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Three Days and Three Nights

Matthew 12:40
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

We will show below that ancient calendars did not count the days according to our modern English standards and that the part counted as a whole.


Of course the prophecy in Mat 12:40 is true prophecy and Christ spent “three days and three nights”  in the grave.  However, the problem is when we assume the writers of the Bible expressed themselves with the same phraseology as we do today.

We need to understand their language and the idioms they used.  Remember, this was two thousand years ago in a very different culture.  This was long before the discovery of electricity and the invention of Timex watches.  Both Concepts as well as Language develop with time and experience. 

Things are described in cycles.

Genesis 8:22 
“As long as the earth lasts, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, Summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” 

Time was usually measured by one of three units.  The Jews measured by
1.  Days, or Day - Night cycles,  or by
2.  Months or Moon cycles, or
3.  Yearly, or seasonal cycles.

The phrase  “three days and three nights” is another way of saying three days.  Different units of time were distinguished by the cycles that they measured.  Day / night measured the rotation of the earth on its axis, and summer / winter measured the revolution of the earth around the sun.  Their culture measured the passage of time by these cyclical occurrences and their calendar reflected that.  (The pagan cultures that surrounded them saw time as only cyclical, that is, without beginning or end.)  “Day and night” was one idea to describe this specific unit of time, not two distinct time periods added together.  The Greeks even had a word that literally meant a  “night-day,”  “nuchthemeros,”  Strong’s number 3574.



The appeal to Genesis chapter one to define “day” as meaning specifically 12 hours of daylight or a 24 hour period does not work.  The Hebrew word that is translated as  “day”  is Strong’s number 3117.  That same Hebrew word is also used in Genesis 4:3 where it is translated as “of time.”   Here the Hebrew word refers to a time period longer than 12 hours therefore it does have such a restricted definition.

When days were counted even a portion of a day was counted as one.  So a reference to three days for example does not necessarily mean 72 hours.   Jesus does refer to there being twelve hours of daylight in a full day in Jn. 11:9, but this only reveals that they knew how long a full day was.  It does not reveal the common way of counting days.  Even a partial day is counted as one day when adding them together. This type of counting is preserved in the following Scriptural passages.

Example 1

The Jews would circumcise and name their children on the eighth day. ( See Gen. 17:12)

Luke 1:59-60 
When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply,  ‘No. He will be called John.’ ”   NAB

Luke 2:21 
When eight days were completed for his circumcision,  he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  NAB

Eight days are considered  “completed”  during any moment into the eight day.  They did not wait until eight days were completely over and until the beginning of the ninth day to circumcise and name the child.


Example 2

1 Kings 20:29 
They were encamped opposite each other for seven days. On the seventh day battle was joined, and the Israelites struck down one hundred thousand foot soldiers of Aram in one day.”   NAB

They did not encamp “opposite” each other for a full seven days or else they would not have engaged in battle until the eight day.

Example 3

Esther 4:16
 “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king,

Esther 5:1-6
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne inside the palace opposite the entrance to the palace; 2 and when the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, ... Then Esther approached and touched the top of the scepter. 3 And the king said to her, … And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come this day to a dinner that I have prepared for the king.” 5 Then said the king, “Bring Haman quickly, that we may do as Esther desires.” So the king and Haman came to the dinner that Esther had prepared. 6 And as they were drinking wine, the king said …”

Esther prepared for  “three days, night and day,” by fasting  BEFORE  going to the king.  Yet, on the third day, not the fourth, she goes to him.  And she even has a banquet with him on that day.

Conclusion :

Therefore, when Jesus died on Friday and was buried just before Saturday, which began at the sunset on Friday, and when He rested in the grave on Saturday, and then He rose on Sunday, He is said to have rose on the third day, counting each of those days as one of the three.  Luke 24 tells us that Sunday is the third day, the day of His Resurrection. 

Luke 24: 1, 5- 7, 13, 21 
“But at daybreak on the first day of the week they … went to the tomb … “Why do you seek the living one among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised … the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and rise on the third day …   Now that very day two of them were going … ‘it is now the third day since this took place’ …” 

Therefore, the first day of the week is the third day which is the day that He rose.

Trying to interpret these passages, outside of the context of the ancient Jewish culture in which they were written, in an overly literal way presents another problem.

We will examine three possible interpretations or scenarios of when Jesus rose from the grave.

1.     Exactly 72 hours after being placed in the grave - the end of the third day and the beginning of the fourth day.

2.     Before 72 hours completed, “on the third day”

3.     After 72 hours completed “after three days”


EXACTLY 72 hours   

(Matt 12:40)

BEFORE 72 hours

(Matt 16:21, 17:23, & 20:18-19, Luke 9:22, 18:33,  24:7, 24:46, Acts 10:40, 1 Corinthians 15:4)

AFTER 72 hours        

(Matt 27:63, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34)


EXACTLY 72 hours

Matthew 12:40
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” 


BEFORE 72 hours

Matthew 16:21
“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Matthew 17:23
“ … and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Matthew 20:18-19
“ … scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”


Luke 9:22

“ … saying, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Luke 18:33
“ …  they will scourge him and kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”

Luke 24:7
“ that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.”

Luke 24:46
“and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead …’ ”

Acts 10:40
 but God raised him on the third day …”

1 Corinthians 15:4
“  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures”


AFTER 72 hours

Matthew 27:63
“ and said, ‘Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” ’ ”

Mark 8:31
“And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Mark 9:31
“for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

Mark 10:34
“ and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise.”


In conclusion, expressions such as ‘three days and three nights,’ ‘on the third day’  and  ‘after three days,’  can be used interchangeably.  The phrase   ‘three days and three nights’  does not mean 72 hours, rather it means 3 days where any part of day is counted as a day.


Ancient  Calendars


The ancient Romans used a different calendar system then we do in contemporary English. They did not number each of the days of the month in sequential order, 1-30, as we do. They used an “inclusive” method of counting days where both the reference day and the target day are included in the count. The indications of “before” or “after” are only meant to indicate the direction. They are not mean to exclude the reference day from being included in the count.  See Wiki Calends.  They would usually count back from one of the following reference days:

Calends (1st day of the month)
Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months)
Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months)

So, the 3rd day before the Calends of November (November 1st) is October 30th.

This method of counting carries over into Latin as well. For example, Divine Mercy Sunday is one week after Easter Sunday. However, Divine Mercy is actually called the Second Sunday after Easter because the reference-day of Easter Sunday is included.

So, the Third Day after the crucifixion on Friday is Sunday since both Friday and Sunday are counted.


Part  Counted  as Whole  Day

Any part of a day is counted as a complete day.

The Babylonian Talmud (Jewish commentaries) states
“The portion of a day is as the whole of it.”
(Mishnah, Third Tractate, “B. Pesachim” part 4a.)

The Jerusalem Talmud (as it was written in Jerusalem) states :
“We have a teaching, ‘A day and a night are an Onah and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it.’ ”
(Mishnah, Tractate “J. Shabbath” chapter 9, part 3)

An Onah simply means, “a period of time.”

See 3 examples of the part counting as the whole above.


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