Was Jesus in the Grave for “Three Days and Three Nights”?
There has been considerable debate over the best way to interpret the three-days and three-nights language of Matthew 12:40, either as three 24-hour days of exactly 72 hours or parts of three days and three nights. Because you can’t get three full days if the count begins on Friday, some interpreters have argued for a two-Sabbath approach and a crucifixion on Wednesday and a resurrection on Saturday. What does the Bible say?
The New Testament states repeatedly (20 times) that Jesus would be raised on “the third day” or “in three days” (Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40; 27:64; Mark 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7; 24:21; 24:46; John 2:19, 20; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4). Only once do we find the following: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). By letting the Bible speak for itself, that is, by letting the Bible interpret itself using the text of Scripture, we can dismiss the claim that there are contradictions or insolvable ambiguities.
In Luke 18:31–33 we see an all-inclusive statement about events leading up to the resurrection:
“And [Jesus] took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.’”
First, notice that the geographical setting is Jerusalem. This will become important in determining the starting point of the three-day and three-night language of Matthew 12:40.
Second, Jesus is to be “delivered to the Gentiles.” This begins when He is arrested by the “Roman cohort” and “officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees” in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:3, 12). This takes place on Thursday evening before the “preparation day,” that is on Friday, the day before the Sabbath (Mark 15:42). It’s at this point that some claim that there was a special Sabbath distinct from the seventh-day Sabbath.
Before we get into the details of unraveling the evidence, notice that Matthew 12:40 does not say that Jesus would be buried in a tomb for three days and three nights. In fact, there is no mention of a crucifixion or a resurrection. It seems that His disciples did not understand “heart of the earth” to be a burial. When Jesus does mention that He will be killed and raised up, Peter says, “God forbid it Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:21). Why didn’t Peter say something similar when Jesus used the “three days and three nights” language earlier?
In Joe Kovaks’ Shocked By the Bible: The Most Astonishing Facts You’ve Never Been Told,1 there is a discussion of when Jesus was crucified to fit with a 72-hour burial—three full days and three full nights. Kovaks takes the position that Jesus was crucified on Wednesday and raised from the dead on Saturday.
Traditionally, Jesus is said to have been crucified on Friday and raised early Sunday morning, the first day of the new week. But this wrecks havoc with a 72-hour, literal three-day burial. “Three nights” is used elsewhere in Scripture: in the case of Jonah (Jonah 1:17), which Jesus quotes in Matthew 12:40, the Egyptian who is found in the field and is brought to David “for he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights” (1 Sam. 30:12), and in Esther 4:16. Notice the use of “three days, night or day” in Esther 4:16:
Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish (Esther 4:16).
In Esther 5:1, we read:
Now it came about on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace in front of the king’s rooms, and the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room, opposite the entrance to the palace.
Three days and three nights are mentioned, but the requisite period of time is satisfied when Esther broke the fast “on the third day.” It’s most likely that the fast was broken on the evening of the third day. “If Esther intended the three days and three nights to be taken literally as a 72-hour period of fasting, then she should have presented herself before the King on the fourth day. However, we are told a few verses later that Esther went before the king ‘on the third day’ (Esther 5:1). Examples such as these clearly show that the expression ‘three days and three nights’ is used in the Scriptures idiomatically to indicate not three complete 24-hour days, but three calendric days of which the first and the third could have consisted of only a fraction of a day.” So then, the solution to the seeming time discrepancy can be solved by maintaining that a part of a day and part of a night can mean a full day and night.
But Jesus spent only Friday and Saturday nights in the tomb. A full night is missing if He was crucified on Friday. And if He was raised from the dead on Saturday, as some argue, then another day is missing as well.
To get three full days and three full nights to bring it in harmony with Matthew 12:40 and three full 24-hour days, some have moved the crucifixion back to Wednesday, claiming that Thursday was a special Sabbath, a “Passover Sabbath” and not the usual Friday-Saturday Sabbath. R. A. Torrey held this position, as does Joe Kovaks:
To sum it all up, Jesus died just about sunset on Wednesday. Seventy-two hours later, exactly three days and three nights, at the beginning of the first day of the week, Saturday at sunset, He arose again from the grave.2
This view necessitates a weekday Sabbath in addition to the seventh-day (Saturday) Sabbath. Jesus is crucified on the “day of preparation,” that is, the day before the weekly Sabbath. There is no mid-week extra Sabbath (Luke 23:54–25:2). Ralph Woodrow writes: “Only one Sabbath is indicated: the crucifixion was on the day before ‘the sabbath’; the women prepared their spices and rested on ‘the sabbath’; and on the first day of the week (which all agree was the day after ‘the sabbath’), they found the tomb empty. It is simply: the day before the Sabbath, the Sabbath, and the day after the Sabbath.”3 What about John’s account that the Sabbath was a “high day”4 (John 19:31), supposedly making it a different Sabbath? D. A. Carson comments:
If parasakeuē (‘Preparation’) here refers to the same day as does its use in [John 19:14] … then this sentence tells us that Jesus was crucified on Friday, the day before (i.e. the ‘Preparation’ of) the Sabbath. The next day, Sabbath (=Saturday), would by Jewish reckoning begin at sundown Friday evening. It was a special Sabbath, not only because it fell during the Passover Feast, but because the second paschal day, in this case falling on the Sabbath, was devoted to the very important sheaf offering (Lv. 23:11; cf. SB 2. 582).5
One last point on the special Thursday Sabbath idea needs to be made. Why would the women have waited until the end of the regular (Saturday) Sabbath to visit the tomb when they could have gone on Friday? By the fifth day, a dead man’s body would have been in the process of significant decay. If Lazarus stunk in four days (John 11:39), what would a dead body smell like that had been entombed for five days? To conclude, Jesus was crucified on the “preparation day” (Friday), that is, the day before the weekly Sabbath (Saturday).
There are other factors to consider. The women would not have begun their journey to the tomb until after the official end of the Sabbath because they had “rested according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56), that is, they kept the Sabbath provisions of their day. So there was time between the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the first day of the week (Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1) to purchase spices (Mark 16:1) which would not have taken place on the Sabbath and to travel to the tomb to anoint Jesus. It was during this time that Jesus rose from the dead.
Another problem with the Wednesday view is that the disciples who met and walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus did so on the day of His resurrection (Luke 24:13). The disciples tell this “stranger” (to them) of the crucifixion and death of Jesus (24:20) and say that “it is the third day since these things happened” (24:21). If Jesus had been crucified on Wednesday, then Sunday would have been the fifth day since these things happened. The third day was our Sunday, the first day of the week. A Thursday crucifixion would have made it the fourth day.
So even if Jesus was crucified on Friday and raised on Saturday, we are still missing a third night (first night, Friday, second night, Saturday). Attempts to resolve this apparent contradiction center on the mistaken assumption that “heart of the earth” is a reference to the time Jesus spent in the grave. Does “heart of the earth” mean the grave?:
- There were times when Jesus spoke in parables so He would not be understood by everyone: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted…. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt. 13:11, 13; see 13:34–35). The Scribes and Pharisees had come to Jesus asking for a sign. Similar language and context are used by Jesus in John 2:19: “The Jews therefore answered and said to Him, ‘What sign do You show to us, seeing that You do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’”
- Since Matthew 12:40 is the only place in Scripture where “three days and three nights” and “heart of the earth” are used, we can assume that it’s an idiomatic expression that takes some deciphering using other Scripture passages.
- If Jesus was buried in the “heart of the earth,” and “heart” is a metaphor for “center” or “middle,” then Jesus was not buried in the literal heart (center) of the earth. From what we know of Jesus’ burial, He was buried above ground (Matt. 28:2) in a rock-hewn grave (Mark 15:46) that could be entered and exited easily.
- Jerusalem was considered the “heart of the earth”: “Thus says the Lord GOD, ‘This is Jerusalem; I have set her at the center of the nations, with lands around her’” (Ezek. 5:5). Later in Ezekiel, Jerusalem is said to be “the navel [center] of the world” (Ezek. 38:12). “Jesus does not simply use Jonah as a convenient analogy to express the time span of three days. In fact, “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” is a strained analogy for the crucifixion. To make Jesus’s experience cover three days and three nights, we must extend it to his time on trial, so that the “heart of the earth” is Jerusalem and thus includes Jesus’s trial by Jew, Edomite, and Roman. (Calling Jerusalem the “heart of the earth” is not a novel reading; Ezekiel 38:12 refers to the “navel” of the land, and Ezekiel 5:5 describes Jerusalem as being in the “middle” of the nations.)”6
- Jerusalem was the redemptive center of the world: “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Today, it’s no longer physical Jerusalem but the “Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:26) “the heavenly Jerusalem” that is the redemptive center (Heb. 12:22).
- Jesus continually points to Jerusalem as the place where He would be betrayed and crucified: “From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day” (Matt. 16:21). When did the “suffer many things” begin?: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him up to the Gentiles to mock and scourge Him, and on the third day He will be raised” (20:17–19).
- From the time of His being “delivered up” on Thursday evening in the Garden of Gethsemane to the day He “will be raised” constitutes “three days and three nights” in the “heart of the land,” that is, in Jerusalem. The Greek word often translated as “earth” is better translated as “land.”
There is no need to claim that there was a special Sabbath or even to argue that exactly 72 hours was necessary for Jesus’ words to be true. “Heart of the earth”– considered to be the center of the world–was Jerusalem.
- Joe Kovaks, Shocked by the Bible: The Most Astonishing Facts You’ve Never Been Told (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008). [↩]
- R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1907), 107–108. [↩]
- Ralph Woodrow, Three Days & Three Nights—Reconsidered in the Light of Scripture (Riverside, CA: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1993), 6–7. [↩]
- The word “day” is not found in the Greek text. [↩]
- D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 608. [↩]
- Scott Moonen, “Jonah”: https://scottmoonen.com/2016/07/10/jonah/ [↩]