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Good Friday was a Friday

April 21, 2014

At  Christmastime you are liable to hear someone earnestly insisting Jesus was actually born during the Feast of Tabernacles and that the Bible tells us so. This is NOT true and the Bible tells us no such thing.

The Easter equivalent, it would seem, is the Crucifixion on either Wednesday or Thursday,  rather than the very, very, very, very, very well-established Friday.

I understand why. It centers 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.

Now, I see the point:  if you do the math “literally,” it doesn’t “work.” I know. I’ve tried. Three days, okay, counting “a part as the whole.” But it’s the THREE NIGHTS which is the sticking point. There is just no way to have three nights with a Friday crucifixion, and so people take what seems to be the logical step and conclude it must actually have happened a day or two earlier.

As logical and even NECESSARY as it may seem, it is untrue. The problem is, something is going on linguistically which is not evident in our English translation. Remember that what we are reading is a translation of a verse originally written in Greek, which in turn is a translation of a statement originally spoken in Aramaic.

But chances are proponents of the Wednesday or Thursday theories are proficient in neither ancient language, and yet are ready to pronounce their calculations right and the understanding of virtually all of the Christian world for nearly two millennia to be in error.  This Friday idea, is mere tradition, we are told, and the Scriptures trump tradition. They certainly do, but the Friday crucifixion is more than “tradition” and the impression Matt. 12:40 makes is almost certainly an error due to our own cultural and linguistic distance.

If we think of  “tradition” as a notion passed down generation to generation until nobody really knows how it started, this is NOT how we know Jesus was crucified on a Friday. It has abundant historical documentation, at least as much as anything we know about any event in ancient times.  By “historical documentation” I mean someone in a position to know wrote about it at a time relatively close to the events.

For example Ignatius of Antioch, who died sometime around AD 107, states CLEARLY that the three days covered Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (Preparation, Sabbath, Lord’s Day). Reportedly he was a student of the apostle John–who was an eyewitness of the crucifixion, and we can guess it came up in the conversation. Most likely John’s students heard his account of that monumental day over and over and over again. Ignatius would be UNLIKELY to be mistaken on the day of the week when it occurred.  And as bishop of Antioch, he was a speaker both of Aramaic and of Greek. So I believe I can states unequivocally that he knows whereof he speaks when he states the crucifixion happened on Friday. But even more HE CITES MATTHEW 12:40 ITSELF TO SUPPORT IT.

He also rose again in three days, the Father raising Him up; and after spending forty days with the apostles, He was received up to the Father, and “sat down at His right hand, expecting till His enemies are placed under His feet.” On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried.  During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathæa had laid Him. At the dawning of the Lord’s day He arose from the dead, according to what was spoken by Himself, “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The day of the preparation, then, comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord’s Day contains the resurrection. (Trallians IX)

Similarly, Irenaeus (died AD 202), who was a student of Polycarp (d. AD 155), who was a also student of the apostle John, even makes a point of it happening on a Friday as a parallel to the day of the week man was created (the sixth day of creation, i.e. the day before God rested, i.e Friday), which he takes to also be the day the Fall happened. You may or may not think he has  a valid point, but it does mean that Irenaeus held in no uncertain terms that Jesus was crucified on a Friday:

From this it is clear that the Lord suffered death, in obedience to His Father, upon that day on which Adam died while he disobeyed God. Now he died on the same day in which he ate. For God said, In that day on which you shall eat of it, you shall die by death. The Lord, therefore, recapitulating in Himself this day, underwent His sufferings upon the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, on which day man was created (Against Heresies V: 23:2)

Also Justin Martyr, writing about AD 155-157, expresses the days of the week in Roman terms:

But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. (First Apology lxvii)

The purpose of this post is not to put forward a full-blown critique of the historically-novel non-Friday position, nor to establish a proof for Friday. I simply want to discuss what I think is going on linguistically in regard to details of the text.

So let’s look at the Wednesday and Thursday theories, which attempt to account for the “three nights” of Matt. 12:40:

Wednesday:  So the crucifixion lasts until the close of day on Wednesday. Wednesday night is the first night, and Thursday daytime is the first day. Thursday night through Friday daytime is a second night and a second day. Finally Friday night is the night THREE that we needed. And Saturday daytime is day three. Sunday would be a fourth day. But Jesus rose before dawn, and so he arose fully after three days and three nights, by this view.

Still, wouldn’t that make Saturday night a FOURTH night? Then Jesus was in the heart of the heart of the earth three days and FOUR nights…

In addition, as we will see below, according to Luke 24, the third day was SUNDAY, not Saturday, and He was resurrected early on that day.

Thursday:  So with Christ dying on Thursday afternoon, and was being buried, the remainder of Thursday is day one. Thursday night is night one. Friday then is a second day and Friday night a second night. Finally Saturday is a third day and a Saturday night that famous third night. Three days and three nights. And again Sunday would be the fourth day, but Jesus rises before dawn, and so it all works out. Right?

But IS Sunday the fourth day? No, it is the THIRD day:

“He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 

And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.

 …Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead (Luke 24:6-7, 19-23, 46).

Now let’s look at the linguistic details. First, while we have the phrase “three days and three nights” in ONE verse, the most common way the duration of Jesus’ burial is expressed is that Jesus would rise “on the third day.”

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21)

Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. (Matthew 17:22-23)

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  (Luke 9:22)

And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise. (Luke 18:33)

…that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise. (Luke 24:7)

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead (Luke 24:46)

…but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear (Acts 10:40)

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Well, yes, but what does “on the third day” mean? Glad you ask. Here’s an example:

Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. (Luke 13:32)

As is well known, the culture of that time counted INCLUSIVELY. So then Friday being the day of the crucifixion is the first day, the next day, Saturday,  is the second, and the day following that, Sunday is the third. Friday, Saturday, Sunday works. Thursday doesn’t. Wednesday certainly doesn’t.

However, another way the time frame is expressed is with the phrase “after three days.” Now, this may seem LOGICALLY to indicate a different span of time from “on the third day.” I mean, is AFTER day X the same as ON day X? I wouldn’t think so, in my language, and my culture. If I say “Come after Monday,” don’t I want you to show up on Tuesday at the earliest? But if I say “Make sure and come on Monday,” isn’t Tuesday going to be too late? Yet, clearly, by the linguistic conventions in which the text was written both “on the third day” and “after three days” refer to the same duration of time.

Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise.” (Matthew 27:63)

[Note that this is immediately followed by:  Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last fraud will be worse than the first. (Matthew 27:64). I.e. “after three days” does NOT mean “on the fourth day.”

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise. (Mark 9:31)

And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise. (Mark 10:34)

In the same way, despite what we MIGHT think, the phrase “three days and three nights” in Matt. 12:40 must designate the same duration as that signalled by “on the third day” and “after three days.” How can this be?

It is certainly because we are dealing with a linguistic convention which is not readily apparent to those of us reading in translation. In other words, we are encountering an idiom.

What is an idiom? It isn’t just “speaking loosely” or “imprecise language.” It is a fixed feature of the semantic structure of a language.

One “definition” of an idiom is 2+2=5. That is to say the meaning of an idiomatic phrase is greater than the sum or its parts. In other words, an idiom is a situation in which a language assigns meaning to a GROUP OF WORDS as a whole. And while each word has a conventional meaning, the idiomatic WHOLE is not derivable from combining the meanings of each of the individual words. And idiomatic phrase then means something DIFFERENT from what the various words which compose it might suggest.

In French, for example, if I want to say “everybody,” such as five people in a family, or all thirty people in a class, or the hundred or so customers of a given store on a given day, the phrase is “tout le monde.” Now this LITERALLY means “all the world.” Yet I can assure you no French speaker using or hearing this phrase is confused by it, or thinks that the entire population of the earth is meant. No one even thinks of that, because the meaning “everybody” it is completely second nature. It is an idiom.

An English speaker, perhaps, knowing only a very little French might protest, because to him it sure SEEMS like this HAS TO mean EVERYONE IN THE WORLD. Otherwise it is an error or a falsehood. Not at all. The speaker understands. The hearer understands. WITHIN the language community, the correct meaning has been communicated.

However, a hearer with little or no knowledge might misunderstand BY GIVING TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO THE INDIVIDUAL WORDS. And if a translator should render it “litterally” as “all the world,” that would be an INACCURATE translation, since it presented corresponding words but WRONG MEANING.

Worse yet, imagine someone who really knows no French somehow insisting on the meaning “all the world.” No one would do that, you say. I agree, and yet that is pretty much how we get Wednesday and Thursday crucifixionists.

So what is the idiom involved here? It is the phrase:  X days and X nights. We are more than a little familiar with it through the Noah story:

For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground. (Genesis 7:4)

Now, this phrase from this story is SO familiar, we don’t even think twice. However, in English we NEVER use this expression. The closest we come is a typical travel agent booking for say, “seven days and six nights.” We only specify NIGHTS because it involves a hotel stay, and the important charges are how many NIGHTS the room is used. So what is going on with the Hebrew/Aramaic idiom.

To understand this phrase we have to know what “day” means. If we ask a typical person in our culture how long a day is, we will generally get the response, “24 hours.”

However, Jesus said:  “Are there not twelve hours in the day?”  (John 11:9)

This is because the former refers to what we might call an astronomical day, that is one revolution of the earth on its axis, or in simpler terms, one light period and one dark period.

Jesus was referring to what we might call a meteorological day, that is ONLY the light phase.

Henceforth, when I want to distinguish the two meanings in this post, I will indicate the 24-hour period in all caps (DAY) and the daylight period in lowercase (day).

In modern day English, we use the word “day” in both ways, but I would suggest that the 24-hour sense (DAY)  tends to be our default meaning, and the daylight only usage (day) somewhat secondary.

It is generally asserted that the Hebrew and Aramaic word yom has meanings both DAY and day as well. However, I do not believe it is at all clear that it was. I do not see  that yom is clearly used for the sense DAY.  Iif it was, this meaning is decidedly the secondary one. From what I can see studying the way yom is used in the OT, it means the day–the “12 hours” period Jesus referred to–as opposed to the night. However since each day is separated by one night, counting a day implies taking note of the night that follows (and not that which PRECEDES, despite the popular notion). So in this sense at night it is still the same day as when the sun was up, because the NEXT day has not yet begun. Monday night is still Monday. Following the 15th day of the month, that night it is still the 15th until sunrise on the 16th.

But to indicate an DAY in Hebrew or Aramaic, you generally have to say day and night. In other words DAY=day+night (D=d+n).

Now the day was arguably the most important unit of time measurement in the Hebrew culture. But also the day and night distinction was very important, as it would be in any setting without artificial light. Duration and even distance could be expressed in days:

Please let us go a three days‘ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God  (Exodus 5:3 ESV)

Thus distance is expressed in terms of time at walking speed. But the time involved would be (approximately) 3 x 12 hours (and not 3 x 24 hours) since people would not have journeyed in the dark. So walking, like work (John 9:4) happens in the day but not at night. So to say “three days” does not indicate continuous activity.

On the other hand, some events, such as Noah’s flood, do continue on from day to night to day to night. In other words, it is a duration which continues for DAYS and not just days (with pauses for night). So when continuous duration is particularly being emphasized, the set expression “X days and X nights” is used:

Then I lay prostrate before the LORD as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke him to anger. (Deuteronomy 9:18)

They found an Egyptian in the open country and brought him to David. And they gave him bread and he ate. They gave him water to drink, and they gave him a piece of a cake of figs and two clusters of raisins. And when he had eaten, his spirit revived, for he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. (1 Samuel 30:11-12)

And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:8)

And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:13)

And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. (Matthew 4:2)

Now granted, we have only a relatively small number of instances of this formula Xd+Xn, but I propose the following “rules” which can be observed about its usage.

1. To express duration in terms of DAY, the expression indicates day+night. D=d+n.

2.  When modifying the nouns with a number, each noun must have a number. E.g. “Seven days and Seven nights.” Xd+Xn.

(NOT *”Seven days and nights”)

3. The coefficient of both d and n is ALWAYS IDENTICAL in all instances we have. Always Xd+Xn and never *Xd=Yn. That is we never see the expression with, for example, “seven days and six nights” or “six days and seven nights.”

4.  So if this is true BY CONVENTION both the numbers modifying “days” and “nights” reflect the total number of DAYS represented. Xd+Xn = X(d+n) = X*D.

5. This is the case even in instances where TECHNICALLY the number of nights and days are not actually equal. What is ultimately in view is total number of DAYS represented, including mere parts of days.

6. Therefore, when one hears or reads this expression, there is a kind of mental distributive property understood: 3d+3n = 3(d+n).

7. And given d+n=D, the expression allows for any time period including all or part of three DAYS.

If the above linguistic analysis is valid (and if you study Hebrew, you will see weirder things than this) then the Matthew 12:40 phrase “three days and three nights” is perfectly appropriate–in Aramaic–to refer to a period from Friday evening through Sunday morning.


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