Three Days and Three Nights

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 34

Matthew 12:40 says, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” 1 Corinthians 15:4 says that Jesus rose from the grave “on the third day.” Scripture is clear that Jesus resurrected early on Sunday morning However, Luke 23:54 states that he died and was buried on Friday. However, this would mean that Jesus was only in the tomb for about 36 hours, about one day and two nights, contrary to what Matthew teaches about “three days and three nights.” Is this a contradiction?

This alleged contradiction has made some Christians believe that Jesus was placed in the tomb on either Wednesday or Thursday, not Friday. However, as I will show in this article, three days and three nights actually fits perfectly with the traditional belief that Jesus was killed on Friday, and was only in the tomb for approximately 36 hours.

A Different Method of Counting

Many Christians have defended the traditional interpretation by arguing that Friday was day 1, Saturday was day 2, and Sunday was day 3. This goes perfectly with 1 Corinthians 15:4 which says that Jesus rose “on the third day.” Typically a modern American will count beginning with the following day. For example, if we say “on the third day” then Sunday is the third day from Thursday. Today is Thursday, but we make Friday day 1, Saturday day 2, and Sunday day 3. If Christ was crucified on Friday and was supposed to resurrect “on the third day,” then Monday would be the third day in our way of thinking.

However, the ancient Jews had more than one way to count. For example, in Esther 4:16, we find Queen Esther telling her cousin Mordecai to persuade the Jews to fast. “Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day.” She mentions that after this fasting is complete, she will go to the king. However, 5:1 says that she appeared in front of the king “on the third day.” In our way of counting, Esther would have appeared in front of the king on the fourth day, not the third. This is similar to what we find with Jesus’ resurrection.

Let us look at another example of counting in the ancient world. The biblical books of 1 and 2 Kings give us the history of the kings of Ancient Israel. These two books begin with King Solomon and end with the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 586 BC. This comes to about 400 years of history. Solomon ruled over the entire nation of Israel. However, after he died, his kingdom was split into two parts: the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (see the map below).

How do the kingdoms of Israel help us understanding the counting methods of the Israelites? First, the Southern Kingdom counted like us. Let me explain by giving an example. King A ruled for 5 years. King B succeeded him and ruled for 3 years. How many years did these two kings rule? 8 years, of course (5 + 3 = 8). This is the way we normally count.

However, the Northern Kingdom counted slightly different. Let’s call their kings “King C” and King D.” King C ruled for 5 years and King D for 3, the same as the first two kings above. However, when we add them up we get something different. In the Northern Kingdom of Israel, 5 years plus 3 years equaled 7 years. Wait, what? How does this work you may ask? Simple, the Northern Kingdom used a different method of counting.

The fifth year of King C and the first year of King D were the same year (years 5 and 1 were counted as the same year). It doesn’t stop here. Let’s say that King D becomes the ruler in the very last month of the year. In the Northern Kingdom, that entire year, even the first eleven months are counted as the first year of King D. Even though King C died in the eleventh month of his last year, the last month of the year also counts towards his reign. So, the last year of King C and the first year of King D are the same.

Confused? It’s ok if you are since many scholars get confused over the counting. What is very interesting about these different methods of counting is that they help us understand the problem of the “three days and three nights” of Jesus’ burial. Even though Jesus was only in the tomb for the last part of Friday, the entire day counts as one full day and night. The same with Sunday – even though Jesus resurrected early Sunday morning, the entire day counts as the third day and night. This may confuse us, and we may wish God would have chosen to explain this in a different way, but this is the way the Jews counted. When we are studying the Bible, we must understand it the way that the authors and audience would have understood it, not the way we may understand it in the modern world.

What do you think? Does this make sense? Leave a comment below, or let me know on Facebook or Twitter.

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