Christian tradition states that Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon, died near sundown, was taken down from the cross and buried, remained dead throughout Saturday, then rose sometime before dawn on Sunday morning (the “first day of the week”).
Bearing this in mind, did Jesus make a mistake in predicting the amount of time before his resurrection? If not, how can the following be explained:
Mark 8:31 – He [Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.
Matthew 12:40 – (Jesus speaking) “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
You can do the simple math here. Three days from Friday evening is Monday evening, not Sunday morning. According to tradition as I outlined above, Jesus was dead for about 36 hours – not even two full days. Yet in Mark, and again in Matthew, Jesus predicts he will rise “after three days” and that he will be “three days and three nights” in the heart of the earth.
Those who claim biblical infallibility are faced with a dilemma here. They must either admit that Jesus – the divine Son of God – got his own resurrection prediction wrong, or they must admit that the bible is fallible. It simply can’t be both ways. Either Jesus was dead and buried for a day and a half (as the “first day of the week” resurrection tradition implies), or he was dead and buried for three days and three nights, as an apparently earlier Christian tradition stated.
When you take a deeper look at the Synoptic texts (that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke), a clear progression of events begins to come to light surrounding the three days/first day of the week dichotomy. (I exclude the Gospel of John from this because John has no references at all to Jesus predicting the progression of days between his crucifixion and his resurrection.)
To start, it is important to understand the background of just what “three days” meant to the average first century Jew. Three days, according to Jewish apocryphal teachings, was the amount of time that would pass after the end of the world before the ushering in of the kingdom of God. Obviously, this is counter-intuitive, as there could be no “days” after the “end of the world.” But that mindbending concept was sort of the point of the mythology – the kingdom of God is bigger than our concept of reality and stands squarely outside of our concept of space and time. Thus, the idea of significant events occurring around a 3-day time frame was common in Jewish scripture. In the Old Testament, there are no less than 70 different references to events occurring either “on the third day” or “after three days” or “within three days,” etc. Like the number 12 and its various multiples, 3 was an important number to the ancient Hebrews, and “three days” was a spiritual concept that was never meant to imply literal chronological time.
When the Gospel writers sat down to write their accounts of Jesus’s life, they had a clear and spiritually-relevant image of the significance of “three days.” As they wrote their accounts, they used this Jewish image midrashically – that is, they incorporated this ancient Jewish apocryphal concept into the story of Jesus of Nazareth as a means of displaying the importance of Jesus’s teachings on their own spiritual awakening.
However, in doing so, they also needed to fix the competing traditions within the Christian community of Jesus being dead “three days” before his resurrection (which appears to be the earlier tradition), and Jesus rising on “the first day of the week” (which appears to have developed sometime later).
Mark, the first gospel writer, writing in about 70 C.E. (that is, about two generations after the death of Jesus), does not appear to have a problem with the conflict. Throughout his Gospel, and on more than one occasion, he has Jesus predict that he will rise from the dead “after three days.” However, during his resurrection account, he goes with the dawn of Sunday morning tradition, stating that the women went “on the first day of the week” to anoint Jesus’s body and subsequently found the tomb empty.
Matthew was the next Gospel to be written, and it was composed about 10-15 years after Mark, around 80 C.E. The defining characteristic of this Gospel is its target audience of Jewish Christians. The Gospel is full of references to Old Testament stories and prophecies, and the purpose of the writer was clearly to persuade those of the Jewish faith and culture that Jesus was the anointed one of God, predicted and expected so frequently in Jewish scripture. Much of Matthew’s text is drawn directly from Mark, and it is almost universally accepted within scholarly and even most theological circles that Matthew used Mark’s Gospel as an outline. Much of Matthew has word-for-word transcriptions of Mark’s story. Interestingly, with the exception of the above-referenced verse wherein Jesus predicts his death to last three days and three nights, Matthew changes all of Mark’s “after three days” comments to “on the third day.”
Thus, you have examples like Matthew 16:21 – From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
As noted above, the one occasion where Matthew does use the “three days” motif is when Matthew is linking Jesus to the Old Testament story of Jonah. Clearly Matthew couldn’t change the established text regarding Jonah, so he stuck with the “three days” motif and had Jesus predict his time “in the heart of the earth” as “three days and three nights.” Again, Matthew’s purpose was to link Jesus to Old Testament prophecies and stories, and here he seems to have had a difficult choice to either connect Jesus to the Old Testament character of Jonah and therefore abide by the “three days” tradition, or throw the Jonah link out completely. He clearly decided it was more important to keep the Jonah link there, since it served his target purpose. Everywhere else, however, he changed “three days” to “on the third day,” obviously trying to account for Mark’s contradiction.
Luke, writing about 90 C.E. and 20 years after Mark, also used Mark as a guide and also carried on Matthew’s tradition of changing all of Mark’s “three days” statements. Whereas Mark has 5 different references to Jesus talking about his resurrection occurring “after three days,” Luke has no references using “three days” at all, and instead has 5 references to “on the third day.”
It seems quite clear that Matthew and Luke, writing later and using Mark as a guide, systematically changed all of Mark’s “three days” references to “on the third day,” since such a phrase could reasonably be construed to imply the first day of the week (that is, Sunday). It was a way for Matthew and Luke to reconcile the competing traditions of Jesus rising on Sunday morning and Jesus being dead for “three days.”
John Shelby Spong argues that the resurrection was a real event involving real experiences with real people, but he believes it was a kind of spiritual awakening, centered around Peter, and occurring after a lengthy passage of time from the date of Jesus’s death. The stories of dead bodies reanimating, empty tombs, a 3-day time frame between death and resurrection, and Jerusalem as the setting for the resurrection, Spong argues, are simply midrashic techniques and mythology, developed into the story in the intervening decades after the resurrection experience.
I find his arguments persuasive.