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Christians commonly celebrate Good Friday as the day that Jesus was crucified, and Easter Sunday as the day that Jesus rose from the tomb. Most relevant verses in scripture say that Jesus would be in the tomb for three days. (See Matthew 26:61; Mark 8:31; John 2:19.) However, one verse states that Jesus would also be in the tomb for three nights:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)

How can this be? Friday to Sunday could be considered three days, but it is only two nights.

Edit based on Phelios's comment:

I've heard it explained before that the Jewish people would define the end of one day and the start of the next as sundown, or about the 12th hour. This is why the Sabbath would always start on Friday at sundown. Jesus was buried just before sundown, or just before the Sabbath began (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42). This can explain the three days, but as the other commenter pointed out, it still does not explain the three nights.

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for addition, He was buried around afternoon to the evening (let's say Friday) and was revived early morning (which is Sunday). – Phelios Aug 24 '11 at 6:58
@Phelios It's understood to be Friday. See Luke 23:53-54. I've also heard it is likely it was very close to sundown when the Sabbath would have started since they did not have time to put the spices in the tomb before they rested on the Sabbath (Luke 23:55-56). – a_hardin Aug 25 '11 at 16:50
If your motivation for asking this question is in any way related to the suggestion levelled by opponents of Christianity that "the Bible is filled with contradictions," we might have a situation in which the pot is calling the kettle black! Frequently, unbelievers will accuse Christians of being too literal in their interpretation of Scripture. Often this accusation is correct, sad to say. Ironically, however, doesn't the opponent's objection about an apparent discrepancy seem like an overly literal interpretation of the text?! Intelligent interpretation involves an appreciation for idioms – rhetorician Nov 3 '15 at 14:19
and figures of speech (in this case, Hebraisms). Again, in the words of Donall and Conall from the Lutheran Satire video on Utube, "It's a wee bit of the clover callin' the grass green"! Don – rhetorician Nov 3 '15 at 14:27

From this discussion, if "three days and three nights" is taken idiomatically, it means 3 days as the Jewish people of the day would have understood it.

Now lets take a look at Jesus time in the sepulchre:

Part of Friday = one dayspan.

All of Saturday = one dayspan.

Part of Sunday = one dayspan.

Literally three days and three nights? No. Idiomatically three days and three nights (i.e., three dayspans), as uncleanness-periods were measured? Yes.

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+1 for pointing out that the phrasing of that day has to be interpreted using the understanding of that day. – jimreed Sep 16 '11 at 15:00
It seems unlikely that any religious Jew would dare shorten the unclean separation period as it would completely contradict the principal of making a hedge round the Torah (cf 2 Cor 11:24 "received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one"). – Curious George Sep 21 '11 at 20:51
Jesus died on the first day, Friday, at 3pm, and could have been resurrected as early as Saturday evening after sundown. Following the logic of this answer, to which I agree. – Ralph M. Rickenbach Oct 21 '11 at 20:04

I have heard this explained most often in context of the Jewish culture of the day. For Jews any part of the day is considered as representative of an entire day and night. Thus if Jesus was in the tomb any part of Fri, Sat and Sun it was considered to be three days and three nights.

We do something similar, when we say things like "I was at the park all day", where we really mean some number of hours during that day. Though, to be fair, we generally use such a form if the amount of time spent constitutes the majority of the daylight hours.

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The phrasing of Matthew 12:40 is an anomaly. The bulk of the New Testament testimony is that Jesus was resurrected, not after three days but on the third day:

Matthew 16:21 ...and on the third day be raised.

Matthew 17:32 ...and on the third day he will be raised.

Luke 9:22 ...and on the third day be raised.

Luke 18:33 ...and on the third day he will rise again.

Acts 10:40 ...but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear

1 Corinthians 15:4 ...and that he was raised on the third day

So if we assume Matthew 12:40 is compatible with the rest of the New Testament, "three days and three nights" cannot mean "three whole days and also three whole nights".

Fourth century scholar/priest St. Jerome explains in his Commentary on Jonah:

But we ask ourselves this: how was he three days and three nights in the belly of the earth. Some scholars take the view according to paraskeuen, because of the solar eclipse from the sixth to the ninth hour when night followed day, this would be two days and nights, and adding the Sabbath, believe that we should count this as three days and three nights. But I prefer to understand this by reason of synecdoche, seeing the whole as a part: where he is dead in paraskeuen, let us count one day and one night; two with the Sabbath; the third night which arises from the day of the Lord, let us take that as the beginning of the next day, for, in Genesis the night is not of the preceding day, but of the following day, that is to say the beginning of the next day, not the end of the previous. To understand this better I will say it more simply: if a man leaves his house at nine and the next day he arrives at his other house at three. And if I say that he has been two days in travelling, I will not be reprimanded as a liar, because he has not used all the hours of two days, but only a part for his journey. Nonetheless this seems to me to be the interpretation.

Sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, in a sermon on the resurrection, takes a similar approach:

The question now arises: How can we say that he rose on the third day, since he lay in the grave only one day and two nights? According to the Jewish calculation it was only a day and a half; how shall we then persist in believing there were three days? To this we reply that be was in the state of death for at least a part of all three days. For he died at about two o'clock on Friday and consequently was dead for about two hours on the first day. After that night he lay in the grave all day, which is the true Sabbath. On the third day, which we commemorate now, he rose from the dead and so remained in the state of death a part of this day, just as if we say that something occurred on Easter-day, although it happens in the evening, only a portion of the day. In this sense Paul and the Evangelists say that he rose on the third day.

So "three days and three nights" is an idiom meaning Friday, Saturday, Sunday, but not necessarily meaning the whole 24 hours of each day.

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Three Days and Three Nights says being in the heart of the earth doesn't mean being dead in the grave, but rather being controlled by the world, so the three days and three nights began when the Son of Man was betrayed into the hands of sinners.

The Heart of the Earth

So the phrase “in the heart of the earth” can easily be translated as “in the midst of the world”--or in the grip of this lost planet—-that Jesus came to save!

In other words, in Matthew 12:40, the Lord is telling His disciples that just as Jonah was in the belly of a great fish, so the Son of Man would be in the central clutches of the world.

The Hour of Truth

There are five Bible verses in which Jesus refers to Thursday evening as “the hour,” meaning a pivotal transition time in His ministry:

  • “Then cometh he to his disciples, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matthew 26:45).
  • “Then He came the third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and resting? It is enough! The hour has come; behold, the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners’” (Mark 14:41 NKJV).
  • “And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him” (Luke 22:14).
  • “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone” (John 16:32).
  • “Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee” (John 17:1).
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That article and this idea is deserving of careful consideration. Thanks. – user32 Jan 28 '14 at 18:38
Link no longer finds the article. May now be at - seems to be a seventh day adventist site. – disciple Oct 19 '15 at 7:03
Still seems to be available as a "news and features" item at‌​and-three-nights marked as "Bible answers with Pastor Doug". – disciple Oct 19 '15 at 7:15

I think that Biblically the Good Friday tradition doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The traditional view tends to forget that since it was Passover there would be an additional Sabbath in the chronology. We can see a hint of this in the difference between Mark 16:1 and Luke 23:55 regarding the purchasing of spices by the women.

See this website for a detailed breakdown of the timeline of the crucifixion and resurrection, but in summary Jesus was buried on Wednesday night and rose on Saturday night and the Thursday in between was a high holy day (extra Sabbath). I'd be very interested to hear any Biblical arguments against this timeline.

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I was trying to rectify this with my understanding that Christ had eaten the Passover the night before he died. After some more searching, I found that the Last Supper was not actually the Passover meal. I've also asked a question about this. Was the Last Supper not the Passover meal? – a_hardin Sep 23 '11 at 17:13
I have proposed this theory some years ago when discussing it with friends; one of the gospels, I think it's John, actually refers to the first Sabbath as a "special" Sabbath. – user32 Jan 28 '14 at 18:49

If Jesus had meant that he was going to be in the earth for anything less than "three days and three nights" He would have not used such specific vernacular. In Genesis 1:5 NLT God explains "God called the light "day" and the darkness "night". Together these made up one 24-hour day."

In as much as Jesus rose on the 'third day' while it was still dark, one would be contradicting Jesus' own words to count the daylight half of the third day, as one of the three days he was to be buried.

Also overlooked is the principle of the 'special Sabbath' which was being celebrated. Therefore it is possible to have two Sabbaths back-to-back, and to have two days of preparation. If this were the case, to which Scripture points, Jesus would have been crucified on the Thursday, the day before the special Sabbath which would have also been the day of preparation for the regular Sabbath.

Wednesday afternoon, Jesus is buried, DAY 1 - Day of crucifixion and day or preparation for the Special Sabbath. Wednesday sundown to Thursday sunrise, NIGHT 1 - Special Sabbath starts Thursday sunrise to Friday sundown, DAY 2 - Special Sabbath. Friday sundown to Saturday sunrise, NIGHT 2 - Day of preparation - Sabbath starts Saturday Sunrise to Saturday sundown, DAY 3 - Regular Sabbath Saturday sundown to Sunday sunrise, NIGHT 3 - Christ rises from the dead.

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Can you edit this answer and give us some sources for information about "special Sabbaths"? – Caleb May 5 '13 at 4:39

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