Like a gunslinger in an old western movie, the argument of the Onah is whipped out every time someone points out that late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning does not constitute three days and nights. The defender will say, "The Jews counted any part of the day as the whole day!" End of the argument. At least for them.
This idea of the counting any part of a day as the whole day, is the rabbinic concept known as the Onah. Without this concept, the whole argument and reasoning of the Friday to Sunday theory, is trashed. It has no other leg to stand on, except this shakey leg. In fact, if one was to look at all the "evidence" for a late Friday to early Sunday entombment, these are all argued with logic and information provided by Talmudic Rabbis. This is extremely treachous ground to base a Christian argument from. Why rely on proofs provided by those who hated him(and still do) and wanted Him dead? They are not going to supply evidence that validates His claims.
However, most who parrot this argument have not considered how and when the Jews applied this Onah principle, to see if it would also apply to prophetic sayings. The use of something in everyday life, is quite different from being applied to a prophetic statement.
We first want to answer this question, what is an Onah? All the information we have about the Onah comes from Jewish sources dating from the 2nd to the 6th centuries. In his highly recognized work, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalimi and the Midrashic Literature, Marcus Jastow gives us the basic definitions of the Onah.
Onah - (root meaning: a turn, a circle, a period)
1. The twenty-fourth part of an hour - a moment.
2. A period of twelve astronomical hours, one half of the natural day and of the natural night, or (at soltice) natural day or natural night.
3. A due season, period, or stage.
Ok, now that we have that settled, how was it used? Was it used in the daily life of Judea in the 1st Century? To be honest, we don't know. We have no Biblical evidence of its use. But if it was used, how? Was it used at the discretion of whoever desired to apply it or was it used only in specific situations?
In reality, it was only applied in four areas that we can find: mourning, circumcision, the breaking of a vow and the period of uncleanness for a woman. The Encyclopedia Judaica gives us this bit of information, regarding the use of the word 'Day'.
In Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day; e.g., the day of the funeral, even when the latter takes place late in the afternoon, is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning; a short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day. Again, a man who hears of a vow made by his wife or his daughter, and desires to cancel the vow, must do so on the same day on which he hears of it, as otherwise the protest has no effect; even if the hearing takes place a little time before night, the annulment must be done within that little time.(http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=167&letter=D#ixzz1TQYi3uC0)
Notice that in the quote above it says, "part of day is at times reckoned as one day." This means that there were specific circumstances in which it was used.
The above quote shows us that in the case of mourning, circumcision and the breaking of a vow, they would sometimes count a partial day as the whole day, depending on the circumstances. The Encyclopedia Judaica does not list the word 'Onah' in their listings of Jewish words or ideas. The fact that it does not warrant its own section, tells us that it was not a major part of their life and practice. It only warrants a paragraph under the section on "Day". But we can see from this, at least the concept was known, although we can't tell if this was a practice in the first century or not.
What about the period of a woman's uncleanness? For this we'll have to go to the Talmud. There is one writer who seems to be quoted most often, when addressing this issue from the Talmud, John Lightfoot. Lightfoot says,
Weigh well that which is disputed in the tract Schabbath, concerning the uncleanness of a woman for three days; where many things are discussed by the Gemarists concerning the computation of this space of three days. Among other things these words occur; "R. Ismael saith, Sometimes it contains four Onoth, sometimes five, sometimes six. But how much is the space of an Onah? R. Jochanan saith either a day or a night." And so also the Jerusalem Talmud; "R. Akiba fixed a day for an Onah, and a night for an Onah: but the tradition is, that R. Eliezar Ben Azariah said, A day and a night make an Onah, and a part of an Onah is as the whole." And a little after, R. Ismael computeth a part of the Onah for the whole.
What might get lost in all this, is the topic at hand before these rabbis. It is "concerning the uncleanness of a woman." That is what they are discussing. As stated earlier, the application of the Onah was not done in every aspect of Jewish life. It was only calculated in very specific situations, as those mentioned above. We also should note the fact the even the rabbis couldn't agree on the exact length of an onah.
But now we have well-intentioned 'men of the Book', who no doubt have dedicated their lives to the study of God's Word, using this obscure Jewish calculation of time, whereby they invalidate the words of Jesus, so that they might justify their own tradition. Does this sound familiar? Jesus accused the Pharisees of this very thing. We have made the words of Jesus of "none effect" through our Friday to Sunday tradition.
It is obvious that the practice of counting the Onah existed within the culture of the Jewish community. However, what is not so obvious is the wide spread practice of it, in every area of Jewish life and thought. In the Talmud, the main area of application that we find the discussion of the Onah, is concerning the period of time of the uncleanness of a woman.
How can a Christian of good conscience take this remote usage of a Jewish idiom of time, and then apply it to the words of Jesus, when Jesus Himself never hinted that it needed this kind of application?
It all boils down to one inescapable fact. Many hold the tradition of a Friday crucifixion and a Sunday morning resurrection to be of more value and precious, than the words of Jesus Himself. By this exercise, we are making Jesus a liar and a false prophet. Those who profess to believe Him, are calling Him a liar. Jesus says it is 'three days and three nights'. We say, 'No Jesus, you are wrong. It was one day and two nights, because we hold our Sunday tradition to be of higher value than Your Words'.
The next step in our journey, Demand for a sign.