A recent discussion
of the four days during which Lazarus lay dead has prompted me to collect, from various scattered posts on this forum and from my own notes, my list of exceptions to what I kind of think of as "Bernard's Rule." Bernard Muller and I have debated
the expressions "three days" and "third day" before vis-à-vis the resurrection of Jesus. His contention was (and probably still is) that "after three days" usually meant "on the fourth day." My contention was (and still is) that there are enough exceptions in antiquity, enough authors or editors for whom "after three days" and "on the third day" appear to be equivalent, to cast doubt on definitively divergent interpretations of "on the third day" and "after three days" in the early Christian writings. Bernard's way of interpreting these expressions may
have constituted a majority in antiquity, and the examples he gives on his website
are very valuable, but I think that there is good evidence for a strong minority position, and that is what this list of examples is about.
First, one that is not definitive but which fits the rest well enough on this list:
Genesis 42.17-25: 17 So he put them all together in prison for three days [καὶ ἔθετο αὐτοὺς ἐν φυλακῇ ἡμέρας τρεῖς]. 18 And Joseph said to them on the third day [εἶπεν δὲ αὐτοῖς τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ], "Do this and live, for I fear God: 19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die." And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another, "Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us." 22 And Reuben answered them, saying, "Did I not tell you, 'Do not sin against the boy,' and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood." 23 They did not know, however, that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 And he turned away from them and wept. But when he returned to them and spoke to them, he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to restore every man's money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. And thus it was done for them.
The brothers are in prison for three days, but they appear to have been released on the third day. This example is not the clearest one, however, as there is leeway to imagine that, while Joseph visited them on the third day, they were not actually released until the fourth.
Next, an example which Bernard used to regard as his sole exception:
1 Kings 12.1-12: 1 Then Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. 2 Now when Jeroboam the son of Nebat heard of it, he was living in Egypt (for he was yet in Egypt, where he had fled from the presence of King Solomon). 3 Then they sent and called him, and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and spoke to Rehoboam, saying, 4 “Your father made our yoke hard; now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke which he put on us, and we will serve you.” 5 Then he said to them, “Depart for three days, then return to me [ἀπέλθετε ἕως ἡμερῶν τριῶν, καὶ ἀναστρέψατε πρὸς μέ].” So the people departed. 6 King Rehoboam consulted with the elders who had served his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, “How do you counsel me to answer this people?” 7 Then they spoke to him, saying, “If you will be a servant to this people today, and will serve them and grant them their petition, and speak good words to them, then they will be your servants forever.” 8 But he forsook the counsel of the elders which they had given him, and consulted with the young men who grew up with him and served him. 9 So he said to them, “What counsel do you give that we may answer this people who have spoken to me, saying, ‘Lighten the yoke which your father put on us’?” 10 The young men who grew up with him spoke to him, saying, “Thus you shall say to this people who spoke to you, saying, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, now you make it lighter for us!’ But you shall speak to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins! 11 Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’” 12 Then Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day [ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ] as the king had directed, saying, “Return to me on the third day [ἀναστράφητε πρὸς μὲ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ].” (= 2 Chronicles 10.1-12.)
Departing for three days and then returning is thus treated as equivalent to returning on the third day.
Third, an example from what was possibly my favorite book of the Bible in my (evangelical) childhood:
Esther 3.12-13: 12 Then on the thirteenth day of the first month [μηνὶ πρώτῳ τῇ τρισκαιδεκάτῃ, Nisan] the royal secretaries were summoned. They wrote out in the script of each province and in the language of each people all Haman’s orders to the king’s satraps, the governors of the various provinces and the nobles of the various peoples. These were written in the name of King Xerxes himself and sealed with his own ring. 13 Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews — young and old, women and children — on a single day, the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, the month of Adar, and to plunder their goods. 14 A copy of the text of the edict was to be issued as law in every province and made known to the people of every nationality so they would be ready for that day.
Esther 4.16: 16 [Esther said,] “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. And do not eat or drink for three days, night or day [μὴ φάγητε μηδὲ πίητε ἐπὶ ἡμέρας τρεῖς, νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν]. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
Esther 5.1-2: 1 And on the third day [ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ] Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. 2 When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter.
On the one hand, the fast was supposed to last for three days, night and day, after which Esther was supposed to visit the king's throne room. On the other, Esther visited the throne room on the third day.
Fourth, moving from Jewish to Christian examples:
Matthew 27.62-66: 62 Now on the next day, [ad]the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, 63 and said, "Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days [μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας] I am to rise again.' 64 Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day [ἕως τῆς τρίτης ἡμέρας], otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last deception will be worse than the first." 65 Pilate said to them, "You have a guard; go, make it as secure as you know how." 66 And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.
Making the grave secure until
the third day is treated as equivalent to preventing mischief which might occur up to and including a point in time after
Fifth, another Christian example:
Acts 10.1-48: 1 Now there was a certain man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, 2 a devout man, and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people, and prayed to God continually. 3 About the ninth hour of the day [ὡσεὶ περὶ ὥραν ἐνάτην τῆς ἡμέρας, day 0, starting point] he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God who had just come in to him, and said to him, "Cornelius!" 4 And fixing his gaze upon him and being much alarmed, he said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 "And now dispatch some men to Joppa, and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6 he is staying with a certain tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea." 7 And when the angel who was speaking to him had departed, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were in constant attendance upon him, 8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. 9 And on the next day [τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον, day 1], as they were on their way, and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11 and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat!" 14 But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." 15 And again a voice came to him a second time, "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." 16 And this happened three times; and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. 17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon's house, appeared at the gate; 18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. 19 And while Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 "But arise, go downstairs, and accompany them without misgivings; for I have sent them Myself." 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, "Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come?" 22 And they said, "Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you." 23 And so he invited them in and gave them lodging. And on the next day [τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον, day 2] he arose and went away with them, and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And on the next day [τῇ δὲ ἐπαύριον, day 3, finishing point] he entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 And when it came about that Peter entered, Cornelius met him, and fell at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter raised him up, saying, "Stand up; I too am just a man." 27 And as he talked with him, he entered, and found many people assembled. 28 And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. 29 "That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. And so I ask for what reason you have sent for me." 30 And Cornelius said, "Four days ago to this hour [ἀπὸ τετάρτης ἡμέρας μέχρι ταύτης τῆς ὥρας, still day 3], I was praying in my house during the ninth hour; and behold, a man stood before me in shining garments, 31 and he said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. 32 'Send therefore to Joppa and invite Simon, who is also called Peter, to come to you; he is staying at the house of Simon the tanner by the sea.' 33 "And so I sent to you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord." 34 And opening his mouth, Peter said: "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him. 36 "The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all) — 37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. 38 "You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil; for God was with Him. 39 "And we are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. And they also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 "God raised Him up on the third day, and granted that He should become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us, who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 "And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins." 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 "Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
Three days later, the initial event is described as having happened four days ago to the hour.
Sixth, back to a Jewish example, from the Talmud:
Talmud, Nazir 5b: .... We have learnt: If a man says, 'I declare myself a Nazirite,' he polls on the thirty-first day.3 Now, this fits in well enough with the view of R. Mattena, but how is it to be reconciled with Bar Pada's view? — Bar Pada will say: Consider the clause which follows, [viz.:] Should he poll on the thirtieth day, his obligation is fulfilled. We see, then, that the second clause [of this Mishnah] lends support to his view, whilst the original clause [must be read] as though it contained the word [I declare myself a Nazirite for thirty] 'whole' [days]. Does not this second clause need to be reconciled with R. Mattena's view? — He considers part of a day equivalent to a whole day. But have we not learnt: '[Should someone say,] "I intend to be a Nazirite for thirty days," and poll on the thirtieth day, his obligation is not fulfilled'?7 — [We presume that] he said, 'Whole days.' ....
Talmud, Nazir 16a: .... Now seeing that R. Jose is of the opinion that part of a day counts as a whole day, how is it ever possible for there to be a certified female sufferer from gonorrhoea to offer the [prescribed] sacrifice, for if the issue is observed in the second half of the day, then the first half of the day counts as the period of 'waiting'? — It is possible either if she should have continual issue for three days, or alternatively, if she observes the issue on each of the three days shortly after sunset, so that there is no part of the day that can be reckoned [as a period of cleanness]. ....
For some of the rabbis, part of a day counted as the whole day. This issue arose at least partly in connection with the Nazirite vow of 30 days: is the sacrifice marking the end of the vow to be offered on
the thirtieth day or only after
the full thirtieth day had completely passed?
Finally, another Jewish example, this one from the Midrash:
Genesis 22.3-4: 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance.
The Midrash Rabbah
at this point (in section 1 of chapter 50
) offers a list of other significant third days, including:
- The third day of revelation: "And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning" (Exodus 19.16).
- The third day of resurrection: "After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up" (Hosea 6.2).
- The third day of Esther: "Now it came to pass on the third day that Esther put on her royal apparel" (Esther 5.1).
- The third day of the tribal ancestors: "And Joseph said unto them the third day: 'This do, and live'" (Genesis 42.18).
So far so good. But we also find this one:
- The third day of Jonah: "And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 2.1).
This equivalence is very similar to Jesus rising on the third day after supposedly being buried for three days and three nights in the manner of Jonah.
What strikes me about the Christian usage of "third day" or "three days" with respect to the resurrection of Jesus is just how consistent the number three (3) is. Whether the actual time period one has in mind amounts to less than two full 24-hour periods (as in the synoptic passion narratives) or refers to a full three days and three nights (as the comparison with Jonah might be read as implying), the number 3 is what seems to have mattered. I myself have argued
for a possible early Christian tradition that Jesus remained in the tomb for six days, rising on the seventh, after the pattern of Daniel's tenure in the lion's den according to the tale of Bel and the Dragon, but that suggestion, even if true, is hardly enough to overturn the overwhelming emphasis elsewhere on the three days or on the third day; besides, my case for the six days in the tomb is highly speculative, and I doubt it will persuade more than a tiny percentage of those bored enough with life to read it all the way through and give it a fair shake. I have also argued
for a resurrection connection involving eight days, but even I do not think that the eight days comprised an actual tradition about Jesus' tenure in the tomb; I think, rather, that certain authors might have used the number 8 symbolically, nothing more.
I do not think that the burial period of three days derives from actual memory or from some early narrative describing what the attentive reader could interpret as a period of three days (however tallied). Rather, I believe that the three days were probably supremely symbolic right from the start (these examples are not exhaustive):
Descent of Inana: They shouted at her — it was the shout of heavy guilt. The afflicted woman was turned into a corpse. And the corpse was hung on a hook. After three days and three nights had passed, her minister Ninsubura carried out the instructions of her mistress.
Hosea 6.2: 2 “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him.”
Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 100.7: Bar Kappara taught: Until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it [the body]. Thus it says, "But his flesh grieveth for him, and his soul mourneth over him" (= Job 14.22).
Midrash, Leviticus Rabbah 18.1: For three days [after death] the soul hovers over the body, intending to reenter it, but as soon as it sees its appearance change, it departs, as it is written, "When his flesh that is on him is distorted, his soul will mourn over him" (= Job 14.22).