Modern Americans reckon time differently than first-century Palestinian Jews. For us, a day begins at 12:01 a.m. For them, a day began at sunset. We need to keep in mind this difference in time-reckoning in order to keep the days of Holy Week straight.
According to Mark 14:17, Jesus’ passion began sometime in the “evening,” that is Thursday evening. According to Mark 15:25, Jesus was crucified at “the third hour,” roughly 9:00 a.m. on Friday morning. According to Mark 15:34, he died sometime around “the ninth hour,” or 3:00 p.m. According to Mark 15:42-43, he was buried prior to sunset, which marked the beginning of Sabbath. And according to Mark 16:2, his tomb was discovered empty on Sunday morning, just after sunrise (approximately 6:00 a.m.).
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul writes that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” How should this “third day” be reckoned? If Jesus died at 3:00 p.m. on Friday and rose again by Sunday morning at 6:00 a.m., then he was only dead 39 hours or so, less than two full days. That’s a modern American way to look at it.
A first-century Palestinian Jew would have reckoned the days differently. (Remember, after all, that they didn’t have clocks or wristwatches.) Day 1 ran from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon. This was the day on which Jesus was betrayed, tried, crucified, and dead. Day 2 ran from Friday evening to Saturday afternoon. This was the Sabbath, during which everyone rested and no one visited Jesus tomb. Day 3 ran from Saturday evening to Sunday afternoon. The women who came to the tomb therefore came on the “third day” after Jesus’ death.
Another problem comes from a prophecy Jesus uttered in Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This is a simile (“just as”) and probably should not be pressed too literally. However, if we reckon events from Thursday evening, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, then we have three nights (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) and three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday). But, as I said, Jesus’ simile in Matthew 12:40 probably should not be pressed too literally.