Was Something Lost in the Translation of “Three Days and Three Nights”?

There’s an old adage about the fact that some things get “lost in translation.” The reason it became an adage is because it is so frequently true. Unfortunately, this is a fact that is easily and often overlooked by those of us who believe the Bible can and ought to be interpreted literally. The problem is, many of us forget, or refuse to accept the fact that there may be something more to interpreting the Bible literally than simply taking everything at face value. This messes up our understanding of the Bible and this thinking error can even mislead people into believing that the Bible contradicts itself.

Case in point: Jesus’ being in the tomb for “three days and three nights.” There are a number of schools of thought on just how long Jesus spent. The traditional view that he was crucified on Friday afternoon, and entombed just before sundown, spent all Friday night, Saturday day and night, and rising just before sunup on Sunday morning just leaves the twentieth and twenty-first century Biblical literalist cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I added a new blog to my blogroll. It’s called the Ehrman Project Blog. This is the blog for the larger site of the same name: The Ehrman Project dot com. Speaking of people who allow themselves to be mislead into thinking that the Bible contradicts itself, this blog is devoted to answering many of the misleading claims of Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the world’s favorite skeptical Bible scholar who is teaching the popular reading public about the details of Biblical textual criticism, and spinning it with his own loss of faith in the reliability of the text of the Bible.

Today’s post at the Ehrman Project Blog offers some helpful pointers to how the Bible itself demonstrates that this is a Hebrew idiom that isn’t always to be taken merely at face value. The context determines the meaning of not only individual words, but also phrases, such as this one. Read Aren’t there only two nights between Friday and Sunday?


10 responses

  1. Ah the problem. . . . the problem is that either Jesus was in the grave for 3 days and 3 nights as he said he would be (Matt. 12:40) or else he was there only from Friday evening til sometime before dawn Sunday morning (not even 2 full days. There’s something big here, I can sense it.

    1. What big thing do you sense?

      1. The realization that the Jewish High Day (mentioned as the approaching Sabbath during Jesus’ crucifixtion) was in reality NOT the regular seventh day of the week but in actuallity the first day of the Feast of Unleaven Bread (the day after Passover). Roman believers not familiar with the feasts overlooked that factor later when reckoning that Friday had to be the day of crucifixtion. And so for 2,000 years we have observed Good Friday when it should have been Good Wednesday. Why was this allowed by the Lord to remain “hidden”? Not sure, because it hasn’t been completely hidden. There have been a few “fringe” believing groups down through the centuries that could reckon those days correctly. However, I suspect that the realization of this probability at some point in the future will be the gravitas to convince many of the Jewish people to cry out to Jesus in the grafting back in that was prophecied in the NT.

  2. So, have you read the post and examined its argument from parallel passages containing the same Hebrew idiom for “three days and three nights” each of which are demonstrated from the context as being less than a literal 72 hour period?

    Also, if Christ was in the tomb for a literal 72 hour period, why does the Bible speak of his rising “ON the third day” in addition to the references where it was said that he would rise “AFTER three days?” Take for example, Matt. 27:63-64. The chief priests and Pharisees appeal to his prophecy that he would rise “after three days,” therefore they request a guard placed there “until the third day”–odd they didn’t want them to remain until the fourth day, which is “after” the third day. See my other post on this topic: https://capthk.wordpress.com/2009/04/10/on-or-after-defending-the-friday-crucifixion/

    Besides, “Parasceve” was the Hellenistic Jews’ name for Friday (Luke 23:54). It was also used for preparations for annual feasts, but it was weekly used for the sixth day of the week.

    Which “fringe” groups “down through the centuries” taught a Wednesday crucifixion?

  3. FYI…the greek word “Parasceve” translated “Day of Preparation has always been in all Greek literature, Friday. It seems to me that it is obvious that Jesus died on the “Parasceve” (Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31), and there can be no doubt from Luke 23:54-56 and John 19:31, that this is Friday. There is no historical literary contribution that describes “parasceve” as any other day than Friday.

    1. I’d love to have the luxury of confidently asserting that it was exclusively used for the weekly Friday, however, you’ll first have to cite me a source that is more authoritative than the Wikipedia article on Friday (fortunately, that may not be hard to do, taking Wikipedia’s reputation into account–see the “Parasceve” section of the page), which reads regarding the use of the word Parasceve:

      “Parasceve (Greek paraskevé/Παρασκευή) seems[weasel words] to have supplanted the older term, prosábbaton ‘pre-sabbath’, used in the translation of Judith, viii, 6, and in the title –not to be found in Hebrew– of Psalm 92 (93). It became, among Hellenistic Jews, the name for Friday, and was adopted by Greek ecclesiastical writers after the writing of “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”. Apparently[weasel words] it was first applied by the Jews to the afternoon of Friday, then to the whole day, its etymology pointing to the “preparations” to be made for the Sabbath, as indicated in the King James Bible, where the Greek word is translated by “Day of Preparation”. That the regulations of the Law might be minutely observed, it was made imperative to have on the Parasceve, three meals of the choicest food laid ready before sunset (the Sabbath beginning on Friday night); it was forbidden to undertake in the afternoon of the sixth day any business which might extend to the Sabbath; Augustus relieved the Jews from certain legal duties from the ninth hour (Josephus, “Antiq. Jud.”, XVI, vi, 2).

      “Parasceve seems[weasel words] to have been applied also to the eve of certain festival days of a sabbatic character. Foremost among these was the first day of the unleavened bread, Nisan 15. We learn from the Mishna (Pesach., iv, 1, 5) that the Parasceve of the Pasch, on whatever day of the week it fell, was kept even more religiously than the ordinary Friday, in Judaea work ceasing at noon, and in Galilee the whole day being free.[dubious – discuss] In the schools the only question discussed regarding this particular Parasceve was, when should the rest commence: Shammai said from the very beginning of the day (evening of Nisan 13); Hillel said only from after sunrise (morning of Nisan 14).”

  4. OK John- First I used my handy Catholic Encyclopedia, but here are a few other sources. The first is the text itself…I’m thinking it’s kind of authoritative.

    Mark 15:42 Καὶ ἤδη ὀψίας γενομένης, ἐπεὶ ἦν παρασκευή ὅ ἐστιν προσάββατον,
    NAS – When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath.


    1. Walter Bauer, (Rvd. By Arndt, Gingrich and Danker) A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature 2nd Edition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 622. …acc. to Jewish usage (Jos., Ant. 16, 163) it was Friday, on which day everything had to be prepared for the Sabbath, when no work was permitted Mt 27: 62 (CCTorrey, ZAW 65, ‘53, 242=JBL 50, ‘31, 234 n. 3, “sunset’. Mk 15:42; Jn. 19:31. h`me,ra h=n paraskeuh/j Lk 23:54 (v.1. paraskeuh. o[ evstin prosa,bbaton cf. Mk 15:42). th.n paraskeuh.n tw/n VIoudai,wn(~ Jn. 19.42. paraskeuh. tou/ pa,sca(a day of preparation for the Passover (or Friday of Passover Week) vs. 14. For the Christians as well paraskeuh. served to designate the sixth day of the week.

    But that was Bauer…obviously a lightweight…So here’s some DA.
    2. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991) 603‐4. “Despite the fact that Barrett (p. 545) confidently insists paraskeuè tou pascha must refer to the Preparation day of (i.e. before) the Passover, he does not offer any evidence of a single instance where paraskeuë refers to the day before any feast day other than Sabbath.1 If this latter identification is correct, then tou pascha must be taken to mean, not ‘of the Passover’, but ‘of the Passover Feast’ or ‘of the Passover week’. This is a perfectly acceptable rendering, since Passover’ can refer to the Passover meal, the day of the Passover meal, or (as in this case) the entire Passover week (i.e.Passover day plus the immediately ensuing Feast of Unleavened Bread: cf. Jos., Ant. xiv. 21; xvii. 213; Bel. ii. 10; Lk. 22:1; cf. notes on 18:28). Hence paraskeuë tou pascha probably means ‘Friday of Passover week (cf. also notes on v. 31). In this view, John and the Synoptics agree that the last supper was eaten on Thursday evening (i.e. the onset of Friday, by Jewish reckoning), and was a Passover meal.

    3. Irenaeus, Martyrdom of Polycarp 7.1 p.40 (Taken from Volume 1 of Ante‐Nicene Fathers published by Hendrickson Publishers rprt. Martyrdom of Polycarp was trans. by Cleveland Coxe
    D.D.) “His pursuers then, along with horsemen, and taking the youth with them, went forth at supper‐time on the day of the preparation with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber.” Coxe footnotes the phrase “day of preparation” and says, “That is, on Friday.”
    I know, I know Iraneus is wrong on other things…so what about Ridderbos?

    4. Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1997) 628. In the footnote, he writes “paraskeuh,; see above on vs. 14. There is no question of a Passover preparation. The reference is only to Friday. John is in complete agreement with the Synoptics here (cf. Mk. 15:42; Lk. 23:54; see also Bultmann, Comm., in loc.).”

    Josephus seems to explain the peculiar nature of the Jewish days to his readers….
    5. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 16. p.163 (Electronic Edition) “Caesar the emperor, it seemed good to me and my counselors, according to the sentence and oath of the people of Rome, that the Jews have liberty to make use of their own customs, according to the law of their forefathers, as they made use of them under Hyrcanus the high priest of the Almighty God; and that their sacred money be not touched, but be sent to Jerusalem, and that it be committed to the care of the receivers at Jerusalem; and that they be not obliged to go before any judge on the sabbath day, nor on the day of the preparation to it, after the ninth hour.” Clearly a Friday.
    I know, I know what could someone so partial as Josephus know….

    6. TDNT V.7…20. Preparation = paraskeuh,n Mt. 27:62; Jn. 19:3 1, 42; Lk. 23:54, Here we have: paraskeuh/j kai. sa,bbaton evpe,fwsken. The ref. is obviously to the shining of the first star as the Sabbath comes. An explanation is given for the Hell, reader in Mk. 15:42: h=n paraskeuh. o[ evstin prosa,bbaton. Jn. 19:14 refers to the paraskeuh. tou/ pa,sca. Jn. 19:31 says of the Sabbath after the preparation h=n ga.r mega,lh h` h`me,ra evkei,nou tou/ sabba,tou. It is gt. because acc. toJohn’s chronology it coincides with the first day of the feast of the Passover and Unleavened
    Bread. Cf. Str.‐B., II, 581 f. (Information is in footnotes 58‐9)

    The Theological Dictionary of the NT is fairly weak…to be sure…so
    I now have apparently taken the high office of being cavalier, so be it. But I now submit that the burden of proof is on you to prove my audacious claims,


    1. Cavalier attitudes are welcome as long as they bring the documentation. I love it when I can ask someone to document something and they actually can!

      But, to be clear, am I to take it that your documentation above should lead us to utterly ignore the non-Friday usage of Parasceve in the Mishna, which was the documentation cited in Wikipedia? Should we pretend this doesn’t exist?

      Do tell…

  5. I’m not sure what the claim is in the Mishna…I think I know but enlighten me…for I am not the one communing with Wiki.

    I think the big issue is that is missed is that it may have been that year the first day of passover fell on a sabbath. So it was a high day, kind of like having Christmas on a Sunday.

    I think that is what Hoehner get’s at…
    Hoehner, DJG, pp. 120-121; G. Ogg, “Chronology of the New Testament,” New Bible Dictionary (Second Edition; Tyndale House, 1962), p. 202. W.P. Armstrong and J. Finegan, “Chronology of the NT,” ISBE 1:688-689. FF Bruce, NT History, p. 201, note 20, sees AD 30 as the most likely date. I Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord’s Supper (Eerdmans, 1980), discusses the chonology in some detail, pp.67-75 and Table 4, and concludes “Jesus held a Passover meal earlier than the offical Jewish date, and that he was able to do so as the result of calendar differences among the Jews.”

    So far…I’ve cited many sources…your turn.

  6. All I know is what I quoted above. Look back over my citation. I agree that particular Friday was probably simultaneously the first day of the Feast. But seeing what I saw in my source prevents me from denying that there is any evidence of a non-Friday usage.

    My Wikipedia article is a cut and paste of an online Catholic encyclopedia. It references the Mishna (Pesach vi. 1, 5). I have yet to track down an online English translation of the Mishna that will take me to whatever place is identified as Pesach chapter (or book?) 6, sections (or verses?) 1 and 5. When I do, it’ll appear here.

    I appreciate your providing those additional sources however. I want to divest my beloved brethren of the notion that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday. But this is an anti-Catholic tradition that is in many cases so ingrained that many don’t even realize that’s what it is. It’s either anti-Catholicism or hyper-literalism or both (probably both).

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