How Long Was Jesus in the Tomb?
“Christ predicted that he would be raised from the dead ‘the third day’ (Mt. 16:21). However, he also declared that he would rise ‘after three days’ (Mk. 8:31). To complicate the seeming difficulty, Jesus further stated that he would be in the grave ‘three days and three nights’ (Mt. 12:40). These references, which some see as disharmonious, puzzle sincere Bible students. What is the explanation?”
The solution lies in understanding how the Jews measured time. According to a common Hebrew idiom, any part of a day could be counted as the whole day and night.1 There are many examples of such usage in the Scriptures.
- The rain of the flood was upon the earth “forty days and forty nights,” or, simply “forty days” (Gen. 7:12, 17).
- In 1 Samuel 30:12-13, the expressions “three days and three nights” and “three days” are equivalent to one another.
- When Israel asked Rehoboam to lighten its burdens, he said: “Depart ye for three days, then come again to me.” The context subsequently says that they returned on “the third day” (1 Kgs. 12:5,12).
- When Esther was about to risk entrance into the king’s presence, she requested her fellow Jews to neither “eat nor drink three days, night or day,” but on “the third day,” she went in unto the king (Esth. 4:16; 5:1).
- Finally, note this. The Pharisees said to Pilate, "This deceiver said while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore, that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day (Mt. 27:63-64).
Clearly there was flexibility in the Hebrew mode of expressing time.
One must understand, therefore, how the Israelite people spoke of time. The New Testament does not contradict itself with reference to how long Jesus was in the tomb.
It is extremely significant to observe that though the Jews used every imaginable device by which to ensnare Christ, no enemy ever charged the Lord with error in reference to the duration of his entombment! They understood the common chronological idiom and had no problem with the Lord’s mode of expression.
The Scriptures pass every test of historical credibility.
Scripture references: Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Matthew 12:40; Genesis 7:12, 17; 1 Samuel 30:12-13; 1 Kings 12:5, 12; Esther 4:16, 5:1; Matthew 27:63-64
1 See John Lightfoot, Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Hebraica, II, pp. 210-211.