In Luke 24:7 two men in dazzling apparel reminded the women that “the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” To people living in Europe or North America, rising on the third day could be interpreted that Jesus remained in the tomb over 48 hours. In light of the way ancient Jews calculated time, however, Jesus was in the tomb for a shorter period.
Among the fragments of an ancient rabbinic commentary on Leviticus is a midrashic comment on the phrase “in the third year” from 1 Kings 18:1. Rabbi Yohanan, who lived about 220 C.E. in the Galilee, once remarked, “one month in the first year, one month in the last year, and twelve months in the middle.” According to R. Yohanan’s method of counting, 14 months constituted three years.
Recognizing that sunset marks the beginning of a Jewish day and applying the same logic used by R. Yohanan, one could interpret “on the third day” to mean that Jesus was buried late Friday afternoon and rose anytime after nightfall Saturday. Reckoning time in this way means that Jesus was placed in the tomb on Friday just before the Sabbath commenced, as Luke 23:54 suggests, remained there at least 24 hours until nightfall Saturday and rose from the dead by sunrise Sunday. Thus, Jesus may have been confined to Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb for a period of time no longer than about 26 hours.
The phrase “on the third day” is one of numerous examples from the synoptic tradition of the gospels which can be used to demonstrate that social, historical and cultural experience colors the way one reads scripture. Jesus’ social, historical and cultural context was that of late Second Temple Judaism in the land of Israel. Though foreign to us, Jesus’ world may be approached and glimpsed through careful comparative study of the Greek synoptic gospels with the earliest texts from rabbinic literature and other ancient Jewish sources.