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This verse is usually interpreted as a prophetic word by Jesus about Himself:

Matthew 12:40: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.—King James Version

Jesus was crucified and buried on Friday night. On Sunday morning he was discovered by Mary as a resurrected One, which means that only two nights had passed: one from Friday to Saturday, and the other one from Saturday to Sunday.

Can anyone please explain to me, in simple terms, how is it three days and three nights?

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6 Answers

A little bit of Friday, Saturday and a little bit of Sunday could be properly describe as three days and nights in Biblical language. We think of days as 24 hour periods but they included in their common expressions a 'day' as 'any part of a day, or 'touching any part of a calendar day'. The term 'three days and three nights' was a Jewish expression that means 'any period that touches three days, including the nights.' Therefore even 26 hours could be three days and nights, if one hour touched a different day on each end.

Some people have been perplexed over this phrase and invent alternate theories on which day what exactly happened around the death of Christ, but I have noticed most who study it deeply seem to revert back to the traditional view that Christ died on a Friday and rose on a Sunday.

However just to be thorough, it must be admitted there is 'some difficulty' in being assured of this answer purely based on the reference to a Hebraism, because it involves trying to trace potentially lost Hebrew meanings two thousand years later. But at a surface level we can at least find very similar instances. For example, a young man fell sick in 1 Samuel 30:12 and he had not eaten any food or drunk any water for ‘three days and three nights’ in the following verse he describes these ‘three days and three nights’ as simply ‘three days’ for he says, ‘I became ill three days ago’. Does three days mean the same thing as three days and night? Since we know that three days could be three periods of time that touch three days when only two nights are within this span, can we infer the phrase ‘three days’ is only different to ‘three days and three nights’ in word but not meaning?

In some way, whether convinced or not, it does not matter to me on two accounts. First, it seems to that early Hebrews and early Christians did not much have difficulty over this phrase. Nobody said, ‘Hey, wait a minute—you rose too early, Jesus.’ I may be wrong but the questioning about when Jesus died and when he rose seems to be a more recent doubt based on ignorance of historical modes of expression. Second, even if it turns out that this Hebraism can only apply to three days and should not extend to three days and three nights, maybe the agony of Christ in the garden is considered by scriptures as the begging of his actual descent into the crucifixion and the 'heart of the earth', not the actual nails being pound into his flesh?

It seems on such trivial matters we need not questions a tradition that Catholics and Protestants have not bothered to question in earlier generations without more to go on. For proof that a Hebrew day was merely a part of a day can be found in this sample article: Three Days and Three Nights

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"N days" could include partial days, but I can't think of a case where "N days and N nights" could mean fewer than N nights. Do you have a reference? (I don't see support for that position in the article you linked.) –  Gone Quiet Jul 17 '12 at 15:42
    
@MonicaCellio - The guy refers to Midrash Rabbah, search for this phrase in the article ---> drink three days, night or day –  Mike Jul 17 '12 at 16:17
    
I saw that, but "N days, night or day" doesn't necessarily mean "N days and N nights", so it doesn't seem applicable. The Matthew passage seems to be counting nights; it doesn't say "3 days, day and night". –  Gone Quiet Jul 17 '12 at 16:22
    
@MonicaCellio - I do not totally base my thinking from the article, its just a sample. The fact that 26 hours can properly mean three days is enough for me to realize that idiomatic usage is going on. Even when I say ‘I saw you two days ago’ what does that actually mean? I think this might be a proverbial red herring. I do not even know if people used to ask about it this in the past. Besides my trusty Jewish historian, Alfred Edersheim does not even bother to notice the issue. If a professor of Hebrew history isn’t bothered, neither am I. Sorry if I don’t have a better answer, no motivation. –  Mike Jul 17 '12 at 17:00
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Good answer! I'll defer to Monica on the Hebrew, but in Greek "three days and three nights" certainly had the idiomatic connotation you've mentioned. Early Christians who translated the gospels from Greek to Latin and later to other languages explained the phrase precisely on those grounds. –  Bruce Alderman Aug 17 '12 at 5:47
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Tradition observes that Christ was put to death on Good Friday but Thursday is the day that would fulfill the sign of Jonah. Matthew 12:38-40 says "the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth". So did the Lord mean what He said here in Matthew 12? Three days and three nights in the earth? There are not 3 nights between Good Friday and Sunday morning, the first day of the week when Christ arose (John 20:1). By looking at the Feasts from Leviticus 23, we can confirm our answer that the Lord is always accurate. In some weeks the Jewish feasts could require two consecutive days of rest (weekly and annual Sabbaths). This helps to determine that Christ was crucified Passover day, Thursday the 14th of Nissan.

John 18:28 shows that some Jews had not yet eaten their passover in the hours before early Thursday morning. We know that Jesus and others had already eaten their Passover meal the previous Wed. evening. Customs or reasons for different times in killing the lamb and the Passover meal might come from the translation of Leviticus 23:5 where "at twilight" literally means "between the evenings". Also Pharisee and Sadducee disputes on Passover customs perhaps were based on past examples of Hezekiah, Josiah or from the book Ezra when passover changes were allowed. We can be sure Jesus celebrated the passover meal at the correct time of Wednesday evening when the 14th began. A new day was said to begin when 3 stars were visible in the evening. It is helpful to mention that the Jewish day begins in the evening unlike our present method of changing over at midnight. The 14th of Nissan is the date of the Passover meal celebration at twilight Wednesday evening. However it is still Passover, the 14th during daylight hours Thursday. During these daylight hours several events took place as our Savior was on the cross. It was the day of preparation (John 19:14) when all leaven is to be removed from the house in preparation for the High Sabbath of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This High Sabbath Friday the 15th, proceeded the weekly Saturday Sabbath of the 16th. This study is not to prove what the priests were doing at the exact time Jesus was nailed to the cross, but it may be probable that the priests were sacrificing a national passover lamb at the temple Thursday the 14th, as the true sacrifice of God was taking place on Golgotha outside the camp.

Passover and the Feast of Unleavened bread are sometimes referred to like one feast(1). However, a 7 day Feast of Unleavened Bread starts the day after Passover. The 7 day Unleavened Bread feast is proceeded by a day of preparation(Passover day). Passover is an evening memorial meal of unleavened bread and roasted lamb celebrated at twilight on the 14th. Studying these feasts should also help us understand Jesus words about Him being the bread from heaven, eating His flesh and drinking His blood (John chapter 6). Like our Savior, no bone of the passover lamb was to be broken (Exodus 12:46, John 19:36).

From Exodus 12:3-6 we read that the Jews are to choose their sacrificial passover lamb on the 10th of Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar. Nissan 10th was the day after a weekly Saturday Sabbath, and it is also called Palm Sunday by Christians today. This day Christ rode into Jerusalem and the people laid palm branches before Him, not realizing that He was to be their sacrificial lamb in a few days(2). Isaiah 53:1-9 predicted that Messiah would be the final paschal sacrifice, the final sacrifice for sin. Jesus is "our passover" in I Corinthians 5:6-7. Jesus is portrayed as this Passover Lamb in four passages: John 1:29, 1:35-36, I Peter 1:18-19, and Revelation 5:6. John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). Believe in this Lamb for eternal life.

Leviticus and Exodus give us the best look at the timing of Christ sacrifice and how God had revealed this prophecy so many years before(3,4,5,6):

  • Nissan 10th—Palm Sunday (the 10th actually starts Saturday evening till Sunday evening)—Jews choose and test the paschal lamb.
  • Nissan 11th—Sunday evening till Monday evening—the lamb is tested
  • Nissan 12th—Monday evening till Tuesday evening—the lamb is tested
  • Nissan 13th—Tuesday evening till Wednesday evening—the lamb is tested
  • Nissan 14th—Wednesday evening till Thursday evening&mdash.The lamb is killed at twilight on Passover (is not a Sabbath). Also called preparation day to rid the house of all leaven for the next day is a High Holy Sabbath, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
  • Nissan 15th—Thurs. eve till Friday eve—High Holy Sabbath the beginning day of Feast of Unleavened Bread (John 19:31, Leviticus 23:6-7, Exodus 12:16).
  • Nissan 16th—weekly Sabbath. Friday eve till Sat. eve
  • Nissan 17th—Sunday morning—Feast of Firstfruits—celebrated the day after Sabbath—Christ arose and is the firstfruits of our resurrection.(1Cor.15:20-23). Note that the Sadducees also disputed the Pharisees over the Feast of Firstfruits day. They could not agree from which Sabbath they should count for being the day after the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:11). This argument would arise because two Sabbaths occurred in one week.

This study can help us tie Old Testament and New Testament together in showing how God has revealed His plan for all mankind through His chosen people and through His Son who is the Word. On Palm Sunday many of the Jews welcomed Jesus saying "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord" (Matthew 21:9). Just a few days later the crucifixion took place and Jesus was killed. In Matthew 23:13-39 Jesus had warned the nation of Israel of their coming desolation for rejection of God's Word. One day they will see Him again, but not "till you say, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord" (Matthew 23:39). All Israel will be saved one day when they call on Jesus as Messiah (Romans 11:26, Romans 10-11). He will not come back until they do. Maranatha.


Footnote:

  1. Some translations read "first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread or Day of Unleavened Bread" in Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, and Luke 22:7. By inserting capital lettered words here, unless we are careful, it may confuse Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. A Passover meal includes "unleavened bread" but is not one of the 7 days of Feast of Unleavened Bread. The use of "first" or "Day" would indicate of chief importance. The Passover day is the first day of 8 days of feasts which include unleavened bread.

  2. An additional comment about John 12:1-12 , in relation to the Sign of Jonah study may answer another possible question. I had looked at this passage before but originally decided not to include it in the study. John 12:1 says Jesus arrived in Bethany 6 days before passover. Some might jump to the wrong conclusion in counting 6 days from the supper in verse 2 which was Saturday night as verse 12 makes clear. Most likely Jesus and His disciples did not travel much on the sabbath and were in Bethany before the sabbath began Friday evening. Friday during daylight hours was the 8th of Nissan and 6 days before passover on the 14th. We are not told that they(Martha) made Jesus a supper the evening He arrived. The time of arrival and the time of supper are not stated to occur on the same day. John 12:1-12 does not contradict my view on the sign of Jonah unless one jumps to wrong conclusions on time between verse 1 to verse 12.

  3. Further detail concerning Exodus 12 is needed. Exodus 12:41 and 12:51 are linked together in structure and are referring to Nissan the 15th as the day the Lord led Israel out of Egypt. The phrase in verse 41 and 51, "and it came to pass, on that very same day" are both referring to the ending of the 430 years of captivity when the Lord led them out and is not saying that He led them out on the 14th. Leviticus 23:5-6 showing the dates of passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread not being on the same date. The word "It" beginning verse 42 seems to refer to it being night when the Lord led them out. But verse 42 could be a transition referring to verses 43-50 and Passover. Or the "It" in verse 42 could lead back to verse 27 and "It is the Passover". Either way verse 42 is not contradicting all the events of Passover happening in the night on the 14th. Exodus 12:43-50 are viewing some additional regulations for passover, which is on the 14th. It would require some time for all the events of the night and the daylight of the 14th (Ex.12:21-39) to occur. For example, just to assemble all Israel with belongings in preparation to depart Egypt may have taken most of the daylight hours. As evening approached and the beginning of the 15th starts, the Lord led Israel out. An additional comment about the phrase, "This same night" or "that night" in Exodus 12:8;12. These verses are referring to all the events occurring at night on Nissan 14th, from Exodus 12:6 thru 12:31. For passover to have occurred on the closing evening of the 14th, the amount of time required to complete everything would put the majority of events on the 15th at night, and not the 14th. Demonstrating again that Jesus took the Passover meal correctly at the beginning evening of the 14th.

  4. Ex.12:18 says unleavened bread is to be eaten everyday for 7 days. On the 14th at evening till the evening of the 21st. That is a total of 8 days. However the requirement to eat unleavened bread on the 21st may not be included as the 21st begins at evening. But it is required to eat on the 14th. The word "on" is inclusive for the 14th but "until" the evening of the 21st is not inclusive, as the 21st begins at evening. No leaven is to be found in the house for 7 days. It would be difficult to find leaven for bread on the 21st in order to bake leavened bread because of this. Also this is a sabbath and certain restrictions apply. Difficult but not impossible as they may have been tired of unleavened bread after a week. Thank goodness for a gentile bakery across the street for example!

  5. Exodus 12:15-16 at first seems to mean the same day by using the phrase "On the first day". "On the first day" in verse 15 is referring to passover day as removing leaven from the house. Verse 16 is referring to "on the first day" as a holy convocation on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.Leviticus 23:5-6 showing the different dates and John19:14;31;42 showing the day of Preparation on the 14th for a high holy sabbath on the 15th.The overlapping of the seven days between these two feast makes it somewhat hard to follow. Note that in Leviticus 23 between verse 5 and 6 a period mark is placed for punctuation. But verse 4 is saying a list of the feast is following. Verse 5 and 6 are joined together with the word "and" their meaning should not be separated by a period mark. This shows the 7 days of unleavened bread overlap to include both the 14th and the 15th. This is in agreement with the reading of Exodus 12 on these matters. Let us not overlook the importance of such a small word as "and."

  6. Quartodecimanism holds that Jesus partook of the Passover meal on the correct beginning evening of the 14th. The following morning, still on the 14th, Jesus was crucified on Passover day.


Note: This article is copied from my web page under Sign of Jonah.

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let us continue this discussion in chat –  Gone Quiet Aug 14 '12 at 1:38
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1. Your argument for adding an extra day to the holiday is that it would take too long to do in one day; if so, then you need to account for there not being enough time for their already-existing dough to rise before they left. The exodus was full of miracles; is assembly really a problem? 2. You're doing a lot of gymnastics to support a counter-intuitive reading of the dates, and you don't even need to do that. If you want to say the crucifixion happened on a Thursday, just do it -- you're not assrting a year, you don't need to reinterpret Passover. –  Gone Quiet Aug 16 '12 at 19:45
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3. The doctrinal assertions in your answer weaken it; they would be more appropriate on C.SE. You should return to the revision of your note 6 that @JonEricson made, at minimum. 4. The invitation to chat instead of having this discussion here still stands. –  Gone Quiet Aug 16 '12 at 19:46
    
5. The "it" in Ex. 12 is an artifact of translation into English. The Hebrew is וַיְהִי , literally "3p masc was (vav conversive)', idiomatically "and it came to pass". –  Gone Quiet Aug 16 '12 at 19:52
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Regarding note 5: The Hebrew word for "and" is commonly used to show that the following sentence is part of the same narrative as the prior sentence. For good translation into English, that word isn't always translated. If we did, entire chapters of the Old Testament would be one sentence long (I do not exaggerate). That's bad English. –  Frank Luke Jun 11 '13 at 15:56
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I am not an expert on Christian scriptures and history, but discussion on other answers on this question led me to enough information to propose an answer.

One approach is to count partial days, so "three days and three nights" is understood as "three days, including the nights". If we understand Jesus' death to have been on Friday (the dominant opinion to be sure), then this is the only plausible interpretation. Astronomical computations (which I have not verified) place Nisan 14 on a Friday in both 33 and 34 CE.

A minority approach is to say that the crucifixion didn't happen on Friday. The Wikipedia article on this cites the following sources for an earlier crucifixion:

I have not reviewed those sources.

Interaction with Passover

According to Wikipedia, according the synoptic gospels, the last supper occurred on the evening of Passover, followed the next morning (which would still be Passover; days start at night) by the trial and execution. John, on the other hand, holds that the trial and execution happened on the day before Passover, Nisan 14, and the last supper was not a holiday meal. Thanks to Bruce Alderman for explaining this to me.

Under Jewish law it would not have been possible for the Sanhedrin to convene on Passover; doing so would violate several categories of work forbidden on Shabbat and holidays. Since all four gospels agree that the Sanhedrin was in session, the trial and execution had to have happened either before or after the holiday. Nisan 14 would satisfy that requirement.

(Note that while some Christians have a "Passover on Nisan 14" tradition, they do not appear to assert that that was the original day. Rather, they re-designate Nisan 14 as "the lord's passover", a distinct and (to them) more-important day than Nisan 15, Passover.)

Conclusion

The trial and execution of Jesus occurred on Nisan 14. Most sources agree that this was a Friday, and as @Mike notes in his answer, this means we have to be less literal in understanding "three days and three nights". Nisan 14 could occur on other days of the week in other years, so in principle a "Nisan 14 on Thursday" (or Wednesday) interpretation might be possible.


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Here is a calendar that presents one one theory of how the events may have transpired that would have been three full days and three full nights.

Note the extra day between the Sabbaths during which the women buy and prepare spices.
this is another theoretical calendar proposed by some that sees an extra day between the Sabbaths during which the women buy and prepare spices.

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It would appear that the crucifixion would have happened on Thursday, rather than Friday. How could the next day be Sabbath? The next day was Passover, a high holy day which was treated as a Sabbath. This would have required two Sabbath day observances back to back and would make sense as to why the women were making their way to the tomb early Sunday morning to finish the embalming rituals. This way Jesus would be in the tomb on Thursday late afternoon (counted as one day), Thursday night/Friday morning (night 1), Friday day (day 2), Friday night/Saturday morning (night 2), Saturday day (day 3), and Saturday night/Sunday morning (night 3). The women were coming to the tomb before the day had really dawned and found the tomb empty, evidencing that Jesus had arisen before the daylight hours of Sunday (the first day of the week).

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Please consider posting an answer to this question if you have studied this in enough detail to answer objections to this view. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 11 '13 at 21:58
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Interestingly, if you take this approach to the question, you have a new problem to address, because if you shift Jesus' crucifixion back a day, rather than Him being dead 3 days and 2 nights, you have Him dead 4 days and 3 nights. If you go with Him being in the tomb instead, then you only have him in the tomb 2 days, because He had already risen before the last day began! –  Jas 3.1 Jun 11 '13 at 22:01
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It seems to be the best supported tradition - as John was the closest eyewitness (Jh 19:26) and had the clearest memory of that day among the disciples (Jh, chapters 13 to 19) - that Christ was killed on preparation day (Jh 19:14) of Passover, the day before a great Sabbath (when Passover and the weekly Sabbath fell on the same day, Jh 19:31).

It is not surprising that His disciples did neither question His decision nor his authority to speak of "this Passover", even though it was still the evening of preparation day and no lamb present.

The synoptic gospels report about a darkness that fell over Jerusalem for three hours when Jesus suffered death. This darkness might well count as a night, if someone felt that the agonizing fear before His delivery in the garden of Gezemaneh was not yet like Jonah's cry 'out of the depths of sheol'.

Unsatisfactory for human fastidiousness it may remain. It were, however, the darkest days and hours for His disciples and the shedding of his soul into death for Israel's Messiah.

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