Many people have questioned the accuracy of Jesus’ statement that “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). They ask, “How could Jesus have remained in the tomb three days and three nights if He was crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday?”
The accounts of His death and resurrection as given in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John indicate that Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday, before sundown, which is the beginning of the next day for the Jews, and resurrected on the first day of the week, which is our Sunday, before sunrise.
This puts Jesus in the grave for part of Friday, the entire Sabbath, and part of Sunday. In other words, He was in the tomb two full nights, one full day and part of two days. Since this is clearly not three full, 24 hour days, do we have a problem of conflict with the prophecy of Jesus in Matthew?
Jesus is recorded as saying, “The Son of man will rise again after three days” (Mk. 8:31), and “He will be raised again on the third day” (Matt. 16:21) – expressions that are used interchangeably. This can be seen from the fact that most references to the resurrection state that it occurred “on” the third day.
Also, Jesus spoke of His resurrection in John 2:19-22 stating that He would be raised up “in” three days (not the fourth day).
Matthew 27:63 gives weight to this idiomatic usage. After the Pharisees tell Pilate of the prediction of Jesus, “After three days I will rise again,” they ask for a guard to secure the tomb until the third day.
If the phrase, “after three days,” had not been interchangeable with the “third day,” the Pharisees would have asked for a guard for the fourth day.
That the expression “one day and one night” was an idiom employed by the Jews for indicating a day, even when only a part of a day was indicated, can be seen also in the Old Testament.
For example, 1 Samuel 30:12-13 says ,“For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights,” and in the next verse, “My master left me behind … three days ago.”
Just as clearly, Genesis 42:17 shows this idiomatic usage. Joseph imprisoned his brothers for three days; in verse 18, he speaks to them and releases them, all on the third day.
The phrases, “after three days” and “on the third day,” are not contradictory, either to each other or with Matthew 12:40 but simply idiomatic, interchangeable terms, clearly a common mode of Jewish expression.
Another way to look at “three days and three nights” is to take into consideration the Jewish method of reckoning time. The Jewish writers have recorded in their commentaries on the Scriptures the principle governing the reckoning of time. Any part of a period was considered a full period. Any part of a day was reckoned as a complete day. The Babylonian Talmud (Jewish commentaries) relates that, “The portion of a day is as the whole of it” (Mishnah, Third Tractate, “B. Pesachim,” p. 4a).
The Jerusalem Talmud (so designated because it was written in Jerusalem) says, “We have a teaching ‘A day and a night are an Onah and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it” (Mishnah, Tractate, “J. Shabbath,” chapter IX, Par. 3). An “Onah” simply means, “a period of time.”
The Jewish day starts at 6:00 in the evening. Dr. Custance points out that, “It is generally believed that this method of reckoning was originally based upon the fact that in the Week of Creation, the first day began with a darkness which was turned into light; and thereafter each 24 hour period is identified as ‘the evening and the morning’ in this order (Gen. 1:5, 8, etc.)” – (Arthur Custance, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Doorway Papers, #46, Brookville, 1971, p. 17.).
The “three days and three nights” in reference to Christ’s period in the tomb could be calculated as follows: Christ was crucified on Friday. Any time before 6:00 p.m. Friday would be considered “one day and one night.” Any time after 6:00 p.m. Friday to Saturday at 6:00 p.m. would be another “one day and one night”. Any time after 6:00 p.m. Saturday until Sunday when Christ was resurrected would be another “one day and one night.” From the Jewish point of view, it would make “three days and three nights” from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning.
Even today we often use the same principle in reference to time. For example: Many couples hope their child will be born before midnight December 31st. If born at 11:59 p.m., the child will be treated by the IRS as being born 365 days and 365 nights of that year. This is true even if 99.9 % of the year has elapsed.
Josh McDowell, The Resurrection Factor, pp. 121-123.