Time-obsessed modern readers have to realize that Bible was written from a different mindset.
A perennial question surrounding the Easter story concerns the number of days Jesus spent in the tomb before he rose from the dead. In one sense, it’s very simple: from Good Friday, when he was crucified, to Easter Sunday, it’s three days, albeit partial days.
But where people get hung up is the apparent contradictions they find in various Gospel accounts. Sometimes we read that Jesus rose on the third day; other times, that he rose after three days.
The trouble is, says a highly-respected Bible scholar, we are reading the Bible with a 21st-century mindset.
”We are a people obsessed with time—and with exactness when it comes to time—down to the nanosecond,” said Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. “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.”
One might even qualify this further, specifying that the obsession with precision in time is a characteristic of many First World cultures today. In many other parts of the world, people are not all-consumed with clock-watching.
In addition to the various predictions that Jesus would rise on the third day or after three days, one passage — Matthew 12:40 — even speaks of “three days and three nights” in the tomb. That would bring us up to Easter Monday.
But again, that would be a modern way of looking at things, ignoring Jesus’ own purpose in phrasing the prediction in this way.
”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,” Witherington explained. “Jesus is just saying, ‘It will be like the experience of Jonah.’” He writes at Bible History Daily:
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.
Our liturgical observance of the Resurrection is similarly imprecise. The Church begins the celebration of Easter on Saturday evening, just a little more than a day after the somber fast of Good Friday.
“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,” Witherington concludes. “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.”