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Night and Day

June 27, 2011

Harold Camping made a mistake.

No, not that mistake. Something else.

If you look at his rather eccentric calculations, he begins with April 1, AD 33, as the date of the crucifixion. I beg to differ.

Well, April Fool’s Day-that says a lot. Apart from that, though, April 1, AD 33 was a Wednesday. Thought Jesus was crucified on a Friday? Me too. Friday, April 3 if it happened in AD 33.

Camping evidently is that odd bird known as a Wednesday crucifixionist. No offence if you are a one-but you have to be pretty darn pedantic. Coming from me, that’s saying a lot.

It’s based on Matthew 12:40:

For just 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.

This verse is difficult to reconcile with a Friday crucifixion, because if you do the math “literally,” it doesn’t “work.” I know. I’ve tried.

(Note I did put the word literally in scare quotes. That’s hedging my bets.)

This is why some opt for a Wednesday crucifixion. It gives you Thursday, one day, one night; Friday, a second day, a second night; and Saturday, third day, third night. Three days and three nights. Bingo.

Except… there’s Wednesday night, making four nights. And at least part of Sunday.

And Jesus said he would rise “on the third day” (Matthew 16:21). Now you have to make Sunday morning “the third day” after Wednesday afternoon. Nope.

Besides, there is the minor fact that the text explicitly identifies the day as Friday:

…it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42).

So what are we to make of Matthew 12:40? It is an idiom, I suggest, something present in the structure of Hebrew (and Aramaic), that is not readily apparent in English translation.

Now what is an idiom? One helpful “definition” is 2+2=5-that is an idiom is more than the sum of its parts. The meaning belongs to the phrase as a whole, not to the combination of each word taken in its “literal” sense. This is a very common element of a language. In this case, because of Semitic idiomatic usage “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” as well as “he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 20:19) are equally compatible with crucifixion on Friday afternoon and resurrection on Sunday morning.

First, what about this X days and X nights thing? (I’ll abbreviate it Xd+Xn.) It’s very familiar-maybe too familiar-from the story of Noah, which many of us have heard since childhood. Forty days and forty nights. It’s a funny way of talking, when you think about it. Why specifically mention nights?

Here’s what I think is going on. You probably have heard that the Hebrew for “day” is yom (rhymes with home). Now, in English day denotes a 24 hour time unit, and also that part of the 24 hours when the sun is up (daytime). You may have heard that yom works the same way. I’m not totally convinced that it does. Or if it does, I think the 24 hour unit is decidedly a secondary meaning.

For clarity I will henceforth use DAY for the 24-hour unit, and day for the daylight part of it.

The main time unit in Hebrew is the day (not DAY). It’s the daylight period that you count. Sure, since every day is followed by a night, counting days you still end up with DAYS. It is similar to an archaic use of “winters” to denote years, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet II:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,

And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,

Obviously summers, springs, and autumn’s have also passed, but still counting winters equals counting years. In the same way counting days ends up counting DAYS as the following diagram illustrates.

So what’s the difference? Well, the day is not only the basic unit of time in the abstract, but also of work, and even for distance: e.g. “a three days’ journey” (Ex. 3:18).

You don’t say “three days and three nights’ journey” because you don’t travel at night. It’s a three days’ journey (not a three DAYS’ journey).

Similarly one is not paid “three days and three nights’ wages” (three DAYS’ wages) because people worked by day and not at night (John 9:4). Note that it says “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth (Ex. 20:11), not “six days and six nights.” He also didn’t work at night.

Xd+Xn phrase is used when continuous duration is intended, and typically implies an extraordinary situation (Ex. 24:18, 1 Sam. 30:12, 1 Kings 19:8, Job 2:13; Jonah 1:17, Matt. 4:2).

Where the idiomatic nature comes in, is that the formula has an understood distributive property, i.e. Xd+Xn=X(d+n). In other words X days and X nights is understood as equivalent to X DAYS-even if technically only part of the last day has occurred. The part is counted as a whole. Consequently, even in cases when, strictly speaking, only x-1 nights have actually occurred, the idiom still gives you X days and X nights. If this is indeed the linguistic convention, as I suggest, the specification of X nights may or may not be “literally” accurate.

This may appear odd, but what we don’t find in the Bible is a structure such as “seven days and nights” (evidently each noun requires its own numeral). Nor do we see “seven days and six nights” (it predates travel agents, I suppose). Now the sample is not huge, but what we do have suggests the practice is to give each of the two nouns a number and for the numbers to match. What I am suggesting is that even when there is no final night, the convention still matched the numbers, and everybody would have understood this and accounted for it accordingly.

So in the case of the resurrection, Friday, Saturday, Sunday does make three DAYS-counting inclusively, and counting a part for the whole. Since yom means day, and not DAY (at least primarily), the normal expression for this duration (three DAYS) is “three days and three nights.” The interpretive problem is only created in English translation, since we do not have the same idiom. No need, therefore, either to question inerrancy (as it is not an error) nor to posit a Wednesday crucifixion.

And if Harold Camping’s new end of the world date, October 21 turns out to be wrong, remember he started two days off. It might just be October 23.

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