Questions have been raised by skeptics concerning the Bible’s reliability based on the reports of the Gospel writers regarding the interval of time that transpired between the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. As is always the case with such alleged discrepancies, further study and honest exegesis dispels the allegation. The Bible refers to this interval in four forms:
“on the third day” (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4)
“in three days” (Matthew 26:61; John 2:19)
“after three days” (Matthew 27:63; Mark 8:31)
“three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40)
On the surface, these four representations certainly appear to be inconsistent, if not contradictory. Indeed, to the English mind, these four phrases convey four different meanings. However, upon further investigation, we discover they are interchangeable expressions in the New Testament. The evidence from antiquity and from the Bible is decisive: “three days and three nights” in Oriental expression was an idiomatic allusion to any portions of the period. This fact stands proven and is undeniable based on at least three sources: (1) scholarly historical analysis of ancient idiomatic language; (2) biblical usage throughout the Old Testament; and (3) harmonization within the passion texts themselves.
First, a vast array of scholarly sources verifies the use of this idiom in antiquity. It constituted a loose form of speech to refer to two days and a portion of a third. A.T. Robertson referred to this usage as “the well-known custom of the Jews to count a part of a day as a whole day of twenty-four hours.”1 Likewise, in his monumental volume Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, E.W. Bullinger explains that “the expression ‘three days and three nights’ is an idiom which covers any parts of three days and three nights.”2 The highly respected 17th-century Hebraist John Lightfoot published a commentary on the New Testament, incorporating his vast grasp of Hebrew and Aramaic usage, including the Jewish Talmud and Mishna. In that commentary, he recounts the common usage of the phrase “three days and three nights” among the Gemarists, Babylonian Talmud, and Jerusalem Talmud, concluding: “So that according to this idiom, that diminutive part of the third day, upon which Christ arose, may be computed for the whole day, and the night following it.”3 The list of scholarly confirmation could be lengthened indefinitely.
Second, the Bible uses the same idiom throughout the Old Testament and continues into the New. For example, in the account of Joseph’s dealings with his brothers, Moses wrote: “So he put them all together in prison three days. Then Joseph said to them the third day, ‘Do this and live, for I fear God…’” (Genesis 42:17-18). Joseph put his brothers in prison for “three days” (vs. 17) and then released them “the third day” (vs. 18). The two expressions were viewed as equivalent.
In his pursuit of the Amalekites, David and his men came upon an Egyptian in the field, whom they nourished with food and drink:
So when he had eaten, his strength came back to him; for he had eaten no bread nor drunk water for three days and three nights. Then David said to him, “To whom do you belong, and where are you from?” And he said, “I am a young man from Egypt, servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind, because three days ago I fell sick” (1 Samuel 30:12-13).
The inspired writer states unequivocally that the Egyptian had taken no nourishment for “three days and nights,” which the Egyptian, in his explanation of his predicament, defined as “three days.”
On the occasion when Jeroboam returned from exile in Egypt and led the Israelites in a rebellious confrontation of the rightful king Rehoboam, we are informed:
Then Jeroboam and the whole assembly of Israel came and spoke to Rehoboam, saying, “Your father made our yoke heavy; now therefore, lighten the burdensome service of your father, and his heavy yoke which he put on us, and we will serve you.” So he said to them, “Depart for three days, then come back to me.” And the people departed (1 Kings 12:3-5).
Rehoboam then consulted with the elders of the nation, promptly rejecting their advice, and then consulted with the young men of his own generation who had grown up with him. Then the text reads: “So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king had directed, saying, ‘Come back to me the third day’” (1 Kings 12:12). Lest we fail to grasp the fact that “for three days” and “the third day” are equivalent expressions, the inspired writer says so explicitly by equating them and then adding “as the king had directed.” The parallel account in 2 Chronicles completes the idiomatic usage by reading: “So he said to them, ‘Come back to me after (ע֛וֹד) three days’” (10:5). This latter allusion is not to—as a westerner would think—the fourth day, but to a point in time “on” the third day (vs. 12—בַּיּ֣וֹם). Hence, “after three days” equals “the third day.”
Yet another instance is found in the book of Esther. Having been elevated to a prominent position in the eyes of King Xerxes, Mordecai urged his cousin Esther to use her influence to save the Jews throughout the Persian Empire from annihilation by Haman. Here was her response:
“Go, gather all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me; neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. My maids and I will fast likewise. And so I will go to the king, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!” So Mordecai went his way and did according to all that Esther commanded him. Now it happened on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, across from the king’s house, while the king sat on his royal throne in the royal house, facing the entrance of the house (Esther 4:16-5:1).
Esther did not change her mind regarding when she would approach the king. Rather, she did exactly what she told Mordecai she would do. Hence, “three days, night or day” is precisely the same timeframe as “on the third day.”
We see the same idiom in the New Testament. One example is the inspired account of the events leading up to the conversion of the first Gentiles in Acts 10. Several temporal indicators illustrate the principle:
“ninth hour of the day” (vs. 3)
“The next day” (“about the sixth hour”) (vs. 9)
“On the next day” (vs. 23)
“the following day” (vs. 24)
“Four days ago” (“the ninth hour”) (vs. 30)
If we count the amount of time that transpired between the appearance of the angel to Cornelius (vs. 3) and the arrival of Peter at the house of Cornelius (vs. 24), we find it to be exactly three days, i.e., three 24 hour periods. Yet in Jewish reckoning, the period included three nights and parts of four days. Thus Peter described the interval as “four days” (vs. 30). See the chart below.
We are forced to conclude that the phrase “three days and three nights” is not to be taken literally. It was used figuratively in antiquity. Why take one expression out of the four that are used, interpret it literally (i.e., 72 hours), and then give it precedence over all the other passages? Jesus being in the grave one complete day and night (24 hours) and parts of two nights (36 hours total) satisfies both the literal and idiomatic expressions. The English reader must not impose his own method of calculation upon an ancient, alternate method of reckoning time.
Another instance of the same idiom in the New Testament is seen in Paul’s stay in Ephesus. The text reads:
And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:8-10).
Paul states plainly that he remained in Ephesus for two years and three months. Sometime later, in his rush to get to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost, he came to the seacoast town of Miletus from whence he sent word to the elders of the church in Ephesus to come meet with him. Among the stirring remarks that he delivered to them on that occasion were these words: “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). Once again, it is apparent that the Semitic mind considered that any portion of a day or year could be counted as a whole day or year.
Third, it is abundantly clear from the accounts of Christ’s death and resurrection that this idiom was well recognized and utilized by the Jews at the time. Specifically, the chief priests and Pharisees confirmed use of the idiom when they sought an audience with the Roman Procurator Pilate:
On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying, “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, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first” (Matthew 27:62-64).
The Jewish leaders did not insist on the tomb of Jesus being secured for three 24-hour days. To the western mind, the phrase “after three days” indicates the need to maintain a guard until the fourth day had come. But not to the oriental mind. The phrases “after three days” and “until the third day” were, to them, equivalent expressions.
The evidence from both antiquity and the Bible is decisive: “Three days and three nights” was an idiom. This truth stands as a proven fact of history. Bullinger was correct when he emphatically stated: “It may seem absurd to Gentiles and to Westerns to use words in such a manner, but that does not alter the fact.”4
1 A.T. Robertson (1922), A Harmony of the Gospels (New York: Harper and Row), p. 290.
2 Bullinger, p. 845, emp. added.
3 John Lightfoot (1823), Horae Hebraicae et Talmudicae or Hebrew and Talmudical Exercitations upon the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Mark (London: J.F. Dove), 11:202.