Three Days and Three Nights… Matthew 12:40

Passages such as Matthew 12:40, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” and 1Corinthians 15:4, “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” – are clear to announce that Jesus died and was resurrected on the third day. But questions are often asked regarding the time of the week and the amount of time that Jesus was in the grave. These questions usually center upon the certainty of a Friday burial as well as the possibility of three days in the grave given the tradition of a Good Friday death and an Easter Sunday Resurrection. James Montgomery Boice treats this issue with clarity and precision in his commentary The Gospel of Matthew: The King and His Kingdom (Vol 1, Matthew 1-17, pp. 220-223). If you have ever asked these questions, consider Boice’s response below:

Three Days and Three Nights

No one can read that today [Matthew 12:40, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”] without understanding at once that this is a prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection. It is an excellent preaching text for Easter Sunday, but it also involves a problem. In the traditional handling of the events of Passion Week, Jesus was crucified on a Friday and was raised from the dead on Sunday morning. All four Gospel writers placed the crucifixion on the day immediately preceding a normal Saturday Sabbath (see Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; and John 19:31). Yet if that is a correct understanding of these events, how can it be said that Jesus spent “three days and three nights” in the earth?

According to Jewish idiom, the phrase “three days” does not necessarily mean a period of seventy-two hours. It can mean merely one whole day plus parts of two others. But while this observation helps us deal with texts that say “three days” it does not help us deal with Matthew’s version of the prophecy, for here the phrase is not “three days” but rather “three days and three nights.”

It is possible that parts of one day and one night are involved, rather than three full days and three full nights; nevertheless, three periods of light and three periods of darkness must be accounted for. This requirement, regardless of anything else, is fatal to a Friday crucifixion theory. As one writer says, “Add to the indictment of Friday the statement of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, spoken on the afternoon of Sunday (Luke 24:21), ‘Today is the third day since these things were done,’ and the case looks black indeed against Friday. Sunday is not the third day since Friday.”

There is another difficulty too, a difficulty apparent to anyone who has tried to sort out the events of the final Passover Week and assign them days. On an average, about one-third of the Gospels is taken up with the events of the last week of Christ’s life. This means that the events of this week are given to us in fairly complete detail. Indeed, from the arrival of Jesus in Bethany, six days before the Passover, until the resurrection, every moment seems to be accounted for. Yet when the events of these days are pieced together into one connected whole, one entire day, and possibly two, is lacking. One of the missing days can be explained as the preceding Sabbath, a day in which Jesus rested in Bethany and received those who came to see him and Lazarus. But what of the other day? Can it really be that in a week as full as this one was, one entire day is unaccounted for? How can we explain this omission?

The difficulty of accounting for this day led no less careful a scholar than Frederick Godet to move the events of Palm Sunday to Monday, thereby compressing six days of activity into five. This is interesting, but the same effect can be achieved by moving the crucifixion back to Thursday rather than by moving the events of Palm Sunday forward.

A third difficulty is of a more recent development. The dating of historical events has been a complicated matter, involving the days and times of solar and lunar eclipses and new moons. But in recent years, thanks to the use of computers, much that was formerly uncertain is now known. Thus, to give an example, as recently as 1973 a work entitled New and Full Moons by Herman H. Goldstine was published, from which it is possible to calculate the days of the week on which the Jewish Passover fell in any given year during Christ’s lifetime or thereafter. If such a calculation established a Saturday Passover and therefore a Friday crucifixion for any year near the time at which Jesus must have been crucified, it would provide excellent support for the traditional theory. But, in fact, it does not. Instead, the day before Passover falls on a Friday only in the year A.D. 26, which is too early, and in the year A.D. 33, which most scholars agree is too late.

What are we to do with these problems? Is there a solution? I believe there is and that it is obviously the solution, once we get over the idea that the crucifixion must have been on a Friday, as tradition says. The solution is simply that two Sabbaths were involved in this last week of Christ’s earthly ministry. One was the regular weekly Sabbath, which always fell on Saturday. The second was an extra Passover Sabbath, which, in this particular week, must have come on a Friday.

It needs to be said, in case it is not entirely self-evident, that the Passover Sabbath always came on the fifteenth of the month of Nisan and would therefore naturally fall on different days of the week in different years, as Christmas does in our day. However, it was always observed as a Sabbath. In my reconstruction Jesus would have been crucified on Thursday and would have been raised from the dead sometime before dawn on Sunday morning.

April 6, A.D. 30

What does this suggestion do to the problems we have already noted as a result of the traditional dating? It eliminates each one.

  1. There are three actual days and three nights. Jesus had spoken of a period of time beginning with daylight and comprising the whole of three days and nights, with the possible qualification that the opening period of day and nights, with the possible qualification that the opening period of day and the closing period of night need not necessarily be a full twelve hours. This is provided for as follows. Jesus died on Thursday afternoon about three o’clock; hence, the hours from 3:00 P.M. until dusk qualify as the first day. This period is followed by Thursday night, Friday, Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night; that is, a total of three days and three nights in that precise order. In this scheme of things, Jesus could have risen from the dead at any point after dark on Saturday evening. What we know is that he was raised sometime before the women got to the tomb at dawn on Sunday morning.

Several minor points reinforce this idea. First, when the soldiers tried to explain why they were unable to guard the tomb successfully they said, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep” (Matt. 28:13). That would be a natural way of speaking if the resurrection and the subsequent opening of the tomb by the angels took place at night.

Even more striking is the fact that in the original Greek, Matthew’s account of the events of the resurrection morning begins, “In the end of the sabbaths (plural), as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week” (Matt. 28:1). The plural has been a puzzle to many translators, who usually change it to the singular, “sabbath.” But the word is plural, and the plural is explained if there were two back-to-back Sabbaths in that week — the special Passover Sabbath, which fell on a Friday, and the regular Saturday Sabbath, which came the next day.

  1. Each day of the week is accounted for. In this new arrangement of events we have the following:

Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath):  Jesus does not travel on this day but rather remains in Bethany with his disciples and Lazarus. Many come to see Jesus and the man he raised from the dead.

Sunday: Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey after having first made arrangements to secure the animal. He goes to the temple area and looks about, but it is late by this time and he returns to Bethany without further recorded actions or teaching.

Monday:  Jesus returns to Jerusalem. On the way he curses the fig tree as a symbol of the barrenness of Israel and as a prophecy of what was coming to the nation. In Jerusalem he cleanses the temple for a second, final time (see John 2:12-22) and returns again to Bethany, where he spends each night of this week save the last.

Tuesday:  On the way back to Jerusalem the disciples find the fig tree withered and receive Christ’s explanation. In the city the disciples comment on the magnificence of the temple and are told that the day is coming when it will be torn down. On the way home Jesus pauses on the Mount of Olives to give what has come to be called the Olivet Discourse concerning things to come. Prophecy dominates the teaching of this day.

Wednesday:  Jesus sends the disciples to make preparations for the Passover, which is, however, eaten that evening without the Passover lamb. Jesus is arrested that same night as he deliberately tarries in the Garden of Gethsemane on what would have been his normal trip back to Bethany.

Thursday:  Jesus is tried and eventually crucified. The trial begins on what we would call Wednesday night (but which is actually the early hours of Thursday by Jewish reckoning) and is completed in the morning. Jesus is crucified. Darkness covers the land from noon to 3:00 P.M. Jesus is buried this same evening by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. The women observe where Jesus is buried and buy spices, but as it is now the start of the Passover Sabbath (that is, the Friday Sabbath that began at dusk on Thursday evening), they are unable to anoint the body until Sunday morning.

Friday and Saturday:  The body of Jesus remains in the tomb. The women and disciples observe the two Sabbaths. Jesus rises from the dead sometime between the coming of darkness on Saturday evening and the coming of the dawn on Sunday morning.

3.  The day of Christ’s crucifixion. The day before Passover, the fourteenth of Nisan, did not fall on a Friday between the years A.D. 26 and A.D. 33. But how about Thursday? Strikingly, the fourteenth of Nisan fell on a Thursday in the year A.D. 30, the most probable year of the crucifixion even by other calculations. Thus, we may conclude with reasonable certainty that the crucifixion of Jesus is to be dated as April 6, A.D. 30, and the resurrection dated April 9.

Comments

  1. terry rathman says:

    As Paul clearly states (1Cor15 – perhaps the first major Creed of the early Church) and we affirm as well, the resurrection is the Keystone of Christianity. Good review of the ‘days’ issue which is sometimes brought to our attention and we should be ready to give this answer to indicate we have an answer (1Peter3:15). Further and must be said, most scholars, even our liberal ones (except BartE), agree to the ‘four minimal facts approach’ around those ‘3’ days. The four minimal facts (although some divide it into five because HE is alive) are
    1. The death of Jesus by crucifixion.
    2. The Tomb was empty.
    3. The disciples claimed they saw Jesus.
    4. Their lives were transformed 180 degrees.
    ‘So what’ explanation best describes what happened that game changing Third Day?
    Of the many, check out what these scholars have to say about the facts:
    Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
    William Lane Craig
    John Warwick Montgomery
    He is RISEN and the only REASON!!!
    t

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