Matthew 12:40

What does “three days and three nights” mean?

Your question is about how long Jesus was in the tomb. Some believe He was dead for 72 hours; others argue for less than three full days and nights. This is a case in which it is important to know how days were counted in biblical times. In order to avoid misunderstandings, it is always important to examine the context and the use of similar terminology in other places in the Bible.

1. Three Days and Three Nights: The text seems quite clear: “For 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” (Matt. 12:40). For us, this is a precise statement of time: three full days of 24 hours each. Not necessarily so for the biblical writer, who is simply emphasizing that it was three days.

A day in the Bible is constituted by day/light and night/darkness. Therefore “three days and nights” is another way of saying “three days.” Matthew says that Jesus fasted “forty days and forty nights” (Matt. 4:2) but Mark says it was “forty days” (Mark 1:13). The biblical writers were not thinking about an exact period of 24 hours. This was not their concern, for they did not have watches as we do. The two phrases are synonyms, but the first one emphasizes the amount of days, not their exact extent in hours. Are we more precise in terms of time? Yes!

2. Other Phrases: The Gospels use different temporal expressions related to the resurrection of Jesus. Some of them seem contradictory: “After [meta] three days he will rise” (see Mark 9:31; 10:34; Matt. 27:63); “on three days” (with the preposition en “on/in,” Matthew 27:40; without the preposition, see Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 1 Corinthians 15:4); and “ in/after [dia] three days” (see Matt. 26:61). In this last case, the preposition dia could be translated “ in or within/in the course of three days” (see Hosea 6:2). “After” suggests that the resurrection took place on the fourth day, but this is denied by other phrases. So the question is: What does “after” (meta) mean (Matt. 27:63)?

In Jewish usage the phrase “after three days” meant “the day after tomorrow,” and this is how people understood it. According to Matthew 27:63, those who heard Jesus understood that He would be resurrected on the third day and that His tomb was “to be made secure until [heos, “up to, until”] the third day.” This implies that “after three days” refers to a period of time that includes any part of three days, and can be used as the equivalent of “on the third day.” In Matthew, Jesus mentions the three days only in 12:40—“three days and three nights,” indicating that His contemporaries understood Him to say “within three days.”

3. Inclusive Counting: Our examination of the different phrases indicates that the idiomatic phrase “three days” counts portions of a day as full days. As an idiomatic expression it cannot be taken literally. We find a similar usage in the Old Testament. The phrase “three days and three nights” means “three days” (1 Sam. 30:12, 13). Esther asked people to fast together with her for “three days, night or day” (Esther 4:16). Then “on the third day” she appeared before the king (Esther 5:1). This is inclusive reckoning; the three days include portions of days counted as days. King Rehoboam asked the people to “depart for three days” and come back to him. They came back on “the third day” (1 Kings 12:5, 12). We find the same phenomenon among non-Israelites. An eighth-century-B.C. Mesopotamian king tells about his arrival at a city: “I waited in the city of Azlayanu for three days, and on the third day they approached.” A portion of the first day plus a portion of a third day are counted as three days.

In order to interpret the Bible correctly, we have to count days the way the biblical writers counted them. Jesus died on Friday and was resurrected on the third day!