Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Sign of Jonah

Q: Jesus Himself states, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

According to John 19:31, it seems as though Jesus died on the "day of preparation" which was immediately followed by the sabbath, and then followed by the first day of the week. This leads us to when Mark 16:2 happened, the ladies went to the tomb "very early on the first day of the week". It was at this time that the empty tomb was discovered.

My question is, according to history and maybe even Greek text, is there any explanation as to why Jesus said that He would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights when as I am reading the accounts, I am not coming up with three days and three nights?


Thank you, as always!


A: This question has been raised by many people and numerous "answers" have been put forward. The reasons for asking this question are good ones, and the reasoning presented in the question itself seems to indicate a real dilemma when trying to make sense of what Jesus was talking about and the time-line that most professing Christians accept and celebrate: namely, that Jesus participated in the Last Supper with His disciples on Thursday, was executed the following day (Friday - the Day of Preparation), buried and in the tomb through Saturday (the Sabbath), and then rose from the dead early on the first day of the week (Sunday).

This is the traditional understanding of events and is the reason for most liturgical calendars and timing of celebrations in Christian denominations all around the world.

If this is what happened, then no matter how we reckon the days and evenings, what Jesus said in Matthew 12:40 about being in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights becomes difficult to reconcile. If Jesus died on Friday and was buried on the evening of that day (on the Jewish reckoning, the evening would be the start of the next day - either way, this is the first "evening"), stayed buried for the following "day" (Saturday) and "evening" (still Saturday on our understanding of a "day" - according to the Jewish reckoning this is the start of the next day, Sunday), and then emerged from the tomb alive on the next morning, that's only 2 evenings and 2 days.

Some have tried to answer this question by appealing to the fact that according to the Jewish system of counting "days," any part of the day would be counted as a full day - so if Jesus died on Friday during the day, this counts a full day, then He was dead all day Saturday (a second day), and was dead into the third day upon which He rose, for a total of 3 days being deceased. While this answer satisfies some, the question that the Questioner points out is still unanswered, because Jesus didn't simply say that He would be physically dead for three days, but instead said that He would be in the heart of the earth (that is, buried) for three days and three nights.

"...for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:40).

If we allow for Jesus' statement to be that He would simply be dead for "three days and three evenings" then we get closer on this common timeline, but still not all the way there. We're really only adding another "day," which brings the total to three days and two evenings, which is close but not exactly what Jesus said. To say that the Jewish reckoning of "days" would include the evening of Friday (which would be prior to the crucifixion, since the Jewish reckoning of a "day" is "evening and morning" so their "Friday" begins in what we would consider the evening of Thursday) seems like a stretch.

These "solutions" are less than satisfactory to me, especially if we want to maintain the inerrancy of Scripture.

Another possible solution that is presented in order to "get around" this particular difficulty of having a literal fulfillment of "three days and three evenings in the heart of the earth" is to take Jesus' statement as a figure of speech instead of as a statement which is intended to be taken literally word-for-word.

Figures of speech are common in our day and they were certainly used throughout the Scriptures. Good interpretive practice involves understanding the intent of the inspired writings, which means that context is important. Another way to put it is that the Bible is literally true, even when it's not true literally. A figure of speech, a metaphor, a parable, and a proverb all communicate truth, even if they do so in different ways. To take everything absolutely literally - especially if it isn't meant to be taken literally, but is perhaps an exaggeration for emphasis ("hyperbole") - can actually be an abuse of the text. If I exaggerate to make a point, I want my point to be understood - which means I want you to understand that I'm exaggerating so that you'll understand the point of my exaggeration.

You with me, still?

In this way, if Jesus is using a figure of speech, then it's possible He wasn't intending to communicate that He would literally be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, but was simply alluding to His death, burial and resurrection in a more generic sense.

The problem with this is "solution" is that we have no justification from the context to believe that Jesus is speaking metaphorically or with a figure of speech. Instead, this interpretation only arises in order to get around the seeming problem of what actually happened in history! To re-interpret biblical passages because they don't seem to fit reality is bad interpretation.

Quite frankly, if Jesus was using a figure of speech, He picked an analogy (i.e. Jonah) that obscured His point, rather than making it. He didn't need to bring Jonah in at all!

It seems to me that neither of these possible solutions are justifiable or satisfactory, but instead they fail under scrutiny.

In my opinion, there is a better option for those who want to take what Jesus said at face value, and that doesn't violate what is written in the Scriptures. However, it does violate our "traditional" understanding of the events of Jesus' crucifixion. Before diving into the details, the solution is this: Jesus was crucified on Thursday, not Friday, and therefore was buried on Thursday evening (the beginning of Friday according to the Jewish reckoning), was buried all day Friday (the first "day" and second "evening"), buried all day Saturday (the second "day" and third "evening"), and rose early in the morning and exited the tomb on the third day, fulfilling exactly what He said: He was in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.

Of course, the Questioner points out that the biblical text indicates in John 19:31 that Jesus died on the day of Preparation, which is the day before the Sabbath. However, does this mean that Jesus died on Friday?

It would if Saturday was the only Sabbath.

However, the Jewish calendar had a regular Sabbath, which occurred every week on the 7th Day (Saturday), but also has "special Sabbaths" which corresponded to certain holy days and celebrations... like the Passover, which was happening near the crucifixion (more on this in a minute).

Let's look very closely at John 19:31 -

Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. (John 19:31)

What's the purpose of the parenthetical comment included by John, "for that Sabbath was a high day"? While this language does not occur often in the Scriptures (this particular phrase is more often used to refer to the "Great Day of the Lord" - the coming day of judgment), the reason for the explanation that the coming Sabbath was a "high day" is in explaining that the "day of Preparation" and "the Sabbath" that are being discussed are in relation to the festival of Passover, and not based on the normal weekly pattern.

The Jewish calendar was based on a 360-day year. Since 360 is not evenly divided by 7 (the number of days in a week), each year would have the same "dates" occurring on different "days." Our current calendar of 365 days presents the same issue - my birthday occurs on the same date each year, while occurring on a different day of the week from one year to the next.

Similarly, the Passover was celebrated on a particular date with the feast of Unleavened Bread having a special Sabbath on the first day and the last day of the feast, regardless of which "day of the week" these feast days fell on. Therefore, it is a very real possibility that the beginning of the Feast in the year of the crucifixion fell on a Friday, which would have resulted in two "Sabbaths" in a row - the First day of the feast as a special Sabbath, and then the next day being a regular Sabbath. If this is true, John's statement that it was the Day of Preparation (i.e. the day before the Sabbath) need not mean that it was the 6th day of the week (i.e. Friday), especially if the parenthetical comment regarding this "Sabbath" being a "high day" is intended to help his 1st century recipients of this Gospel understand that this was a feast day Sabbath, instead of a normal Sabbath day.

In John's Gospel, if the day of preparation fell on a Thursday instead of a Friday because the timing of the beginning of Passover put the start of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on Friday, then the execution would have occurred on Thursday (a special day of preparation), Jesus would have been buried that evening (the start of Friday on the Jewish reckoning), and John's recounting of the events simply skips straight through the three evenings and three days of burial to the beginning of event on the third day of the resurrection and empty tomb:

Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb. (John 19:42-20:1)

Notice, John skips over the entire burial period with a simple, "Now" to keep the readers/hearers moving forward with the account.

Further issues arise in trying to reconcile John's telling of the events of the crucifixion week with the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In those gospels, it seems that the Passover began earlier in the week making this proposed timeline of the crucifixion taking place on Thursday impossible, and making the start of the Passover on Friday also impossible, because in those accounts Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover together at the Last Supper (e.g. Matthew 26:17-29).

Settling these discrepancies becomes a little more complicated. Some believe that John's telling of the events is not really historical, but is more "theological" in focus. What this means is that John is taking a bit more liberty with the facts and is painting a different picture simply in order to bring about belief (see John 20:30-31) and not to give an historical account of the events he is describing. It's John who describes Jesus as the "Lamb of God" and no other gospel writer does the same, and it's John's Gospel which has Jesus being executed with the Passover lambs, while the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) have the Passover beginning earlier in the week and Jesus is executed during the festival, but not simultaneously with the slaughter of the Passover lambs.

For skeptics, this becomes an easy target for accusations of contradictions. However, the discoveries at Qumran with the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided an excellent look into the history of Israel that once again provides helpful information in bringing an historical reconciliation to these seemingly irreconcilable differences.

During the time of Jesus, anyone who has read the Scriptures is aware that there were two major groups in leadership of the Jewish people: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. However, these were not the only groups around! The third major party at this time were known as the Essenes, and it was their library that was discovered at Qumran. (There were other groups, too, like the Zealots - cf. the description of Simon in Matthew 10:4.)

The Gospel accounts record Jesus' strong rebukes of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, yet there is no recorded interaction and/or rebuke of the third largest group at this time, the Essenes ... why would this be? Some historians have come to the conclusion that this is because Jesus demonstrated many Essenic tendencies, and that He and His disciples identified more closely with the Essenes than any other prominent group at the time.

Ordinarily, it wouldn't make much sense to discuss this, as Jesus never intended to make anyone an Essene, but always wanted to call people to follow Himself - so why even bring it up here if it was never mentioned in the Scriptures? One of the additional discoveries at Qumran, beyond many important manuscripts of biblical and extra-biblical documents, was the discovery that the Essenes had their own calendar and enjoyed their own Temple privileges separate from the priestly calendar used by the Sadducees and Pharisees. If Jesus and His disciples followed the Essenic calendar, it's entirely possibly that the synoptic gospels represent the viewpoint of the disciples and Jesus, and it makes sense that their reckoning of the start of Passover would not match the priestly view described in John's Gospel, which would have been the celebrated by the majority of Jews in that time.

If these historical reconstructions are true, they represent two differing perspectives of the same events, which then do not contradict each other at all. Jesus could have celebrated the Passover with His disciples at the Last Supper on Tuesday or Wednesday of that week in accordance with the Essenic calendar, and then afterward been arrested, convicted, and executed on Thursday, the day of preparation for the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread/Passover for the priestly calendar, which would have begun on Friday, a special sabbath.

Unfortunately, I can't say for sure that this is what happened. I do believe that this makes the most sense of the biblical and historical data, that it beautifully reconciles seemingly contradictory events in a historically and interpretationally sound way, and that it best explains how Jesus meant exactly what He said when He declared, "for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." The only thing this interpretation and reconstruction violates is the traditional understanding that Jesus was crucified on Friday ... and I'm comfortable forsaking tradition when it doesn't fit the biblical data. I'm aware that not everyone is willing to violate tradition so easily.

However, since the Scriptures do not say, "Jesus was killed on Thursday," I must admit that it's possible I've made an error in my historical reconstruction or that other historians who have come to the same conclusion have done the same. This is not a hill I'd be willing to die on, but it's the best answer I can give you! Hope it helps!