Was Jesus in the Tomb for Three Full Days and Nights?

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When people attempt to recalculate Passion Week, they often do so with the best motive, namely, they want to take the Bible literally. These people understand that the time from the crucifixion of Jesus to His resurrection must be a literal 72 hours, as understood by Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:40 (“just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”). Therefore, they would conclude that the Last Supper actually took place on Wednesday of Passion Week, the crucifixion on Thursday, and the resurrection on Sunday.

A Thursday Crucifixion?

Support for a Thursday Crucifixion

Several reasons are given to support a Thursday crucifixion of Jesus. First and most obviously, this would allow Jesus’ burial in the tomb to be literally three days and three nights. Second, it is maintained that the day of preparation and the Sabbath described in John 19:31 (“because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day)”) refer to Passover and not the weekend Sabbath. In this argument, the day of preparation would refer to the day before Passover, and the Sabbath refers to cessation of work on the first day of Passover, and therefore it was a high day. Third, the Greek word for Sabbath in Matthew 28:1 is actually plural, so it describes Resurrection Sunday literally as “after the Sabbaths.” This would indicate that the resurrection took place after two Sabbaths, the first on the first day of Passover (Friday) and the second on the regular Sabbath (Saturday).

Problems With a Thursday Crucifixion

“Too often we fall into the trap of arguing over what is least important and ignoring what is absolutely crucial.”

Although this interpretation appears to solve the problem by allowing for three full days and nights in the tomb and a literal understanding of Jesus’ prediction in Matthew 12:40, it does pose some problems. First, the phrase “day of preparation” always means the Friday before the weekly Sabbath (“it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath”; Mark 15:42). This is true both in the Bible (Matt. 27:62; Luke 23:54; John 19:14, 31, 42) and in writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, 16.6). The only reason John 19:14 uses the phrase “the day of preparation for the Passover” is because, in this case, Friday, the normal day of preparation, was also the day before Passover. And, John 19:31 refers to this Sabbath as a high day because it marks the convergence of both the first day of Passover and the Sabbath.

Second, Passover is nowhere called a Sabbath in the Bible. The Law of Moses says the first day of Passover is to be a day without any work (Lev. 23:7; Num. 28:16) but never uses the word “Sabbath” to describe the festival, as it does the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:32).

Third, the use of the plural form for Sabbath (Matt. 28:1) is totally irrelevant because the word “Sabbath” is commonly in the plural form in the New Testament, even when only one normal Sabbath day is in view (Matt. 12:1, 5, 10–12; Mark 1:21; 2:23–24; 3:2, 4; Luke 4:16, 31; 6:2; 13:10; Acts 13:14; 16:13). This is also true in Josephus (Antiquities, 12.274) and the Jewish philosopher Philo (On Abraham, 28).

Fourth, the Bible specifies that the crucifixion and burial of Jesus took place on Friday (“the preparation day,” Mark 15:42; see also Matt. 27:62; Luke 23:54, 56; John 19:31, 42) and that Jesus was raised on the first day of the week or Sunday (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1–2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). So, a literal reading of these verses indicates a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection. Either this contradicts Matthew 12:40 or there must be a better explanation.

A Friday Crucifixion

The better alternative to recalculation is to recognize that when Jesus said He would be in the grave for three days and three nights, He was using a common Jewish cultural expression called inclusive time reckoning.

In ancient times, Jewish people used inclusive time reckoning when speaking of any part of a day as referring to a full day (day and night). An example of inclusive time reckoning in the Hebrew Scriptures is when Esther called for a fast “for three days, night or day” (Est. 4:15–16) but then saw the end of the fast “on the third day” (Est. 5:1). Rabbinic literature gives this example from the Mishnah: Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah (about AD 100, a contemporary of the Apostle John) taught, “A day and a night are an Onah (‘a portion of time’) and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it” (Shabbat 9:3). Clearly, inclusive time reckoning was a common practice among Jewish people in the first century.

We often use idiomatic expressions today when speaking of time. Someone might say, “I did yard work all weekend” but not really mean every minute from Friday night to Sunday night. Nevertheless, a listener would still get the point that much of the weekend was taken up with yard work.

Therefore, I believe we are right to retain the biblical chronology of Passion Week: Jesus shared His Last Supper with His disciples on Thursday night, was crucified on Friday, and raised from the dead early Sunday morning. This time in the tomb includes parts of three days (Friday night, all day Saturday, and early Sunday), a period of time idiomatically described with inclusive time reckoning as “three days and three nights.”

Final Thoughts

Even more important than calculating precisely how many hours the Lord Jesus was buried in a tomb is to recognize the reason for His death and resurrection. He died to pay the penalty for our sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and was raised to give us new life (Rom. 6:4). Too often we fall into the trap of arguing over what is least important and ignoring what is absolutely crucial.

For Further Reading:

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