Exploring the Meaning of the Resurrection, Part IV: What is the Meaning of Three Days?
First, we asked who stood at the center of the Easter experience and Peter emerged from our study as the one in whom the meaning of resurrection dawned. Then we asked “where” Peter and the disciples were when Easter broke into their consciousness and our study led us to the primacy of the Galilean tradition over the secondary Jerusalem tradition. Now we come to the “when” question. When did this experience occur? Here we begin to confront the unpredictable quality of the familiar symbol: “the third day.” Did the experience of resurrection dawn in Peter on the third day after the crucifixion? If the “third day” is to be treated as a literal measure of time that would place “resurrection” on Sunday as Paul asserts in I Corinthians 15. Recall that this is the first biblical reference to the time of the resurrection. Mark, however, the author of the first gospel to be written (70-72), changes that time reference from “on the third day” to “after three days.” These are conflicting traditions that do not give us the same day. “On the third day” would place the dawning of the resurrection on Sunday, the first day of the week. “After three days,” however, would place it on Monday. While the two phrases sound similar, the two traditions result in contradictory conclusions.
The more wobbly of the two time references appears to be that of Mark. At least, we note that both Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them when they wrote their gospels. Each of these authors actually wrote expanded versions of Mark, but when they came to Mark’s threefold reference to “after three days,” they each changed it, Mathew changed all three of Mark’s “after three days” references to read “on the third day,” while Luke changed two of Mark’s references and simply omitted the third. Why can they not agree on what seems like so small a matter? What, we wonder, is driving this changing time measurement in the early years of Christian history? I suspect it had to do with liturgy more than with anything else. The first day of the week, or Sunday, was celebrated as the day of the resurrection by the early Christians and so liturgical pressure appears to have driven the memory of the experience. If resurrection were to be observed on the first day of the week then the first awareness of it must have occurred “on the third day.” If the date of the crucifixion was Friday, the third day had to be Sunday.
The deeper question, however, is what was the experience called “resurrection,” which they were describing? Was it an event that occurred inside history? The earliest references to resurrection that we have in the Bible do not, as we have noted previously, seem to think so. Paul, while listing those who are witnesses to the resurrection, never gives us a single narrative detail, yet he includes himself on that list even though his conversion seems to be no earlier than one year after the crucifixion and no later than six years. Later writings in the Pauline Corpus suggest that Paul saw resurrection and ascension as two parts of the same act with neither of them lying inside the bounds of history. For Paul, resurrection clearly did not mean being resuscitated back into the life of this world. It meant rather being raised into the life of God. How can we locate an event in the life of God within the framework of time and space in which human life is lived? So what seems to be described in these early writings in terms of a time reference is not the reality that happened to Jesus, whatever that was, but the time in which a new realization emerged in the minds of the disciples. That does occur within human history. The third day became a synonym for that emergence.
Even that, however, does not clear up the problem. If one insists on reading the gospel narratives literally the actual the time between the burial of Jesus and the resurrection is never more than 36 hours. That is but a day and a half, not three days. The burial occurs shortly before sundown on Friday, which would be about 6:00 pm. From 6:00 pm on Friday until midnight on Saturday is six hours. From midnight Saturday to midnight Sunday is twenty-four hours. From midnight Sunday until dawn or 6:00 am is six more hours. Put them all together and the best you can get is 36 hours, a day and a half. The symbol “three days” appears to at best a kind of shorthand description, not a real measure of time.
Then we go to the gospel narratives themselves and look for additional clues. We are surprised to discover that the first gospel to be written never relates a story in which the risen Christ appears to anyone. Mark’s gospel ends at Chapter 16 verse 8, where the messenger directs the women to tell the disciples that they are to go to Galilee and, there in their home region, they will see the raised Jesus. In response, however, Mark tells us that “the women fled in fear and said nothing to anyone.” If we then proceed to literalize the words of the messenger that the disciples must return to Galilee if they wish to see the raised Jesus, we need to observe that Galilee is a seven to ten day trip from Jerusalem, which means that there would be no resurrection appearance inside the three-day frame of reference.
When we come to Matthew, the problem is the same. Matthew contradicts Mark and says that the women actually saw Jesus and “held his feet” in the garden on the first day of the week. Mark says that the women only saw the messenger and they fled in fear. Luke, written a little later, agrees with Mark. In the third gospel the women do not see Jesus at dawn on the Easter. So it is two to one against Matthew being accurate.
Interestingly enough, Matthew later does describe an appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples in Galilee, but it would have to have occurred after the disciples had returned to Galilee or at least seven to ten days later. Perhaps even more important in this first described appearance of Jesus to the disciples, the Jesus who appears is the already ascended, glorified Lord from heaven, who comes to them out of the sky. This is more a vision of the triumphant Son of Man than it is a narrative about a resurrected body!
The time references become even more mysterious in Luke, who portrays the risen Christ as appearing on Easter evening to Cleopas and his traveling companion in the village of Emmaus in the context of a Eucharistic meal. This Jesus, however, seems to have the ability to materialize and to dematerialize at will. When these Emmaus travelers return to Jerusalem to share what they have experienced, they are greeted by the disciples who proclaim that the raised Jesus “has appeared to Peter,” but no details, other than hearsay, are given. Luke then goes on to assert that Jesus himself appeared on a number of occasions over a period of 40 days and that finally all resurrection experiences ceased with the ascension.
The Fourth Gospel’s witness is also fascinating and confusing. The risen Christ appears only to Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning and there forbids her to touch him for “I have not yet ascended to the father.” By Easter evening, however, that ascension has taken place and any reluctance to any one touching Jesus has disappeared. Jesus then enters their presence in a transformed state. He is able to walk through locked doors to gain access to the disciples and there to breathe into them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He then disappears and does not return until “after eight days,” which, according to the way the Jews counted time, would be the first day of the second week. On this occasion, however, Thomas is present. Thomas then acknowledges him as “my Lord and my God.” At that point John’s gospel appears to end. There is, however, an epilogue attached to the apparently completed corpus of the Fourth Gospel. This epilogue seems to describe events that were weeks, perhaps even months later, when Jesus appears again, but this time in Galilee where he commands Peter to “Feed my sheep.”
So to return to our question: when did resurrection dawn in the hearts and minds of the disciples? Was it on the third day after the crucifixion? Was it after three days? Was it seven to ten days after the crucifixion when the disciples had returned to their Galilean homes? Was it month’s later when they had actually picked up the pieces of their lives and reentered the fishing trade? These are our options.
I think there was a significant amount of time – probably no less than six months, no more than one year – between the first Good Friday and the first Easter. There had to be time to allow the followers of Jesus to come to an understanding of how a crucified one could still be the messiah. They had to have time to overcome what they believed was the condemnation of the Torah, which pronounced one “cursed” who had been hanged upon a tree. They had to have time to come to the radical new understanding that the life of God can be experienced through a dying man on a cross. They had to have time to search the Hebrew Scriptures to find messianic images where through weakness and death, God could still be seen as life and love.
So, in answer to the question “when,” my suggestion is that Easter dawned some six months to a year after the crucifixion. My third clue thus falls into place. Next we look at what was the context in which the meaning of resurrection moved into human awareness. That is the “how?” question and to that question I turn next week.
~John Shelby Spong