by Tim Hegg
The pages that follow comprise an Excursus found in my Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Vol. 2, pp. 463–94, TorahResource, 2008). Apart from these opening comments and a few additional comments added at the end of the Excursus, these pages are identical with the Commentary pages. I have simply extracted them into this short study in order to make them accessible to those who do not have the commentary.
The extended study on the Passion Chronology in the Matthew Commentary was considered necessary in light of Matthew 12:40, the only time in the Gospels where Yeshua is recorded as comparing His time in the tomb with that of Jonah in the belly of the fish:
for just as JOHNAH 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.
This saying of Yeshua has been taken by many to be the cornerstone upon which the chronology of the crucifixion must be built. Some have automatically presumed that “three days and three nights” mandates 72 hours in the tomb. They have therefore sought to fit the chronological notices of the Gospels into this time frame. More liberal commentators simply dismiss the saying as unauthentic and as a later insertion. Others do not take the reference to Jonah as indicating time, i.e., three 24 hour periods, but as a picture or symbol of death and resurrection.
In the study that follows, I have sought to outline the primary issues in the passion chronology and to evaluate possible solutions to the questions these issues raise.
If there is any conclusion to which I have come, it is this: the crucifixion did take place on a Friday. I know that some will shake their heads and wonder how I could be so far off the mark, but to these I simply ask that they show me where I have erred. Believe me when I say that I am simply trying to take the Gospel texts at face value and if I have misunderstood them or have misinterpreted them, then I am very ready and even anxious to be corrected.
In the end, like the Gospel writers themselves, the primary matter (which is without dispute) is that Yeshua was crucified, laid in the tomb, and that He rose again on the third day. In seeking to unravel the puzzle of the chronology of these events, we should never let this enterprise eclipse, for even a moment, the wonder and majesty of our Lord’s death and resurrection as the means by which we have been brought near to God and granted eternal life. Ultimately what matters the most is that we serve a risen Savior!
The Chronology of the Crucifixion in the Gospels
The chronology of the Passion has raised many questions. While the Gospel writers are not entirely disinterested in chronological aspects of Yeshua’s final week, they seem to be less concerned with them than was the emerging Christian Church, in which days were memorialized with a fervor. The split between the “fourteeners” (Quartodecimans) and the Roman Church characterizes the importance of this issue for the Anti-Nicean Church.1 The Quartadecimans celebrated the fast of Easter in accordance with the Jewish calendar, i.e., on the 14th day of Nisan, regardless upon which day of the week this might fall. The Roman Church, however, celebrated the fast always on Friday (thus “Good Friday”), and considered the alternative practice errant, especially as the emerging Church withdrew more and more from her Jewish roots.
But the question that is specific to our Matthew text is whether by Yeshua’s words we are to understand that “three days and three nights” constitute a 72 hour period, and whether He is categorically saying (in a prophetic way) that He would be in the tomb for that length of time. Those who suggest that a 72 hour period is not required usually appeal to three arguments: 1) that in a Jewish reckoning of the day, any part of a day can be counted as a whole, 2) the Gospel narratives mandate a period less than 72 hours for Yeshua’s time in the tomb, and 3) the repeated reference to Yeshua’s resurrection “on the third day” (not after the third day) makes a period less than 72 hours necessary.
Any Part of a Day Constitutes a Whole Day
This argument is based upon two sources: the Tanach and rabbinic literature. From the Tanach we seem to have an indication that “full days” (24 hours) were not always required when counting days. In other words, part of a day suffices to count a full day. The following texts are those most commonly put forward:
(1) In Genesis, Joseph incarcerates his brothers “for three days,” but on the third day appears to release them. So he put them all together in prison for three days. Now Joseph said to them on the third day, “Do this and live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die.” And they did so. (Gen 42:17–20)
(2) In 1 Kings, Israel and Syria camped opposite each other for seven days, and on the seventh day they began to battle. Did they camp for a full seven days?
So they camped one over against the other seven days. And on the seventh day the battle was joined, and the sons of Israel killed of the Arameans 100,000 foot soldiers in one day. (1Kings 20:29)
(3) Esther asks the Jews not to eat or drink for “three days, night or day,” after which she would go into the king. Yet Esther 5:1 indicates she went in “on the third day”. (Did they fast for a full 3 days?) Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish. (Esther 4:16) Now it came about on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace in front of the king’s rooms, and the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room, opposite the entrance to the palace. (Esther 5:1)
(4) In 1 Sam 30:12 an abandoned Egyptian servant is labelled as having not eaten for “three days or three nights”, yet in v. 13 he tells David that he was abandoned “three days ago” (apparently 3 daytimes and 2 nights fulfill the “three days and three nights” terminology of the former verse.)
They gave him a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins, and he ate; then his spirit revived. For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. David said to him, “To whom do you belong? And where are you from?” And he said, “I am a young man of Egypt, a servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind when I fell sick three days ago.” (1Sam 30:12–13)
When compared to the statement of Matthew 12:40, that Yeshua would be in the “heart of the earth three days and three nights” yet would be resurrected “on the third day” (cf. Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 46; Acts 10:40; 1Cor 15:4), the parallel seems obvious.
The Reckoning of a “Day” in Rabbinic Literature
According to Jastrow,2an ‘onah is:
a period of twelve astronomical hours, one half of the natural day and of the natural night, or (at solstice) natural day, or natural night.
We may note the following:
How long is an ‘onah? — R. Hiyya b. Abba said in the name of R. Johanan: Either a day or a night. R. Hana-She’ina — according to another version, R. Hana b. She’inah — reported that Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan: Half a day and half a night. R. Samuel b. Isaac said: There is no contradiction [in the two definitions], the former referring to the time of the spring and autumn equinox [when day and night are equal, i.e., 12 hours each] and the latter to the summer and winter solstice [At such times of the year it is not correct to say either a day or a night since they are unequal. We then have to say half a day and half a night, i.e., twelve hours.]. (b.Avodah Zara 75a, cp. b.Niddah 65b; t.Tohorot 11.16)
According to y.Berachot 9b [cf. m.Berachot 1.1], which is discussing the sacrifices which must be eaten on a single day, the day consists of the daylight in which the offering is made and the night which follows. Thus, one may eat the meat of such a sacrifice throughout the night until the dawn appears. But the Sages, in order to make a safe-guard, ruled that such meat should not be eaten after midnight. Still, if one did eat past midnight, he did not violate a biblical commandment but only a rabbinical one:
From what time may they recite the Shema in the evening? From the hour that the priests enter [their homes] to eat their heave offering, “until the end of the first watch”—the words of R. Eliezer. But sages say, “Until midnight.” Rabban Gamaliel says, “Until the rise of dawn.” His [Gamaliel’s] sons returned from a banquet hall [after midnight]. They said to him, “We did not [yet] recite the Shema.” He said to them, “If the dawn has not yet risen, you are obligated to recite [the Shema]. “And [this applies] not only [in] this [case]. Rather, [as regards] all [commandments] which sages said [may be performed] ‘Until midnight’ the obligation [to perform them persists] until the rise of dawn.” [For example,] the offering of the fats and entrails—their obligation [persists] until the rise of dawn [see Lev. 1:9; 3:3-5]. And all [sacrifices] which must be eaten within one day, the obligation [to eat them persists] until the rise of dawn. If so why did sages say [that these actions may be performed only] until midnight? In order to protect man from sin. (m.Berachot 1.1)
Similarly, with respect to all those sacrifices that may be eaten for only one day etc. [i.e., the time of their mitzvah actually extends until the light of dawn arises]. The Gemara clarifies the meaning of “all”: “All” those sacrifices that may be eaten for only one day includes even the kodashim kalim that have a one-day limit on consumption. The Gemara cites the final clause of the Mishnah: If so, why did the Sages say, etc. [regarding these mitzvot that they may be performed only until midnight? In order to distance a person from sin]. The Gemara elaborates: If you would say that one may eat the aforementioned offerings until the light of dawn arises, as Biblical law permits, one who has such an offering might think that the light of dawn has not yet risen, when in fact it has risen, and as a result, he will eat the offering in violation of Biblical law and incur liability. Since you tell him that he may eat it only until midnight—even if he errs and eats it after midnight he will not incur liability, for he will have violated only a Rabbinical decree. (y.Berachot 9b, cp. 13b, 15).
From this, it appears obvious that in some cases the Sages reckoned the end of the day at the rising of the sun rather than at its setting. But this involves a sacrifice that is offered during the daylight. Thus, if it is permitted to be consumed only for one day, that day is reckoned from sunrise to sunrise, not by counting a full 24 hours.