The resurrection of Christ is the centerpiece of the gospel. Without it, Christ’s death and burial would be rendered ineffective and incomplete (Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:13–19). Christology would undergo major revisions without the resurrection, which would then affect all of Christian theology.
Considering the theological weight that it carries in the New Testament, one might expect a clear prophecy concerning the Messiah’s resurrection on the third day in the Old Testament. But, was the resurrection of Christ really “according to the Scriptures” as the Apostle Paul claimed? (1 Cor 15:4 cf. Lk 24:45–46).
No such prophecy immediately comes to light. Commentators readily admit to the difficulty in interpreting Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 15:4. Did Paul read into the Old Testament something that was not originally there? If so, how are we to understand biblical hermeneutics? Ziony Zevit, a Jewish scholar, asserts that first century Jews were not compelled to become Christians because there was no “developed precedent for the death and resurrection of the Messiah (in the Tanakh).”1 If he is right then Paul and other New Testament writers read the Old Testament disingenuously.
On the contrary, it can be shown that the Old Testament does testify to the Messiah’s resurrection on the third day. The New Testament writers read the Old Testament Scriptures legitimately, in accordance with their authorial meaning. A few key Old Testament texts can show us how.
RESURRECTION OF THE MESSIAH IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
While there is a generally agreed-upon theology of resurrection in the Old Testament (cf. Job 19:25–27; Ps 49:15; 73:23–28; Isa 25:8; 26:19; Ezek 37:1–14; Hos 13:14; Dan 12:1–4 etc.), connections between Psalm 16:10 and Psalm 22, and Isaiah 53:10–11 and Daniel 12:2–3 reveal that the Messiah, in particular, would be raised from the dead.
David’s prayer of trust in Yahweh climaxes with the confidence, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (Ps 16:10). Some contest the idea of resurrection in this verse in favor of salvation from mortal danger. But the verb “abandon” (עזב) along with the preposition “לְ” refers to leaving someone behind (cf. Jb 39:14). David’s hope is that he would not be left in the realm of the dead. He doesn’t merely want to be saved from an immediate physical danger but to overcome death. In other words, David envisioned resurrection.
The way this verse relates to the Messiah is first through the messianic promise of the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7:12–16), which functions as the basis for David’s trust (cf. 16:1). The word “your holy one” (חֲ֝סִידְךָ) is a unique Messianic title in the Hebrew Bible that never refers to David.
The parallelism between David and God’s holy one in Psalm 16:10 is similar to Psalm 4:3 (Heb., v. 4). God hears David’s prayer because He set apart the holy ones (חָסִ֣יד) for Himself. David is one of the holy ones who benefits from God’s actions for them. In the same way, Psalm 16 argues that David’s resurrection is guaranteed by God’s raising of His holy one, the Messiah. Psalm 16:10 is an explicit text in the Old Testament that brings together the concepts of resurrection and the Messiah. Psalm 22 is proof that this kind of thinking was not isolated but interconnected. The promise of the Messiah’s resurrection is set into motion in Psalm 22.
There is a confident hope that neither David nor the Messiah would be forsaken (עזב) or given over to experience the corruption in Psalm 16:10. But Psalm 22 presents a situation which endangers that hope, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken (עזב) me?” But for the logic of Psalm 16 to work, the forsaking must refer to being abandoned in Sheol—the psalmist or the referent of Psalm 16:10b (the Messiah) has to die. Psalm 22 describes that death in detail (22:12–21). However, Psalm 22 advances to life after death (22:22-31). That is only explainable by the resurrection.
David’s life does not fulfill the details of this psalm, which speak of execution and death. It must refer to the Davidic Messiah. The Messiah’s resurrection was David’s confidence for his own, and by extension, the hope of all of Israel. Isaiah writes about the Messiah carrying the destiny of all of Israel and the world in his death and resurrection.
The Davidic Messiah who suffers, dies (Ps 22:12–21), and is raised (Ps 16:10; 22:22–21) is Isaiah’s suffering Servant. Building on previous revelation, Isaiah 53:10–11 describes his death and resurrection as part of Yahweh’s will. It pleased Him to crush the Servant. That this crushing led to death is made explicit in 53:9, “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death” —he was buried; burial confirms death in addition to the crucifixion. Isaiah, along with the Psalms, confirms that the Messiah would die. However, the Davidic Covenant would fail if the Messiah stays dead (cf. 2 Sam 7:12–13). His resurrection becomes critical to fulfilling God’s promises.
Therefore, Isaiah also prophesies his resurrection—“he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand” (Isa 53:10b). How can he “see” his offspring if he is executed unless he is resurrected? The verb “prolong” (אָרֵך) is sometimes used to refer to an everlasting (resurrected) afterlife (Ps 23:6; 91:16), and portrays the Servant’s resurrection here. In fact, this verse echoes Psalm 22:30 (Heb., v. 31) where the “seed” (זֶרַע) are mentioned in connection to his resurrection.
Verse 11 posits that the Servant’s death and resurrection will justify many as righteous. This tie between the Messiah’s resurrection and the people’s justification in Isaiah 53:10–11 leads us to perhaps the clearest passage in the Hebrew Bible about the resurrection—Daniel 12:2–3.
Once a connection is established between Isaiah 53:10–11 and Daniel 12:2–3, a strong case emerges for the resurrection of the Messiah himself. Daniel 12:3 refers to the saints as “those who are wise” (הַ֨מַּשְׂכִּלִ֔ים), just as the Servant is said to “act wisely” (יַשְׂכִּ֖יל) in Isaiah 52:13. The Servant is said to make people righteous (צַדִּ֛יק Isa 53:11), and the saints turn many to righteousness (מַצְדִּיקֵי Dn 12:3).
The Servant in Isaiah who is also the one like a son of man in Daniel is inseparably attached to his people. Daniel has a theology of corporate solidarity between the one like a son of man (Dn 7:13) and the saints of the Most High (Dn 7:18). Whatever is true of the son of man figure is true of the saints—dominion was given to the one like a son of man (Dn 7:14), but the angel interprets the dream to mean the saints receive the dominion (Dn 7:18). The saints benefit from the work of the Servant/Son of Man. Therefore, the resurrection of the saints in Daniel 12:2–3 is made possible by the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
To say that the Davidic Covenant plays an important role in the Hebrew Bible would be an understatement. It follows, then, that the resurrection of the Messiah, which is critical to the Davidic Covenant as seen in the Psalms, Isaiah and Daniel, occupies a major role in the messianic expectations of the Old Testament Scriptures.
RESURRECTION ON THE THIRD DAY IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Having shown that the Old Testament does speak of the Messiah’s death and resurrection and its importance in messianic theology, we must move on to find out if Old Testament also contributes to the expectation that He would be raised on the third day, albeit indirectly. Lack of a direct prophecy is not an insurmountable problem because Paul says “Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3) instead of citing a specific text. This means that Paul had several texts in mind (note the plural in ‘Scriptures’) that are profoundly interrelated to be referred to by one name.
Jonah 1:17b & Hosea 6:1–2
Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights has major theological significance. Jonah’s experience in the fish parallels David’s prophecy of the Messiah in his grave (Jon 2:5 cf. Ps 16:10). Jonah probably alludes to Psalm 16:10 and 103:4, among other passages, by using the word “pit” (מִשַּׁ֛חַת) in Jonah 2:6 (Heb., v. 7). Hence, Jonah’s three days in the fish elaborates on Psalm 16.
In the book, Jonah acts as Israel’s corporate representative. This implies his resurrection will be God’s kindness for his people as well.
That is confirmed in Hos 6:1-2 which explicitly states, “. . . for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” According to Hosea, Israel will die in exile (6:1; cf. Ps 22:13). However, God will raise them from the dead on the third day. The verb “to revive” or “make alive” (חיה) means to bring someone back from the dead (cf. Isa 26:19; Dn 12:2).
Hosea also discusses Messiah in his corporate solidarity or connection with his people. Both are God’s son (Hos 11:1; 3:5). Given this connection, the people’s resurrection will be their representative’s and vice versa. This is confirmed by the fact that this entire train of thought was building upon Ps 16 in the first place (see above).
Interestingly enough, the rabbis, citing Hosea 6:1–2, also thought of the third day as signifying resurrection.2 We are not the first to see these connections in the OT. Therefore, Jonah and Hosea work together to build upon Psalm 16 and anticipate the resurrection of Israel through the resurrection of the Messiah on the third day.
POSSIBLE BASIS OF THE THIRD DAY
The language of third day (י֥וֹם שְׁלִישִֽׁי) about resurrection arguably goes back to the third day of creation in Genesis 1:9–13. The imagery of dry land on which vegetation sprouts probably forms the basis for understanding how resurrection works (cf. 1 Cor 15:36–37).
One of the persuasive proofs to this line of argument is Paul’s allusion to the creation account in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul says Christ appeared (ὤφθη) to several people after His resurrection (1 Cor 15:5–8). While other words were used to refer to Christ’s appearing after His Resurrection elsewhere, Paul’s choice of the word “ὤφθη” recalls Genesis 1:9 and 13, where the Septuagint uses this word only for day three in the creation account. Moreover, Paul alludes to what was created in days 4–6 in 1 Corinthians 15:39–41 but in reverse order. Since he distinguishes between the different days of creation there, it is plausible that Paul had the third day of creation in mind when he wrote that Christ was raised “on the third day.”
CHRISTOLOGY STANDS OR FALLS ON THE DOCTRINE OF CHRIST’S RESURRECTION
The New Testament writers unapologetically claimed that the resurrection happened on the third day “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3; Lk 24:45–46). While there is no direct prophecy concerning the Messiah’s resurrection on the third day, we see through the Prophets and the Writings (and possibly the Torah [Gen 1:9–13]) attest to the resurrection of Christ on the third day. This should give us confidence that the New Testament authors were not creative innovators of theology but faithful followers of the prophets and the God of the prophets.
[Editor's Note: For more information on how to rightly handle the Word of God, see our free guide: Handling Scripture.]
 Ziony Zevit, “Jesus, God of the Hebrew Bible,” Shofar 28, no. 3, Jesus in the Context of Judaism (Spring 2010): 30.
 Lidija Novakovic, Raised from the Dead According to Scripture: The Role of Israel’s Scripture in the Early Christian Interpretations of Jesus’ Resurrection, Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies 12 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 127–28. Harvey K. McArthur, “‘On the Third Day,’” New Testament Studies 18, no. 1 (1971): 81–86. To be sure, the Targum on Hosea omits the “third day” reference. But it was evidently to discredit the Old Testament grounds for Jesus’ Resurrection on the third day. Gerhard Delling, “Ἡμέρα,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 2:949. Wolff, Hosea: A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Hosea, 118.