Matthew 12:40b New International Version

the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Matthew 17:23a

They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.

If Jesus literally spent 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth, then he would be raised on the 4th day. Right?

If Jesus literally was raised on the 3rd day, then he couldn't have spent 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth. Would he?

Only one of these can be literally true. Right?

I'm not asking about possible Hebrew idioms. I assume literal interpretation. I'm not asking how many days or nights did Jesus stay dead. I'm asking about the logical consistency of these two statements spoken by the same Jesus.

See Phi's answer below. The graphic suggests that Matthew 12:40b and Matthew 17:23a can be both true literally provided Jesus was raised at the end of the 3rd day/daylight, i.e., Saturday just before sunset. Interesting! Modern people tend to think in terms of at the beginning of the 3rd day.

  • All language is idiomatic. If you ignore idioms then all you're doing is guaranteeing that you'll get the wrong interpretation. So I don't think this is actually a hermeneutics question.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 4:53
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Nov 26, 2021 at 19:54

8 Answers 8


This image might explain it, but I'm not familiar enough with Jewish tradition to know for sure. TestEverything.net account of death burial and resurrection

  • 3
    +1 This is interesting. Do you have the exact link to this graphic?
    – user35953
    Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 19:35
  • 2
    Excellent timeline. One little nit-pick is that the modern English day names should be shifted 6 hours to the right so that they begin and end in the middle of the night. Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 0:22
  • @TonyChan I've tried to find the graphic, but it doesn't appear to be on 119Ministres site, only referred there by citations. They do have an article which seems related, which in turn was a repost from another site.
    – Phi
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 20:21
  • There are higher res images, and a related image from another source, though.
    – Phi
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 20:22
  • Thanks for the info :)
    – user35953
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 21:12

Dealing with the literal matter of time, and agreeing that there is a problem as so stated in the question, here is what The Companion Bible (Bullinger) notes:

"In John 2:19 [Jesus] had already mentioned 'three days' as the time after which He would raise up 'the Temple of His body'. The expression occurs eleven times with reference to His resurrection [Refs. given]. We have the expression 'after three days' in Mark 8:31, used of the same event. This shows that the expression 'three days and three nights must include 'three days and the three preceding 'nights'. While it is true that a 'third day' may be a part of three days, including two nights; yet 'after three days', and 'three nights and three days' cannot possibly be so reckoned." (Appendix 148, p172)

Then it goes on to explain the significance of the number three, in this context, by looking first to the Hebrew scriptures:

  1. We notice that the man who contracted defilement through contact with a dead body was to purify himself on the third day (Num. 19:11,12).

  2. The flesh of the peace offering was not to be kept beyond the third day, but was then to be burnt (Lev. 7:17,18) as unfit for food.

  3. John Lightfoot (1602-75) quotes a Talmudic tradition that the mourning for the dead culminated on 'the third day', because the spirit was not supposed to have finally departed till then [Ref. given].

  4. Herodotus testifies that embalmment did not take place until after three days (ii.86-89).

  5. The Jews did not accept evidence as to the identification of a dead body after three days.

This period seems, therefore, to have been chosen by the Lord... to associate the fact of resurrection with the certainty of death, so as to preclude all doubt that death had actually taken place, and shut out all suggestion that it might have been a trance, or a mere case of resuscitation. The fact that Lazarus had been dead 'four days already' was urged by Martha as a proof that Lazarus was dead, for 'by this time he stinketh' (Jn. 11:17, 39).

We have to remember that corruption takes place very quickly in the East, so that 'the third day' was the proverbial evidence as to the certainty that death had taken place, leaving no hope." (Ibid. Emphasis mine)

Perhaps that does not deal entirely satisfactorily with your request for 'literal' truth. Well, the Matthew 20 verse relates to the matter of Jonah being in the heart of the sea for "three days and three nights" (vs. 40) yet remaining alive (via the sea creature that swallowed him alive). Jesus directly spoke of that as being significant with regard to his approaching time in the "heart of the earth". Clearly, there was a spiritual truth or principle being flagged up for his hearers' consideration. And who comprised his audience then? Some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law who demanded of Jesus a miraculous sign.

Jesus' response to that, and to them, was to accuse them of being part of a wicked and adulterous generation, to whom no miraculous sign would be given except that of "the sign of the prophet Jonah."

Later on, Jesus was speaking to his disciples. Similarly, Jesus spoke of an unbelieving and perverse generation (17:17) this time with regard to lack of faith in casting demons out of people. But it was later, when in Galilee, that Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed and on the third day he would be raised to life. Now, having considered the context of both events, is it time to consider how his audience on both occasions would view time.

They were Jewish people - both times. They had a rather different view of time and counting days than we do. Genesis starts off by showing that there is evening, and then there is morning - a day. That strikes us as odd because it seems to miss out the entire afternoon, giving a minimum 'loss' of six hours to the day. If the count starts at 6 pm (as it does in Jewish reckoning) we would assume that a 24-hour-day would end a split second before the following 6 pm. But the Jewish reckoning allows for only a part of the first day, all of the second day, then part of the third day to count as three days and three nights.

It's only a problem to us who have never thought about days and nights the way the Jewish people did, from way back until the time of Christ. You don't find any writings in the new testament trying to explain this or to argue about different meanings or apparent contradictions.

But when you ask if the two different phrasings can "be both true literally", this indicates a modern, Western way of thinking, seeing a problem when there isn't one, because in Matthew 12 Jesus was stating spiritual principles based on what happened to Jonah, as the only 'miraculous sign' those critics of him were going to get. If they couldn't work out the parallels there with what happened to Jesus shortly after, they never would understand. And that would be due to their unbelief, just as Jesus rebuked other Jewish people later (ch. 17). The truth is seen in the miraculous death and resurrection of Christ, which truth does not depend on hours or split seconds having to be counted by us before being able to believe.

  • 1
    I’m not sure how the Jewish consideration of “day” vs “night”helps? We have: FD, SN, SD, SN, SD. That’s only 2 nights?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 23:02
  • @Tim Indeed, it might not help. I just mention it because there's spiritual truth at back of the way God views time so that our count of it might sometimes miss a spiritual truth. That is why I quoted the Appendix in 'The Companion Bible', which offers a way of reconciling what is, on the surface of the two texts, a conundrum.
    – Anne
    Commented Aug 31, 2021 at 10:09

Parting from the source theory that the Gospel according to Matthew has been composed by an unknown editor, referring to the Gospel according to Mark and a collection of Sayings of Jesus, Q, probably going back to Matthew, which was also known to Luke, as well as to other (unknown) sources,

we observe that Matthew 12:40 is not contained in Mark or Luke; thus the source of it is unknown and possibly unsafe.

Evidence that the Editor of the Gospel according to Matthew did have a source referring the sign of Jonas is given through his own parallel in Mt 16:4, where, again, he adds «except the sign of Jonah» to the context of Mark 8:11-12.

As the the Gospel according to Matthew points out relations to the Tanakh in many places where we never find a parallel in Mark or Luke, it is likely that the passage 12:40-42 at least partly go back to its final editor.

It is thus probable that the editor has deliberately introduced «three days and three nights» to align with the telling of Jonah, and it need not go back to a saying of Jesus.

As we know, and also the author of the Gospel according to Matthew knew, Jesus died on Friday, 3 p.m, and his resurrection was discovered on Sunday. In the counting of the time, Friday was the first day (because the number zero was unknown) and Sunday was the third day, but there were only two nights in between.

So, either the author of the Gospel according to Matthew truly reports a telling, indicating that Jesus was imprecise in his forecast, or he added the text to demonstrate the parallel with the sign of Jonah, taking into account that the number of nights was actually wrong. We cannot know it, but my personal feeling is that rather the latter is true.


As a matter of literal logic, yes both can be literally true. Three days and three nights doesn't require exactly three 24 hour days. Especially if we call a day the portion of a 24 hour period governed by the sun and night to be the remainder.

If the son of Man were buried at night, then after the third night he could rise on the third day that follows, which would actually span 4 calendar days as we'd count it, but less than three full 24 hour periods. Only a fraction of the day would be spent on calendar day 1, beginning at night, and another fraction on calendar day 4 ending during the day.

  • If he died on Friday (I.e. the day before the sabbath) he could not have been buried at night (because that would have then been the sabbath, and burials would not have been allowed on the sabbath).
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 30, 2021 at 22:55

If Jesus literally spent 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth, then he would be raised on the 4 th day. Right?

The answer is NO. Scriptural evidence shows that Jesus spent less than seventy-two hours in the grave,

Jesus died on Nisan 14, [John 13:1-3, Matthew 26:2] on the day now known as Friday. And by the early morning of the day now termed Sunday he had already been raised from the dead. Mark’s account reads:

Mark 16:2-6 NASB Emphasis in verse mine,[Now known as Sunday]

2 And very early on the first day of the week,[Now known as Sunday] they *came to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3 They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance of the tomb for us?” 4 And looking up, they *noticed that the stone had been rolled away; [a]for it was extremely large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. 6 But he *said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; see, here is the place where they laid Him.

The Passover was observed about the time of the full moon, on the 14th day of Abib (later called Nisan)

Exodus 12:17-20 NASB

17 You shall also keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your [a]multitudes out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall keep this day throughout your generations as a [b]permanent ordinance. 18 In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. 19 For seven days there shall be no dough with yeast found in your houses; for whoever eats anything with yeast, that [c]person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. 20 You shall not eat anything with yeast; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.’”


Could Matthew 12:40b and Matthew 17:23a be both true literally?

The answer I gave to the ... Q. How is it that Jesus could be "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth"? ... would seem to also have merit with regard to the Q. now posed, which is why I flagged it as being a 'duplicate' Q. just worded differently. The Q. was subsequently closed, albeit briefly, but then reopened during my 'leave of absence'. Whether I was right in my assumption of duplicity is by the way now. A brief answer to the present Q., IMO, is that there is no contradiction here between the two verses, as both are 'literally' true. For the record, I now reproduce the answer I gave to the former Q. as I obviously feel that it is also quite relevant here ....

How is it that Jesus could be "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth"?

The OP (albeit some time ago) wanted a simple answer to this question, however, after researching the evidence from the scriptures, with regard also to 'Bible Hub Commentaries' and those of many other commentators, including all of the afore going answers and comments, it is my considered opinion that there is no one simple answer. Theories abound. BUT, nowhere did I read the following hypothesis that I'm about to endeavor to lay out.

Matt 12:40 (as per the KJV)...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.

The general consensus of opinion, is that there is little doubt that Matthew, being in lockstep with Jewish tradition, was talking about 'parts' of days and not 24 hour, or even 12 hour days. The word 'day' here would appear to have been taken loosely. Nights, on the other hand, not so much. Most everyone (not all) are of the opinion that the scriptures, at the very least, allow for 'parts' of three days and two full nights. So, how does one fit a third night into the equation, without going against scripture?

Well, let's go to the scriptures!!

Notice that in Luke 24:7 (NASB) we have the following...saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again." See also Matt 16;21 & Luke 24:46.

I have taken the liberty of italicizing from delivered into... as up until the point of delivery Jesus was very much his own man, so to speak, but thereon after he was under arrest ( to all intents and purposes, a prisoner); suffered ridicule and torture; was subsequently crucified and died, but then on the third day rose up again. The comparison with Jonah IMO is unmistakable. From the moment the fish swallowed him, he was arrested in his tracks. In other words the three days and nights of Jonah's imprisonment inside the belly of the all encompassing fish started with the swallowing and ended with him rising up and out of same.

Jonah may not have died while imprisoned in the belly of the whale/fish, but for three days and three nights he felt like he was, increasingly, suffering in 'hell'. From late Thursday evening onwards, not long after Jesus, himself, instigated the first of two Passover meals, the Last Supper, Jesus' own hellish suffering commenced, until actual death overcame him on Friday, the day after the Last Supper, whereupon he then literally resided in 'Hell', continuing through the whole of Saturday, until he rose again early on the third day, Sunday, albeit before the daylight hours, which is not a problem when one considers that traditionally 'the day' started from sunset, the previous day.

The inclusion of Thursday night, in this hypothesis, ended up being a 'no brainer' to me, even though it's inclusion would seem to go against all other hypotheses. Jesus truly became lower than the angels (Heb 2:7), when the sinful men were able to arrest and subject him to torture and ridicule. His further descent ...into the lowest depths/into the heart of the earth...was in continuance from the Thursday night arrest.


So, now we have:

Thursday night (1st night, albeit partial) - Jesus' freedom curtailed (mirroring the swallowing of Jonah).

All day Friday (1st day) - Jesus crucified. Friday night (2nd night).

All day Saturday (2nd day) - The crux of 'in the heart of the earth'. Saturday night (3rd night).

Sunday, in the early morn' (3rd day) - Jesus is arisen.

  • The Bible doesn't indicate about the time "in the heart of the earth" as being the time from when his freedom was curtailed. Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 14:54
  • @SaberTruthTiger - Not in so many words for sure, as the saying goes. But, Jesus' reference to Jonah, as expressed in Matt 12:40 should not be considered in isolation. He made that reference for comparison. Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 15:58
  • I know this has been a defense of the 3 days and 3 nights in the heart of the earth. It is relatively new, having been invented (I think) in the 20th century. There was a 19th century debate where the Charles Bradlaugh and a theologian named Roberts had a three day debate on the inerrancy of the Bible and it happened in 1876 and touched on the discrepancy of the "third day" and "three days and three nights" passages in the Bible. infidels.org/library/historical Roberts used the Thursday crucifixion theory as a defense against the skeptic's attack of 3 d and 3 n. Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 16:33
  • @SaberTruthTiger - I just checked out - infidels.org/library/historical - and couldn't see anything to do with Bradlaugh v Roberts at first, but then saw something regarding them on the 2nd page, which although incomplete, did have a scant reference to the "three days and three nights" and I mean scant. Conclusion, no. That aside, the hypothesis regarding the seemingly apparent inerrancy, can hardly be a 20th century invention, but could most certainly be a conclusion, albeit somewhat attune to conjecture. But again, one has to ask one's self - Why did Jesus make explicit ref' to Jonah??? Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 17:30
  • If I remember correctly, there is more than a scant mention of that argument so I will look into it. I will try to find it and add a link to that article. The debate spanned a few articles because it was a three-day, two hour each day, debate. Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 17:36

Yes; if Jesus died on Thursday, then this is a literal three days and nights. And you could read Matthew 17:23 as,

And they shall kill him, and the third day [after he is killed] he shall be raised again.

For example, imagine a weeklong conference starting late Monday afternoon with an orientation, and extending through Friday evening. What is the third day of the conference? Some might say Wednesday, since the first meeting was Monday. But others would say that Thursday was the third day, since the first full day of meetings was actually Tuesday. It's a matter of perspective.

Since Jesus died on Thursday afternoon, the first real, full day that He was dead was actually Friday; the second, Saturday; and the third, Sunday.


The Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth is the sign of Jonah that Jesus tells the Pharisees is the only sign they will receive. The Pharisees would have known that Jesus was referring to Johan 1:17.

The confusion that sets in regarding these verses is a result of most theological teaching that Jesus was crucified and buried on "Good Friday", then rose on Sunday. If you follow along in previous verses in Matthew prior to Jesus' crucifixion one can count the days and events leading up to Jesus' death and burial.

Reading Leviticus 23:4-12, you will discover the instructions for the feast of Passover, the feast of unleavened bread, and finally feast of first fruits. Jesus and his disciples' "last supper" was indeed a feast of Passover meal occurring on the 14th which would have been a Tuesday (in our current calendar and time). Late that evening Jesus was taken captive. The very next morning Jesus was crucified. Since we are dealing with the Ancient Jewish calendar, a day consists of sundown to sundown, and not sunrise to sundown. So when Jesus was crucified it was still Tuesday the 14th. The Pharisees were anxious to get Jesus's body off of the cross because the sabbath was approaching. This was not the weekly sabbath, but the holy convocation as outlined in Leviticus 23:7. So Jesus was taken down from the cross and put into the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea Tuesday evening before the 1st day of Feast of Unleavened Bread. When the sun set (the 15th), it began the count, 1 night in the heart of the earth. This was the sabbath being the holy convocation. The next morning (still the 15th), 1 day in the heart of the earth. That evening (the 16th), 2 nights in the heart of the earth. The next morning (still the 16th), 2 days in the heart of the earth. That evening ({Friday} the 17th) began the weekly sabbath and was 3 nights in the heart of the earth. The next morning (Saturday but still the 17th) was the final day in the heart of the earth.

Matthew 28:1 says, "Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Miryam of Magdala and the other Miryam went to the see the grave." By the time they got there Jesus had already risen, therefore indicating Jesus rose on the Sabbath because if not, He would have spent 4 nights in the heart of the earth and would not follow Scripture. Jesus rose on the Sabbath because He is the Lord of the Sabbath. He is the High Priest, and just as in Matthew 12:5 His work on the Sabbath is essential to prepare the waving of the Sheaf Offering on Sunday morning as He is the Firstfruits.

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