Jesus was dead “three days and three nights” explained

The New Testament teaches that Jesus was raised from the dead:

  • “on the third day” (Mark 9:31, 10:34, Luke 9:22, 13:32, 18:33, 24:7, 46, 1 Corinthians 15:4)
  • “in three days” (Mark 15:29, John 2:19-20)
  • “after three days” (Mark 8:31)
  • “three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40)

For Matthew, the phrases “in three days” (Matthew 26:61, 27:40), “after three days” (Matthew 27:63) and “three days three nights” (Matthew 12:40) mean the same thing. 

That’s because there are two biblical methods being employed here that we must always remember. One is the Hebrew way of counting time and the other is understanding Hebrew idioms – manners of speaking, Hebrew expressions in the bible. When counting days, the bible generally uses what some call “inclusive counting”. This means you include as “day one” the day you start counting. For example, we see throughout the bible.

Genesis 42:17 says that Joseph imprisoned his brothers for three days and released them on the third day. That is before the completion of a full three days. 

In 2 chronicles 10:5, the king says “come back after three days”. Yet in 2 Chronicles 10:12, it says that the people reported back on the third day, just as the king had ordered. But in actuality the king had said “after three days”, not specifically “on the third day.”

Esther 4:16 tells how Mordecai was told to fast for three days, night or day and afterward go to the king but then in the next chapter in Esther 5:1, it says she went to the king on the third day.

Genesis 17:12 says that a child is to be circumcised at 8 days old but Luke 1:59 says Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and Luke 2:21 uses the expression “when eight days were accomplished”

The Jewish Encyclopedia (Volume 4, page 475) helps us understand this method. “Circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day.”

In Luke 13:32, Jesus uses this method of counting inclusively when he says that he will keep on casting out demons and healing people today, tomorrow and the third day. If we applied this method of counting by Jesus to his own resurrection, it would look something like this. You have Friday crucifixion (“today”), the sabbath or shabbat (“tomorrow”) and Sunday (“the third day”). 

In Luke 24:21 on the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday afternoon), two men were walking on the road to Emmaus and they were saying to each other “It’s the third day since all this (i.e. the crucifixion) took place.” If we count backwards, we have this Sunday (i.e. Day 3), Saturday (i.e. Day 2) and Friday (i.e Day 1). The men were despondent because they knew that God in Old Testament prophecies like Hosea 6:2 had promised to restore Israel, now represented by the Messiah himself, on the third day. I think they were also expectant because God had performed many miracles on the third day.

In Exodus 19:11, Yahweh says to Moses “Be ready because on the third day, I will intervene with a miracle.”

Genesis 22:4 On the third day, Abraham was told to kill Isaac. Later in Hebrews 11:19, the writer adds that this was a type of the resurrection of Jesus himself.

John 2:1 On the third day, Jesus is said to have performed his first ever sign miracle at the wedding. 

Also see examples there in 2 Kings 20:5 and Esther 5:1. 

All this was well known by Paul when he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that Jesus was raised on the third day according to the scriptures. So the phrase “three days and three nights” in Matthew 12:40 is understood as a Hebrew idiom (i.e. a way of speaking and not to be taken literally as we do today as a 72-hour period) because as we saw, any part of a day is taken as the entire 24-hour period, which obviously would include daytime plus night time. Thus, Matthew 12:40 describes the same period of time as the other verses i.e. the third day Sunday as the day of the resurrection. This firmly places the crucifixion on Friday.