Three days and three nights?

How long was our Lord’s Body in the grave?  Was He crucified on a Wednesday?  Or on a Friday?  Many of our friends have been troubled with these questions.

We have been not a little mystified to see that several prominent Bible scholars, men usually and eminently correct in their exposition of God’s Word, have fallen for the fallacious theory that the Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on a Wednesday.  We can explain this slip on the theory that they have not thoroughly investigated the matter from the standpoint of Jewish Christian scholarship, and of Old Testament practice.  Their first misstep begins with a fallacy.  They say virtually, “When the Lord said He would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, I believe He stayed there exactly seventy-two hours to the last second!”  This assumption sounds plausible at first, but it soon collapses when we realize that what the true student ought in the beginning to say is, “Let me first learn what is meant by the expression three days and three nights!”  In other words, it is not our business to dictate arrogantly to God what is our idea of a Hebrew idiom, “three days and three nights,” but we must first ask God, “What is meant by this expression?”

With the foregoing introduction, we can now present a few considerations, which have a direct bearing on the question.  We are indebted, for the phrasing and general argument, to that Jewish Christian scholar David Baron.

1.  The expression, “three days and three nights,” is an Old Testament idiom carried over into the New Testament, and means not necessarily three whole days and three whole nights, but in round numbers a period of about three days.  In the case of Jonah, to whose typical experience the Lord refers, we have no means of accurately ascertaining what actual measure of time he was in the belly of the fish, but in the other places where this idiom is used, or implied, we have strong reason to believe that it could not have meant literally three days and three nights.  Exactly the same expression as in the case of Jonah is found in 1 Samuel 30:12-14, when David and his men returned to Ziklag on “the third day” (Verse 1).  They found the place had been devastated in their absence, and their families and property carried off as spoil by the Amalekites; they found also an Egyptian slave, who had eaten no bread nor drunk water “three days and three nights” (Verse 12); but in the 13th verse we read that it was “three days ago” that he fell sick, and the impression left on the mind is that it was a period of about three days.  In Esther 4:16 we read that after Esther had been sufficiently roused by Mordecai to the imminent danger which was threatening, she sent a message to him: “Go, gather all the Jews that are present in Shushan and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days—night and day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner.” –“But it came to pass on the third day”(Chapter 5:1), and evidently early on that day, that she appeared before Ahasuerus and on that same day we find her already at the “banquet” to which she had invited him and Haman.

2.  It is to no purpose to try to push back the day of the crucifixion to the Thursday, or even to Wednesday in that week, as some, without basis either historical or Biblical, have endeavoured to do, so as to get in three whole days and three whole nights between Christ’s burial and the resurrection, since, according to the express words of Christ and of the apostles, the resurrection took place “on the third day.” 

Thus, to take only the Gospel of Matthew, we find that from the sixteenth chapter onwards, when “Jesus began to show His disciples” with increasing clearness and fullness of detail the experiences which were awaiting Him in Jerusalem, how “The Son of Man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify Him” – these statements always end with the confident prediction, “and on the third day He shall rise again” (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19).  And with these predictions as to the time of His resurrection corresponds the historic fact.

To take only the testimony of one or two passages: we have in Luke the beautiful account of the meeting and conversation of Christ with the two disciples on their way to Emmaus after His resurrection had become a glorious accomplished fact, and then after their telling Him in their simplicity, as if He were “only a stranger” how He, Who was to have redeemed Israel, had been delivered by the chief priests and rulers to be condemned to death and crucified, but of Whom the as yet incredible report had now reached them that He had risen from the dead, they add, “And beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done.”

The Apostle Paul, therefore, in summarizing the great foundation facts of the Gospel which he preached, and which were universally believed in the churches, says not only that Christ died for our sins and that He was buried, but that “He rose again from the dead the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4).

I might point out also the fact that the Jews who heard the Lord use the expression did not understand it to signify a full “three days and nights,” for after the crucifixion they came to Pilate saying, “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while He was yet alive, ‘after three days I will rise again.’ Command therefore that the sepulchre be made secure until the third day” (Matthew 27:63, 64).

3.   According to Jewish law, part of the day stands for the whole, for “if a day has been once entered in, even for a few minutes, the whole twenty-four hours were reckoned to the person who had so entered on the day.”  If a child is born in the last hour or even in the last few minutes of a day, it is counted as a whole day of the period of the time within which he must be circumcised.  Thus legally, according to Jewish reckoning, the crucifixion and burial of our Lord having taken place before the 16th Nisan actually commenced, He may be said to have been in the grave “three days and three nights,” viz., Friday, to which legally belonged the night of what we shall call Thursday, Saturday, consisting of the night of Friday and the day of Saturday; and Sunday, to which belonged the night of Saturday and the very early morning of Sunday.  To give a better picture to the eye, we tabulate as follows:

Thursday Night and Friday……………………………………………1st Night and Day
Friday Night and Saturday……………………………………………2nd Night and Day
Saturday Night and Sunday………………………………………….3rd Night and Day

4.  It is common legal practice that when a criminal is sentenced to an imprisonment of say three days, if he enters on a Friday afternoon, for instance, before 5 o’clock, he is released on the Monday morning.  But has he spent 72 hours in jail?  No.  Yet he has satisfied the law, and he is legally reckoned as having spent three days in jail.

5.   The writer had an amusing personal experience with a self-assertive brother who was cock-sure that Christ was crucified on a Wednesday, and that He was in the grave exactly seventy-two hours to the second.  We asked him, “Did Christ rise on the third day?”  He, of course, replied, “Yes.”  We then called his attention to the fact that, if Christ were in the grave exactly seventy-two hours, then it was the fourth day, and not the third.  This came as a complete surprise to the brother, and he was too much dazed to venture a reply.

6.   Finally, we would consider the statement in John 19:31, which seems to us to be so conclusive as to settle emphatically the question for all time: “For that Sabbath day was an high day.”  Bible students unacquainted with Jewish law and custom do not realize the significance of this passage, and so stumble into a wrong interpretation.  The Sabbath day to the Jews means only the seventh day of the week; but Scripture often speaks of other holy days; if, for instance, any feast began on a Monday, then that Monday was a holy day in the Jewish colloquial, although the Scriptures, in order to distinguish between the common days and that holy day, call it a Sabbath but never, the Sabbath.  A holy day is called a Sabbath only for the reason that certain work is forbidden and differs from the Sabbath on which all work is forbidden.  Now it so happened that on this particular occasion, the first day of the Passover fell on a Saturday; hence the scrupulous care taken by the Evangelist, to specify, “that Sabbath day was an high day.”  That is, it was a sort of double Sabbath, it being the regular weekly Sabbath Day as well as the first day of the Passover Feast.  To prove that this Sabbath was the weekly Sabbath, one has only to consider the words, Day of Preparation.  In Exodus 16:5 we read, “And it shall come to pass, that on the sixth day they shall prepare that which they bring in,” which is the only time such an expression occurs in the Old Testament.  On this expression the ancient rabbis built up hundreds of laws forbidding the eating, on the Sabbath, of food not prepared on Friday, whether it were fruit that fell from the tree or an egg laid on the Sabbath.  Therefore, the words “Preparation Day,” which is another expression among the Jews for Friday, can never be applied to the day preceding any other day than the Sabbath when food could not be prepared.

This proves, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the crucifixion took place on Friday.

Perhaps it is well to re-emphasize this point a bit further, for we think it is fully as important as any of the other evidences presented; no other day in all of the Jewish ritual is ever called the “Day of Preparation,” except Friday, and this is quite consistent when it is realized that while the Jews were forbidden to do any kind of work on the Sabbath day, not even being allowed to cook, yet this restriction as regards cooking and making fire neverapplied to any other holy day; that is, if the first day of the Passover Feast began on a Wednesday, that Wednesday was a Sabbath or a holy day, but the Jews were allowed to cook on that Wednesday and to make a fire and to do other necessary labour.  So, if the Passover day began with a Wednesday, John could never have called Tuesday the day of preparation, for no such day existed, except it were a Friday preceding the regular Saturday weekly Sabbath.

–Reprinted by permission of Sar Shalom Publications, New York.