As Resurrection Sunday approaches, many Christians will wrestle with the following question:
Matthew 12:40 states that Jesus would be in the ground “three days and three nights.” Doesn’t that make it impossible for Jesus to have been crucified on Friday and raised on Sunday? From Friday to Sunday is not a (72-hour) period of three days and three nights.
The early church and a majority of Bible scholars have maintained that Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose from the grave on Sunday. Some argue for a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion date because they believe that to do otherwise undermines the truth of Scripture, and particularly the verse quoted above. Our faith doesn’t depend on which day of the week Jesus arose, but on the fact that He did rise from the dead, just as He said He would. However, if you have wondered or been dismayed by trying to work out how the three days and three nights could possibly correspond with the traditional belief in a Sunday Resurrection, here are some things you might wish to ponder.
Matthew 12:40 is one of many verses that speak of the timing of the Resurrection. It should be considered in light of these other verses.
Nine other verses in the New Testament describe the Resurrection as taking place “on the third day” without mentioning three nights. With Scripture, it is always a good principle to interpret the exception in light of the usual way of saying things, and not vice-versa. Three of the other “third day” verses are found in Matthew (16:21, 17:23, 20:19), four are found in Luke (9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 24:46), as well as one in Acts (10:40) and one in 1 Corinthians (15:4). I encourage you to read each of the verses above in the context of the full chapter.
In Luke 24:21, as the disciples are speaking with the risen Jesus, they remark that “it is the third day” since all these things have happened. John 2:19-22 speaks of the Resurrection taking place “in three days.”
Also, whereas in Matthew 12:40, Jesus is quoting from Jonah and likening the coming Resurrection to Jonah’s experience, in the other references Jesus and the disciples are speaking directly and exclusively of the Resurrection. It makes sense to take the direct references to the Resurrection as giving the most literal time frame. Then we can ask why Jesus quoted Jonah and what Jonah meant by, “three days and three nights.”
I should point out that Mark’s gospel phrases things a little differently. In Mark 8:31, 9:31, and 10:34, it is said that Jesus will rise “after three days” (sometimes translated “three days later”). This is a stylistic difference, an idiomatic way of saying the same thing. We know this by comparing Mark with the parallel passages in the other gospels, as well as comparing the verses with the language of the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus. Josephus wrote in Greek, the same language as the New Testament. In his book of history known as The Antiquities of the Jews, he uses “after three days” and “on the third day” interchangeably.1
In addition, we find these parallel New Testament verses concerning the number of days of Jesus’ temptation:
- Matthew 4:2 - And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.
- Mark 1:13 - And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.
- Luke 4:1-2 - Then Jesus, being filled with the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil. And in those days He ate nothing, and afterward, when they had ended, He was hungry.
The parallels in Mark and Luke suggest that the “forty days and nights” in Matthew is a loose expression equivalent to “forty days.”
Why then does Matthew quote Jonah and why does Jonah say “three days and three nights”? In light of the above, I would say that “three days and three nights” is a stylistic variation of “three days,” perhaps given for emphasis.
Whatever we might say about the day of the Resurrection, the phrase “three days and three nights” should not cause us to insist that Jesus had to spend exactly 72 hours in the grave to fulfill Scripture. There may be other reasons to argue for a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion, but this is not one of them.
1. Josephus, Antiquities VII.280-81 abd VIII.214, 218, Loeb Classical Library (1930). In the latter passage the English “in three days” is literally “after three days” in the original Greek.