Days, nights, Jonah, and Jesus

I recently had a GeoChristian reader raise the issue of “Bible inconsistencies and errors” in a comment. Specifically, they brought up the reference in the Gospel of Matthew to “Jesus being in the tomb for ‘three’ nights.” If Jesus was crucified on Friday and resurrected on Sunday, isn’t it an error to say that he was in the tomb for three nights?

My basic approach to “Bible contradictions” can be found in my article Dealing with an apparent Bible contradiction, in which I shared my story of how I had to work through an apparent discrepancy between the accounts of the calling of the disciples in Matthew and John. This caused a brief crisis in my faith, but quickly led to a strengthening of my confidence in the accuracy and reliability of the Scriptures. I am now at a point where, though I cannot give an explanation for every difficult passage in the Bible, I have had enough answers that I no longer struggle just because I don’t understand something.

Let’s take a look at the “contradiction” in question this time. In Matthew 12:39-41, Jesus stated,

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” (ESV)

Was Jesus literally in the tomb for “three days and three nights?” The answer seems to be “no.” Christians traditionally hold that Christ was crucified on a Friday afternoon (Good Friday) and rose from the dead early on Sunday (Easter). There was part of one day (Friday afternoon), a night (what we would call Friday night), a full day (Saturday), and part of a night (what we would call Saturday night). Then Jesus rose from the dead. There was only one full day and almost two full nights. It doesn’t matter whether one counts days using the Jewish or Roman systems; it doesn’t add up to a literal “three days and three nights.”

So is this an error in the Bible?

The first part of my answer has to do with the competence of the writer of the first Gospel, traditionally (and justifiably) regarded as the apostle Matthew. Basically, one can only read this passage as a contradiction by assuming that Matthew was somewhat of an idiot. Either he was a competent writer who could follow the relationships between what he wrote in chapter 12, and what he recorded later about Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Matthew 26-28); or he was a sloppy writer who couldn’t keep his story straight. Given the quality of the writing in Matthew, one should assume that if there were a contradiction, the author would have caught it. If Matthew and the early Christian writers didn’t see a problem, we should not either.

The second part of my answer has to do with differences in culture and language. Knowing that Matthew was a competent story-teller, one can look for better solutions, rather than concluding that his Gospel contains an error. One scenario that has been suggested is that Jesus was not crucified on Friday, but perhaps on Wednesday. This would account for three full days, but then there would be four nights, so it doesn’t really work. Plus, it doesn’t explain how Friday came to be regarded as “Good.”

A more reasonable answer is that “three days and three nights” was a figure of speech that meant “three days, counting the first and last.” Good Friday was the first of these three days, then came Saturday, and Easter Sunday the third. It is a very plausible solution to the “problem.” We don’t have any first century Aramaic-English phrasebooks laying around, but there is external evidence that the Jews of that time used the phrase “three days and three nights” in this way, so I am quite satisfied with this solution.

If this is correct, it is an example of where we cannot read our culture into someone else’s culture. A modern example of this is how to answer the question, “How old are you?” My answer to the question would be, “I am 52.” But in some eastern Asian countries, a person born on the exact same day as me would truthfully answer, “I am 53.” Why? Because they count the day a person is born as their first birthday, whereas in Western societies we consider a person’s first birthday to be one year after they were born. Different cultures have different ways of counting things. We should not find it surprising that two thousand years ago the Jews used the phrase “three days and three nights” differently than we do.

There are plenty of skeptics who will tell you that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions. For most of these it can fairly easily be shown—as in this case—that it is the skeptics who are in error, not the Scriptures. Even those “contradictions” that are more of a challenge should not cause us to disregard the Bible as God’s Word, as the difficulties are likely due more to our ignorance than anything else.

Grace and Peace

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Notes:

The ESV Study Bible notes for Matthew 12:40 state,

“Three days and three nights in Jewish reckoning is inclusive, meaning no more than three days or the combination of any part of three separate days. Jesus was raise “in three days” although he was buried Friday afternoon and resurrected Sunday morning (i.e., part of Friday is day one, all of Saturday is day two, and part of Sunday is day three).”

John MacArthur writes,

“The matter of three days and three night is often used either to prove Jesus was mistaken about the time He would actually spend in the tomb or that He could not have been crucified on Friday afternoon and raised early on Sunday, the first day of the week. But as in modern usage, the phrase “day and night” can mean not only a full 24-hour day but any representative part of a day. To spend a day, or a day and night, visiting in a neighboring city does not require spending 24 hours there. It could refer to arriving in the late morning and leaving a few hours after dark. In the same way, Jesus’ use of three days and three nights does not have to be interpreted as 72 hours, three full 24-hour days. The Jewish Talmud held that “any part of a day is as the whole.” Jesus was simply using a common, well-understood generalization.” — The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 8-15, p. 329.