How Long Was Jesus In The Tomb?


‘As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’. Matthew 12:40

To put the question in simple terms, was the body of Jesus really in the grave for three days and nights?

Well, if we’re looking for the chronological accuracy of which our modern world is so proud, with its time-pieces which, for an age that is virtually controlled by the clock, make it possible to calculate time down to parts of a second, I think we shall be disappointed.

A principle of interpretation

Here’s a fact which should always be borne in mind when attempting to determine the meaning of Biblical words and phrases. Words are like tokens or counters, they have no intrinsic value, that is, no value in themselves. They depend on the meaning that is attached to them by the people using them.

We must ask ourselves, what did that word or that expression mean to the people who used it at that time?

In the case of the words we’re studying, the Jewish rulers who heard Jesus make this statement revealed what they understood it to mean, when they went to Pilate the Roman Governor, to request that a guard be placed at the tomb of Jesus.

They said, ‘We remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, ‘After three days I will rise again’. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day.’ Matthew 27:63-64

I suggest that an understanding of this principle of interpretation will help us to understand both Matthew 12:40 and many other puzzling passages.

The reckoning of Time

In 1988, Professor Stephen Hawking gained worldwide celebrity when he produced his book, ‘A Brief History of Time’, and man’s fascination with time-keeping never diminishes.

But in the New Testament age, the reckoning of time was a relative calculation, and people of that age would probably never even have asked the question which we’re now considering, not only because they didn’t possess the technology that we now possess, but because they were simply not as concerned as we are today, with measuring life in days and hours, minutes and seconds.

In fact, among the Jews in the days of the Lord Jesus, for legal purposes, it was not necessary for a ‘day’ to run the full number of hours, in order to be considered a ‘day’. Any part of a ‘day’ was calculated as a ‘day’, even if only one hour had passed!

Commenting on the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:40, where the Lord mentions Jonah’s terrifying experience, the highly regarded and scholarly Bishop Lightfoot, in his work, ‘Home Hebraicae’, mentions a Jewish saying which states that, ‘a day and a night make an Onah, and a part of an Onah is as the whole’.

I suppose that, in an age of radio-controlled clocks, quartz and digital watches and chronometers, many would find this old Jewish saying very unsatisfactory. But Lightfoot also makes the comment, ‘therefore Christ may truly be said to have been in the grave three Onoth, the consent of the schools and the dialect of the nation agreeing thereunto’.

Do you think this Jewish practice is strange?

But Sir Robert Anderson, K.C.B. L.L.D, who, besides being a Biblical scholar, was also a highly-respected legal authority says, concerning the phrase ‘three days and three nights’.

‘A prison chaplain would have no difficulty explaining this to his congregation. Our civil day begins at midnight, and the law reckons any part of a day as a day. Therefore, while a sentence of three days means three days of twenty-four hours, equal to seventy-two hours, a prisoner under such a committal is seldom more than forty hours in gaol, and I have known cases where the period was only thirty-three hours. And this mode of reckoning was as familiar to the Jew as it is to our criminal courts’.

Old Testament Examples

You will also find this rather imprecise way of expressing time in the Old Testament. Consider the following examples, 1 Samuel 30:11-12.

1. 1 Samuel 30:11-12 records that David’s men found an Egyptian and brought him to their commander. The man had been left behind by the fleeing Amalekites. We read that David gave him food and water because he hadn’t eaten nor drunk ‘three days and three nights.’

That simply meant, for some time.

In verse 12 the man says that he became sick ‘three days ago’.

Commentators claim that the two statements are intended to point out the considerable start the Amalekites had in their flight, and to stress that there was no time to lose if David was to catch up with them, 2 Chronicles 10:1-12.

2. In 2 Chronicles 10, we read that when Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, became Israel’s new king, certain of his subjects approached him, pleading that they might be relieved of the heavy burdens which his father, in his later days, had imposed on them in order to support his extravagant lifestyle. Rehoboam said to them, ‘Come again to me after three days’ 2 Chronicles 10:5

We then read in verse 12, ‘So Jeroboam and the people came to Rehoboam on the third day.’ ‘On’ is not ‘after’! Yet Rehoboam did not rebuke them or send them away because they had come too soon, Esther 4:16.

3. In Esther 4:16, when Haman the enemy of the Jews plotted their wholesale destruction, Esther the Queen, issued this command. The fast was as binding upon Esther herself as upon the people.

But Esther 5:1, then tells us, ‘Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther appeared before the king and said to him. If it seems good to the king, let the king and Haman come this day unto the banquet that I have prepared for him’.

It’s obvious, then, that in Bible times, the phrase ‘three days and nights’ didn’t mean what we understand it to mean today and that it wasn’t, in those days, considered necessary to be as precise in recording time as it is now.

But, the early Christians knew nothing of an annual celebration of the Lord’s death, burial and resurrection, because, as Paul told the Corinthian Christians, ‘each first day of the week’, when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, 1 Corinthians 11.26, they ‘proclaimed the Lord’s death’, and would continue to do so ‘until He comes’.

Indeed, the issue of an annual celebration was not even raised until long after the establishment of the New Testament church. It was towards the end of the 2nd century, by which time the predicted ‘falling away’ from the faith had already begun, that disputes arose concerning the ‘time to celebrate Easter.’

The problem arose again in 325 A.D. at the time of the First Council of Nicea when the Church of Rome attempted to resolve it, but it was not until more than 300 years later, in 664 A.D. at the ‘Synod of Whitby’, that churches in Britain decided to adopt the practices of the Roman Church. This means that the present-day celebration of `Easter’ is the invention of the Church of Rome.

The New Testament Evidence

In any case, it is surprising that, when the length of time the Lord’s body lay in the grave is discussed, it is just the one sentence in which He uses the illustration involving Jonah which receives attention. What we ought to consider are the following facts.

1. The four Gospels reveal that, repeatedly, the Lord Himself declared in unequivocal terms, that He would be put to death and would rise from the dead ‘on the third day’.

2. He first predicted His resurrection early as John 2:19, ‘destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days,’ in a statement which John admits His disciples only later understood, but later He began to speak about it openly, after Peter had declared Him to be ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’, in Matthew 16:16.

Similar statements are recorded in the Gospels, here are but a few, Matthew 17:23 / Matthew 20:19 / Mark 9:31 / Mark 10:34 / Luke 9:22 / Luke 13:32 / Luke 18:33 / Luke 24:7 / Luke 24:21 / Luke 24:46.

3. What Jesus said was evidently accepted without question by both His apostles and the members of the early church, all of whom subsequently believed that what He had predicted had actually come to pass. Paul states this in 1 Corinthians 15:4, ‘raised on the third day’.

The New Testament contains nothing to suggest that the Lord made a prediction that failed.

4. Matthew 27:63-64, tells us that, after the burial of the body of Jesus, the leaders of the Jews came to Pilate with a request. They said, ‘We remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, after three days `I will rise again’. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made secure until the third day’.

5. On the morning of the third day, the women came to the tomb, and Luke 24:5-8 records that the heavenly messengers who met them even quoted the Lord’s own words.

Matthew 28:6 says that one of the angels told the women, ‘He is not here, for He is raised, even as He said. Come; see the place where the Lord lay’.

Dr John Brown of Haddington, the Scottish minister who produced the Bible version which bears his name, also undertook to prepare a ‘Harmony of the Gospels.’ One day, a visitor came to the house asking to see the great man, and Dr Brown’s canny old servant informed the visitor, rather scornfully, that his master was busy ‘trying to reconcile four men who never disagreed!’

It seems that we ourselves are sometimes inclined to undertake similar pointless tasks. Which is the more important, to be able to prove that the Lord’s body lay in the grave for precisely three days and three nights? Or to be assured by all who truly knew Him, that He rose from the dead ‘on the third day’, even as He said?

‘As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’. Matthew 12:40

So, let us first consider what we may learn from the ‘three days and three nights’ of Jonah, and the problem these words appear to create.

This is the problem; the statement declares that, as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so also would the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the earth. This then raises the question, if Jesus was arrested late on Thursday, ‘the 14th Nisan’, died and was buried the next day, Friday ‘the 15th Nisan’), and was raised early on the First Day of the Week, ‘the ‘Lord’s Day’, how can this be reckoned as three days and three nights?

The problem arises when we fail to understand how the expression ‘three days and nights’ was understood in Biblical times. Sir Robert Anderson, who was an eminent lawyer, made an interesting point when he observed that words and phrases are just ‘counters’ which have no value or significance in themselves, and which must be understood in the light of the meaning they would have had to those who originally heard them.

In the Scriptures, there are several places where we find mention of ‘three days and nights’, and, when we examine these passages, some interesting information emerges.

Until the third day. Let us now look at what the scriptures record, Mark 14:1 / Mark 14:12. Both Mark and Luke are more explicit than Matthew. Mark 14:12 states ‘…the first day of unleavened bread when they killed the Passover ‘lamb’.’ Luke 22:7 states, ‘then came the day of unleavened bread when the Passover ‘lamb’ must be killed’.

We have here references to two events, the Passover meal and the Feast of Unleavened Bread which followed it and the two must not be confused.

See what the Old Testament law said concerning these two events. Numbers 28:16-17, reads, ‘On the 14th day of the first month is the Passover of the LORD. And in the 15th day of this month is the feast; seven days shall unleavened bread be eaten’.

Leviticus 23:5-6, very clearly states, ‘In the 14th day of the first month ‘Nisan’, at even ‘i.e. evening’ is the LORD’S Passover. And on the 15th day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the LORD: seven days you shall eat unleavened bread’.

Come over to the New Testament record and this is what we find. Matthew 26:17 reads, ‘Now on the first day of unleavened bread…, the disciples; Where shall we prepare for thee to eat the Passover ‘supper’?’ ‘When even was come he sat down with the twelve.’ Matthew 26:20.

The date was the 14th Nisan called ‘Preparation’. The Passover, ‘meal’ was eaten in the evening.

1. The 14th of Nisan was the day when all leaven had to be put away.

2. It was the day on which the Lord was arrested after he had left the Upper Room with his disciples, and the day before the beginning of the Passover week.

3. It was still the 14th Nisan when the Jewish leaders took Jesus to Pilate.

They wouldn’t enter the Roman ‘Praetorium’, ‘lest they become defiled’ because they had not yet eaten the Passover meal. John 18:28.

In John 13:27 Jesus said, to Judas Iscariot, ‘what you do, do quickly’.

Note that when Judas left the Upper Room.

1. It was already night. John 13:30.

2. The other disciples thought that Judas had left to buy the things needed for the feast of Unleavened Bread, which began the next day, the first day of the Passover Week.

‘Now the Festival of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching’. Luke 22:1

If Judas needed to buy anything, it would have to be done on the 14th, because the next day was a ‘Sabbath’, a rest day, when he couldn’t possibly have bought anything. To buy or sell on the 15th Nisan would have been a violation of the Mosaic Law. And, remember, that the day was the very high ‘Sabbath’ of Passover week.

Jesus had given Judas the opportunity of abandoning his plan, but knowing that he was determined to go through with it, Jesus said, ‘what you intend to do, do quickly’, thus sending him to the Priests to agree with them the price of betrayal. It is unlikely that Judas knew that Jesus was aware of his intentions, and the Lord’s words forced his hand, and in so doing Jesus took control of events.

Matthew 26:11ff records that Jesus said to His disciples, ‘after two days is ‘the Passover’ and the son of man is betrayed to be crucified.’

Matthew 26:5 records that, at a meeting in the palace of the High Priest that same day, when they were planning to kill Jesus, they said, ‘not on the feast lest there be an uproar.’

Jesus was always in control. In John 10:18, Jesus said, ‘no man takes my life from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power take it again’.

‘Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.’ John 18:2-3

This reveals that Judas was able to lead the Jews to where they could find Jesus. And Jesus knew they were coming to arrest Him but when he decided!

There are several mistakes that are made in trying to work out just when the Lord was crucified.

1. For instance, the Passover meal, ‘at which the Lord instituted His Own Supper’, shouldn’t be confused with the feast of Unleavened Bread.

This means that commencing on the 15th day, the feast lasted for seven days, and just as the Israelites continued to eat unleavened bread after they had escaped from Egypt when God ‘passed over’ the land, Exodus 12, so their descendants celebrated seven days of ‘the Feast of Unleavened Bread’, after eating the ‘Passover meal’. Although they were required to eat unleavened bread during those seven days, it was a ‘Feast’ because the people were called upon to ‘rejoice’.

2. The several references to ‘sabbath’ are also a source of difficulty for many Bible students.

It is often overlooked that the word ‘sabbath’ doesn’t refer to the weekly seventh-day alone. The word ‘sabbath’ doesn’t mean ‘seventh’, as some seem to think.

It simply means ‘separation’ or ‘rest’, and any day of the week, which was celebrated as a ‘high day’, was also called a ‘sabbath’, on which the law of the weekly Sabbath also applied. The Sabbath to which these verses refer was especially significant because being Nisan 15th; it was the Sabbath of Passover Week.

Jesus and Judas

In the Upper Room, on the 14th Nisan, the Lord ate the Passover Meal, Matthew 26:19, but, when Judas rose and went out, the rest of the disciples thought he had gone to buy whatever the group would need to celebrate ‘the feast’, which began the next day, the 15th of Nisan, John 13:29.

It is also worth noting that, occurring in the first month of the religious year, ‘the sacred year’, and being the first major Feast of the year, the ‘Passover’ was regarded as an especially important occasion.

So, this is what we have seen so far; the Passover Meal was eaten during the evening of 14th Nisan, and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, known as ‘the Passover’, began the next day.

The Summary

1. Jesus celebrated the Passover Supper on Nisan 14, ‘Thursday’. Matthew 26:19.

2. He was arrested later that night when Nisan 15 had begun, ‘evening to evening’.

3. The priest came together ‘straightway, in the morning.’ Mark 15:1, thus, ‘Friday’.

4. He was crucified and His body taken down from the cross because the next day was the Sabbath, ‘Saturday’. John 19:31.

5. He rose on ‘the first day of the week’. ‘Upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning.’ Luke 24:1.

6. The woman came to see the sepulchre, ‘in the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week’. Matthew 28:1.

7. The heavenly messengers at the tomb quoted the Lord’s prediction of His resurrection, Luke 24:5-8.

An angel told the women, ‘He is not here, for he is risen. Come see the place where the Lord lay’. Matthew 28:6.

The Jewish leaders themselves said that Jesus had claimed that He would rise ‘after three days’, and wanted the sepulchre to be guarded ‘until the third day’. Matthew 27:63-66