Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

182. Three Days and Three Nights*

Traditionally Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead early on the morning of Easter Sunday, the intervening sabbath being also a Passover sabbath and therefore spoken of as "a high day" (Jn.19 :31). With this view all the chronological references agree except one: "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Mt.12 :40).

These words apppear to be explicit and to require that Jesus lay in the tomb a full seventy-two hours, a period which cannot possibly harmonize with the traditional reading.

For this reason, and for this reason only, some have not hesitated to declare false the tradition that Jesus died on a Friday. Instead they insist that his crucifixion was on a Wednesday, that Thursday was a Passover sabbath and Saturday an ordinary sabbath. Thus, if Jesus rose any time after sunset on Saturday, he lay in the tomb three full days and three full nights.

The idea is an attractive one, especially to those dominated by the wholesome principle that "the Bible means what it says." Of course, the Bible does mean what it says, usually, normally. But there are occasions when what appears to be intended as starkly literal must actually be interpreted in a figurative or idiomatic fashion; for example, "This is my body", "I went out full, and the Lord hath brought me home again empty"; "Judah is a lion's whelp."

The instance now under consideration can be shown to be such.

At the outset the idea of a period of three full days and nights is ruled out completely by the words of one of the two disciples who talked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day of resurrection: "And besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done" (Lk.24 :21). This is decisive. If Jesus had lain in the tomb for at least seventy-two hours, that disciple ought surely to have been saying "the fourth day" or even "the fifth day," since Bible times are normally reckoned inclusively (e.g. Jn.20:26).

For this reason alone the literal interpretation of Matthew 12 :40 must go, though there is also the additional problem created by such passages as "raised the third day" (Mt.16 :21), a phrase which is used no less than ten times, and which itself is quite incompatible with the 72-hour theory.

A further knotty question is this: Why should the women leave their attempt to attend to the body of Jesus until the Sunday when they could have done what they deemed to be needful on the intervening Friday?

This "seventy-two hours in the grave" theory would never have arisen, based on one verse only, if there had been proper recognition of the common Bible idiom that "three days and three nights" is another way of saying "the third day." There is no lack of evidence to support this conclusion:

The chief priests came to Pilate saying: "Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, whilst he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day . . ." (Mt. 27:63,64). Here they interpreted the first phrase by the second; or was their mathematics so lamentably weak that they were unable to see that the guard should extend to the fourth day?
Esther bade the Jews fast with her "three days, night and day/'; yet it was "on the third day" that she went in to the king (Es.4 :16,5:1). Again the second phrase interprets the first.
"They continued three years without war between Syria and Israel," and yet the war broke out again "in the third year" (1 Kgs.22:l,2).
Shalmanezer began the siege of Samaria in the fourth year of Hezekiah, and took it "at the end of three years" in the sixth year of Hezekiah (2 Kgs.18 :9,10).
Rehoboam said to the deputation: "Come again unto me after three days". But this is also reported as: "Come again to me on the third day "(2Chr.l0:5,12).
It was "after six days" that Jesus took the three disciples to the mount of transfiguration (Mt.17 :1). But in Luke 9 :28 it is "about an eight days after." The one period is reckoned exclusively (with allusion to Ex.24 :16) and the other adopts the more usual inclusive reckoning.
"After three days" in Mark 8 :31 becomes "the third day" in Matthew 16 :21, which is unquestionably the parallel passage.
The freeing of slaves in Jeremiah's day is described as taking place "at the end of seven years" (34 :14); yet the same verse says "when he hath served thee six years."
Enoch is only "the seventh from Adam" (Jude 14) when the names are reckoned inclusively.

Example (d) amongst the fore-going is particularly useful as demonstrating that a period which included part of the fourth year , the whole of the fifth year, and part of the sixth year is reckoned as at the end of three years."

There is also a further argument on this question which to some may be of no consequence at all, but to others will be utterly decisive. It is the argument from typology, which, if accepted, settles fully and clearly when it was that Jesus died and when he rose from the dead.

A careful consideration of Leviticus 23:5-12 meals the following as the ordinance of public offerings at the passover:



Passover lambs slain (3 p.m.)

Passover meal (9 p.m.)




Passover sabbath. Sheaf and lamb offered (at about 9.a.m.)

The slaying of the lambs began in the temple court at 3 p.m. and continued until 5 p.m. approximately—the time of the death and burial of Jesus. The lamb offered on the morning of the 16th Nisan was, in effect, a replica of the Passover lamb (compare Ex.12 :5 with Lev.23:13) - the Passover lamb come to life again and re-consecrated to God! Thus it was a clear type of the risen Jesus, as also was the sheaf of the firstfruits.

With the above diagram the following representation of the view adopted in this and Study 181 may now be compared;

The Last Supper.

12 p.m.


3 p.m.
Death and Burial. (Passover lambs slain).
9 p.m.
Israel's Passover meal.
6 p.m.
Passover Sabbath ends.

The Resurrection.

The women at the tomb. 4

3 p.m.
The walk to Emmaus.

The correspondence thus established disallows any theory of Jesus lying in the grave three full days and three full nights, and indeed any chronological scheme other than that which has been the traditional interpretation of the gospel account— Friday to Sunday morning.

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