In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that Jesus “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:4). While Israel’s Scriptures never precisely state that “the Messiah will be raised from the dead on the third day,” the apostle has good reason to draw such a conclusion: the biblical authors present the “third day” as a climactic moment associated with divine activity, and Paul is not the only ancient Jewish thinker to associate the third day with resurrection.
Throughout Israel’s history, important things occur on the third day. For instance, when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Moriah, “on the third day (יום השׁלישׁי; yom ha’shelishi) Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar” (Gen 22:4). Also, Moses tells the Hebrews, “Be ready for the third day (יום השׁלישׁי; yom ha’shelishi). For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Exod 19:11). Perhaps most relevant from a New Testament perspective, the fish vomits Jonah out of its belly after “three days and three nights” (שׁלשׁה ימים ושׁלשׁה לילות; sheloshah yamim u’sheloshah leylot; Jonah 1:17), and Jesus notes that “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” prior to resurrection (Matt 12:40).
Beyond these instances, Paul may have had another verse in mind when thinking about Yeshua’s resurrection. According to Hosea, “After two days [the Lord] will revive us; on the third day (יום השׁלישׁי; yom ha’shelishi) he will raise us up, so that we may live before him” (6:2). In ancient Judaism, Hosea’s words were understood as referring to resurrection. The corpus of Jewish translations from Hebrew into Aramaic – called the Targums – replaces Hosea’s original phrase, “on the third day he will raise us up,” with the declaration, “on the day of the resurrection of the dead (יום אחיות מיתיא; yom ahayut mitaya) he will raise us up that we may live before him” (HosTg 6:2). The Aramaic version of Hosea, written slightly after Paul’s time, equates the “third day” explicitly with “the day of the resurrection of the dead.” Paul’s belief in the biblical precedent for his Messiah’s resurrection may be rooted in an equation between the “third day” and “resurrection” similar to the one in the later Targum. In light of the Hebrew Bible and its Jewish translational tradition, Paul has ample support for his assertion that the timing of Jesus’ resurrection was “in accordance with the Scriptures.”
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