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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cross-cultural miscommunication: A Biblical example

How long was Jesus in the grave? The common answer is "three days," or perhaps "three days and nights." But that answer is wrong. How can that be? First, why do people say this? Here are two good reasons for that:

Matthew 12:39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah the prophet. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Mark 9:31 For he was teaching his disciples, and said to them, “The Son of Man is being handed over to the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, on the third day he will rise again.” (both quotes are from the World English Bible, public domain, and give the words of Jesus.)

So, Jesus, Himself, said that he would be in the grave for three days. What's wrong with that?

Here's what's wrong with that. Jesus was almost certainly crucified on Friday. One evidence for that is that Christians commemorate the event on Good Friday. Another evidence is that Joseph of Arimathea is described as having buried Jesus just before the Sabbath began. The Sabbath began at sundown on Friday. Jesus arose some time before the women, and some of the male disciples, arrived at the tomb on Sunday morning. The evidence is parallel -- Easter is celebrated on Sunday, and the women are described as arriving on the morning following the Sabbath, that is, on Sunday morning.

So how is this possible? Is the Bible in error on this point? (Surely, if the Bible were a fabrication, this seeming contradiction would have been fixed!) The explanation is this. Apparently, people in the time of the New Testament spoke of numbering days differently than we do. Part of Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday -- three days. And it seems that they even called these periods "day and night." We, now, would say that Jesus was in the tomb for less than two days. It's a cultural difference in thinking and expressing. (The experts who wrote the notes in the New International Version of the Bible give this explanation, by the way.)

We do some strange things with days, too. For example, we say we have worked five days, when we have only worked 8 hours a day -- 40 hours, which is less than the length two 24-hour days. Sometimes we confuse each other when telling about some planned event, because one person says it will happen in 6 days, meaning on the day one week from today, and another interprets that as being on the day before one week has elapsed.

The Bible was written in such a way as to communicate to people contemporary to its writing. Sometimes we forget that, realizing that we live in a different culture, that thinks about things differently, and uses words differently. It communicates to us, too, but we need to be careful, and, if possible, consider possible cultural differences between Bible times and ours.

Thanks for reading.


atlibertytosay said...

This is a confusing issue and I can tell you another way in which this same kind of numbering is often miscalculated.

The grading scale.

When I was in school the grading scale was chaged from 90-100 being an "A" to 94-100.

The first, 90-100 looks like a 10 point grading scale. It's actually 11.

The second looks like a 6 point grading scale, it's actually 7.

It's one of the mathematical illusions that our brains are trained to summarize. We want to subtract 10-4 and get 6 rather than count each number .

The "ancients" did the same thing … three daylights was 3 days.

I also think we have to realize that EASTER by literal definition is a celebration of the three solstice days - one day the sun is slightly below the horizon, one day even, one day "rising" above the horizon. The three days may very well have been added by Constantine.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, atlibertytosay. We are prisoners of our own culture, and we also have trouble with numbers.

As to grading, the question should arise -- 94% of what? I presume it is 94% of the possible grade on a particular quiz/test/assignment. In most school subjects, any teacher worth her salary (and most of them are worth more) could make up a quiz, on the material that the students know they are supposed to be responsible for, such that no one in the class could make 94 on it. So grades depend on how difficult the tests are, and how much, if any, the teacher scales the scores (for example by adding 8 points to everyone's grade). But I digress. Thanks.

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