Why was Resurrection on “the Third Day”? Two Insights

Every year during Holy Week, Christians scratch their heads over questions about Jesus’ being raised “on the third day.” We look at our calendars and see that Sunday comes only two days after Friday.

A lot of folks have proposed schemes to make the timing make more sense. These create problems, however, with reading the gospel accounts and with what is known from Jewish practice of the Second Temple Period.

One neglected cultural detail suggests a simpler answer to this issue. Throughout the Bible, Jews counted time this way:

– Today

– Tomorrow

– Third day

What they call the “third day” we would call “the day after tomorrow.” It sounds surprising, but here are a couple examples:

When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. (Leviticus 19:5-6)

The Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day.” (Exodus 19:10-11)

The idea is not to count 24-hour time spans but to name successive days, including the day of an announcement, which was understood as the “first day.” Seen in this light, if Jesus died and was buried on Friday, it would be completely logical that Sunday would be seen as the “third day.”

Of course this does not solve all issues between the Gospel accounts, which need to be addressed elsewhere. But it accords with what they report about his being laid in the tomb right before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54) (1). It also affirms the tradition of observing “Good Friday” as the day of Jesus’ death, rather than “Good Thursday” or “Good Wednesday.”

Why was the “Third Day” so Significant?

Understanding how the Jews counted days helps solve one mystery for our logical, Greek-thinking brains. But another insight comes from looking at Jesus’ words about “the third day” more Hebraically. This is actually far more important.

In several places we hear Jesus talk about his death, but then how he’d be raised on “the third day.” He makes this prediction over and over. Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide thinks that he did so because of a prophetic promise that Hosea had made centuries earlier:

Come, let us return to the Lord;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him. (Hosea 6:1-2)

Hosea had rebuked the people of Israel for their sins, and they knew they were suffering from God’s punishment. But then the prophet invited them to return to the Lord, issuing a gracious promise that God’s forgiveness would soon come. Today might be a terrible day of his anger, but tomorrow would be better, and in not too long, life would seemingly begin again. What wonderful assurance that even when God was angry, he desires to forgive.

When the rabbis looked back on the Scriptures in light of Hosea’s words, they noticed several places where the “third day” was when redemption came.

The rabbis were not being woodenly literalistic in counting up days. They were not developing codes and prediction schemes. They were saying that scripturally, God’s forgiveness and redemption comes on “the third day.”

Lapide writes that in Jewish thought,

“On the third day” has nothing to do with the date or the counting of time but contains for ears which are educated biblically a clear reference to God’s mercy and grace which is revealed after two days of affliction and death by way of redemption.(2)

It made perfect sense to Jesus’ first Jewish followers that Christ would be raised to life “on the third day.”


For more about this motif of “the third day,” see p 214-216 in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus (Tverberg, Baker, 2018).  It is part of a larger section called “Reading about the Messiah” (p 178-250) which discusses the distinctively Jewish, Hebraic way of reading the Bible that Jesus used to communicate his Messianic identity. Some of his boldest claims float right past us because we don’t know how he read his Scriptures, our Old Testament.

(1) There is a question about John 19:14, but the “Day of Preparation” was a standard reference to Friday in many first-century Jewish documents. Besides Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42 and Luke 23:54, you also find it in Josephus Ant. 16.6.2 §§163-64, Didache 8:1 and elsewhere. Personally I agree with the NIV that John 19:14 is likely a reference to the Friday of Passover week. Then all four gospels agree on the dating of Jesus’ death.

(2) Genesis Rabbah 56. Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Minneapolis, Fortress: 1982), 91-93. Regarding Jonah who was “three days and three nights” in the fish — in the rabbinic discussion about “on the third day he will raise us up,” (Hosea 6:2) the Scripture passages that it sees as connected include either “on the third day” or “after three days,” and they include Jonah, saying that God’s rescue came “on the third day of Jonah.”  (The connection was based on including the words “three” and “days,” not that an exact quote was made.)

(Images: Raw Pixel, Dion Tavenier)