Three Days and Three Nights

Resurrection Sunday is next month.  April 20, to be exact.  And the world will once again turn some amount of attention to the historic account of Jesus rising from the dead and the various traditions and assumptions that have grown up around that event.  It’s also a time for debate, denial, and criticism of all things Christian on the part of the media, atheist groups, and other religions.

I contend that the resurrection of Christ is a historic fact, based on evidence and eyewitness testimony that stand the test of scrutiny and courtroom-level examination (as Simon Greenleaf demonstrated in his 1874 book The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospels Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice. )

I also hold to the Wednesday to Saturday, three day/three night scheme as opposed to the traditional assumption that Jesus died on a Friday and rose Sunday morning.  You can download a free pdf timeline and Word file chart that lays out the events that the Bible says took place between His death and resurrection on our website.  Here are the direct links:

Passion Week Timeline Chart

Passion Week Word Document Chart

Well, I wrote all that as background to the email exchange that follows.  One of our friends in India — a barrister who has been building a Christian lending library, who is also responsible for our book By Grace Alone being translated into Telugu — was recently debating the validity of the gospel accounts of the resurrection with local Muslims.  As is typical of their debating style, the Muslim apologists were attempting to add doubt and confusion to the biblical narrative, particularly as concerns the timing of the death, burial, and resurrection.  So, given the time of year, and knowing that other folk may have wrestled with these things, I thought I’d share our exchange here on the blog.

It began like this:

Dear brother in Christ,

Greetings in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am experiencing the Lord's love and care without ceasing, and I hope the same with you and the church there.

I have not been able to keep in touch with you as frequently as before, but you are always on my mind, and I have in fact been largely promoting your book "By Grace Alone" which I had translated in Telugu, and I am sure it is a great blessing to many. May the Lord richly bless you for that great contribution to His Church.

I am writing now to request for your urgent intervention to solve a huge dilemma that I was recently confronted with. You are perhaps aware that I have been holding on to the "Wednesday Crucifixion"  scheme as you do as well. I have taught this in many places and have been able to convince many about it. But of late, I have been trying to reconcile this theory with certain facts of Scripture, without which the position on "Wednesday Crucifixion  would not be tenable. They are as follows:

1. Mark 16:9 clearly states that Jesus was risen on the first day of the week which is Sunday. If the burial was on Wednesday evening as we argue, He was risen on the fourth day, which would plainly conflict with Matthew 16:21 and such other places which teach that He was to rise on the "Third day".

2. The two disciples who communed with Jesus on the very day of His resurrection, as they walked along on the road to Emmaus expressly say, "Today is the third day since these things were done", which they of course said referring to the crucifixion  This could not be said on a Sunday, about an event which happened on a Wednesday. In other words, if Jesus spent a literal "three days and three nights" period in the heart of the earth, the following period since his resurrection must be the fourth day, which is surely a difficulty to be reconciled with the "third day" resurrection.

I humbly seek your urgent help to solve this issue, because this subject is an essential part of a rebuttal I am presenting against a Muslim in our state on the 6th of March. You are aware that the sign of Jonah is their favorite argument against the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and they insist for explanation as to how Jesus was "Three days and three nights" in the heart of the earth.

Will await your kind response at the earliest.

Yours in Christ,


Hello Brother ,

Before we get into the details of your question, I would just like to say how happy I am to hear from you again.  I trust that you and your household are well and thriving in His grace.  I am glad to read that you are continuing your evangelistic efforts and your defense of the gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace.  And I am glad that the book you translated continues to be distributed and read.  I thank God for His blessing and wonderful providence.

The argument concerning the exact period of time that Jesus was in the grave is a common tack for Muslims.  I hear it here in America often.  They think that it is a much stronger point than it actually is.  The phrases “three days and three nights” and “on the third day” can be harmonized quite easily by paying attention to the larger biblical context.

But, let me start by pointing out that none of Jesus’ contemporaries, nor his many critics among the Jews, made this argument.  That’s an important historic reality.  If Jesus had said publicly that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights, and then His disciples claimed that He rose in anything less than that, His critics would have pounced on that discrepancy as proof that He was a liar and a charlatan.  Yet, we find nothing of this argument in the annuls of history.  Why?  Because the discrepancy does not exist.  This an argument based on anachronistic understandings of ancient idiomatic phraseology.

The phrases “three days and three nights” and “the third day” are used interchangeably in the New Testament.  And, since that’s true, they must mean essentially the same thing.  The advocates of the Friday to Sunday scenario recognize this linguistic fact and use to explain how Jesus could fulfill three days and three nights in the time period between Friday evening and Sunday morning.  But, this fact equally supports the Wednesday to Saturday Evening scenario since it allows that every time Jesus (and the NT writers) used the phrase “the third day” they were saying the same thing as “three days and three nights.”

Let’s look at the Biblical evidence. Here is a good example of how the Jews counted days, based on an Old Testament account of an Egyptian slave:

1Samuel 30:12-13 — And they gave him a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins, and he ate; then his spirit revived. For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. And David said to him, “To whom do you belong? And where are you from?” And he said, “I am a young man of Egypt, a servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind when I fell sick three days ago.”

In the space of two verses, the phrases “three days and three nights” and “three days ago” are juxtaposed against each other.  So, let’s pick a day for this meeting.  Let’s say it happened on a Saturday.  Then, Friday would be yesterday.  Thursday would be the day before yesterday.  And Wednesday would be “three days ago.”  That would also be exactly three days and three nights — Wednesday to Thursday, Thursday to Friday, Friday to Saturday.

The same thing occurs in Matthew 27:63-64 — (The Pharisees speaking to Pilate said) “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After (Gr. meta) three days I am to rise again.’ Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until (Gr. heos) the third day, lest the disciples come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 

The Pharisees quoted Jesus as saying that He would rise again after three days.  (The Greek word “meta” means “after.”)  Yet, they asked for a guard “until the third day.”  Well, if they released the guard on that third day and Jesus rose after the third day, then they have accomplished nothing.  What’s the solution?  The two phrases mean the same thing.  They are interchangeable.  “Until the third day” means the same thing as “after three days.”

Also – and this is an important point – the time indicator “after” (the Greek “meta”) is in the original Greek text.  The reason that is important is that the prepositions “in” or “on” the third day do not exist in the original text.  They are added by the translators for readability.  Most references to “in the third day” or “on the third day” only say “the third day” in the Greek text.  So, when the NT writers indicated that He would rise “after” three days, that was a definite time indication. But, they do not say that He rose “in” or “on” the third day.  They merely say that He rose “the third day.”  And, as I have demonstrated, those two phrases are used by the NT writers as meaning the same thing.

Here is another Old Testament example:

Esther 4:16 says, “Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king,

But, Esther 5:1 says, “Now it came about on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace.

So, the Jews understood that the phrase “the third day” was equal to “three days, night or day.”  In other words, they did indeed fast for three days, night and day.  That’s a specific time indication.  But, Esther appeared before the king “the third day,” which can only mean that the three days and nights of fasting had been completed.

Now let’s look at some parallel passages to really drive this point home.  These three verses are describing the same event.  But, notice how the three synoptic gospel writers describe the crucifixion/resurrection timeline. These verses are quoted from the New American Standard Version of the Bible, but every respected translation follows this pattern, because the Greek text is clear:

Mark 8:31 – And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after (meta) three days rise again.

Matthew 16:21 – From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up (on) the third day.

Luke 9:22 – saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up (on) the third day.”

Matthew and Luke employ the phrase “the third day” (remember, the preposition “on” is not in the Greek text).  But, Mark recounts the exact same saying of Jesus by using the phrase “after three days” (and the Greek word “meta” IS in the Greek text).

So, despite how awkward it may sound to an English-speaker living in the 21st century, a person in ancient times could legitimately speak of something occurring “the third day,” “after three days,” or after “three days and three nights,” yet still be referring to the same exact period of time.

But, that fact does not necessarily prove either side of the argument; neither the Wednesday to Saturday nor the Friday to Sunday scheme is established by that bit of linguistic detail.  So, we have to appeal to the authority on the topic.  Jesus Himself said, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” (John 11:9).   So, I contend that He was in the grave at least 72 actual hours and the phrase “the third day” is simply a euphemism for the completion of that time period. That’s also how the Pharisees under Him in  Matthew 27:63.  And only the Wednesday to Saturday scenario allows for everything that the Bible recounts as happening between His death and resurrection.

As for your second concern, the question of whether Jesus was in the grave three days exactly or also some part of the fourth is a typical Muslim argument.  We know that He arose on the first day of the week, but we are not told exactly when that occurred.  It could have been anytime after Saturday afternoon/evening, as the new day was beginning.  Any argument that claims otherwise is arguing from silence.  All we know is that when the women arrived at the tomb, toward the dawning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, the grave was empty.  The angel said that Jesus had already left and would see them in Galilee.  So, as long as He arose sometime after Saturday afternoon, at least 72 hours after his interment, He told the truth about His three days and three nights “in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).  But the exact hour of His resurrection, we simply don’t know.

These arguments are typical Muslim constructs that are designed to create doubt — not actually prove anything.  They have no evidence for their contentions outside of forced readings of the text and assertions of contradictions that no early critics of the Bible even mentioned.  Remember that the early church had much more at stake in this enterprise than we do.  They were laying down their lives to preach this gospel.  Their critics were fierce and many.  Yet, none of the critics made the arguments that the Muslims are so keen on.  If the eyewitnesses and people intimately connected with the actual events did not raise these objections, then bringing them up 2000 years later does very little undermine the validity of the Bible.

I hope that helps a bit.

Grace, peace, and all good things,

Jim Mc.

Dear brother,

I am extremely grateful for taking pains to explain and clarify my doubt. The observations you have made on the "Third Day" are very helpful indeed. 

However, in the context of the Saturday resurrection argument, I still see the need to explain Mark 16:9, which unlike Matthew 28:1 does not simply state that the women discovered the empty tomb on the "First Day" of the week, but that He actually arose on the "First Day" of the week. So unless I am troubling you too frequently, I would seek for an explanation with specific reference to Mark 16:9. Please also uphold the ministry here in your prayers. Thank you once again for your ongoing help and encouragement.

Yours In His Service,


Hello again brother,

You are never troubling me and I’m happy to discuss this with you.

There is no question that the Bible says that Jesus rose on the first day of the week.  What the Muslim and the critic are doing is creating a difficulty where none actually exists.  They are arguing that Jesus was in the grave too long; Wednesday afternoon to Saturday night/Sunday morning is more than 72 hours.  But, nothing in the Bible requires Jesus to rise from the grave exactly 72 hours after He was placed there.  He did have to stay in the grave at least 72 hours.  That’s the point of His statement, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  But, in order to satisfy Jewish teaching and tradition, He had to be dead for at least three days before coming to life again if it was going to be a truly miraculous demonstration.

By the time of Jesus, Jewish custom and rabbinic tradition held that a person was not truly, genuinely dead until after three days.  That’s why Jesus stayed away from the tomb of Lazarus for three days.  Had He raised Lazarus sooner, people would have assumed that Lazarus was not truly dead, but merely swooned.  Once Jesus arrived at the tomb, “He found that he had already been in the tomb four days.” (John 11:17)  In fact, Lazarus was decaying and his own sister said he was stinking because he’d been dead for four days (v. 39).  And this was all in keeping with Jewish traditions concerning death.

The Midrash Rabbah (rabbinic teaching on the Tanakh) says this, based on the teaching derived from Job 14:22 —

“Bar Kappara taught: Until three days (after death) the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back (into the body); but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it.”  

In other words, Hebrew tradition was that it took three days for decay to set in after death.  At that point, the soul abandoned the body and the person was truly dead.  That’s why visiting the tomb of Lazarus after four days seemed repulsive; decay had set in and the body stank.

The Jews had a similar legal principle when it came to identifying a body.  A person could only identify a dead person during the first three days, while the “countenance” of the corpse was intact.  The law testified —

“You cannot testify to (the identity of a corpse) save by the facial features together with the nose, even if there are marks of identification in his body and garments: again, you can testify only within three days [of death].” -Mishnah, Yebamot 16:3a-e. 

 In the Midrash, these two ideas were also linked —

 “For three days (after death) the soul hovers over the body, intending to re-enter it, but as soon as it sees its appearance change, it departs, as it is written (Job 14:22), ‘When his flesh that is on him is distorted, his soul will mourn over him.’ Bar Kappara said: The full force of mourning lasts for three days. Why? Because the shape of the face is recognizable, even as we have learnt in the Mishnah: Evidence is admissible only in respect of the full face, with the nose, and only within three days (after death).”

Confirming this belief is a passage in the Semahot (a treatise on mourning), which says —

“One may go out to the cemetery for three days to inspect the dead for a sign of life, without fear that this smacks of heathen practice. For it happened that a man was inspected after three days, and he went on to live twenty-five years; still another went on to have five children and died later.”

So, Jewish tradition was that a soul could reunite with its body within three days, but no more.  Once the soul realized that the body was decaying or rotting, it left for good.  That happened somewhere in the area of the third day.  That being the case, a resurrection after that time period was truly miraculous.  If the soul had actually departed and then returned to an otherwise rotting corpse, this was not a mere resuscitation.  It was genuine evidence that a completely dead man came back to life — like Lazarus or Jesus.

But, the point is this:  Jesus did not have to raise at exactly 72 hours. But He did have to be dead at least that long in order to be truly dead.

  • He had to die on Passover, which He did.
  • He had to be in the grave as the Feast of Unleavened Bread began, which He did.
  • He had to rise on the first day of the week, since that was the Feast of Firstfruits, which He did.
  • And He had to fulfill the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, which He did.

He could have risen at any point after Saturday afternoon and fulfilled everything that was required.  If He was in the tomb for 75 hours or 78 hours, it makes no difference and is of no consequence.  He has still fulfilled everything that was necessary to prove Himself the long-awaited Messiah.

Anyone who attempts to make an argument out of the Wednesday to Saturday scenario based on Him being in the tomb longer than three days and three nights is missing the point.

Our Lord is faithful.  And He has proven His Himself as the fulfillment of prophecy and Scripture concerning the Christ.  The Muslims are without merit when they attempt to undermine the evidence.

Grace and peace,

Jim Mc.

One thought on “Three Days and Three Nights

  1. phillip caster

    Yet again we are blessed in truth with needed detail…
    Line by line…precept by precept…
    May our Lord continue to bless this conduit of his grace…


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