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. The article was first republished in Bible History Daily in 2016.—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.

ben-witherington

Ben Witherington III

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.
 

 
tanner-three-marys

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.

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.
 

 

Notes:

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).
 


 

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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  • Vincent says

    Enlightenment: the Jewish calendar followed the Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls now translated their 1st day of week which is what was written in the gospels was a Wednesday the 15th month of Nisan. Gospel of John states Jesus was crucified on the preparation day before the Passover on the 14th. The preparation day was the 13th commencing Monday evening when Jesus had the last supper not Passover, next morning still the 13th He was crucified and buried before the Passover which also fell on the Sabbath this is the meaning of High day this is the 1st day buried, the second day was the Passover Sabbath which fell on our Tuesday and the 3rd was the 15th also Wednesday and 1st day of the Feast of the Unleavened Bread and also the Jewish Essene 1st day of week. Gospel of John and the Essene calendar now correlate due to my research. Jesus rose on the 3rd day. All gospels except Mathew state on the 3rd day, the Jonah reference in Mathew is an interpolation and corrupt. Christian churches have mistakingly taken the 1st day to mean Sunday but now we see it was a Wednesday the first day of creation and weekday in the month of Nissan. Christendom has been duped by following a Roman calendar sustem instituted by Constantine in the 4th century. Talmud Jews also follow the false calendar since that time. The true Sabbath is a lunar Sabbath as documented by the Essenes, it changes each lunar cycle month slightly thankyou Vincent Ruello

  • Joshua says

    The issue isn’t what day did Jesus rise, but rather, which day was he crucified? To get the prophetic accuracy Jesus gave of Jonah in the belly of the whale and his own prophecies about rising again after 3 days. We know that in the Gospels, Jesus was crucified as the Sabbath day drew on. And Mary came to the tomb on the first day of the week (Sunday). What has been often misunderstood and misrepresented at large by many Catholic and Protestant theologians, is that the Sabbath day which Jesus died on was a ‘high day’ (a special sabbath day) as it was the feast of unleavened bread which marked a 7 day celebration of the exodus from Egypt As recorded in Leviticus 23:6 and Exodus.23:15
    Jesus died at the ninth hour (3pm) and was buried before the Sabbath (Sabbath starts at sundown, according to God’s creation in Genesis “Evening and morning were the first day” ).
    Somewhere between the time of Christ and today, the Roman Catholic Church and many of its offshoot protestant branches, have misunderstood the Sabbath inwhich Jesus died on and created a friday resurrection scenario, which contradicts Scripture. Like calling priests father, which Jesus condemned (Matthew 23:9) praying to deceased saints and other mediators, also against truth of Scripture (1 Timothy 2:5). Palm Sunday is another contradiction which does not stand up with Scripture.
    to summarise here goes.
    Day 1 Thursday (day)and night) Jesus dies at 3pm (high day sabbath)
    Day 2 Friday (day and night) Jesus in hell (heart of the earth)
    Day 3 Saturday (day and night)
    Sunday morning before the sun rises, Mary goes to the tomb and Christ has risen.
    3 days and 3 nights is fulfilled. No contradiction, just misreading and understanding of Scripture. Interpretation does not come by our own mind, but the Holy Spirit must give us revelation to the truth in the Scriptures.
    Jesus had the same battle with the Pharisees, who took Scripture and made a doctrine out of it that Christ would come from Bethlehem and not Galliee/Nazareth. But Scripture says that God will call his Son out of Egypt (Hosea) come out of Bethlehem (Micah) and Gallilee (Isaiah).

  • Tai says

    It’s About Time—Easter Time”
    by Ben Witherington III
    In the last days, confusion will reign. This article is all about that.
    Biblical Archaeology… I haven’t seen one story on Passover is not Easter. Baal worship and Ishtar. How there can be “two Passovers” in one week. Instead you give us fluff, like this Dr. Witherington. How did the city of Luxor get rebuilt over the top of the ancient city. Archaeologically speaking, was it covered in it’s own fluff?

  • Rick says

    I am Rick C, not the arrogant and argumentative “Rick” of earlier posts here. The ancient Hebrew reckoning of days is called ‘inclusive counting’ wherein part of a day counts as a day (so that a half day plus a full day plus a half day equals three days). I’m sure though, that common sense or convention would not allow a 26-hour period that includes (in the Western, absolute sense) one hour before sunset, plus the Hebrew day of 24 hours from sunset to sunset, plus one hour after sunset to equal a “three day” period in even the broadest sense.

  • Sisu says

    I’m surprised he did not mention Jews reckon the start of day from sundown to sundown – not sunup or midnight.
    Christ was buried before sunset on Friday – which is “day one”. Was in the tomb Friday night and Saturday daylight which is the second day. And still in the tomb some part of Saturday night which is a third day.

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