Luke 24:21 Reconsidered
An opponent of the Sabbath resurrection of Messiah states:
That Christ’s Resurrection was on Sunday morning early, was never called in question, so far as we know, until now (in A.D. 1892), some 7th-day “Sabbatarians” think it necessary, for the furtherance of their ism, to claim with strenous argument, drawn solely from Mat. xxviii. 1-6, that Christ rose before sunset on Saturday. A complete and overwhelming refutal of this notion is Luke xxiv. 21. “To-day (Sunday P M) is the third day since these things were done,” i.e., the very day when Christ promised to rise. Nothing more than this really needs to be said against the absurd Saturday scheme.
Bible Chronology Carefully Unfolded, Rev. Smith B. Goodenow, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1986, pg. 42 (Appendix A, §51).
About 136 years before this, in 1756, a book was published, The Contest Between Sebastian, a Spanish Frier, and the Four Evangelists: Whether the Body of Jesus Christ Arose from the Dead Upon the Jewish Sabbath, Or Roman Sunday. Or, the Devil's Dispute about the Body of Moses Fairly Stated and Determined. By a Member of the Church of England, Volume 3. In this book the author, who chose to remain anonymous for the sake of self-preservation, shows that Messiah rose on the seventh day Jewish Sabbath at dawn, that is on Saturday at dawn, and not on Sunday. The Rev. Goodenow is arguing from silence, mainly a silence created by his own ignorance. Going back to the 6th century, Bishop Gregory of Tours (A.D. 538-594) tells us that many in France believed Christ arose on the seventh day of the week, even though he himself defended a first day resurrection belief. He stated, “Now in our belief the resurrection of the Lord was on the first day, and not on the seventh as many deem.”1
So we see here that Goodenow’s argument from silence is merely covering up the fact that their has frequently been great debate and division on this issue down through the ages. Goodenow is simply one in a long long of censors who choose to censor the legacy and history of their opponents in favor of the argument that they received the Sunday tradition from an unbroken succession of Christians back to the original Apostles. And this has always been the argument of the Catholics.
In the chart here three views are compared with the facts of Luke 24:21 and whether the Evangelists say “first of the Sabbaths” or “first of the week.” The first view considers the phrase to mean the first Sabbath after Passover. It is called Resurrection Sabbath. The second view is the common one and is called Easter Sunday. The third view is called Saturday Evening. For our purposes here the Saturday Evening view is the same as the Saturday Afternoon view as evening in a Hebrew sense comprehends the afternoon also.
The days and nights as reckoned by each view are shaded yellow and grey. According to each view, when the women went to the tomb is labeled “w” and when the Luke 24:21 statement was made on the road to Emmaus is labeled “e.” The counting of days is also according to each view. For the Resurrection Sabbath explanation, two countings are provided, the first, on top, 72 hours from the crucifixion, and the second on the bottom according to the dawn to dawn day. In each view, “today” (when the statement in Luke 24:21 was made) is labeled.
The passage is quoted according to Codex Bezae from Luke 24:21. However there are several variants from Codex Bezae. Many texts read, “This third day passes from when these things happened,” and many other texts read, “This third day passes today from when these things happened.”
Analysis of the third view: Saturday Evening. This view cannot agree with any of the textual traditions. It fails Codex Bezae because “today” falls on Sunday and does not overlap any part of the third day as counted by that view. It fails “this third day” also because the conversation in Luke 24:21 is really on “this fourth day.” It also fails to count three days according to Scripture. Scripture counts three days as “today, tomorrow, the third day.” Therefore the day of the crucifixion and the first day must be the same day.
Analysis of the second view: Easter Sunday. This view succeeds in getting the statement in Luke 24:21 to be “this third day,” but it suffers from a serious flaw. The third day was not over or not just about to be over when the statement was made. This begs the question why the remark was made at all or not answered with the question why they did not wait until the third day was done or almost done before making such a hopeless statement. That the 38 hours or so in this view is too short is exposed by the “after three days” passages (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34). After three days must be at least 48 hours after the crucifixion. Another fatal flaw is disagreement with Matthew 12:40.
Analysis of the first view: Resurrection Sabbath. Here we see that at point “e” when the statement was made, 72 hours was just passing, which is the latest the third day could end. So this view agrees with the statement being made according to the texts, “this third day passes.” It also agrees with the texts that say “this third day passes today.” Today is the Sabbath Day (Sat here). It also agrees with the actual reckoning of the third day (dawn to dawn) since it expired on that day at dawn. This view does not have the unexplained flaw that the third day is not finished or almost finished when the remark was made. Nor does it have the missing night. Nor does it fail to count the third day inclusively after the Hebrew pattern, “today, tomorrow, the third day.” Count today as Wednesday, tomorrow as Thursday, and the third day as Friday. Using a dawn to dawn epoch for each day, the third day ends at dawn on the Sabbath.
The argument that Sunday was the third day, counting from Friday, is not in dispute. What Messiah promised his disciples was that he would rise on the third day. They did not understand why he had to die, or even that he was truly going to die, until it happened. But once he did die, their last straw of hope was the third day prediction. And we can be sure that they all remembered that he said this. How much or how little enough each disciple thought to test the matter fully we do not know in every case. Cleopas and his fellow disciple stated the reason for giving up hope and leaving Jerusalem to avoid further trouble. The women had reported a vision of Angels, and then when some went to the tomb to check it out, they did not see Messiah. When they did not find him, like Miryam they probably assumed the body was simply missing, and not that there was any evidence or confirmation of his resurrection. They were shocked by the report, but due to their unbelief, not in the right direction. They were shocked into fear that a claim of his resurrection would give the authorities cause to persecute not only the master, but also the followers.
Now truly, Messiah died on a Wednesday, and rose just before dawn on the Jewish Sabbath. I say Jewish Sabbath because many were in past ages in the habit of claiming that Sunday was the Sabbath and even that Sunday was the Sabbath from Creation, accusing the Jews of changing the day. The seventh day Sabbath is the Scriptural Sabbath and belongs to non-Jews as well as Jews who rest on it. Whether Cleopas tossed forward the third day remark out of the self consciousness that his first arguments to the questioning stranger were inadequate or not we do not know. But if we put ourselves in the shoes of the disciple clinging to hope, and it is probable that they clung to hope as long as possible, no matter how small, then we can understand the remark. The earliest anyone could say the third day arrived would be Thursday night using a sunset epoch for the day. The resurrection didn’t happen then. Then the next epoch was a sunrise epoch, in which case the third day was Friday after dawn, but the resurrection did not happen. This third day lasted to dawn on the Sabbath. But they did not believe it happened in this time frame either. There was but one last reckoning of three days, one last straw of hope: it was that three days meant 72 hours, counting from the crucifixion. And this third day would pass at about 3 p.m. on the Sabbath, almost exactly when Cleopas made the remark.
This explanation allows us to consider the text translated thus, “This third day passes today from when all these things happened.” Allowing the third day to be counted between 3 p.m. on Friday and 3 p.m. on the Sabbath allows us to take the usual translation. It is not the correct third day, but it only has to be a possible third day to subjectively justify Cleopas’ remark. And it cannot be denied that many have thought of a day as a twenty four hour period without regard to sunrise or sunset. The Roman day epoch is midnight without astronomical sign to mark it. The Julian day uses a noon epoch. Those who grasp for hope abolish all norms to try to keep the hope alive. Careful students of human behavior will know this, especially those who study the reactions and rationalizations of disciples of date setting prophets whose predictions fail. We may then explain Cleopas’ remark as the last possible reckoning of three days that he can think of passing away at the very moment he spoke.
Now Goodenow and other Easter defenders wish to take the passages as saying the third day is in progress. They say this because the earliest possible third day is between sunset Saturday and sunset Sunday. But surly Cleopas did not merely mean to imply that a third day was in progress. He meant to imply it was over or just over and therefore a good reason for giving up that hope. If there had been any significant time left on the third day when the remark was made, then the remark that it passes would not make any sense.2
So we may conclude that the literal sense of the resurrection passages “first of the Sabbaths” is correct against the miss-translation “first of the week.” The resurrection was on Resurrection Sabbath the first Sabbath after Passover according to the counting of seven Sabbaths prescribed in Lev. 23:15.
1. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, Vol. 2, (trans. by D.M. Dalton), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927, p. 24. The Original reads thus: “23. De die resurrectiones dominicae. Dominicam vero resurrectionem die prima facta credimus, non septimam, sicut multi putant. Hic est dies resurrectiones domini nostri Iesu Christi, quem nos propriae dominicum pro sancta eius resurrectione vocamus. Hic primus lucem vidit in principio, et hic primus Dominum resurgentem contemplare meruit de sepulchro. A captivitate vero Hierusolimae et desolationem templi usque ad passionem domini nostri Iesu Christi, id est usque Tiberii septimo decimo anno, subpotantur anni 668.” Martin Heinzelmann remarks, “Gregory emphasizes that the day of the Resurrection had been the first day, ‘and by no means the seventh as many believe’” (Gregory of Tours: History and Society in the Sixth Century, pg. 187. Heinzelmann continues, “The ‘many’ to whom Gregory attributes this error include the fifty-four bishops and twelve episcopal representatives at the council of Macon, whose own formulation is based on the so-called ‘theology of the sabbath’”). What these bishops were calling into question was whether Sunday was the first day of the week. In fact, they were calling it the seventh day of the week. They too could read the Latin Vulgate. The reason they could get away with this assumption was that the Latin Bible says, “first of the Sabbaths” and not “first day of the week.” Even though these 54 bishops believed Sunday was the seventh day, their position certainly calls into question the interpretation of una sabbatorum (Mark 16:2, Vulgate) as “first day of the week,” and by implication the tradition of the Easter Sunday. They identified the resurrection day as a Sabbath and as the seventh day even though they believed it occurred on Sunday and that the Jews were in error having their Sabbath on the sixth day of the week. To this day, Calendars in Continental Europe identify Sunday as the seventh day of the week. This would not be possible if the texts had originally said, “First day of the week.”
2. There is still the possibility that Codex Bezae (D) is correct, “A third day today passes since all these things happened.” Without the demonstrative this used to modify day, the passage does not have to say “this day” when he was speaking is the third day. Cleopas may have correctly regarded a day as counted on a dawn epoch inclusively from the crucifixion day, i.e. three days Wed. dawn to Sabbath dawn. In this case he saying the third day had expired on the Sabbath day he was speaking on (called “today” by him). This is analogous to saying the Day of Atonement begins on the ninth day of the month at sunset. The third day ended on the 7th day at sunrise. If the reading of Codex Bezae is original, then why would Easter promoting scribes delete it? The answer is that the passage read the way Codex Bezae has it implies the end of the third day is just past or so close that it may as well be past at some point on the day it was spoken, which accords with Cleopas’ motivation for making the hopeless remark. This sense denies the correctness of Friday to Sunday morning. The text was altered not because it makes sense of Cleopas’ hopelessness, but merely to obscure the fact that the fourth day was at hand. The Byzantine texts have the word “today,” after the word “passes,” as if they were expecting the third day to pass quite a bit later after the remark. Reading the text without either alteration, we have, “The third day today passes from when these things happened,” which in the colloquial speech non-literary speakers means the same thing as “The third day passed today from when these things happened.” The word “today” is fronted in the text before “passes” by Codex Bezae, because the point is that the third day was over or almost over. Translating vs. 21 literally, “But we had been hoping that he is the one being about to redeem Israel, but indeed also with all this a third day today passes from when all these things happened.” Cleopas uses the past tense only with respect to the day of the crucifixion here. He uses the present in two cases, “he is the one...” and “the third day passes....” This looks like the historical present when the speaker treats the past as if it is right present, especially one who is really involved in their story, as if they have forgotten they are in another moment later. 1Sam. 30:11 (LXX) illustrates this, “And they find an Egyptian man in the field and they take him and they lead him to David in the field and they give him bread, and he ate he drank water.” The narrator started with present tenses relating the past and then switched to aorist tenses. This use of the present for the past is considered rather illiterate by accomplished writers or speakers. I still favor this explanation because it makes sense of the manuscript changes as well is the chronology. I offer the other explanation in hopes that some will believe without the need for a text-critical argument.