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Difficult Sayings

How long was Jesus in the tomb?
Luke 18:33

"They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again." (Luke 18:33, NKJV)

Jesus predicted that he would die and rise again on the third day. He also promised a sign and referred to the sign of Jonah, who was three days and nights in the belly of a great fish.

"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." (Matthew 12:40)

But if Jesus died on Good Friday and was raised Sunday, just how long was he in the tomb, it appears at most to be two nights.

John 19:14 mentions the "day of preparation of Passover, and about the sixth hour" as the timing for the climax of Jesus' trial and sentencing. Passover was a week long festival, not a single day, and the day of preparation was a description of the day before Sabbath, as explained by Mark, "it was the preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath" (Mark 15:42). Thus, it was our Friday, ending between 5:30pm and 7pm in Spring, when the Sabbath of Passover began (when there were 3 visible stars in the sky, according to the Talmud). According to John 19:31 this was also to be a high day or holy convocation (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:6,7).

A Jewish tradition expects Israel's messianic deliverance to be on 15th Nisan, the day after Passover, which would fit with Jesus' crucifixion on the day after Passover, the preparation of the Sabbath:

"on the same day, the fifteenth of Nisan, Israel is to be redeemed, in the days of the Messiah, as they were redeemed on that day, as it is said, according to the days"F1

We know from Mark (15:34) that Jesus died sometime after the ninth hour, presumably after sunrise, so about 3pm to 4pm. According to John 19:38-42 Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (to whom John 3:16 was addressed), both secret believers, went to Pilate and were given permission to take Jesus' body to organise burial in a nearby unused tomb before the Sabbath.

However, Matthew says this happened "when it was evening" (Matthew 27:57), which would imply the Sabbath had already started. Luke (23:54) says that the "Sabbath was beginning" (RSV) but this translation is a bit presumptive and the Greek says it "was dawning" or drawing near, a slightly bizarre phrase, epiphosko (Strong's #2020), meaning "to grow light", when actually it was growing dark! So the Greek allows for the fact that the Sabbath had not yet arrived, but was near, which is the better translation of the NKJV, NIV, NAS and others. Mark also says this happened at "evening" (Mark 15:42), but qualifies it as still being the day of Preparation. So evening could have come but by Jewish reckoning not have had the required 3 stars in the night sky visible. Alternatively, we can take the additional meaning of the Greek word rendered "evening", opsias (Strong's #3798), which is "late", roughly from 3pm to 6pm, as in Mark 4:35 where it is still the same day. Hence the strange literal Hebrew expression בּיןהארבּים "between the two evenings" in Exodus 12:6, meaning twilight or dusk between late afternoon on one day and the first evening of the next day, by Jewish reckoning.

So, Jesus dies after 3pm and is buried probably before 6pm on the Friday. There is no dispute as to where he spent Saturday or the Sabbath - he was resting! We will save Jesus' descent into the lower parts, Hades, hell, prison, or paradise for another occasion. Thus, a full 24 hours later, the Sabbath ends and it becomes Sunday, or the "first day of the week" for the Jews.

The women we are told prepare burial ointments and then rest on the Sabbath. Actually, according to Mishnah, Shabbat, 23.5, they could have applied them on the Sabbath so long as they did not move any of his dead limbs. But perhaps, to ensure Jesus lay undisturbed until the surprise of his resurrection, God allowed the women to be especially dutiful with regard to resting on the Sabbath just as Joseph and Nicodemus had observed full Sabbath protocol and arranged for a prompt burial before the Sabbath.

Now, the women arrive, definitely "after the Sabbath" (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1), "toward dawn" (Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1), "very early" (Mark 16:2), but "while it was still dark" (John 20:1). The four gospels use at least three Greek phrases here, none of which specifically include the word morning but rather terms that imply "early" before sunrise. In fact, according to Jewish time-counting "early" on first-day (Sunday) could actually be late Saturday by our western reckoning. Matthew uses the phrase epiphosko (Strong's #2020), meaning "to grow light" which Luke 23:54 had used for dawning of evening, not the dawning of morning.

Writing in Jerusalem Perspective (May 1988), David Bivin of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, states that:

"According to Jerusalem scholar Jehoshua M. Grintz ("Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple," Journal of Biblical Literature 79 [1960], 32-47), "late of sabbath" [Matthew 28:1] is a Hellenized form of the Hebrew expression bemotsai shabbat (at the exiting of Sabbath), which means the hours immediately after the end of the Sabbath; and the enigmatic "in the lightening to one of sabbath" derives from the beautiful Hebrew idiom Or le'ehad bashabbat, light to [day] one in the Sabbath). In Hebrew, shabbat (Sabbath) can mean either "Saturday" or "week." In this usage, "light" surprisingly is a synonym for "night," that is, the night before the next day. In Hebrew, "light" can be used euphemistically to mean something almost the opposite of its literal meaning."

When David Bivin went on to suggest that Jesus may have remained in the tomb little more than say 26 hours it drew the largest mailbag Jerusalem Perspective ever had, "The controversial article drew more comments from readers than any article Jerusalem Perspective has published."F2

Jewish reckoning of a day ran from evening to evening (Genesis 1:5) and "a part of a day could be considered as the whole" מקצתהיוםככולו.F3 So David Bivin could be right, but readers pointed him to the sign of Jonah, the three days and three nights, in the belly of a great fish (Matthew 12:39-40), a part of the Jonah sign only highlighted in Matthew 12 and not in the synoptic parallels: Luke 11:29; Mark 8:12 and Matthew 16:4.

Many other writers have suggested, therefore, that the high Sabbath mentioned by John was an additional Sabbath falling earlier in the week, perhaps Wednesday or Thursday, bringing forward Jesus trial and crucifixion to a day earlier than that. Thus, Jesus may have been in the tomb a full three days and three nights by western reckoning including two full Sabbaths. But do we need to resort to this? The Greek for day of Preparation is paraskeuê (Strong's #3904) and is still used in modern Greek for "Friday".

Jewish time reckoning tended to use "evening" and "morning" to denote full 24 hour periods, as in Genesis 1 and some prophetic passages (e.g., Daniel 8:14 literally 2300 "evening-mornings"). The use of "day" and "night" was perhaps more poetic and general. Even Esther 4:16 speaks of "three days, day or night" and yet ignored the third night in its reckoning according to Esther 5:1.

We cannot be certain about the actual times, but by Jewish understandings there is no problem in the text and thus one of various solutions will no doubt be the right one. What is important is not how many nights Jesus was in the tomb but the fact that "on the third day" he rose. Further, the sign of Jonah is not the 72 hours or less spent AWOL but the fact of the Ninevites' (gentiles) repentance and of Jonah himself, "for as Jonah became a will the Son of Man be..." (Luke 11:30) and "behold someone greater than Jonah is here" (Luke 11:32).

F1: Cabalistae apud Fagium in loc. cf. Micah 7.15, quoted in John Gill's commentary
F2: David Bivin, Pipeline, 22 April 2003
F3: Jerusalem Talmud, Pesach, 31b; Babylonian Talmud, Moed. Katon, 16b;. 17b; 19b; 20b; Bechorot, 20b; 21a; Nidda, 33a; Maimonides, Hilch. Ebel, 7.1, 2, 3; Aben Ezra in Leviticus 12:3.


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