Was Jesus in the Tomb Three Nights?

Jesus Predicts His time in the Grave

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus engages a group of Sadducees. The group had been questioning Jesus' identity and were demanding a sign from Him as proof of His claims. In His response, Jesus used the story of Jonah  and gave them a prophecy of the ultimate sign He would provide to the world to show who and what He truly is. 

"For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." - Matthew 12:40

Jesus' Cross
In His statement Jesus tells the Sadducees He will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, just as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish. This is a rare prophecy by Jesus concerning His future. Tradition tells us Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, placed in the tomb sometime Friday afternoon, and would eventually be raised from the dead. Friday would have been the first day, Saturday the second, and a portion of Sunday morning would have been the third day in the tomb. The problem comes in when we try to count the three nights. In the tomb Friday night and obviously Saturday night, but that is only two nights, not the prophesied three nights. Did Jesus fail to fulfill His own prophecy? 

We should first look at the traditional events and time line for Holy Week. This begins on the Sunday before Easter.

  • Sunday - Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
  • Monday - Jesus Cleansing the Temple
  • Tuesday - Jesus teaching at the Temple - the Olivet Discourse
  • Wednesday - Not recorded in the Bible
  • Thursday - The Last Supper 
  • Friday - Jesus put on trial and crucified
  • Saturday - Sabbath - Jesus in the tomb
  • Sunday - Easter - Jesus is resurrected
This order of events is based on a several reference points. We know the last supper was the Passover meal, a marker in time. The Gospels tell us Jesus' body was taken down from the cross because the next day was the Sabbath. With this time-line Jesus was crucified on Friday, which makes it is all but impossible to get to three nights in the tomb since we know Jesus left the tomb sometime before sunrise on Easter Sunday. In his article, Jack Kelley explores a possible solution to this problem. His solution is very inventive, resolves the issue, but requires a completely new look at Holy Week.

Re-thinking Holy Week

The first issue is to determine when the Sabbath took place. The term Sabbath is Hebrew and means rest. It comes from the 7th day of creation when God rested after creating the Heavens and the earth. In the Jewish belief system the Sabbath is Saturday and begins at Sundown on Friday and continues until sundown on Saturday. Because of this we have always assumed Jesus was crucified on Friday, the day before the Sabbath, but what if the Sabbath wasn't on Saturday?

It is true the Sabbath is on Saturday, but there is more to tell. Not only are Saturdays considered Sabbaths, there are additional Sabbaths known as high Sabbaths. There are seven high Sabbaths during the year. In regards to Holy Week we are most interested in the High Sabbath for the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This feast is believed to have taken place on Friday of Holy Week, so in effect there were two Sabbaths during Holy Week and the two Sabbaths occurred back to back. In this new scenario the Sabbath that caused Jesus's body to be removed from the cross was actually on Friday, not Saturday. This theory fully resolves the issue of three days and three nights in the tomb.

  • Wednesday - Passover - Last Supper
  • Sunrise on Thursday - Jesus crucified and laid in the tomb - this was Day 1
  • Sunset on Thursday is the start of Friday in the Jewish system so this was Night 1
  • Sunrise on Friday was Day 2
  • Sunset on Friday began Saturday - Night 2
  • Sunrise on Saturday was Day 3
  • Sunset on Saturday began Sunday which was Night 3
  • Jesus rose from the dead sometime before sunrise on Sunday
This idea resolves the issue of three days and three nights but it causes us to go against tradition. Was Jesus crucified on Thursday rather than Friday? This can be very hard for many people to accept. Is there any conclusive proof for this theory? Conclusive, perhaps not, but convincing, yes. There are certain elements mentioned in the Bible which seem to support this new idea of the events of Holy Week.

Certainly not proof, but in our original look at Holy Week we see the Bible says nothing about any events taking place on Wednesday. It is odd that any day would be ignored during such an important and critical time. With the new concept of Holy Week, all days are recorded with no gaps.

In the gospel of Luke, after Jesus rises from the dead, He meets with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. This meeting takes place on Easter Sunday. The disciples tell Jesus, who they did not recognize, that it had been three days since their Lord was crucified. Since it was Sunday, that would have been the third day after, Saturday would have been the second day after and Friday the first day after the crucifixion. This would make the day of crucifixion to be Thursday. 

This train of thought resolves many if not all of the issues and possible contradictions. It certainly goes against tradition and is rejected by many for that very reason. Some theories attempting to resolve the same issues want to push the crucifixion back even further to Wednesday. The vast majority of Bible scholars and church officials do not believe it is necessary to move the crucifixion from the traditional Good Friday.

Is The Traditional Holy Week Correct?

Experts and scholars remind us that we must remember to not only examine scripture in the context intended, but also with the language and custom of the culture at the time it was written. It is important to remember the Jewish people did not count a day in the same manner we do today. In the Jewish/Hebrew world a new day starts at sundown. So on Thursday at sundown it is officially Friday.  In this example Friday would continue until sundown on Friday when it would become Saturday. It is also considered that any part of a day is counted as the entire day. Regardless of what part of the day you are discussing it is counted as a night and a day, much like is recorded in Genesis. For many scholars this is what Jesus was referring to when He spoke about three days and three nights in the grave. The Jewish community of the day would have understood this to mean Jesus would be in the grave for at least a portion three days, but not necessarily a complete three days and nights.

Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon. Since the system of the day counted any part of a day as both night and day, this would have been both day 1 and night 1 in the tomb. At sundown Saturday began and continued until sundown on Saturday. This was Day 2 and Night 2. Sunday began at Sundown on Saturday and would have continued until sundown on Sunday. This would have been Day 3 and Night 3 in the grave even though Jesus rose from the grave sometime before dawn. 

Some say this type of counting is cheating while others insist it is the proper interpretation of Jesus' words. It is an unequivocal fact that the Jewish system counts days in a different way then most modern cultures. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the possibility of the Last Supper taking place on Tuesday rather than Thursday. In his book "Jesus of Nazareth" the Pope says this theory is "fascinating at first sight", but ultimately rejected it, as do most exegetes. 

In the gospels we here of the women who watched where they laid the body of Jesus. They then went and rested on the Sabbath according to the law, and on Sunday morning went to anoint the body of Jesus. The Bible does not say they waited two days before going to the tomb which they would have done if Jesus was crucified on Thursday rather than Friday. As mentioned, some say Jesus was crucified on Wednesday which would have allowed the women a extra day to prepare the anointing oils before going to the tomb on Sunday. This seems totally unnecessary and an attempt to force scripture to fit a specific theory. 

When all the elements of the Gospel accounts are considered it seems most probable that Jesus was in fact crucified on Friday as tradition tells us. The prophecy of Jesus was indeed fulfilled when he was laid in the tomb on Friday and three days and three nights later, by Jewish reckoning, was raised from the dead. As with other passages of scripture, some overlook the obvious and most probable solutions and needlessly complicate things to fit what they believe it should say or mean. In almost all cases the easiest solution is the correct one. The vast majority of scholars agree the apparent contradiction can be resolved by keeping the statement in context and with what that statement meant when it was said. We cannot arbitrarily apply our current terminology, grammar and way of thinking to something written two thousand years ago in a culture we may not fully understand. By doing so we greatly increase the real probability of error and creating an apparent contradiction where there is none..


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