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Why was Jesus in the Tomb for Three Days?

Jewish Tradition and Beliefs about the Afterlife

What did the first century Jewish community believe about the afterlife? Did they believe in eternity, the eternal soul, or was this a later creation of the Christian church? The Jewish beliefs began with Moses when he received God's instructions and laws. The groups or leaders of the day-to-day belief system during the time of Jesus began in approximately 163 B.C.  At the end of the Maccabean Revolt, three separate groups of religious believers, orders, were established. These were the groups of religious leaders Jesus dealt and interacted with.

Jesus after Resurrection
The first of these, which was a minority, were the Sadducee. This group believed in the written law alone. The Sadducee did not believe in the afterlife, nor did they believe in spirits, ghosts, or demons.  They also believed very strongly in free-will. For the Sadducee, God plays no role in how your life turns out, your destiny was entirely up to you and the decisions you make. From archaeological findings it is believed the Sadducees believed in personal wealth and earthly pleasures. It is believed the high priest Caiaphas, who played a key role in the crucifixion of Jesus, was a Sadducee. During His earthly ministry Jesus had several interactions with the Sadducees. The most notable, and relevant here, was when Jesus rebuked them for their lack of belief in the afterlife.

Jesus replied, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising - have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken." Mark 12:24-27

The second group are the Essenes. This group believed in the strict observance of the laws of God. There primary concern was the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The Essenes believed only in the written law, and rejected oral teaching as being the equal of scriptures, which differed them from the Pharisee which we will look at next. Like the Pharisee, the Essenes believed in heaven and hell, spirits, demons, ghosts and eternal life. The Essenes however did not believe in a physical resurrection, but only in spirit. It is believed by many scholars that the Essenes was the group who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The last religious group is the Pharisee. Jesus interacted and conflicted with this group more than any of the others. The Pharisee believed in spirits, demons, heaven and hell and eternal life. They were different from the other groups that they did not stress the importance of bloody sacrifices, but were more interested in constant prayer and the study of Gods laws. The Pharisee believed not only would the person's spirit, soul, continue after death, but at some point the physical body would be resurrected and the person would live in eternity in body and soul. 

Ancient Jewish Text on the Afterlife

There are several ancient Jewish texts, manuscripts and traditions that reveal some of their beliefs concerning life after death. Some scholars have noted the similarities between some of these beliefs and events people report during a near death experience. 

 "But you, go on to the end; you shall rest, and arise to your destiny at the end of days." - Daniel 12:12

"At the hour of a man's departure from this world, his father and relatives gather round him, and he sees them and recognizes them, and likewise all with whom he associated in this world, they accompany his soul to the place where it is to abide." - Zohar 1

"In the world to come there is no eating or drinking, nor jealousy, or animosity or rivalry - but the righteous sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the radiance of the Shechinah." - Talmud Brachot 

[Shechinah - the presence of God in the world.]

"In the World-to-come there is no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies... The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body." - Talmud

"When a man departs to his eternal home, all his deeds are enumerated before him." Talmud

"But the souls of the virtuous are in the hands of God, no torment shall ever touch them. In the eyes of the unwise, they did appear to die, but they are at peace." - Wisdom of Solomon 3:2

While the three groups of religious leaders had very clear differences in their beliefs and in our fate, after life, the vast majority believed that life goes on after death. The soul, or spirit, continues on to either eternal happiness, or eternal suffering. The fact that Jesus was raised from the dead would have fit well into Jewish belief, although the belief system did not include Jesus being raised body and soul and being returned to earth after three days in the tomb. 

Was Being Dead Three Days Significant?

Knowing a little more about the Jewish traditional beliefs in the afterlife, we can now explore the length of time Jesus was in the tomb. I believe we can assume the time period of three days was not random, was not just the way it worked out, but had a significance. Does Jewish belief, especially during the first century, make any reference to a person being buried for three days? A direct reference to being buried, no, but there is a direct reference to a person being dead for three days.

The Leviticus Rabbah is a collection of 37 homilies that make up a biblical exegesis composed by ancient Judaic authorities. These writings have been tentatively dated back to the fifth century but were certainly taken from older texts. In the Leviticus Rabbah we see a direct refence to a first century Jewish belief regarding what happens to the spirit after the body dies.

"For three days after death the soul hovers over the body intending to reenter it." - Lev. Rabbah 18:1

The three day period does not have the same significance today. With modern embalming techniques a person's body can remain in very good condition for some time, most certainly for longer than three days. In the first century there were no such techniques used. Without embalming and left in a non-air conditioned room, after three days a body would begin to decompose and would become unsightly and unpleasant to be around. It was thought that the spirit would hover over the body for three days, wanting to reenter it. After three days the body would no longer be attractive to the spirit and the spirit would move on to the afterlife known as the olam haba, or The World to Come. So after three days the person was truly deceased because the spirit would no longer reenter the body. 

Jesus remained in the tomb for three days and then his spirit reentered His body and He was raised from the dead on Easter morning. This would have been significant to the first century Jewish community. After three days Jesus' spirit should have moving on to olam haba, and not reentered His body. Once again Jesus was demonstrating His ultimate power over death even when ancient beliefs said His spirit should move on. It could have also been a further statement of the new covenant Jesus had established, showing everyone His power and how He had done away with the old ways and opened the way to heaven, to olan haba. 

Was Jesus in the tomb for three nights?

It seems the three days in the tomb did have a significance. Not only did it show Jesus' power over death, but it also fulfilled a prophecy made by Jesus. The Sadducee asked Jesus for a sign to prove to them He was who He claimed to be. In His response he makes a direct reference to the three days He would eventually spend in the tomb.

"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." - Matthew 12:40

With Jesus being crucified on Friday and raised from the dead on Easter Sunday, He was in the tomb for three days, or at least a portion of three days. However, getting this time period to equal three nights in the tomb is difficult. The three nights in the heart of the earth statement has itself caused much concern and debate. By almost any standard Jesus was in the tomb only two nights, Friday and Saturday and He was raised on Sunday morning. Is this an error in scripture? Did Jesus fail to fulfill His own prophecy?  This is considered a major point of contradiction by many, but can it be resolved? With the importance of this issue it will be covered in a separate post.

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