Three Days and Three Nights

By Gary Manning Jr Apr. 1, 2015 9:00 a.m. New Testament

The message of Easter is much more important than its chronology. Still, people often ask me questions about chronology in the Gospels. In my earlier post, I answered questions related to the date of Easter and the apparent difference between the chronology found in John and in the Synoptic Gospels. Today, I answer a few questions related to the "three days and three nights."

Why is the resurrection described happening after “three days and three nights”? If Jesus died on Friday afternoon, and the tomb was empty on Sunday morning, isn’t that only a day and a half?

The phrase “three days and three nights” is idiomatic, and means something like “after a few days” or even “the day after tomorrow.” Greek writings, especially those written by Jews, used three phrases interchangeably: "three days and three nights" (τρεῖς ἡμέρας καὶ τρεῖς νύκτας, Matt 12:40), "after three days" (μετὰ τρεῖς ἡμέρας, Matt 27:63, Mark 8:31, others), "in three days" (ἐν τρισὶν ἡμέραις, Mark 14:58, John 2:19)  and "on the third day" (τῇ τρίτῃ ἡμέρᾳ, Matt 17:23, 1 Cor 15:4). I have seen such phrases used interchangeably in the Gospels, in Josephus (Ant 3.78-79, 7.280-281), and in Esther 4:16-5:1. Esther's fast is described as three days and nights (ἐπὶ ἡμέρας τρεῖς νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν), but it ends "on the third day" (ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ). In English, we also describe events within 24 hours as two days, if they take place on two calendar days. Clearly, the gospel authors tell us that Jesus died on Friday and was raised on Sunday, but they also used the normal language of their time to describe this period as "three days" or even "three days and three nights." So they did not see any problems between these different ways of reporting the time. This can be surprising to modern people, since we are often nmuch more precise in our descriptions of time and chronology.

Why are the three days so significant in the Gospels?

The phrase is mentioned 26 times in the NT, both before and after the resurrection, suggesting there is some significance to the time. On two occasions, Jesus makes some reference to its meaning. First, Jesus alludes to Jonah:

"For just as 'Jonah was in the belly of the sea-monster three days and three nights,' so also the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights." (Matt 12:40, quoting Jonah 1:17)

Why this connection? Jesus was quite different from Jonah in some important ways. After all, Jonah is the prime example of a disobedient prophet! But the comparison does not require Jesus to be like Jonah in every way. Both Jonah and Jesus were prophets who preached a message of repentance. (Yes, Jesus is more than a prophet, but he is not less than a prophet; see Mk 6:4). But the comparison hinges on their similar experience. Jonah's time in the belly of the sea-monster was compared to being in the grave (Jonah 2:2), and God's rescue of Jonah was described as bringing "my life up from the pit" (Jonah 2:6). Jesus was actually in the grave, and the New Testament normally describes his resurrection as God raising him from the dead (Acts 3:15, 4:10, and many others; see also the repeated passive verbs "he was raised" and "he will be raised").

On another occasion, Jesus alludes to another OT passage when he describes the three days:

"… and after scourging [the Son of Man], they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise (τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ ἀναστήσεται)." (Luke 18:33) 

Notice the similarity to this passage from an Old Testament prophet:

"... for he has seized us and he will heal us, he struck and will bandage us; he will heal us after two days, on the third day we will rise (τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῇ τρίτῃ ἀναστησόμεθα) and live before him." (Hosea 6:1-2 LXX)

Because this is an allusion, not a quotation, it is little less clear what Jesus means when he refers to Hosea. In Hosea 6, God's people describe how God punished them for their sin but is now restoring them (the "third day" is probably metaphorical in Hosea). While Jesus does not work all of this out explicitly, I think Jesus is making a connection between Israel suffering for their sins, and Jesus suffering for their sins. This fits with Jesus' Son of Man teaching on other occasions: "The Son of Man came... to give his life a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45). But after suffering, God will raise him on the third day.

If I am reading Jesus correctly here, there is a similarity between Jesus' references to Jonah and Hosea as he describes the three days. Both Jonah and Israel are described as being punished for their own sins for three days; but then God rescues them. By emphasizing the three days, Jesus is explaining that his death also serves as a punishment for sins, although it is for the sins of others. Isaiah 53, a prophetic oracle often used by New Testament authors to describe Jesus, explains more clearly what Jesus implied: "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities... He would render himself as a guilt offering... He himself bore the sin of many" (Isa 53:5-12). But on Sunday, on the third day, he arose.

Χρίστος ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! (Christ arose! Truly Christ arose!)

The picture: Women at the Tomb, from an Ottonian sacramentary, ca 1025-1050


  • Timothy Ackerman M.Th. Apr. 2, 2015 at 6:17 PM

    There are points to which I heartily agree and some to which I heartily disagree on. The one I would like you to consider is based on this statement: "Clearly, the gospel authors tell us that Jesus died on Friday and was raised on Sunday, but they also used the normal language of their time to describe this period as "three days" or even "three days and three nights."" Actually it doesn't clearly state the above at all. You apparently do not understand the teachings on Sabbaths. Other days besides Saturday can be a Sabbath or High Sabbath. Please go back and study the Old Testament about Sabbaths. Passover day, whatever day it fell on, was a High Sabbath. So, I am not completely sure as I wasn't there to observe it but my studies have led me to conclude that Jesus was most likely crucified on a Wednesday. The Passover High Sabbath was on Thursday. A regular Sabbath on Saturday. Jesus rose from the grave late on Saturday but the grave was not opened and discovered until early Sunday morning. Thus, completely and accurately fulfilling prophecy.

  • Gary Manning Apr. 2, 2015 at 8:20 PM

    Thanks for your comment, Timothy. Chronology in the ancient world is admittedly quite complicated! But I did not want this short blog post to get overly complicated, so I did not give some of the alternate theories. I have looked over the Wednesday hypothesis. I was less persuaded by it for two reasons: the account in Matt 27:57-28:1 makes the most sense as a straightforward progression of Friday/preparation, Sabbath, and Sunday; and (at least in some presentations of the Wednesday hypothesis), a Wednesday death results in a death in the year 30, which seems very unlikely to me. But I am aware that this view has some good evidence. Feel free to leave a link to a site that you like that lays out the evidence.

  • David Mayes Jul. 7, 2015 at 2:01 AM

    You will probably be surprised to know that you can have your “chronology” and “Easter” too! You do not just have to be satisfied with just the Easter message as being true but also with the chronology of the events as they took place in history. The prophetic words of Jesus about his death and resurrection after 3 days are in complete harmony with the narratives of the Bible.
    You are probably asking yourself “how can that be?” In my book “3 Days 3 Nights”, the events that took place in the month of Nisan during the Hebrew Passover (when Jesus was crucified), are brought to life with an in depth look at the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as well as corroboration with Hebrew historical documentation and Jewish traditions dating back to the time of Moses.
    Gary states in his article that the phrase: “3 days and 3 nights is idiomatic”, an alternative to this view would be that all statements in the Bible are true – not only for yesterday, but today and forever.
    Gary states in his article that “Clearly, the gospel authors tell us that Jesus died on Friday”, but the gospel authors clearly point to a different day. This day is not only corroborated by the New Testament authors but also by Hebrew tradition and the writings of Roman and Hebrew historians. All of these facts can be found in one book titled:” 3 Days 3 Nights” written by David Mayes.
    All biblical and historical facts point to only one day in history that Jesus could have died and that day was NOT a Friday!
    David Mayes
    Author: 3 Days 3 Nights
    e-book: Kindle Publishing
    Hard Copy: Create Space & Amazon

  • Ben Dyck Mar. 25, 2016 at 8:16 AM

    I would like to propose a thought in the direction of functional thinking.Greek thinking tends to be form and Hebrew thinking tends to be functional.Greek wants to be lineal and come to an end and Hebrew wants to be circular and return to where it started.
    In John 11.The account of Lazarus is a key to understanding the statement about being raised after the three days.I dont have time to go through the full account but Jesus's statements in verses 4,14 are some keys.According to cultural thinking a persons spirit stayed close at hand for three days and it was believed that they could come back to life in that time.So in order for the Son of Man to be glorified (not through death of Lazarus but rather through resurrection power being reveled) he needed to raise him up after the three day belief system box of that time and culture.Verse 14 was for them to believe and verse 4 was to prove his identity.So the repeated comment about being raised after three days would have been understood by those hearing in that day.They would have known that he was challenging their doctrines of the day as he did with many issues.So in closing it would be more advantages to make a claim for resurrection of Christ to be post three days rather than not.
    Be blessed

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