I’ve recently had the privilege of being able to edit Robert Courtney’s article on the day when Christ died. This is a huge topic in apologetics. Mark and Luke record Jesus’ tomb being empty on Sunday, the first day of the week, the day after the Sabbath (Mark 16:1–2; Luke 24:1) and Matthew records Jesus saying:
For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matt 12:40 KJV)
ὥσπερ γὰρ ἦν ᾿Ιωνᾶς ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ τοῦ κήτους τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας, οὕτως ἔσται ὁ Υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας.
The traditional Easter story is that Jesus was crucified on Friday, then resurrected on Sunday. But, wouldn’t that only be one day and two nights? Courtney presents a solid case for a Wednesday crucifixion, then Thursday would be the Sabbath for the Passover, Saturday is the weekly Sabbath, then empty-tomb Sunday. I don’t want to repeat Dr. Courtney here, but I would like to look at the linguistic evidence that is used in support of the Friday crucifixion.
Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that the Friday crucifixion theory that I’ll be addressing is not a terrible view to hold. Terrible views include those that reject the resurrection, or say that Matthew was in error or those that don’t even give a hoot. And, I’m sure there are more Friday defenses than this particular one… but I’m a language nerd, so this is the one I’ll be addressing.
Henry Alford comments on Matthew 12:40 from the Friday perspective:
If it be necessary to make good the three days and nights during which our Lord was in the heart of the earth, it must be done by having recourse to the Jewish method of computing time. In the Jerusalem Talmud (cited by Lightfoot) it is said: “that a day and a night together make up a עוֹנָה (a νυχθήμερον), and that any part of such a period is counted as the whole.”1
Alford is saying that Jesus died on Friday and resurrected on Sunday. Any part of a day counts as a whole day, so Friday, Saturday, and Sunday make three days. I respectfully disagree. It seems to me that instead of three days and three nights, this would be one day and two nights. Note the two words that Alford mentions: עוֹנָה (onah) and νυχθήμερον (nuchthemeron). Nuchthemeron comes from nux, νύξ ‘night’ + hemera, ἡμέρα ‘day.’ It only occurs once in Scripture, and according to the Perseus Database, this seems to be a word that only Paul uses. The word occurs nowhere else in the Bible nor in any other Greek writings of antiquity. That’s right, it’s not even the word that Jesus used to describe how long He would be in the grave. Jesus specifically said “three days” (τρεῖς ἡμέρας) and “three nights” (τρεῖς νύκτας) – four words, not two. As for the word onah, it appears precisely zero times in the Old Testament. But, before we get to that, let’s first consider how Paul used the word, nuchthemeron:
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day [nuchthemeron] I was adrift at sea; (2 Cor 11:25 ESV)
It would be odd for Paul to invent a word meaning “night-day” to describe being at sea only for a night or only for a day, but this is the Greek word that well-meaning apologists define to mean “a part of a day” apart from any evidence from the Greek.
Let’s turn our attention to the case that John Lightfoot (whom Henry Alford cited) makes for the partial day. By the way, even though I disagree with Lightfoot on this point, I really admire the extensive work that he did. He lived in the 1600s and he was able to connect so many dots without the help of the databases that are available today. You can download his work here.
Anyhow, Lightfoot writes:
If you number the hours, that passed from our Saviour’s giving up the ghost upon the cross to his resurrection [assuming a Friday crucifixion], you shall find almost the same number of hours; and yet that space is called by him “three days and three nights,” when as two nights only came between, and only one complete day. Nevertheless, while he speaks these words, he is not without the consent both of the Jewish schools, and their computation. Weigh well that, which is disputed in the tract Schabbath, concerning the uncleanliness of a woman for three days; where many things are discussed by the Gemarists, concerning the computation of this space of three days.2John Lightfoot, Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations upon St. Matthew, in The Whole Works of Rev. John Lightfoot, John Rogers Pitman, ed., vol. 11 (London: J.F. Dove, 1825), 201. Available online here.3
Notice that Lightfoot himself recognizes that there was much controversy as to “the computation of this space of three days.” He goes on to quote from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbath, folio 86a, which records the disagreement over how long the impurity period is for a woman with a discharge of semen, and tractate Avodah Zarah, folio 75a,which records a disagreement over how long to purify an olive press, and the text from the Jerusalem Talmud, which Henry Alford cited, which was another impurity time discussion as well.
It is not easy to translate the word עונה ‘Onah’ into good Latin: for to some it is the same with the half of a natural day; to some it is all one with Νυχθήμερον, ‘a whole natural day.’ According to the first sense, we may observe, from· the words of R. Ismael, that sometimes four עונות ‘Onoth,’ or halves of a natural day, may be accounted for three days: and that they, also, are so numbered, that one part or the other of those halves may be accounted for a whole. Compare the latter sense with the words of our Saviour, which are now before us: — ”A day and a night (saith the tradition) make an Onah, and a part of an Onah is as the whole.” Therefore Christ may truly be said to have been in his grace three Onoth, or Τρὶς Νυχθήμερον, ‘three natural days’ (when yet the greatest part of the first day was wanting, and the night altogether, and the greatest part by far of the third day also), the consent of the schools and dialect of the nation agreeing thereunto, For, “the least part of the Onah concluded the whole.” So that according to this idiom, that diminutive part of the third day, upon which Christ arose, may be computed for the whole day, and the night following it. 4John Lightfoot, Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations upon St. Matthew, in The Whole Works of Rev. John Lightfoot, John Rogers Pitman, ed., vol. 11 (London: J.F. Dove, 1825), 201–202. Available online here.5
Assuming this latter sense, in which “a part of an Onah is as the whole,” is preferable, we are still stuck with a big assumption: did Jesus say, “three onoth,” or did He say, “three days and three nights?” The Greek text certainly says, “three days and three nights.” Back translating into the original language is tricky business, but it seems to me that if we want to translate this Greek phrase into Hebrew or Aramaic, it would be better to use a literal translation that denotes three “day” periods and three “night” periods. If Jesus used a word that only meant “part of a day” then why didn’t Matthew write something to the effect of “three parts of days?” If nuchthemeron is as good a translation as Alford and Lightfoot indicate, then why didn’t Matthew use Lightfoot’s proposed translation of Τρὶς Νυχθήμερον?
Is it possible that, for linguistic reasons beyond my grasp, Jesus said “three onoth,” meaning “a part of three days” and Matthew translated it as “three days and three nights,” meaning “a part of three days” and then Jesus was crucified on Friday, resurrected on Sunday, and thus fulfilled three onoth? Sure.
However, I would require better evidence to be convinced that the Friday crucifixion is a possibility. In the meantime, a Wednesday crucifixion sure does fit the arithmetic better.
- Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, 5th ed. vol. 1 (London: Gilbert and Rivington, 1863), 132. Available online here.