RESURRECTION ‘ON THE THIRD DAY’

by John Wijngaards, Millhilliana 31 (1979) pp. 16-23

That Jesus rose ‘on the third day’ is affirmed, in one form or other, in seventeen New Testament passages:

‘on the third day’: Mt. 16,21; 17,23; 20,19; Lk. 18,33; 24,7; Acts 10,40; 1 Cor. 15,4.

‘after three days’: Mk. 8,31; 9,31; 10,34; Mt. 27,63; cf. Mk. 14,58; 15,29; Mt. 27,40; 63,64.

‘after three days and three nights’: Mt. 12,40.

Practically all these passages belong to ancient kerygmatic formulas. We may, therefore, assert that the circumstances of Jesus’ rising on the third day was firmly rooted in the most ancient preaching of the apostles. Perhaps the most important text is 1 Cor. 15,4 which mentions as an element of basic kerygma: ‘that He rose on the third day according to the scriptures’.

This evidence of Jesus’ being preached as having risen (on the third day9 is beyond dispute. Also, it is difficult to imagine the origin of this evidence if it does not derive from a historical remin­iscence.

(Quotation from W. Rordorf, ‘Sunday-The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church’, SCM Press London 1968, pp. 229, note).

‘There have indeed been many attempts to explain this evidence otherwise, but none of these attempts provides a satisfactory answer. See the illuminating survey by J. Dupont, “Ressuscite le troisieme jour”,’ Biblica 40, 1959, pp. 742-61. One is naturally tempted to apply kata tas graphas in 1 Cor. 15,4 not only to the statement ‘risen’, but also to the additional phrase ‘on the third day.’ By ‘scripture’ is naturally meant the Old Testament, not the New Testament (in this instance, for example, Jesus’ predictions of his passion in Matt. 12,40); this is clear from Luke 24,44f. and John 20.9. In the whole of the Old Testament, however, there is only one single passage which can really be adduced as ‘scriptural proof’ for ‘risen’ ‘on the third day’, Hos. 6,2. It is scarcely credible that a passage which, moreover, never explicitly occurs in the New Testament, could have led to the emergency of the phrase, ‘risen’ ‘on the third day’, as is assumed by H. Grass (pp. 127ff.), because success) in Coventry or St Chad’s? And why the glossalalia of the Pentecostal movement when we have the wordless jubilation of the Alleluias? It is because we have deprived our people of the chance to sing God’s praise and beg his mercy in the Church’s own song. But nothing will be successfully achieved without the support and co-operation of the liturgical training centres and especially of the parish clergy.

This paper was begun during the Pontificate of Pope Paul VI, and was to conclude with a quotation from Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse. My saint and hero died; and in the flush of joy and new hope that greeted the election of Pope John Paul I, I turned to St John Chrysostom. That too failed. At this very moment, the Conclave is re-assembling and we know not what it will bring forth. But I look forward with a certain amusement to one thing: the Church, true to herself, in spite of Luther’s 95 Theses of 1517, in spite of the iconoclasts of the 1960s, will prove herself so gloriously unfashionable as to proclaim (no mystery here!) in sonorous Latin, a Plenary Indulgence ‘on the usual conditions’ to all who have assisted at the Papal Mass either in person or by television. A plenary indulgence we shall gain to the no-small entertainment of St Thomas More and his great friend Erasmus. Allow me to close this talk with an extract from the light-hearted mockery of Erasmus’s Colloquy between Cornelius and Arnold on the subject of the fellow-pilgrim who, with satchel well-stuffed with the many indulgences purchased at Rome, had suddenly died in Florence. Cornelius: It is a long road to heaven, and not a very safe one, I hear, on account of the highwaymen who infest the middle region of the firmament.

Arnold:  That is true; but he was sufficiently provided with passports.

Cornelius:   Written in what language?

Arnold:  The Roman.

Cornelius:   He is then safe?

Arnold:  He is; unless by ill luck he should fall into the hands of a spirit that does not understand Latin: it will then be necessary for him to return to Rome for a new certifi­cate.

By way of preface to the discussion that now follows, may I quote a Vision Of Judgement, in the vernacular of Dom Ambrose Wathen, Professor Monastic History at Sant’ Anselmo: ‘And God said: All you who have done my will and been good, come, sit at my right side and enter into glory. And all you wicked, depart, and sit in small groups and discuss for ever’!

[text partly lost]

he believes in the historicity neither of the Jerusalem appearances nor of the empty tomb. (The same may be said about Jonah 2,1: cf. Matt. 12,40, although this theme did play a fairly considerable role in Christian art). The formula ‘according to the scriptures’ in 1 Cor. 15,4 will, therefore, refer only to the fact of the resurrection (cf. John 20,9) and not to the detail ‘on the third day’ as well. Parallels from comparative religion about dying and rising gods (for instance, J. Morgenstern (see above, p 202, n.3) speaks of a Canaanite fertility god!) and also the idea that the soul lingers for three days near a dead person have been adduced as explanations of the phrase. It has also been said that ‘three days’ simply means ‘a ^ short time’ (thus J. Bauer, Biblico 39, 1958, pp. 354-8). But none of these suggestions can make it intelligible how the detail that Jesus rose ‘on the third day’ acquired such importance that it was taken into the confession of faith. The supposition that the mention of ‘three days’ rests on an historical reminiscence is still the most plausible solution. The only objection which can be brought against it is the complexity of the tradition; sometimes we find ‘on the third day’ (1 Cor. 15,4; Matt. 16,21; 17,23; 20,19; Luke 18,33; 24,7; Acts 10,40), sometimes ‘after three days’ (Mark 8,31; 9,31; 10,34; Matt. 27,63; 17,23 D; Luke 9,22 D cf. Mark 14,58; 15,29; Matt. 27,40 63f.) and once even ‘after three days and three nights’ (Matt. 12,40). Is it credible that an historical reminiscence could be given so imprecisely? This difficulty may be solved relatively easily: ‘on the third day’ is the reminiscence of the discovery of the tomb on Easter morning (it appears in Paul of all places); ‘after three days’ is that of the first appearance on Easter evening (possibly the older tradition; the third variant ‘after three days and three nights’ did not refer directly to the historical events, but it derives from Jonah 2,1 (it is, moreover, only mentioned in connection with the sign of Jonah, Matt. 12,40). Later this variant was, in fact, also r historicised, and the calculation was made to begin on Maundy Thursday evening; thus Aphrahates, Horn. 12,5: cf. Didascalia 21 (Connolly, p. 189). Of course, it should not be denied that theological, apologetic and other considerations came to be associated with the historical detail of ‘three days’ and that scrip­tural proofs for it were also adduced.’

The Early Christian Sunday celebration

On the 3rd of March 321 AD Emperor Constantine made Sunday, the first day of the week, the official weekly holiday for his empire. Historical evidence is absolutely conclusive in establishing that he thereby sanctioned the custom already followed by Christians for many centuries.

Evidence of the Sunday celebration of Christians is very early indeed. St Paul presupposes this practice in Corinth in the year 57 AD(1 Cor. 16,1-2). Luke narrates the practice as taking place in Asia Minor at Troas in 50 AD (Acts 20,7). Other ancient passages confirm the universality and antiquity of the practice:

Acts 20,7 ‘On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break the bread . . . ’

I Cor. 16,1 ‘Now concerning the contribution of the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you are also to do.

  1. ‘On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up … ’

Revelation 1,10 ‘I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day . . . ’

Didache 14,1 (ca 90-100 AD) ‘On the Lord’s day of the Lord you should come together, break the bread and give thanks, after having confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be spotless . . having confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be spot­less . . . ’

Ignatius Letter to Magnesians 9,1 (ca 11) ‘Some people changing the old circumstances came to new hope, by no longer celebrating the sabbath, but living under observance of the Lord’s day, on which also our life is arisen through him and his death . . . ’

Pliny the Younger Letter to Trajan, 111-113 ‘They protested that their only guilt or fault consisted in having the custom of coming together at a fixed day before dawn and to sing a song to Christ honouring him as God . . . Afterwards they would disperse again and come together, but a harmless and innocent one . . . ’

Justin the Martyr Apologia 67,3-7 (150-155) ‘And on the so-called Sunday a gathering is held by all who live in the towns or on the land, in one place. The memoirs of the apostles and writings of the prophets are read . . . etc. etc. However, we keep the meeting of our community on Sunday, because it is the first day of the week, on which day God created the world by changing the darkness and the original material, and because Jesus Christ, our Saviour, rose on  this day. For on the day before Saturn-day they crucified him, and on the day after Saturn-day – that is on Sun-day – he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught them that which we have put before you.’

Dialogue with Tryphon 4L4 (160) ‘The command of circumcision which ordered that all newly jborn would be circumcised on the eighth day was a pointer to the real circumcision with which we have been circumcised from evil and malice, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who arose on the first day of the week.’

(Justin was born in Shechem ca 105 AD, converted 130 AD).

Why did the early Christians celebrate the Sunday, the first day of the week?

They must have had a very strong reason for doing so. By natural ties they were linked to the Jewish religion. They firmly believed in the Old Testament with its stress on the sabbath.  Normally speaking it could have been expected that they would take over and ‘christianise’ the sabbath.

This is all the more so, because in the Roman Empire the ‘first day of the week’ was an ordinary working day. In hellenistic culture also there was no ground at all to give prominence to this day (in fact, the hellenists did not know the ‘week’ as the Jews did).

The early Christians called the first day ‘the Lord’s day’. This was undoubtedly a reference to the ‘Lord’s meal’ celebrated on that day (see I Cor. 11,20; Acts 20,7ff.). They also called it the day of the resurrection (cf. Ignatius, Justin, etc.). Was the reason for the change to be found in the original ‘Easter experience’?

Reconstructing the Resurrection Events

Our attempt to reconstruct the actual Easter events has a good starting point in the day of the resurrection. Regarding this day we have the following factual evidence:

  1. The liturgical practice at the tomb took place (on the first day of the week*{Mk. 16,1; Lk. 24,1; Jn. 20,1; see also Mt. 28,1).
  2. The apparition to the eleven is placed by Luke and John on Easter Sunday itself (‘on the evening of that day, the first day of the week*, Jn. 20,19).
  3. There is a tenacious tradition that Jesus rose ‘on the third day’ after His death (1 Cor. 15,4; Mt. 16,21; 17,23; 20,19; etc.), i.e. on the first day of the week after the sabbath (Mt. 28,1).
  4. We have the astonishing fact that the early Christians celebrated the Supper of the Lord, not on Thursday or on the sabbath, but on an ordinary working day, viz. ‘on the first day of the week’ (Acts 20,7, etc.).

These facts cannot be satisfactorily explained unless we assume # some historical reason for it. The most convincing historical explanation is acceptance of the New Testament claim that on the morning after the sabbath (on Easter day itself) the tomb was found empty, that Peter had a vision of Jesus and that Jesus appeared once more to all the disciples as they were gathered at a commemorative meal on the evening of that day.

Jesus appeared a few more times to all apostles, probably on consecutive Sundays (‘first days of the week’), again in the context of the commemorative supper. This was the cause and origin of the Christian practice of celebrating the supper always on the evening of the ‘first day’ – thereby replacing the sabbath practice. The gist of His words to them, ‘I send you’, was handed on in the ‘summary word tradition’ found with Matthew, Luke and John. Jesus also appeared to others (the ‘five hundred’, ‘in Galilee’, ‘to James’, etc.).

A concise reconstruction, with proper stress on the main argu­ments is found in W. Rordorf, ‘Sunday. The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest centuries of the Christian Church \ SCM Press, London 1968, pp. 229-236. We will reprint the text here in full:

Rordorf on the origin of Sunday worship

‘H. von Campenhausen has endeavoured to demonstrate the historicity of the discovery of the empty tomb. He holds the sequence of Easter events to have been as follows: the women really had discovered the empty tomb on Easter morning, and they had related their experience to the disciples, who became very excited on hearing their report. Peter, who of all the disciples was most disposed to believe it, led the disciples in a trek back to Galilee, where the appearances did, in fact, then take place.

In favour of von Campenhausen’s reconstruction is the evidence ‘risen on the third day’ which appears as early as I Cor. 15,4. It is decidely difficult to imagine the origin of this evidence if it does not derive from an historical reminiscence. But one has to go on and ask the question whether the historical reminiscence could not equally well apply to the first appearance which took place on Easter evening and which therefore also took place on the third day. The case has not, in fact, been completely established that the Lucan and Johannine tradition of the Jerusalem appearances must have been invented. The argument that the Galilean appearances have been transposed to Jerusalem for theological reasons may hold good for Luke, but hardly for John, who (in the supplemen­tary chapter) also recounts another Galilean appearance. The principal question which remains unclarified is why the appearances in this case were transposed not only geographically but also temporally from a later point in time to Easter evening. The assumption that the narration of the Easter appearances already reflects the practice of Sunday observance does not explain why the appearances were placed on Easter Sunday evening in part­icular (and not, for example, on a Sunday one or two weeks later, thus being consistent with the Galilean tradition). There still seems good grounds for the assumption that the Lucan-Johannine tradi­tion is an authentic one, not indeed that it should or may be played off against the Galilean tradition, for that would be equally mis­guided. But why should not both traditions be allowed to have their kernal of truth? Why should not the appearances have taken place partly in Jerusalem, partly in Galilee? Why should not the appear­ances to Peter and to the Eleven still be located in Jerusalem and the appearance to the ‘five hundred’ in Galilee, particularly if, as E. Lohmeyer surmises, a greater revelation was expected there than

merely a proof of the resurrection? In this case the appearance to Peter on Easter day would have been the cause for the disciples to have assembled again on Easter evening. (Luke 24-34 also seems to presuppose this). The disciples certainly would not have assembled merely because they were expecting the resurrection on the third day or because the women had brought news of the empty tomb, (cf. Luke 24,21ff.; also perhaps Epist. Apost. 10f.).

We may, therefore, conclude that real historical events are reflected in the narratives both about the appearance on Easter evening and also about the Jerusalem appearances in general.

In the following discussion we shall direct our attention exclusively to the account of the first appearance on Easter evening, because it alone can be of any interest to us with regard to the origin of the observance of Sunday. We should think of the disciples’ first encounter with their risen Lord taking place in exactly the same setting as their last meeting with Jesus before his passion: all the disciples (on the second occasion Judas Iscariot was, of course, missing) were assembled indoors (perhaps on both occasions at the same house) in the evening, and it is particularly important to notice that they were assembled at a meal. If we dis­regard John 21,Iff., this setting is associated only with the Jeru­salem appearance on Easter evening. The later kerygmatic summary of the gospel material in Acts 10,41 explicitly refers to the disciples having eaten and drunk together with the risen Lord. The part of Acts 1,4 is probably also a reference to this meal: the Lord ‘took salt’ (= shared a meal) with the disciples.

The parallelism stares us in the face if we place the accounts of the first appearance of Jesus on Easter evening beside the breaking of bread as practised in the earliest Christian community. The disciples just like the later community, were gathered in the ‘upper chamber’; importance attaches to the fact that all were present; the focal point of the occasion is a communal cultic meal, without C doubt in memory of Jesus’ last meal and of the Easter meal. Also the Eucharistic cry of the community, Maranatha ( = our Lord comes), which derives from the oldest deposit of tradition, is incomprehensible without the picture of the actual table-fellowship with the Lord. Moreover, the whole sequence of the meal-giving of thanks, word of interpretation, distribution of bread and wine at the beginning and end of the meal (I Cor. 11,25)-exactly resembles the meals taken by the disciples with Jesus before and after his death. It would appear, therefore, that the breaking of bread was a continuation of their actual table-fellowship with the risen Lord.

We are now approaching the core of our subject. If it really did happen that Jesus’ last meal before his death, together with the Easter meal, the breaking of bread and the Pauline Lord’s Supper, all stood in a line of direct continuity with one another, we cannot avoid the question which is so important for our particular subject, whether the observance of Sunday was not intimately associated with this whole chain of tradition. We have seen that the breaking of bread, which was very probably identical with the Lord’s Supper, did at the very latest by the time of the Pauline epistles take place regularly on Sunday evening. Furthermore, we know that this same breaking of bread was also practised in the city’s earliest com­munity in the same way, although no definite information has been handed down to us about the time of the observance. We have, however, come to see that this breaking of bread had its own roots in the Easter meal, when the risen Lord was present in visible form with his disciples, and we can assign a definite point in time to the Easter meal: it happened on a Sunday evening!

It is a strange fact that no mention is made in the Easter nar­ratives that Jesus appeared to his followers on ‘Easter day’, i.e. 16 Nisan. We find only the neutral phrase that it happened ‘on the first day of the week’, on a Sunday just like any other weekly Sunday. The Christians were, therefore, aware that their own Sunday observance stood in a line of continuity stretching back to this ‘first Sunday observance.’

It must, moreover, be emphasised that the Easter meal was decidedly more important for the tradition of the primitive com­munity than the memory of Jesus9 last meal. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated not on Thursday evening but on Sunday evening. From this alteration of the date we conclude that the meeting of the disciples with the risen Lord on Easter evening must have been for them like a second institution of the Lord’s Supper. On these grounds alone we must almost believe in the historicity of the Easter meal, since we cannot otherwise satisfactorily explain what caused the meal which was supposed to commemorate the last meeting before Jesus’ death to be transposed to the Sunday.  Anyone who thinks that the accounts of the Easter meal result from an historicisation of a liturgical practice will not be able to explain how Sunday managed to acquire such considerable significance within the Christian community, since we cannot establish the existence of any observance of Sunday either before or outside the Christian Church.

Everything, therefore, seems to indicate that the origin of the observance of Sunday is to be traced directly to the Easter event.

We also have various hints which can only confirm us in this opinion. It is, in fact, possible that Jesus appeared to his disciples not only on Easter Sunday evening, but also on the following Sunday and perhaps even on other Sundays after that. We have a text which presupposes that the disciples were assembled on the next Sunday after Easter and that they witnessed an appearance. John 20,26 reads, ‘Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house . . .’ Even Thomas was present this time; the disciples were, therefore, for the first time together in their full numerical strength. This one text from the latest canonical Gospel must not, of course, be pressed. In this instance, there is more justification for supposing that in his precise statement about the date the evangelist was influenced by the liturgical usage of his day. If, how­ever, the evangelist was clearly of the opinion that the Christian observance of Sunday was rooted in the Easter event itself he is then only expressing what was common ground for Christians at the end of the first century. In this case we have to ask whence this opinion derives. Was it perhaps based on a tradition which was not invented out of thin air? Other evidence also points to a similar conviction within the community. The phraseology of Acts 10,41 ‘We ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead’, is so couched that it need not necessarily be interpreted as a reference to a single meal with the Lord. With even greater justification the same may be said of Acts 1,3f., where we read, ‘To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs (tekmeria), appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God. And while eating with them . . .’ the participle eating seems in this context to indicate several meals. Moreover, this sum­marising account makes it plain that we have to think of the time of the physical presence of the risen Lord (roughly speaking between Easter and Ascension) as containing more ‘proofs’ (i.e. appear­ances) than are recorded in the Gospels. The list of appearances which Paul gives in I Cor. 15,5-8 also points to the same conclusion (cf. Acts 13,31). Are we to think that even then Sunday was already playing a special role? We might almost suppose this to have been so if we were then to read in Barnabas 15,9 about the reasons for the observance of Sunday, that on Sunday Jesus had risen, appeared (to the disciples) and ascended into heaven. Not only the appearances, but also the Ascension as well is by this time placed on Sunday. Is this a secondary tradition? Did it simply originate in the later general tendency to date on Sunday the most important events in the salvation history? Or is it possible that yet another old tradition has been preserved here?’