Was Jesus Really Three Days And Three Nights In The Heart Of The Earth?
Matthew reports Jesus as saying, “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale (“sea monster,” RV marg.), so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (12:40). According to the commonly accepted tradition of the church Jesus was crucified on Friday, dying at 3:00 p.m., or somewhere between 3:00 p.m. and sundown, and was raised from the dead very early in the morning of the following Sunday.
Many readers of the Bible are puzzled to know how the interval between late Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning can be figured out to be three days and three nights. It seems rather to be two nights, one day and a very small portion of another day.
The solution of this apparent difficulty proposed by many commentators is that “a day and a night” is simply another way of saying “a day,” and that the ancient Jews reckoned a fraction of a day as a whole day, so they say there was a part of Friday (a very small part), or a day and a night; all of Saturday, another day, or a day and a night; part of Sunday (a very small part), another day, or a day and a night.
There are many persons whom this solution does not altogether satisfy, and the writer confesses it does not satisfy him at all. It seems to him to be a makeshifts very weak makeshift.
Is there any solution that is altogether satisfactory? There is.
The first fact to be noticed in the proper solution is that the Bible nowhere says or implies that Jesus was crucified and died on Friday. It is said that Jesus was crucified on “the day before the sabbath” (Mark 15:42). As the Jewish weekly Sabbath came on Saturday, beginning at Sunset the evening before, the conclusion is naturally drawn that as Jesus was crucified the day before the Sabbath He must have been crucified on Friday.
But it is a well-known fact, to which the Bible bears abundant testimony, that the Jews had other Sabbaths beside the weekly Sabbath which fell on Saturday. The first day of Passover week, no matter upon what day of the week it came, was always a Sabbath (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:7; Numbers 28:16–18). The question therefore arises whether the Sabbath that followed Christ’s crucifixion was the weekly Sabbath (Saturday) or the Passover Sabbath, falling on the 15th of Nisan, which came that year on Thursday.
Now the Bible does not leave us to speculate in regard to which Sabbath is meant in this instance, for John tells us in so many words, in John 19:14, that the day on which Jesus was tried and crucified was “the preparation of the Passover” (RV), that is, it was not the day before the weekly Sabbath (Friday) but it was the day before the Passover Sabbath, which came that year on Thursday. That is to say, the day on which Jesus Christ was crucified was Wednesday. John makes this as clear as day.
The gospel of John was written later than the other gospels, and scholars have for a long time noticed that in various places there was an evident intention to correct false impressions that one might get from reading the other gospels. One of these false impressions was that Jesus ate the Passover with His disciples at the regular time of the Passover.
To correct this false impression John clearly states that He ate it the evening before, and that He himself died on the cross at the very moment the Passover lambs were being slain “between the two evenings” on the 14th of Nisan (Exodus 12:6, Hebrew; cf. RV marg.). God’s real Paschal Lamb, Jesus, of whom all other Paschal lambs offered through the centuries were only types, was therefore slain at the very time appointed of God.
Everything about the Passover lamb was fulfilled in Jesus. (1) He was the Lamb without blemish and without spot (Exodus 12:5). (2) He was chosen on the 10th of Nisan (Exodus 12:3), for it was on the tenth day of the month, the preceding Saturday, that the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was made, since they came from Jericho to Bethany six days before the Passover (John 12:1—that would be six days before Thursday, which would be Friday); and it was on the next day that entry into Jerusalem was made (John 12:12 ff.), that is, on Saturday, the 10th of Nisan.
It was also on this same day that Judas went to the chief priests and offered to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:6–16; Mark 14:3–11). As it was after the supper in the house of Simon the leper, and as the supper occurred late on Friday, that is, after sunset, or early on Saturday, “after” the supper would necessarily be on the 10th of Nisan.
This being the price set on Him by the chief priests, it was the buying or taking to them of a lamb which according to law must occur on the 10th of Nisan. Furthermore, they put the exact value on the lamb that Old Testament prophecy predicted (Matthew 26:15; cf. Zechariah 11:12). (3) Not a bone of Him was broken when He was killed (John 19:36; cf. Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). (4) And He was killed on the 14th of Nisan between the evenings, just before the beginning of the 15th of Nisan at sundown (Exodus 12:6, RV marg.).
If we take just exactly what the Bible says, that Jesus was slain before the Passover Sabbath, the type is marvelously fulfilled in every detail; but if we accept the traditional theory that Jesus was crucified on Friday, the type fails at many points.
Furthermore, if we accept the traditional view that Jesus was crucified on Friday and ate the Passover on the regular day of the Passover, then the journey from Jericho to Bethany, which occurred six days before the Passover (John 12:1), would fall on a Saturday, that is, the Jewish Sabbath. Such a journey on the Jewish Sabbath would be contrary to the Jewish law.
Of course it was impossible for Jesus to take such a journey on the Jewish Sabbath. In reality His triumphal entry into Jerusalem was on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday. This was altogether possible, for the Bible elsewhere tells us that Bethany was a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12; cf. Luke 24:50).
It has been figured out by the astronomers that in the year 30 A.D., which is the commonly accepted year of the crucifixion of our Lord, the Passover was kept on Thursday, April 6, the moon being full that day. The chronologists who have supposed that the crucifixion took place on Friday have been greatly perplexed by this fact that in the year 30 A.D., the Passover occurred on Thursday.
One writer in seeking a solution of the difficulty suggests that the crucifixion may have been in the year 33 A.D., for although the full moon was on a Thursday that year also, yet as it was within two and half hours of Friday, he thinks that perhaps the Jews may have kept it that day.
But when we accept exactly what the Bible says, namely, that Jesus was not crucified on the Passover day but on “the preparation of the Passover,” and that He was to be three days and three nights in the grave, and as “the preparation of the Passover” that year would be Wednesday and His resurrection early on the first day of the week, this allows exactly three days and three nights in the grave.
To sum it all up, Jesus died about sunset on Wednesday. Seventy-two hours later, exactly three days and three nights, at the beginning of the first day of the week (Saturday at sunset), He arose again from the grave. When the women visited the tomb just before dawn the next morning, they found the grave already empty.
So we are not driven to any such makeshift solution as that any small portion of a day is reckoned as a whole day and night, but we find that the statement of Jesus was literally true. Three days and three nights His body was dead and lay in the sepulcher. While His body lay dead, He Himself, being quickened in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18), went into the heart of the earth and preached to the spirits which were in prison (1 Peter 3:19).
This supposed difficulty solves itself, as do so many other difficulties in the Bible, when we take the Bible as meaning exactly what it says.
It is sometimes objected against the view here advanced that the two on the way to Emmaus early on the first day of the week (that is, Sunday) said to Jesus in speaking of the crucifixion and events accompanying it, “Besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done” (Luke 24:21); and it is said that if the crucifixion took place on Wednesday, Sunday would be the fourth day since these things were done.
But the answer is very simple. These things were done just as Thursday was beginning at sunset on Wednesday. They were therefore completed on Thursday, and the first day since Thursday would be Friday, the second day since Thursday would be Saturday, and “the third day since” Thursday would be Sunday, the first day of the week.
So the supposed objection in reality supports the theory. On the other hand, if the crucifixion took place on Friday, by no manner of reckoning could Sunday be made “the third day since” these things were done.
There are many passages in Scripture that support the theory advanced above and make it necessary to believe that Jesus died late on Wednesday. Some of them are as follows: “For as Jonah 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” (Matthew 12:40). “This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days” (Matthew 26:61). “Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself” (Matthew 27:40).
“Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again” (Matthew 27:63). “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). “They shall kill him, and when he is killed, after three days he shall rise again” (Mark 9:31, RV).
“They shall scourge him, and shall kill him, and after three days he shall rise again” (Mark 10:34, RV) “Destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14:58, RV). “Ah, thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself!” (Mark 15:29). “Besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done” (Luke 24:21). “Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou raise it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said” (John 2:19–22).
There is absolutely nothing in favor of Friday crucifixion, but everything in the Scripture is perfectly harmonized by Wednesday crucifixion. It is remarkable how many prophetical and typical passages of the Old Testament are fulfilled and how many seeming discrepancies in the gospel narratives are straightened out when we once come to understand that Jesus died on Wednesday and not on Friday.
Torrey, R. (1998, c1996). Difficulties in the Bible : Alleged errors and contradictions. Willow Grove: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing.