How Long Was Jesus in the Tomb?

Question: I think there may be a contradiction in the gospel accounts.  One place says three days and three nights, another place indicates three days and two nights. Can you explain this?

Let’s look at the passages first:

Matthew 12:40
for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Here Jesus is prophesying regarding His own death and resurrection.  He says He will be 3 days and 3 nights in the “heart of the earth.”  Or in other words, He will be in the grave 3 days and 3 nights.

Then, after Jesus death we read:

Matthew 28:1
Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.

Here is where our questioner thinks he sees a problem.  If Jesus was crucified on Friday, then he was in the tomb Friday night, and Saturday night, but he rose early on the first day of the week, that being Sunday morning, therefore he was NOT in the tomb 3 days and 3 nights.  He was in the tomb only a part of 3 days (not an entire 24 hours) and only 2 nights.

Let’s look at another passage:

Mark 16:2
Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.

Mark says the same thing as Matthew.

Luke 24:1
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.

John 20:1
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.

In the West, we think of “days” as full 24 hour periods.  That’s not necessarily the way “days” are viewed in the East.

Let me explain.  It’s quite natural for us to examine these passages and think in terms of hours.  From Friday afternoon to Sunday morning we have something like 36 hours, while 3 days and 3 nights would be 72 hours.  Therefore in our way of thinking there must be something wrong with the gospel accounts because Jesus clearly was not in the tomb three 24 hour periods of time.

Here’s the solution.  According to Jewish custom any part of a day, however small, is included as part of a full day.  Since the Jews considered part of a day as a full day the statement in Matthew “three days and three nights” could permit a Friday crucifixion even though a full 24 hours has not passed before the resurrection on the First day of the week.

There is proof in the Bible that this is the way that Jewish tradition observed days. In the Old Testament we read:

Esther 4:16
16 “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, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther 5:1
5:1 ¶ 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 in front of the king’s rooms, and the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room, opposite the entrance to the palace.

We can see that even though the three days and nights had not been completed, Esther went in to see the King on the third day even though she said to fast for three days and nights.  We see that “on the third day” is equivalent to “after three days.”

Now, back to the New Testament.  In Mark we read

Mark 8:31
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 three days rise again.

Mark says that “after three days” Jesus would rise again.  But Paul says:

1 Cor. 15:3,4
3* For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

4* and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

Paul says “on the third day according to the Scriptures.”  This is an interesting statement, the “Scriptures” Paul is referring to are the gospel accounts.  We know that the Scriptures are inspired of God, therefore cannot contain contradictions, so we know that because of the Jewish usage of counting any part of a day as the whole of the day, the term “three days and nights” is idiomatic and not literal.

This is further illustrated by one additional passage:

Luke 24:5-7
5* and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?

6* “He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee,

7* saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”

Again we have “crucified, and THE THIRD DAY rise again.”   We know for a fact that Jesus WAS in the tomb for parts of 3 different days, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  So this is obviously our solution.

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