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Apologetics Press :: Alleged Discrepancies

“Three Days and Three Nights”
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
[Español]
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The most frequent reference to Jesus’ resurrection reveals that He arose from the grave on the third day of His entombment. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus as prophesying that He would rise from the grave on this day (Matthew 17:23; Mark 9:31; Luke 9:22; et al.). The apostle Paul wrote in his first epistle to the Corinthians that Jesus arose from the grave “the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). And while preaching to Cornelius and his household, Peter taught that God raised Jesus up “on the third day” (Acts 10:40, emp. added). Skeptics are quick to assert, however, that these statements blatantly contradict both Matthew 12:40, wherein it is recorded that Jesus told the Pharisees He would be in the heart of the Earth “three days and three nights,” as well as Mark 8:31, which states that Jesus would rise “after three days” (emp. added).

While through the eyes of the twenty-first century reader these statements may appear at first glance to contradict one another, in reality they harmonize perfectly if one understands the liberal methods ancients used when reckoning time. In the first century, any part of a day could be computed for the whole day and the night following it (cf. Lightfoot, 1979, pp. 210-211). The Jerusalem Talmud quotes rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who lived around A.D. 100, as saying: “A day and night are an Onah [‘a portion of time’] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it” (from Jerusalem Talmud: Shabbath ix. 3, as quoted in Hoehner, 1974, pp. 248-249, bracketed comment in orig.). Azariah indicated that a portion of a twenty-four hour period could be considered the same “as the whole of it.” Thus, in Jesus’ time He would have been correct in teaching that His burial would last “ three days and three nights,” even though it was not three complete 24-hour days.

The Scriptures are filled with references which show that a part of a day is sometimes equivalent to the whole day. Notice the following examples:

  • According to Genesis 7:12, the rain of the Noahic Flood was upon the Earth “forty days and forty nights.” Verse 17 of that same chapter says it was on the Earth for just “forty days.”
  • In Genesis 42:17 Joseph incarcerated his brothers for three days. Then, in verse 18, he spoke to them on the third day, and from the context it seems that he released them on that same day—i.e., the third day.
  • When Israel asked King Rehoboam to lighten their burdens, he wanted time to contemplate their request, so he instructed Jeroboam and the people of Israel to return “after three days” (2 Chronicles 10:5, emp. added). Verse 12 says that Jeroboam and the people of Israel came to Rehoboam “on the third day, as the king had directed, saying, ‘ Come back to me the third day’ ” (emp. added). Fascinating, is it not, that even though Rehoboam instructed his people to return “after three days,” they understood this to mean “on the third day.”
  • In 1 Samuel 30:12,13, the phrases “three days and three nights” and “three days” are used interchangeably.
  • When Queen Esther was about to risk her life by going before the king uninvited, she instructed her fellow Jews to follow her example by not eating “for three days, night or day” (Esther 4:16). The text goes on to tell us that Esther went in unto the king “on the third day” (5:1, emp. added).

By studying these and other passages, one clearly can see that the Bible uses expressions like “three days,” “the third day,” “on the third day,” “after three days,” and “three days and three nights” to signify the same period of time.

Even though in twenty-first-century America some may find this reasoning somewhat confusing, similar idiomatic expressions frequently are used today. For example, we consider a baseball game that ends after only completing 8½ innings a “9-inning game.” And even though the losing pitcher on the visiting team only pitched 8 innings (and not 9 innings like the winning pitcher from the home team), he is said to have pitched a complete game. And what about the man who comes home from work and tells his wife that he was at the office “all day.” He may not mean that he worked in the office from sunup to sundown, but rather the office is where he spent nearly all of his day. And finally, consider the college student who explains to his professor that he worked on a research project “day and night for four weeks.” He obviously does not mean that he worked for a solid 672 hours (24 hours x 7 days x 4 weeks) without sleeping. It may be that he worked from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 a.m. for four weeks on the project, but not 672 sleepless hours. If he only slept five or six hours a night, and worked on the project nearly every hour he was awake, we would consider this person as one who truly did work “day and night for four weeks.”

Further evidence proving that Jesus’ statements regarding His burial were not contradictory center on the fact that His enemies never accused Him of contradicting Himself. Certainly this must be because they were quite familiar with the customary flexible method of stating time. In fact, the chief priests and Pharisees even said to Pilate the day after Jesus was crucified: “Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘ After three days I will rise.’ Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day” (Matthew 27:63-64, emp. added). The phrase “after three days” must have been equivalent to “the third day,” else surely the Pharisees would have asked for a guard of soldiers until the fourth day. Why is it that skeptics charge Jesus with contradicting Himself, but not the hypocritical Pharisees?

The idiomatic expression “three days and three nights” that Jesus employed when comparing His entombment to Jonah’s “burial” in a great fish, does not mean that He literally was buried for 72 hours. If we interpret the account of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection in light of the cultural setting of the first century, and not according to the present-day (mis)understanding of skeptics, we find no errors in all of the expressions that Jesus and the gospel writers used.

REFERENCES

Hoehner, Harold W (1974), “Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ—Part IV: The Day of Christ’s Crucifixion,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 131:241-264, July.

Lightfoot, John (1979 reprint), A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).



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