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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. Numerous answers have been suggested. The reasons for asking this question are good ones. 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 timeline that most professing Christians accept and celebrate.

The traditional understanding remembers the events this way: Jesus participated in the Last Supper with His disciples (Thursday). He was executed the following day (Friday - the Day of Preparation) and buried and in the tomb through Saturday (the Sabbath). Christ rose from the dead early on the first day of the week (Sunday).

This 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 we will encounter difficulties. Jesus said in Matthew 12:40 that the Son of Man would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. If Jesus died and was buried on Friday and then emerged from the tomb alive on Sunday morning, that's two evenings and two days. Not three.

Some have tried to answer this question by appealing to the Jewish system of counting days. In this system, 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. That's a total of 3 days being deceased. This answer satisfies some.

The question that the Questioner points out is still unanswered, though. Because Jesus didn't simply say that He would be physically dead for three days. He 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. This brings the total to three days and two evenings. Closer. 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 is to take Jesus' statement as a figure of speech.

Figures of speech are common in our day. They were certainly used throughout the Scriptures. Good interpretive practice involves understanding the intent of the inspired writings. This means that context is important. 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?

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. Maybe He 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 none of these possible solutions are justifiable. They don't satisfy. They fail under scrutiny.

In my opinion, there is a better option. We can take what Jesus said at face value. We don't need to 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. He 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. This is the day before the Sabbath. However, does this necessarily mean that Jesus died on Friday?

It would if Saturday was the only Sabbath.

But it isn't. The Jewish calendar had a regular Sabbath. This occurred every week on the 7th Day (Saturday). It also has "special Sabbaths" which corresponded to certain holy days and celebrations like the Passover. Passover 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"? 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 to explain that the "day of Preparation" and "the Sabbath" that are being discussed are in relation to the festival of Passover. 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. The Feast of Unleavened Bread has a special Sabbath on the first day and the last day of the feast. This is true 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. This would have resulted in two "Sabbaths" in a row. The first day of the feast as a special Sabbath. 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. This would have been 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." This is 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. That would make this proposed timeline of the crucifixion taking place on Thursday impossible. The start of the Passover on Friday would also be impossible. Because in those accounts Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover together at the Last Supper (e.g. Matthew 26:17-29). That's before the crucifixion.

Settling these discrepancies becomes a little more complicated. Some believe that John's telling of the events is not historical. It is theological. This means that John is taking liberty with the facts. He is painting a different picture simply in order to bring about belief (see John 20:30-31). He does not intend to give an historical accounting of the events he is describing.

It's John who describes Jesus as the "Lamb of God." No other Gospel writer does the same. 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. 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. It 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. 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. 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. Jesus never intended to make anyone an Essene. He always called 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. 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 at that time.

These historical reconstructions represent two differing perspectives of the same events. They 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. He then could have 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. It beautifully reconciles seemingly contradictory events in a historically and interpretationally sound way. 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. 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!

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P. Scott said…
Joe, I really enjoyed this answer, as it was somewhat new to me. As you and I have experienced in past discussions; not all of us apporoach a certain passage the same initial way.
Ive never had a problem reconciling the "time differences" because I have simply looked at the context in which Jesus spoke these word's and what I believe His intent to be.
I never took this for a "time line" by Jesus, but rather His continuation of the message He first preached... "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Mt. 4:17)
Jesus was pointing out to the Scribes and Pharisees (who were asking for a miraculous sign) that just as Jonah was sent by God to Nineveh (Which He mentions right after this in Mt. 12:41... the next verse)to call them to repentance, He came to call them (and the world) to repentance. Thus, "somthing greater than Jonah is here... e.g. "the kingdom of heaven".
I figured Jesus was using Jonah 1:17 to communicate a truth to a group that would have (or should have)gotten it right away, rather than a literal prediction of His time of burial. If they didnt get it then, they should have after His ressurection. (Which makes the Essene connection so cool)
So... I guess my "study" eyes never considered the time problem.
Thank you for explaining this, as it opens up another facet of God's glorious word. Not just Jesus' intent that is found in the context, but the consistent accuracy of Scripture as well. Bravo!
Joe K. said…
Thanks, P. Scott! Your analysis of this passage is good, and if I were preaching or teaching on this passage I would focus more on what you are discussing since it is the main point. However, the question that was asked is still a great one, and peripheral questions can still be edifying! Of course, we should always be careful not to become divisive or even overly dogmatic on secondary issues (because, after all, they aren't the point!).

I'm glad you found this to be eye-opening! Take care, my friend.
P. Scott said…
I even used it for my lesson at the Jail last evening...went very well! keep up the good work.
BeeBloggin said…
Thank you P. Joe, as always! I know the Lord to be consistent... and although my study of scripture is nowhere near yours, if it drew question in my mind I figured others may question it in theirs... It is hard for me to overlook things like this - when God's Word seems inconsistent - when I know He is not inconsistent. I do not know how I feel about just 'taking someone's word for it'. However, I believe God is the only one with that credibility... so I want to take His word for it! This being said,I knew there was more to this verse than I obviously knew :) Anyway - He has, once again, not ceased to amaze me.
BeeBloggin said…
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BeeBloggin said…
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BeeBloggin said…
So... I have read a small amount regarding the Essenes. I have gathered that they do not observe the entirety of the books of Moses. That they actually forbid eating meat or sacrificing animals (one or both sects... but both sects seem to not follow the Law completely or think it is not the actual law Moses initially received). Do you have any ideas as to why Jesus and/ or His disciples may have followed their calendar but not their beliefs, rituals and traditions?

Here is my reference, I know -wiki- what a copout, but I figured it is a familiar site.
Joe K. said…
Hi BeeBloggin,

I think it would be a mistake to think that any group had it exactly right and that Jesus would be a part of them, without correction. If I led you to think that I believe Jesus was an Essene, I apologize ... I mentioned that some scholars believe that Jesus had some Essenic tendencies, because it makes historical sense of why He never rebukes them in the Gospels and how He could have eaten the Passover with His disciples prior to the Pharisees and Sadducees preparing the Passover a few days later.

In all honesty, I simply don't know if Jesus was sympathetic to the Essenes or not, and if He was, I don't know how much, simply because the Bible doesn't tell us. If Jesus intended for His followers to become like the Essenes, you would have read about that in the Gospels or other New Testament documents.

Certainly some of the practices and ideas the Essenes held, Jesus did not. The link you sent mentioned their belief that the books of Moses had been corrupted - Jesus didn't believe this, but always appealed to the Old Testament as perfectly authoritative. The article said some Essenes did not eat meat or kill animals, but clearly some did ... and we know Jesus and the disciples ate the passover prior to His crucifixion according to the Synoptics.

All this to say, I'm not sure how fruitful it is for followers of Christ to learn about the Essenes - beyond intellectual curiosity. We have the Scriptures which define our Lord and what He wants us to do, and our time is better spent reading the Scriptures (in my opinion).

The Essenes can be very interesting. I didn't mention that some of the scholars also think John the Baptist displayed Essenic tendencies (he was an ascetic, he baptized with water, etc.). Truth be told, sometimes scholars are just coming up with theories so they can write books, papers, and dissertations!

I am persuaded that the reality of an Essenic calendar makes it possible to reconcile seemingly impossible timelines in the synoptics and the gospel of John. As I said in the main post, I am not willing to die for this conclusion and say that it is "correct and accurate" beyond all shadow of a doubt.

Sorry if this only brings more confusion, but I hope it helps!
BeeBloggin said…
Hey! I found this article today!

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