabbath. As I understand it, the regular Saturday Sabbath would not have had a formal preparation day. Everyone took the routine in stride. This reference to a preparation day was likely preparation for the special sabbath, the Feast of Unleavened Bread (15th of Nisan) which did not necessarily fall on Saturday. Hence, the crucifixion was not necessarily on Friday. Perhaps it was Thursday. This would have been Nisan 14, the usual day that the Passover Lamb was slain. Just some thoughts…

  3. Melody Lewis says:

    As someone who majored in Latin in college, may I add that when ancient Romans counted days, they included both the starting day and the closing day. So, Jesus was crucified on a Friday, the first day, remained in the tomb through Saturday, the second day, and rose on Sunday morning, the third day. By today’s reckoning, the resurrection took place two days after the crucifixion, but in the 1st century AD by Roman reckoning, the resurrection did indeed take place “on the third day.”

  4. Sheldon Bergen says:

    Not using the King James, where do you find easter in the Bible?

    1. James Romanow says:

      In the King Jams Version only. Correct word is Passover Greek πάσχα pascha

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