William Barclay, a well respected and renowned Bible scholar, says this about the saying of Jesus as reported by Matthew,
"Matthew says that the sign is that, as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. It is to be noted that these are not the words of Jesus, but the explanation of Matthew."1
This is common practice among many scholars - to tell us what is and what isn't the real words of Jesus. Now we have to ask, "What is he basing this determination upon?" I will let him answer this question. He continues,
"The fact is that Matthew understood wrongly the point of what Jesus said; and in so doing he made a strange mistake, for Jesus was not in the heart of the earth for three nights, but only for two. He was laid in the earth on the night of the Good Friday and rose on the morning of the first Easter Sunday."2
THE FACT? A STRANGE MISTAKE? Where is he getting his information from? Where else, but Church Tradition.
He is making this assumption of the incorrectness of Matthew's report concerning Jesus' statement based not upon what Jesus said, but based upon the tradition of a Friday crucifixion and Sunday morning resurrection.
To put another way, he is basing his interpretation of Scripture in light of Church tradition, instead of what the Bible says. This is an excellent example of how we interpret the Bible according to our traditions, and not according to what it truly teaches. Our traditions have become the standard of Truth, instead of the Bible being the Standard. We have it backwards. The Bible should determine what we believe, not our traditions. The Words of Jesus should carry more weight of authority than our own traditions or theological positions.
However, as simple minded as I might be, I think we should let the Scriptures stand as they are, and then adjust our beliefs accordingly, not the other way around.
If Matthew made a mistake . . .
Besides this, allow me to submit to you the logical outcome of such a position. If Matthew made a mistake and misunderstood Jesus, then so could Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul. Every word in the Bible is now up for debate as to its trustworthiness. The validity of the words of Jesus are now judged by how well they fit our own theological musings and traditions.
With the stoke of a pen, Mr. Barclay, as well as others, have placed the entire body of Scripture in the shadows of doubt and uncertainty.
We are no better than the scribes and pharisees that fought Jesus tooth and nail, at every turn.
We are no better than those who plotted his death because "we've piped and you've not danced."
What Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees, he would say to us,
"Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye."
1 Barclay, William. The Gospel of Matthew, The New Daily Study Bible, (n.p., Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 58