Why Jesus was Raised on the Third Day | Part 1

There is a strange abundance of occurrences of events that happen in or after “three days” or on the “third day” in the Old Testament. This oddity is highlighted when juxtaposed to events that happen on the second or fourth day. The phrase “second day” or “two days” appears 18 times while “fourth day” or “four days” appears 8 times. In contrast, “three days” and “third day” occurs 79 times.

Few commentators have noted this phenomenon and even fewer have explored the theological significance. Among ancient commentators, the Genesis Midrash links up 7 of the occurrences with the conclusion that “Revelation” happens on the third day. because of the merits of Abraham. The Esther Midrash quotes 4 of the 79 and states that “Israel is never left in dire distress more than three days.” Among modern commentators there have been a handful of articles that deal with a few of the 79 texts. Nahum Sarna notes 16 plus one in the Gilgamesh Epic.

The problem with both ancient and modern analysis of the “third day” in the OT is one or both of two problems. First, the sampling of texts is too narrow to allow for a theological synthesis. Second, and connected to the first is that many explorations of third day theology is driven by early Christian confessions (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). While this is not intrinsically problematic, indeed it is commendable, that research agenda is often mitigated by looking for the conjunction of third day and resurrection such that other third day texts get inappropriately excluded.

First, this essay will survey most the instances of “three days” and “third day” in the OT and demonstrate that in every case, either judgment or redemption or both are enacted therein. Second, I will expound the OT theology of the microcosmic symbolic week. Third, I will expound three texts that intimate both third- and seventh-day theology. Finally, I will synthesize this data and argue that the third-day theology is the preliminary “Day of the Lord”. The “Day of the Lord” comes symbolically on the third and seventh day in the OT. This should have taught Israel that God’s parousia at the “Day of the Lord” would come both at the end and in the middle of history.

Conjunction of “Third Day” and “Three Days”

Preliminary comments must be made concerning the possibly problematic conjunction of two seemingly (chronologically) dissimilar phrases. In many of the texts studied in this paper, the event does not happen on the third day but after three days or some similar variant. There are a couple of comments that mitigate this problem. First, it was not a problem for the rabbis. Midrash Genesis Rabbah 56.1 conflates these two temporal indicators:

It is written, After two days He will revive us, on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His presence (Hos. VI, 2). E.g. on the third day of the tribal ancestors: And Joseph said unto them the third day: This do, and live (Gen. XLII, 18); on the third day of Revelation: And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning (Ex. XIX, 16); on the third day of the spies: And hide yourselves there three days (Josh. II, 16); on the third day of Jonah: And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah II, I); on the third day of those returning from the Exile: And we abode there three days (Ezra VIII, 32); on the third day of resurrection: ‘After two days He will revive us, on the third day He will raise us up’; on the third day of Esther: Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel (Est. V, I).

Because the rabbi does not discuss the problem, we can assume that he does not see it as a problem. McArthur comments that “the tension between these two formulations which modern scholars find puzzling would not have troubled first-century Jewish exegetes.” Second, later Jewish and Gentile Christian readings do not see a problem with these two temporal indicators. Matthew recounts Jesus using the sign of Jonah (“three days and three nights”) as a sign for the resurrection (on “the third day). McArthur notes that Matthew’s usage of Jonah “demonstrates that for Jewish thought ‘on the third day’ and ‘after three days’ could be treated as functional if not identical equivalents. This is important in view of the variation in the Christian tradition between ‘on the third day’ (generally in Matthew and Luke as well as I Cor. xv. 4) and ‘after three days’ (consistently in Mark, but also in Matt. Xxvii. 63).”

The Hebrew and Greek mind did not make a strict distinction between these two. Thiele corroborates this observation: the “reckoning was according to the inclusive system, whereby the first and last units or fractions of units of a group were included as full units in the total of the group”. For these reasons, I will treat “three days” and “third day” as functional equivalents.

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