It’s still Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Easter as I write this, so it’s just under the wire.
Last Sunday (Protestant and Catholic Easter) as I was walking out of a Secular brunch that we hold every second and fourth Sunday of the month (no one seems to complain that it conflicts with church services!) I mentioned to someone that Good Friday and Easter Sunday are only two days apart. He looked stunned. I suppose he grew up a Christian, and it had never occurred to him, even though it was staring him in the face all these years, that Friday is two days before Sunday. The bible of course says it’s three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
So What The Fuck? Is this the most ridiculously obvious Bible contradiction out there?
Well, I hate to say it. We have to face facts here.
No, it isn’t. Well, probably not.
Here are the relevant verses (all from the NRSV) that I was able to dig up, where the number three gets bandied:
… and said “Sir, we remember what that impostor [Jesus] said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day…”
(I find that “while he was still alive” diction a bit strange, does the person being quoted typically deal with people who talk after they are dead? Do you talk about how your deceased grandfather said things “while he was still alive”?)
“…Remember how he told you,while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
I think what we are dealing with here is pre-zero arithmetic.
Numbers Before the Zero
Before the zero was invented, it simply wasn’t regarded as a number. “Nothing” was what you had when you didn’t have some number of things. This was even reflected in ancient counting notations. Most readers are familiar with Roman numberals, I, II, III, IV, etc. If you were tallying things in the Roman empire and (say) there were no amphorae of wine, you had to just not write anything at all; there is no number of them. Zero was not thought of as a number.
Similarly, a lot of other western and almost-western societies used their own alphabets for numerals. Greeks, for instance, used alpha (α) for 1, beta (β) for 2, and so on, as described here. When they got to ten (iota, ι) then things changed, the next letters, kappa (κ) and lambda (λ) were not 11 and 12 but rather, 20 and 30. Then when you got to rho (ρ), that was 100, and from there the numbers went up by hundreds. Omega (ω) was 800, there was another symbol sampi (Ϡ) for 900. (If you happen to recall that the Greek alphabet was 24 letters long, but this system requires 27 symbols, you’ll realize that three symbols had to be added in, digamma (Ϝ), koppa (Ϟ), and sampi, to make 27 characters.) This must have made learning arithmetic a bitch. Remember they didn’t think of eleven as “11” they thought of it as κα (or maybe ακ) and had to think: κ+κ=λ; ε+ζ=ιβ etc., and the rules had to be memorized three times. You had to remember what 5 + 5 was, as well as 50 + 50 and 500 + 500. You couldn’t just remember one rule for “5” and apply it in three different columns. Russian, Georgian and Hebrew did similar things. In fact Israeli coins today give their (Jewish) dates in Hebrew letters.
Georgian had the champion system. They have 36 letters in their alphabet to begin with, they omitted three from their numbers but brought in four archaic ones, to be able to go up to 9,999. I don’t know what they did past that but I know the Russians used a special symbol for “thousands,” and they’d write some number of “thousands” then the thousands symbol, then write the number of singles. Another peculiarity of the Russian system is that, say, the number 712 would be rendered as 700 + 2 + 10, not 700 + 10 + 2, but 722 would be 700 + 20 + 2. Why put the one’s “digit” (they aren’t digits) before the tens in one case and after it in the other? Well that’s because in the Russian language, “twenty two” is “twenty two,” so they’d write the twenty and then the two, but “twelve” is literally “two-on-ten.” So they would write the two first then the ten. They wrote it exactly like they said it (and thought it).
In all of these “use the alphabet to count” systems, there was no zero (there was no “placeholder” needed), and nothing was not a number. When you had no cattle, you wrote no number down because you couldn’t, but that was not a problem because you didn’t think it of it as a quantity.
I know that seems like an awful lot of (hopefully interesting) trivia, but I am trying to hammer home the point that before zero was invented, the whole thought process about numbers was totally different.
Why Years, Centuries and Pitch Intervals are in FORTRAN, not C
A lot of counting of continuous quantities like time was in terms of first, second, etc. In other words, as ordinals, not cardinals. There are still some remnants of this today. Our current year numbering is one such, technically the numbers of years should be looked at as being ordinals, in other words this is the 2012th “year of our Lord,” which is not quite the same as it having been 2012 years since “our Lord,” i.e., since the event that our calendar counts from. (Never mind that no informed scholar today thinks that that was the actual year of Jesus’ birth. But that’s another story!) That’s why there was no year zero; the concept of “zeroth” just doesn’t make a lot of sense. And that’s why the centuries end at the end of the year with the double zero at the end; you haven’t gone through a hundred years until the hundredth year is finished. In fact our numbering of centuries is another such example. The first century ran from the first year through the hundredth year of our era. Why isn’t that the zeroth century? Because zero didn’t exist as a concept back when they started numbering years and centuries.
It shows up in music intervals too. A “perfect fifth” is not “1/5th” but it’s the first note and the fifth note played together or one right after the other. Which means the notes are four pitches apart, a C and G (“do” and “so”), say. A “second” is two adjacent tones, C and D (“do” and “re”), say. A first is the same note, a unison (that’s where that particular word for doing things together comes from). The spacing is zero between the two pitches but it’s still described with a word meaning “one.” Which means a separation of seven is an “octave.” And that just makes the math screwball. To figure out which pitch is a twelfth above C, you go to the C an “octave” or eighth up from the first C (easy to do) then you have to go a fifth above that to G. So an eighth plus a fifth is a twelfth, not a thirteenth. Screwy, huh? (When they started naming semitone and chromatic intervals sometime after the invention of the zero, they did it the more modern way, twelve semitones to an octave and they say it’s twelve, not thirteen.)
Back to Easter and Good Friday
OK so now finally, finally, back to Easter being two days after Good Friday. Third day (as in the Luke quote above) means Good Friday counts as one. Saturday is the second day, and Sunday is the third day. The Matthew quote above is a bit more problematic, it seems to be describing three whole days passing, something like 72 hours. But even there, the King James version reads “third day” (and it was translated when people on the whole were still getting accustomed to zeros). If you are one of those fundamentalists who think the King James Version is perfect, you are home free.
For the rest of you, checking other versions and an interlineal bible (where the original koine Greek is given with the words translated into English) leads to the conclusion that the KJV got it wrong; Matthew reads τρεις (treis, Greek for three) while Luke says τριτη (trite, Greek for third).
So it looks at first as though maybe someone really did goof up simple subtraction in Matthew. But you’ll note that the quote from Matthew continues on, with the speaker recommending that the tomb be guarded until the third day (τριτης, trites). Now that tells me that even a straightforward number like “three” that you might think would mean “three full days” gets equated to “third” as a matter of course by people who don’t use a zero! So I would have to say, even Matthew doesn’t really involve a bonehead math error.
[Disclaimer: I am not an expert in the Greek language, nor am I a biblical scholar. I don't even play someone who is, on TV. If someone here can intelligently argue that this really was a boneheaded error in its own context, and no one caught it for long enough to be "calcified" into canonical text, by all means hit the comment button.]
Criticize Honestly and Knowledgeably
OK, maybe someone is reading this and very impatient with me right now for apparently making excuses for the bible or Christians or whatever. Well, no, such is not my intent. I believe Christianity to be factually wrong. And as practiced by its more extreme adherents, hugely psychologically damaging to their children if not downright life-threatening. (E.g, faith healing substituted for medical treatment, exorcisms that kill the “possessed” individual, etc.) I have no love of it. (I recognize that many much more moderate and reasonable people believe that they derive some value out of it, don’t push it on people, and don’t practice it in life-threatening or psychologically damaging ways. I have no beef with them as people; if they allow people to agree to disagree, then we can agree to disagree.)
But I do insist that those who criticize Christianity do so honestly. You really do have to take things in context, but not the way they mean. I’ve never seen anyone raise this particular issue (Easter two days after Good Friday) but I chose to use it as an illustration of how not to bash the Bible[*]. To look at it in context, you must understand the history and the culture that the Bible was written in, and some things that look glaring (like the two-three day “confusion” here) will in fact make sense. On the other hand, you will start to see real problems once you understand what you are reading, the way the authors did. Find real factual errors and inconsistencies in the Bible. Specious ones are worse than useless.
Atheists love to complain about creationists whose criticisms of evolution indicate that they do not actually understand what evolution is (so what value does the criticism have?), and it would be hypocritical of us to do the same thing when we criticize the Bible. When we do so we only look as stupid to them–with cause–as those ignorant creationists do to us. It’s still a target rich environment, this should be no skin off our noses.
Happy Orthodox Zombie Jesus Day!
*I realize that in England the phrase “Bible basher” is used where Americans would say “Bible thumper” but it’s a peculiarity of the American language that “to bash” means to insult or criticize, and you folks speaking that quaint British dialect of American are just going to have to adjust, because objectively speaking “Bible basher” means the exact opposite of what you are trying to say. :)