(Mt. 12:40) Was Jesus dead three days and three nights or a day and a half?

CLAIM: Jesus said, “The Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt. 12:40). Paul writes that Jesus was raised “on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:4). But Jesus was placed in the tomb on Friday and raised on Sunday morning. This was hardly three days, and it was closer to 36 hours. Critics argue that this is a blatant error in the resurrection account.

RESPONSE: Let’s consider a number of observations:

First, in Jewish chronology, the part could count for the whole. Indeed, it was a common feature of biblical chronology where “any part of a day could count as a day.”[1] Carson writes, “In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an ōnâh [“day”], and a part of an ōnâh [“day”] is as the whole.”[2] We might compare this to saying that we have “three days off work,” when really our time off started at 5pm on Friday and lasted until 9am on Tuesday. This would total 87 hours, and it would actually be closer to four days—not three.

Second, the phrase “three days and three nights” was a Jewish idiom. In fact, this was a “Jewish idiom appropriate to a period covering only two nights,”[3] and it can be understood as “spanning three calendar days.” Consider a few examples:

Joseph put all of his brothers in prison for “three days,” but then we read that they were released “on the third day” (Gen. 42:17-18). Did they actually stay in prison for 72 hours? No, but this demonstrates that the Hebrews counted the part as the whole.

David came to his men in Ziklag “on the third day,” but then we read that David had not eaten for “three days and three nights” (1 Sam. 30:1, 12-13). Again, this is an idiom where the part is being counted for the whole.

Esther told Mordecai to fast for “three days, night or day,” but she came to the king “on the third day” (Est. 4:16-5:1). Again, this same idiom is being used for less than 72 hours.

Critics might argue that three days and nights are explicitly mentioned. But this misses the meaning of what an idiom is. Idioms—in any culture—simply shouldn’t be pressed for literality. For instance, the idiom “bite the bullet” has nothing to do with “biting” or “bullets.” Pressing this idiom for literality would be an obvious error for the interpreter, but not the communicator.

The chief priests allude to this common Jewish reckoning when they said, “We remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again’” (Mt. 27:63). So, is it three days or after three days? This is asking the wrong question! An idiom shouldn’t be pressed for technical precision.

Third, inerrancy applies to the level of specificity being communicated. That’s a fancy of way of saying that round figures are allowed. The text says three days, but this shouldn’t be meant to communicate “72 hours,” because it isn’t trying to specify that narrowly. Indeed, if the text said “72 hours,” a critic could cry foul because it wasn’t precise down to the number of minutes or seconds that Jesus was dead! (e.g. 4,320 minutes or 259,200 seconds) Indeed, this could set up an infinite regress where no level of precision is accurate enough. Clearly something is flawed with the standards of the critic—not the text itself.

[1] David Turner, Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), p.327.

[2] D.A. Carson, Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), p.296.

[3] R.T. France, Matthew: Tyndale Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), p.217.