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 specify that “the Messiah will be raised from the dead on the third day,” the apostle has good reason to draw such a conclusion because the Bible presents the “third day” as a climactic moment associated with divine activity. More, around the time of Paul, Jewish Bible interpreters understood various parts of Scripture as direct references to third-day 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). It is on this third day that Abraham nearly sacrifices his son until a ram appears as a substitute. Thus, God saves Isaac from certain death so that he can live on with his father. For this reason, Hebrews says that Abraham “considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively [literally, “in parable” (ἐν παραβολῇ; en parabole)], he did receive him back” (Heb 11:19). Accordingly, the near sacrifice of Isaac was a parabolic “resurrection” on the third day.
Scripture features another “resurrection” when Jonah emerges from a fish’s belly after “three days and three nights” (שׁלשׁה ימים ושׁלשׁה לילות; sheloshah yamim u’sheloshah leylot; 1:17). 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). If we read this verse too narrowly, we may notice that Jonah’s complete amount of time in the fish (“three days and three nights”) differs from Jesus’ experience in the earth: Yeshua spends parts of three days and two full nights in the tomb before his resurrection “on the third day.” Yet, despite Scripture’s reference to Jonah being in the fish for three whole nights, the rabbis after Jesus still speak of “the third day of Jonah” alongside a reference to “the third day of the resurrection of the dead” (Genesis Rabbah 56:1). Thus, the rabbis employ some poetic license when they interpret Jonah, and Rabbi Jesus does the same.
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” 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.”