Three Days, Three Nights

For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day. (Mark 9:41)

Bible critics often charge the Scripture with error pointing out that Jesus said He would be in the tomb three days and three nights, but the actual time from Friday evening to Sunday morning is less than 36 hours. That would give Him one full day and two full nights in the grave. That is not exactly what He prophesied. So, is the Bible wrong on this account?

First of all, we need to make one thing perfectly clear: Jesus was raised on the “third day” (Acts 10:40) which was the “first day” of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). So, Jesus was in the tomb three days; however, the problem comes up in how those days are reckoned.

Secondly, we need to remember that much of our Christian “practice” has come to us by way of almost 2000 years of “tradition.” The birth of Christ being celebrated on December 25 is one such tradition and “Good Friday” being another. Neither have biblical support. The important thing to remember is that Christ was born, He lived, He died and He rose again. Those events are well worthy of memorializing and celebrating even if our dates (and by that I mean the time of year) are in error. Of course, for those of us who really want to go deeper, those questions do matter, and they are important.

Now, the arguments for the crucifixion having occurred on Friday are weak ones, in my opinion. I arrive at that conclusion from what Jesus clearly said in Matthew 12:40 (at least it’s clear to me): “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (emphasis mine). To me that sounds like 72 hours, but bound by the tradition that Jesus was crucified on Friday, many commentators try to make it work by arguing that any part of a day is considered a day. Jesus was buried at the end of the day (before 6 PM) on Friday; that is one day. He was in the tomb all day on Saturday; that is two days. Finally He arose on Sunday morning (after 6 AM); that makes three days. However, even given partial days counting as a whole, there is no way to get three nights out of that.

In the book, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Intervarsity Press, 1996) the writers argue:

[We] know (emphasis mine) that Jesus was not in the tomb more than thirty-six to thirty-eight hours, since he was buried at evening (which began at about 6 p.m.) on Friday and rose by morning (about 6 a.m.) on Sunday. (p. 380)

Note that they “know.” How do they know? They concede that we understand the phrase “three days and three nights” to mean a 72-hour period, but:

[We] know (emphasis mine) that the phrase “three days and three nights” was not a problem for Matthew, for he can use both that and “on the third day” and include no explanation, which he does in other cases where he senses a problem. (pp. 380-381)

The problem with this argument is that the phrase “three days and three nights” and the phrase “on the third day” have different meanings and certainly different connotations. They go on:

In quoting the scriptural phase [Matthew 12:40] Jesus probably (emphasis mine) did not mean that he [sic] would be buried the exact length of time as Jonah was in the fish, but that he [sic] would like Jonah be “buried” for that approximate (emphasis mine) time and then be “raised.” (p. 381)

Now, I have a real problem with second guessing Jesus. Jesus spoke clearly, and even when He spoke in parables to hide His meaning from the Pharisees, He later clarified the meaning for His disciples. Even when He did not explain His sayings to His disciples, the Gospel writers would parenthetically interpret His meaning. For example, when Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19), John quickly explains, “But he spake of the temple of his body” (v. 21). There is no such clarification in Matthew 12:40 given by either Jesus or the Gospel writer, Matthew. That leads me to conclude that when Jesus said He would be in the earth “three days, and three nights,” that is exactly what He meant. A Friday burial does not allow for that even if one concedes partial days because this allows for only two nights, which contradicts Jesus’ words. As an aside, note how God defines His creation days in Genesis 1 by “the evening and the morning;” both are necessary to define a complete 24-hour day. Why would Jesus, the Creator (John 1:1-3), redefine His terms on such an important issue without clarifying His meaning, if He meant something other than what He said?

Some argue for Friday because Scripture tells us that Jesus had to be buried quickly because the following day (which started at 6 PM) was a Sabbath (Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54-56; John 19:31). This error comes from the mistaken idea that the Sabbath means the seventh day of the week (Saturday). The fact is that all Jewish feast days are considered Sabbaths (a day of “rest” – the meaning of the word in Hebrew) regardless of the day of the week on which they fall. Christians do not normally pay attention to Jewish feast days, but if they did, they would find that Passover does not always fall on the same day of the week. Furthermore, the day following Passover is the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and that too is considered a Sabbath regardless of the day of the week on which it falls (see Leviticus 23:4-7). So, the fact that they had to quickly bury Jesus because the following day was the Sabbath does not necessarily mean that the following day was Saturday; it could have been Thursday or Friday.

It might be apparent by now that I do not favor a Friday crucifixion and burial. I base my conclusion solely on the words of Jesus and that He meant exactly what He said, i.e., that He would be in the earth (the tomb) three days and three nights. Some reckon this to mean that He was buried on Wednesday and rose on Sunday morning, but this gives four nights and three days if one discounts any part of Wednesday afternoon (3 PM to 6 PM). This is more than 72 hours. However, this discrepancy is resolved when one considers that the first day of the week started after 6 PM on Saturday, so that eliminates Jesus having to spend an extra night in the tomb. I would also be comfortable with a Thursday crucifixion and burial counting the last three hours of Thursday (3 PM to 6 PM) as “a day” with the resurrection taking place on Sunday morning after 6 AM. This will render three days and three nights albeit not exactly 72 hours. Either of these two options are preferable to a Friday crucifixion and burial.

The Bible is not in error because the Bible never specifies the day of the week on which Jesus was crucified. We know that Jesus was crucified on Passover. We know that the following day was “the Day of Preparation” ( Matthew 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19: 42) otherwise known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread – a Sabbath. We also know that Jesus rose on the first day of the week (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1), and we know He was in the tomb three days. So, counting back three full days from Sunday takes us back to Thursday or Wednesday, but not Friday. So, the Bible is true and the traditions of men are false.


Filed under Apologetics, Christianity, Easter, Evangelism, Gospel, Religion, Resurrection, Salvation, Theology

2 responses to “Three Days, Three Nights

  1. This analysis is carefully analyzed and very understandable — a perfect example of Berean Bible scholarship (Acts 17:11; 2nd Timothy 2:15) — you have unraveled the spaghetti of a confusing topic, one informational noodle at a time ! Good contrast between church traditions, which are often false, and the Scriptures, which never err. Thanks, Ernie, for taking the time to map this out for us. Obviously the college students whom you teach are privileged students. (Too bad the average pastor is not as careful in explaining the Bible as you are.)

  2. Janice Moss

    I am thankful to you, Ernie, for writing this article. So often our beliefs are mocked because of the apparent discrepancy in the 3 days, 3 nights Scripture and the church tradition that Jesus presumably died on Friday. Jerry and I have longed believed that He died on Wednesday. John 19:31 makes it clear that the day following Jesus’ crucifixion was a high Sabbath (not the 7th day Sabbath). Thank you again, Janice