Was Jesus dead for three days and nights?

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By BibleAsk Team


The question of whether Jesus was in the grave for three full days and nights, as he prophesied in Matthew 12:40, despite the traditional belief that he was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday, has been a matter of theological debate and scrutiny for centuries. To understand this issue comprehensively, we must delve into the cultural and religious context of Jesus’ time and examine the biblical accounts.

Biblical Timing

In Biblical understanding, days were typically reckoned from sunset to sunset rather than from midnight to midnight as in modern Western culture. This means that according to Jewish reckoning, a day began at sundown and ended at the following sundown. This practice is evident throughout the Old Testament, where days are often described as starting in the evening (e.g., Genesis 1:5).

Biblical Accounts

The Gospels provide the primary accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. According to these accounts, Jesus was crucified and buried on a Friday, commonly known as Good Friday, and rose from the dead on the following Sunday, known as Easter Sunday. The timeline presented in the Gospels seems to suggest that Jesus was in the tomb for parts of three days: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

  • Matthew 27:62-66 describes the events immediately following Jesus’ burial, leading into the Sabbath (Saturday).
  • Matthew 28:1-6 records the discovery of the empty tomb on the first day of the week, Sunday, indicating Jesus’ resurrection.

Three Days and Three Nights

The challenge arises from Jesus’ own prophecy in Matthew 12:40: “For 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” (NKJV). Some use this verse to imply a period of three full days and three full nights between Jesus’ burial and resurrection.

Explanation – Inclusive Jewish Reckoning of Time

On seventeen separate occasions Jesus or His friends spoke of the timetable involving His death and resurrection. Ten times it was specified that the resurrection would take place on the “third day.” On five occasions they said, “in” or “within three days.” Twice they used the term, “after three days,” and one time only Jesus spoke of His death as “three days and three nights.” So, all of these various expressions are used to describe the very same event.

The expression “three days and three nights,” in Matthew 12:40, was a Jewish idiom, according to the inclusive Jewish Reckoning of time, meaning a period of time spanning parts of three days. Thus, Jesus could have been in the tomb for a portion of Friday, all of Saturday, and a portion of Sunday, fulfilling the prophecy without requiring a literal 72-hour period.

Inclusive reckoning of time was the method used throughout the Bible for computing time. And this method is stated clearly in the Jewish Encyclopedia: “A short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though, of the first day only a few minutes after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day.” Vol. 4, p. 475. Thus, we learn that the Jews reckoned any small part of a day as the entire twenty-four hour period.

Jesus’ Affirmation of the Jewish Reckoning of Time

Jesus gave a plain, conclusive explanation of how to locate the third day: “Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following” (Luke 13:32, 33). Jesus said, that the third day will always be the day after “to morrow” from any certain event. The first day is counted in its entirety, the whole of the second day, and the third day in its entirety.

Jesus speaking prophetically of His own death and resurrection, He said, “To day (crucifixion) and to morrow (in tomb), and the third day I shall be perfected (resurrection).” There are all three days in their sequence. Even though He died in the late afternoon, the entire day would be counted as the first day. The second day would span the Sabbath when He slept in the tomb. Even though He was resurrected in the early hours on the third day, inclusive reckoning would make it one of the three days.

Conclusion

The question of whether Jesus was in the grave for three full days and nights, as prophesied in Matthew 12:40 is clearly explained by the Jewish Reckoning of Time. The Jews reckoned any small part of a day as the entire twenty-four hour period. This was clearly affirmed by Jesus’ own words in Luke 13:32, 33. Ultimately, Christians should affirm the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection as central to their faith, focusing on the theological implications rather than the exact duration of time involved.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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