How Many Days Was Jesus In The Grave?

This post is a little over 2 years old. Though it’s an “oldie” it’s a goody 😉

This question frequently comes up “how in the world is Friday eventing to Sunday morning “3-days”???

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Start by looking at all the references to how many days Jesus was in the grave in Matthew, you’ll quickly find that he basically says Jesus was in the tomb until the third day, he rose on the third day, as well as after three days. Then there’s the famous “three days and three nights” statement with reference to Jonah in the fish (or was it a whale???) in Matthew 12:40.

Okay, so obviously Matthew is speaking in idiom, you either admit that or you believe he is a liar. I guess that’s gonna depend on where you stand on the Scripture, me personally, I believe it’s inerrant. So something else is going on.

Then look at what the other Gospels say, if Jesus was indeed in the tomb 72 hours (that’s the way you’re probably thinking of “3 days and 3 nights” because you were born here and now) then all the Gospel writers are liars, again, I don’t think they are…

So, is there any other evidence as to what this whole “3 days and 3 nights” thing means? Are there any clues to tell us this is not a strict calculation? Well, yes. If I ask you “when does the Hebrew calendar day begin, you’ll probably eventually say ah ha! at night, sundown! Yes. So they count “nights and days” not “days and nights” so that’s at least a clue.

From there, look for references elsewhere in the Bible, go ahead, I’ll wait… All of them are believed to be less than 72 hours (at least by most of the people in the academic field of Biblical Studies).

Still not convinced? of course you’re not, you’re reading my blog post… Okay, now start reading extra biblical intertestamental Jewish literature and find the phrase “days and nights” and see what it means. Let me give you a hint, the only sources talking about what this phrase means explicitly says it counts partial days as days. I even made a CHART to help sort it out. (yes, go read this chart)

So there it is, if you want to believe the author of Matthew is schizophrenic, the other three Gospel writers are liars, the rest of the Bible is hogwash when it comes to keeping time, and you know better how to read Jewish literature from the first century than Second Temple Jews… then by all means, believe Jesus was in the grave 72 hours.

Also, this just in, we really did land on the moon! (I do get a little snarky after 9:00pm)

So, here’s my post from 2 years ago, I genuinely hope it helps.

Honestly, I know there are different ways to take this, however, this is where I’ve landed:

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Saturday, April 8, AD30 (or April 4, AD33): It was quiet.

Jesus hadn’t said much from the cross, he was exhausted, near death, spent.

  • Forgive them (luke 23:34)
  • Today I say to you truly, you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43)
  • Behold your mother (John 19:26-27)
  • My God, why have you forsaken me!? (Mark 15:34 cf. Ps 22)
  • I thirst (John 19:28)
  • Paid in full (John 19:30)

And then one final cry, the end of an agonizing, lonely six hours hanging just off the earth, but excluded from heaven:

  • “Father… Into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)”

It was over, it was quiet, the quietest time in all history.

Jesus went into the grave. The disciples were stunned, His opponents felt the uneasiness of a hollow victory, the demons amazed, the angels in shock… an uneasy calm over all creation.

After being beaten severally, mistreated and mocked, He was on the cross for six excruciating hours from 9:00am to 3:00pm.

He was laid in the tomb of a friend named Joseph as the Sabbath began… no work, no hustle and bustle, just reflection on who Jesus was and what He had done… His followers were overcome with great sorrow.

They hadn’t remembered what he said:

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

-Mark 9:31

Saturday was the longest twenty -four hours in history.

Though the Bible doesn’t explicitly say (chronology is not really the concern of Greco-Roman Biography), Jesus was most likely crucified on Friday.

Mark uses the phrase “after three days” talking about when Jesus would rise (e.g. Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34). Well, three days is 72 hours, right? So how could Jesus be raised on Sunday morning and be raised “after” 72 hours if he was crucified on Friday afternoon? Only a modern skeptical mind would interpret these words so far out of their original context.

The other Gospels also use the phrase “on the third day” to describe the timing of Jesus’ resurrection (cf. Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7; 24:46. See also Acts 10:40 and 1 Cor 15:4).

John even quotes Jesus “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19).

So which is it, “after three days” “on the third day” or “in three days?”

Matthew uses this interesting wording:

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.

-Matt 12:40

Now that sounds like 72 hours to me, Friday afternoon to Sunday morning counted as 72 hours sounds like “fuzzy math” to me… doesn’t it?

Well, that’s the problem. We tend to read the Bible for how it sounds “to me” rather than how it sounded “to them.”

See, Jews around Jesus’ time used the phrase “day and night” to describe a unit of time known as an ‘onah, and any part of an ‘onah was counted as a “day and night” chronologically (see: Mishnah, third Tractate, “B. Pesachim” part 4a; and Mishnah, Tractate “J. Shabbath” chapter 9, part 3 – Get a copy of A.T. Robertson’s Harmony of the Gospels, it’s in the Appendix).

  • The Jewish day begins and ends at Sundown, or roughly 6:00pm.
  • Jesus died on the cross at 3:00pm.
  • Fri 3:00pm – Fri 6:00pm = part of the first ‘onah (“Day & Night” 1)
  • Fri 6:00pm – Sat 6:00pm = the whole second ‘onah (“Day & Night” 2)
  • Sat 6:00pm – Sun Morning = part of the third ‘onah (“Day & Night” 3)
  • (Here is MY CHART of how all the days and nights work out.)

So at least two contemporary Jewish extra Biblical sources confirm that Jews use “day and night” as an idiomatic expression of a “day unit” including any part of a day or night. Additionally, the book of Esther uses specifically “three days and three nights” as a non 72-hour period of time (see Esther 4:15-16 & 5:1; 5:4-6; also cf. Gen. 42:17-18 “after three days” = “on the third day”).

It is also revealing that Matthew does not say “three nights and three days” as one would expect because the Jewish world put the evening first. Look at a phrase from Genesis chapter one:

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day

-Gen 1:5

That’s how we would expect a calendar day to be expressed (whether or not you think Genesis 1 means an actual calendar day is beside the point, the literary intent is clear of a “normal day.”)

So matthew specifically uses the Jewish idiom of the ‘onah by putting the day first so as to indicate that he is referencing this common Hebrew expression of Jesus’ day – not a literal 12 or 24 hour day.

The problem is, for people who wish to put Jesus in the tomb for 72 hours, they are following their own logical constructs that have been formed by people like Graham W Scroggie [“Guide to the Gospels” 1948], Herman L. Hoeh [“The Crucifixion Was Not on Friday” (Pasadena, CA: Worldwide Church of God, 1979)], and the Worldwide Church of God’s very own Herbert W. Armstrong.

We should not read the words of God’s Holy Scriptures from a modern context or with 21st century eyes, we must get back to the Jewish Roots of the phrase, especially because it comes from Matthew, which is steeped in, shall we say “Jewishness.”

But couldn’t he have meant 72 hours?

No, not if you believe all of Matthew and the rest of the Gospels are inspired and inerrant.

First of all, as referenced above, three times Matthew says “on the third day” when describing the time of Jesus’ resurrection (i.e. Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19). Obviously, Matthew is not trying to contradict himself.

Look specifically at this verse in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.”

-Matt 27:63-64

For the author of Matthew, “on the third day,” after “three days and three nights” and “after three days” (even before the third day, i.e. “until the third day”) all are used interchangeably, and this is within the same Gospel.

But this is Jewish idiom, it’s the Hebrew way of talking. This can be well illustrated when you look at the “sign of Jonah” in Matthew’s Gospel and compare it to Luke’s account in Luke 11:29-32. Jesus says the only sign will be given is the “sign of Jonah” but he says nothing of “three days and three nights.”

Why the omission by Luke (or perhaps the addition by Matthew)? Because Matthew is associated with the mission of James in Jerusalem, and is the most “Hebrew” of all the Gospels, while Luke is associated with Paul’s mission and is the most “Greek” of all the Gospels. The Jews would understand the words not to mean 72-hours and thus would be in harmony of the other Gospels, but the Greek mind (like us) might not understand this idom, and so it isn’t there.

“Day and night” being seen as a unit of time is a Jewish expression, not a Greek one. The first audience of Matthew’s Gospel spoke like this, the first audience of Luke’s Gospel did not. That’s why Luke, and the sequel “Acts,” says “on the third day.”

Today, we think more like the Greeks than the Hebrews. To us if he says “on the third day” that’s what it means to us. It’s we who have the problem with the addition of Jewish Matthew “after three days” or “after three days and three nights.” He didn’t mean what we would mean if we said “after three days and three nights.” He didn’t mean 72 hours.

This is obvious to anyone who is not simply trying to disprove the church’s understanding of Easter. As I said above, the Gospels are written as “Greco-Roman Biography” and are not concerned with chronology as much as us in our modern histories. But that being said, out of the four Gospels, Luke seems to be the most concerned with historical details like this. He even says: “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account” (Luke 1:3).

I don’t think Luke is writing a modern-day history as we would view it, but I do think he’s closer to attempting this than Matthew. So when Luke gives us chronological information, we can read it closer to our own type of understanding.

Which brings us to Luke 24:13ff.

The forty or so hours that Jesus spent in the grave were quiet, Saturday was the quietest twenty-four hours in all of history, but Sunday came, Jesus rose from the dead!

Luke records an interesting account of Jesus walking with his disciples on the road to Emmaus. It was Sunday, the very day that some had seen the empty tomb, but they didn’t recognize Him. Jesus basically asks “why the long face?” and so they described how the Jews handed Jesus over to the Romans and that they crucified him. Then in Luke 24:21 they say “Yes, and besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened.” (cf. Luke 24:7 “on the third day rise”).

So, when we understand that “three days and three nights” is a Jewish phrase used to talk about “parts of three day-units” as confirmed in extra Biblical sources, and in the OT itself, and we plainly look at the NT for what it says, there’s absolutely no contradiction.

Even though the Bible never exactly tells us which day Jesus was crucified on, because that’s not the important part, there’s no reason to think it wasn’t Friday, in fact, the best evidence seems to point to a Friday crucifixion.

At one time I held to the “Wednesday crucifixion view, but it was mostly because I thought 3 days and 3 nights had to be 72 hours. When I learned how a first century Jew would read a phrase like this, the reason for my change in thinking vanished. I do think it’s totally possible Jesus and His followers observed the lunar calendar of the Essenes, taking the (meatless) Passover on Tuesday, but it doesn’t seem most likely. Also, the Wednesday crucifixion (or Thursday compromise) seems to expressly contradict Luke 24:21 “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened.” So the day Jesus walked with them on the road, Sunday, was the third day.

So, Saturday becomes the most uncomfortable and quietest day in history, but that makes the earth shaking news of Sunday all the more welcome. Jesus is risen and God has proven His triumph over death!

Praise the Lord! See you Sunday…

About John Harris

χian, Jesus saves. μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, Pastor at Pleasant Heights, PhD (NT) candidate at Midwestern; forever Texan, μολὼν λαβέ; Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak! Allons-y
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