How could Jesus be buried 3 days and 3 nights if he died Friday and rose Sunday?

Apr 16, 2019 1:45 PM

Entombment of Christ

Rembrandt van Rijn

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. - Matthew 12:40

How do we square Matthew 12:40 with the historic and universal teaching of Christianity that Jesus was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday?

It is a question that has perplexed many, and some have come up with extravagant and complex but ultimately unsupported theories to re-configure the Holy Week in order to make it fit. Others are simply convinced it is a flat contradiction. Can Jesus’ words be reconciled with the recorded events of his death and resurrection?

Yes, and the answer is not really complicated, but it goes against our modern Western ways of thinking, so I will proceed here with some detail.

First: When was Jesus crucified?

From Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, s.v. “Death of Jesus, 2.1. The Date of Jesus’ Crucifixion" (IVP): 

All four Gospels narate the execution of Jesus on a Friday—that is, on the day before the Sabbath (Mt 27:57, 62; Mk 15:42; Lk 23:54; Jn 19:31,42). The major chronological issue, therefore, revolves around the relation of this Friday to Passover. 

The problem here is that there seems to be a contradiction between the Synoptics which relate the Last Supper as a Passover meal, and John which appears to place the meal not on the Passover but on the day of preparation for the Passover. But to read John this way is to forget that the term “day of preparation” was (and is) synonymous to Friday, which is always the day of preparation for the Sabbath

Second: What did the expression “day and night” mean to Jesus’ hearers?

In Jewish culture (and the Aramaic culture generally), days began and ended not at midnight but at sunset. When the sun had passed below the horizon the old day was done and the new begun. This understanding began in Genesis 1 when the first day began with darkness before God created light. The pattern was inaugurated: “There was evening and morning, one day.” That is important. The phrase "one day” encapsulates both night and day.

But also in that same culture, a part of a day (or a part of any unit of time) is counted as a day (or a month, or a year—and if you’ve ever tried to do a chronology of the Books of Kings you can go nuts trying to figure out exactly how long a reign lasted or coordinate the dates of kings with other events because of this trait of inexactitude). They did not have clocks and did not measure the hours as we do, or measure their days as we do ours. It is not fudging things for them to say that when Jesus was buried on Friday before sundown, was in the grave all of the Sabbath, and was still in the grave part of the first day of the week, that he was three days buried. They did not count them as 72 hours as we would. The hours did not matter. “Touching the bases” is what mattered.

Now to Matthew 12:40. So why did Jesus say “three days and three nights”? Doesn’t that still mean it had to be 3 days of light and 3 nights of darkness? No.

  1. Idiom. A day and a night was a Jewish/Aramaic idiom for…a day. Like “the heavens and the earth” is an idiom for the universe, or what the Greeks called the cosmos. But…but…but…it’s still 3 days and 3 nights. Yeah, and it’s raining cats and dogs and you need to get off my back. It’s an idiom. Idioms aren’t supposed to be literal, they only take their power of expression because they sound like they’re supposed to be taken literally. Did you notice that while Luke also mentions the sign of Jonah, only Matthew stretches out the expression to enumerate the days and nights? Could it be that only Matthew’s mainly Jewish readers would understand the expression, whereas Luke’s broader Gentile audience, less familiar with Jewish idiom, would be more likely to misunderstand and take it literally?
  2. Context. Is this statement of Jesus ever called a prophecy? No. What is it called; what does Jesus himself call it? A sign. To whom is it given? To some Pharisees and teachers of the Law who demanded Jesus show them a sign. What do you think they thought he meant? Do you think they understood he meant that he was going to rise from the dead after 3 days? Apparently not. Do you think Jesus was clearly prophesying to them of his resurrection? I do not. I believe he was doing what he always did with parables/riddles (for that is what this is here): revealing truth to those who believe while concealing it from those who do not. He tells us as much: “A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign! But none will be given it…except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” He could have gone on to say, Figure that one out, smart boys. Therefore, when in this context he uses the full expression "three days and three nights” it adds complexity to the inherent difficulty of the riddle.
  3. Parallels. Luke 11:29-32 goes a different direction with the sign of Jonah, who was himself “a sign to the Ninevites,” and so Jesus says he is likewise a sign of judgment to his generation. Closer in thought but different in construction and context is Jesus’ reply to the Jews who demanded a sign for his authority in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” Note here, though, the absence of the idiomatic expression “days and nights” which would not have made much sense to the non-Jewish members of the Christian community in Asia Minor to whom John wrote. (And apparently it was this or statements like it that led to the charge against Jesus before the Sanhedrin when finally they got two guys to say, “He said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” - Mt 26:61

Conclusion: That Jesus died and was buried on the sixth day of the week, lay in the tomb throughout the seventh day, until he rose early on the third day does not contradict his statement uttered to his foes that he was going to be the same kind of sign to them as Jonah was to his generation.

For further discussion, here’s a link to an article in Biblical Archeology Review by scholar Ben Witherington III, who points out that the problem we have with this is our modern approach to time: “One of the problems in reading ancient texts like the Bible in the 21st century is the danger of anachronism—by which I mean bringing unhelpful modern ideas and expectations to our readings.... For example, we are a people obsessed with time—and with exactness when it comes to time—down to the nanosecond. In this regard, we are very different from the ancients, who did not go around wearing little sundialson their wrists and did not talk about seconds and minutes. They did not obsess about precision when it comes to time.” Read more here: On What Day Did Jesus Rise? - Biblical Archaeology Society