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What Does the Third Day Prove?

I’ve studied Jesus’ Resurrection enough to only have one real doubt about the empty tomb.  I don’t have any doubt that Jesus was buried in a tomb that was later found empty.  And I don’t have any doubt that none of His disciples would have stolen His body to perpetrate some kind of hoax.  But I have wondered whether or not there could have been some kind of innocent mistake.  Perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb.  Or, maybe Jesus’ body was moved by someone else for some unknown reason. 

So, how can we be sure the tomb wasn’t empty as a result of some kind of mistake?  There are a number of decisive reasons, but in this blog I’ll share one that is usually overlooked.

The Gospels unanimously report that the women discovered Jesus’ tomb empty on the first day of the week.  Because the Jewish Sabbath was Saturday, this would refer to the Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion the Friday three days prior.  However, just about everywhere else in the New Testament, including other sections of the Gospels, the discovery of the empty tomb is dated to the third day. 

“The third day” was a symbolically loaded image in the Judaism of Jesus’ time.  The prophet Hosea, for example, proclaims that: “On the third day He (meaning “God”) will raise us up.” (Hosea 6:2)  A few centuries later, the Talmud expresses the same sentiment with a widespread, popular expectation that the general resurrection would take place on the third day.  It appears that “the third day” had become the metaphor for the general resurrection. 

Once the early church made the connection between the dating of the empty tomb—and hence, Jesus’ Resurrection—and this very rich “the third day” symbolism, there was no looking back.  Evoking the connection between Jesus’ Resurrection and the general resurrection and thus pregnant with meaning, “the third day” overwhelmingly became the preferred way of referring to the discovery of the empty tomb.

So, if “the first day of the week” dating had become obsolete, why, then, do the four Resurrection Narratives of the Gospels all retain it?  There can only be one reason: “the first day of the week” dating is more primitive.  It’s obviously the way the story was originally told until the symbolic connection with “the third day” was made. 

Why does this matter?  Because this dating is a primitive detail without any symbolic meaning that gets cast aside so easily, most scholars think there’s no good reason to doubt it.  And that’s huge, because it enables us to date the discovery of the empty tomb to just a few days after Jesus was crucified.     

Crucifixion was a public event.  Because it was intended as a deterrent, it was designed to call attention to itself.  That’s why Golgotha, the location the Romans chose in Jerusalem for crucifixion, was right outside the city gate.  They wanted to maximize it as a public spectacle for everyone to see. 

While it’s true that the Romans crucified many nameless insurgents without batting an eye, Jesus was different.  He wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill criminal.  To get Himself killed by the Roman authorities, Jesus’ messianic pretentions had to have caused quite a stir.  The Romans could care less about Jewish religious matters.  But they did pay close attention to them when they threated to upset the stability of Roman control.  Jesus must have been enough of a sensation to do this.  The large crowds He was attracting made Rome nervous enough to exercise the most extreme punishment against him. 

So Jesus’ fate would be of great interest to friend and foe alike—to the followers who adored and put their hopes in Him, and to the enemies who wanted to see Him and His radical movement eliminated.  As one scholar cleverly puts it, it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a “cloud of witnesses” to Jesus’ death and burial.  These events would have been of intense interest.  The “top story” of Passover that year.  The stuff of street gossip.  You could ask anyone in the city at the time, and they would know about them.

What all this tells us is that the discovery of the empty tomb was early enough—three days after Jesus was crucified—and public enough—it was the talk of the town—to practically eliminate any possibility of a mistake.  Had there been a mistake; had the women gone to the wrong tomb; had someone inadvertently moved the body, there were enough people around who could quickly correct it.  In fact, Jesus’ opponents had tremendous motive to correct any mistake in order to keep the subversive movement He started from breaking out again! 

And if Joseph of Arimathea was actually the one who buried Jesus, we can be virtually certain any mistake would have easily been corrected right away.  More on that next week.

What doubts do you have about the Resurrection?  Let me know by going to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leaving your comments there.  I would love to hear from you!  Please “Like” our Facebook page and subscribe to our YouTube channel.  Thank you for all your support!  It means the World to me!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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