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How to Count Three Days

Joe Heschmeyer

One of the more confusing aspects of the biblical account of the Resurrection is the seemingly odd way of keeping time. Stephen King is hardly alone in asking:

So what’s going on here? It turns out, it’s more of a cultural question than a mathematical one.

A South Korean foreign exchange student named Hannah lived with my parents and younger siblings for a year. Through her, I discovered that South Korea keeps track of ages very differently than most of the world. First, you start at age one, not zero. Second, you go up a year on January 1st, not your birthday. So a baby born on New Year’s Eve is already considered to be aged two by the next day. My point isn’t to attack or defend “Korean age” counting (which the South Korean government is actually working to abolish), but only to say that if you want to know what a Korean means by “I’m x years old,” you need to know some cultural context.

The same is true when you want to understand biblical expressions like “on the third day” or “after the third day.” Here, there are three things to know. The first principle is that the Jewish day begins at sundown, rather than midnight or sunrise. So while we consider Thursday afternoon and Thursday evening the same day, they’re different days on the Jewish calendar.

The second principle is that the Bible regularly uses what’s called “inclusive counting,” meaning that you count the start date. If I want to describe something happening two weeks from today, I could (but wouldn’t) say that it’ll happen in “a fortnight,” which literally means “in fourteen nights.” But if I wanted to say that in Greek, I’d say it happens in dekapenthímero, “fifteen days.” Acts 10 includes a clear instance of inclusive counting; Cornelius describes a vision he says happened “four days ago,” when it’s clear from the narrative that it was only three days earlier (cf. Acts 10:3, 9, 24, 30).

The third principle is that “after the nth day” doesn’t mean after the nth day ends; it means after the nth day begins. So, for instance, the Pharisees tell Pilate that “we remember how that imposter said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again,’” and ask him to “order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day” (Matt. 27:63-64). That request would make no sense in our cultural context: if you’re worried about something happening after three days, why only guard the tomb until day three?

Put those three facts together, and here’s what you get: Jesus is crucified on Friday afternoon. Once night falls, and Holy Saturday begins on the Jewish calendar, that’s day two. Come Saturday evening, and it’s day three. And it’s sometime here, “after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1) that Jesus is raised from the dead. And in his cultural context, you can express that length of time by saying either that the events of Easter Sunday happen “on the third day,” or that they happen “after three days.”

By the way, we’re not done with the calendar yet. This Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday, and the Gospel at Mass will tell how Jesus appeared to most of the Disciples on Easter, and then “a week later” to Thomas. But the text literally says that Jesus appeared to him “after eight days” (John 20:26), which sounds to our ears like Monday or Tuesday (but actually means Sunday).

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