How can we reconcile that the Bible indicates that Jesus would be in the earth for three days and three nights (Matt. 12:40) but we also read that he died right before the start of the Passover and arose on the morning of the day after the Sabbath?


2 Answers 2


The problem in how we see it:

First, we know what we would mean by the phrase in Matthew 12:40: we would mean a seventy-two-hour period or at least most of that period. Second, we know that Jesus was not in the tomb more than thirty-six to thirty-eight hours, since he was buried at evening (which began at about 6 p.m.) on Friday and rose by morning (about 6 a.m.) on Sunday. Third, we know that the phrase “three days and three nights” was not a problem for Matthew, for he can use both that and “on the third day” and include no explanation, which he does in other cases where he senses a problem. -- Kaiser, W. C., Jr., Davids, P. H., Bruce, F. F., & Brauch, M. T. (1996). Hard sayings of the Bible (pp. 380–381). InterVarsity.

  1. To 1st century Jews any part of a day counted as a day:

First, we may be assuming that first-century Jews thought about time in the same way that we do. In fact they did not. Any part of a day could be counted as if it were a full day, - Ibid.

  1. Jesus was referring to Jonah:

Second, we may be assuming that Jesus was simply making a statement, when, given the unusual nature of this phrase, he was actually quoting Jonah. - Ibid.

Language differs in different cultures and especially different periods of time. Note that Matthew did not see a problem with the three days.

The main clue for us is that Matthew does not indicate that he feels a problem, so either he did not see the two phrases as meaning anything different or else he realized that what Jesus intended was simply a citation of Jonah. - Ibid.

For a more detailed discussion see How is it that Jesus could be "three days and three nights in the heart of the earth"?

  • Good answer. +1.
    – Dottard
    Apr 11, 2023 at 0:40
  • 2
    The language of "three days and three nights is too precise to allow for any part of a day or night getting rounded up into the day count. No matter how one reckons, the "three nights" is especially problematic for that interpretation.
    – Biblasia
    Apr 11, 2023 at 8:37

Jesus often intended his words to have a symbolic or spiritual value, as opposed to a strictly literal or physical meaning. In this particular statement, the phrase in focus is "heart of the earth."

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. (Matthew 12:40, KJV)

In addition to the word "sign"--which is an obvious clue, the word "heart" (Gr. καρδίᾳ/kardia) should help us see that this is a special expression. Our planet does not have a physical "heart," nor does a human have a means of reaching its literal core. So the context of this expression indicates we should look deeper than the surface meaning.

The word "earth" (Gr. γῆς/gēs), in this case, is symbolic of a similar thing to what many Christians today would use "world" to mean, e.g. "worldly." The distinction is that "earth" is used more to represent governments.

When Jesus was handed over to the Roman authorities, he was surrendered into the power of the Roman government, the highest power in the "known" world at that time. This began his time "in the heart of the earth."

Jesus was betrayed into the power of Rome on Thursday night, and did not emerge from the tomb, which had been sealed by the Romans, until Sunday morning. By Biblical reckoning, this would comprise the evening and morning of the preparation day (sixth day), the evening and morning of the Sabbath day (seventh day), and the evening and morning of the first day--thus totalling three nights and three days.

Note that Jesus' statement makes no mention of "tomb": however, to answer that question, the Bible is clear that he would have been in the tomb beginning just before sunset on Friday, and ending near sunrise on Sunday, a total of about a day and a half.

The "sign" Jesus gave related to Jonah's time in the belly of the "whale." This word, in Greek, is κήτους/kētous, and can mean "sea monster" in addition to "great fish." The word "whale" only occurs 4 times in the KJV translation--this being the only one in the New Testament; the other three times are from a Hebrew word which would more properly be translated as "dragon" or perhaps "sea serpent."

Beasts, which would include whales and serpents, represent nations and kingdoms in prophecy (see Daniel 7:17,23). So Jonah's time in the whale's belly may be symbolic of time spent within the power or authority of a kingdom.


While Jesus' prophecy makes no mention of the grave or the tomb, it uses symbolic language to address the time in which he would come under the power of Rome--at that time the highest power on "earth." His statement is not directly addressing his time in the grave, which would have been only about half of the three days and three nights specified.

  • This was the only sign given by Jesus 'prophecy' nothing to say it was symbolic, that's just an attempt to provide an explanation / justify it. Clearly, there are difficulties. Jesus was placed in a Tomb and not a grave, 3 days & nights issue & Jonah didn't die. see link - hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/83399/33268 Apr 11, 2023 at 10:54

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.