Three Days and Three Nights

This article puts the case for the traditional view of the Friday crucifixion and the Sunday resurrection, and resolves the issue of the "three days and three nights" that Yeshua is supposed to have been in the grave. The early church related the passion week to the days of creation and they considered the resurrection to be on the "eighth day", representing the eighth millenium in which there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Sabbath and Lord's Day are two different days. Sabbath is a day of study and meditation, and Lord's Day is a celebration of the Lord's resurrection.

The church has traditionally believed, from very earliest times, that the crucifixion of Yeshua was on a Friday and the Resurrection was on a Sunday. This creates an apparent problem with Matt. 12:40 which says:

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

The burial of Yeshua on Friday afternoon shortly before sunset, and his resurrection before dawn on Sunday morning cannot possibly add up to three literal days and nights. In an effort to resolve this, I considered the possibility that the crucifixion might have been on a Thursday, and I wrote an article entitled The Resurrection of Yeshua and the Festivals of Firstfruits. I now believe that the crucifixion was on a Friday, according to the traditional view of the church, but I have left the article intact in case you wish to study it. The article is, in any case, more concerned with the resurrection than the crucifixion and contains a lot of useful material.

The phrase "three days and three nights" appears in a single verse in Matthew's gospel and does not appear in any of the other gospels. All the other references count only the days, and not the days and nights, as follows:

From that time forth began Jesus to show unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. (Matt.16:21)

And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry. (Matt. 17:23)

And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again. (Matt. 20:19)

... This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. (Matt. 26:61)

... Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. (Matt. 27:40)

... Sir, 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, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. (Matt. 27:63-64)

And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)

For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day. (Mark 9:31)

And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again. (Mark 10:34)

We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands. (Mark 14:58)

And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, Save thyself, and come down from the cross. (Mark 15:29-30)

... The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day. (Luke 9:22)

And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. (Luke 18:33)

... The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. (Luke 24:7)

But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. (Luke 24:21)

... Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day. (Luke24:46)

Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said. (John 2:19-22)

These verses contain a random mixture of the terms "three days" and "third day", which obviously mean the same thing. In particular, Matt. 27:63-64 contains both terms in the same passage. Jewish counting is inclusive, so that part of a day counts as a whole day. There are a number of passages in the Talmud that confirm this, for example in Talmud Nazir there is a discussion of the duration of the Nazarite vow. (The term "poll" means cutting the hair).

We have learnt: If a man says, ‘I declare myself a nazirite,’ he polls on the thirty-first day. Now, this fits in well enough with the view of R. Mattena, but how is it to be reconciled with Bar Pada's view? — Bar Pada will say: Consider the clause which follows, [viz.:] Should he poll on the thirtieth day, his obligation is fulfilled. We see, then, that the second clause [of this Mishnah] lends support to his view, whilst the original clause [must be read] as though it contained the word [I declare myself a nazirite for thirty] ‘whole’ [days]. Does not this second clause need to be reconciled with R. Mattena's view? — He considers part of a day equivalent to a whole day. (Talmud - Mas. Nazir 5b)

Therefore, if something is supposed to happen in three days time, you count today as the first day. Here is an example which appears in both Kings and Chronicles.

And he said unto them, Depart yet for three days, then come again to me. And the people departed ... So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king had appointed, saying, Come to me again the third day. (1 Ki 12:5-12)

And he said unto them, Come again unto me after three days. And the people departed ... So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day, as the king bade, saying, Come again to me on the third day. (2 Chr 10:5-12)

Since "three days" means the same as the "third day", the New Testament consistently supports the Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection. The only verse that appears to present any difficulty is Matt. 12:40 which says specifically "three days and three nights". What do we do with this one verse that appears to differ from all the rest? The answer comes from the Midrash Rabbah as follows:

In the same way Joseph exclaimed, AS PHARAOH LIVETH. AND HE PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER INTO WARD THREE DAYS. The Holy One, blessed be He, never leaves the righteous in distress more than three days. (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis XCI:7)

NOW IT CAME TO PASS ON THE THIRD DAY, Israel are never left in dire distress more than three days. For so of Abraham it is written, On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off (ib. XXII, 4). Of Jacob's sons we read, And he put them all together into ward three days (ib. XLII, 17). Of Jonah it says, And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah II, 1). The dead also will come to life only after three days, as it says, On the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His presence (Hos. VI, 2). This miracle also [of Mordecai and Esther] was performed after three days of their fasting, as it is written, Now IT CAME TO PASS ON THE THIRD DAY, THAT ESTHER PUT ON HER ROYAL APPAREL, and she sent and invited Haman to the banquet on the fifteenth of Nisan. (Midrash Rabbah - Esther IX:2)

The first of these passages is a commentary on Genesis 42:17, where Joseph put his brothers into custody for three days (and then he went to see them on the "third day").

The second passage is a commentary on Esther, where they fasted for an approximate period of three days and nights as follows:

Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day ... Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king's house ... (Esther 4:16-5:1)

Clearly, the terms "three days and three nights" and "three days, night or day" are variations of a Jewish expression that means any period that extends to three days, including the nights, regardless of whether or not it adds up to three complete 24-hour periods. It is considered to have a spiritual significance, representing the maximum time that God allows the righteous to be in dire distress.

While it might seem strange to us, in our Hellenised Western culture, 2000 years after the event, that "three days and three nights" can describe a period of time from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning, we can see from the early non-canonical writings that the early church was not at all concerned about it, because they were familiar with the Jewish culture of the time.

Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch from AD 69 until he was taken to Rome and fed to the lions in 115. On his way to Rome he wrote a number of Epistles to the churches, and in one of them he mentions the three days and three nights scenario.

Reference to the History of Christ
... On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried. During the Sabbath He continued under the earth in the tomb in which Joseph of Arimathaea had laid Him. At the dawning of the Lord's day He arose from the dead, according to what was spoken by Himself, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the whale's belly, so shall the Son of man also be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." The day of the preparation, then, comprises the passion; the Sabbath embraces the burial; the Lord's Day contains the resurrection.
(Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chap IX)

Ignatius obviously considers "three days and three nights" to mean the same thing as the "third day", same as in the New Testament.

Note: The early church consistently referred to the Sabbath and Lord's Day as two different days. The Sabbath is Friday night / Saturday (seventh day of the week) and the Lord's Day is Sunday (probably beginning on Saturday night). The notion that the Sabbath is Sunday is a relatively recent invention which has come about because of the total non-observance of the seventh day of the week as a religious festival. We shall come to this subject later. The works of Ignatius and other early church writers are available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Now that we understand the meaning of "three days and three nights" and the spiritual signifigance, we can look at the context as follows:

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. (Matt: 12:38-41)

Yeshua was declaring that he would be raised within three days, in accordance with the expectation that the righteous are delivered from distress within three days, and he is taking Jonah as an example. He is comparing the righteousness of the Messiah with the evil of those who seek after signs and are never prepared to receive them. The Pharisees were the spiritual leaders of Israel and were supposed to know the state of the nation. They had waited for centuries for the promised Messiah to come, but were seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was already there and was about to get killed. This would be the greatest period of distress in Israel's entire history, and while their Messiah was in the grave they would be celebrating the Passover as if nothing had happened. They would continue oblivious to the facts, even when they see the Messiah rise from the dead. Thus he is using the story of Jonah and the Jewish interpretation of "three days and three nights" as a way of taunting them with their own spiritual blindness.

Friday to Sunday

Having dealt with the apparent difficulties created by "three days and three nights", we now go on to consider the Friday to Sunday scenario, as described in the New Testament and other early church writings.

The crucifixion was on the Passover Preparation day, and this was followed by a special Sabbath known as a "High Day".

The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. (John 19:31)

The Passover Preparation is always 14th Nisan, regardless of the day of the week. On this day, the Passover lambs are slaughtered in the afternoon before the sun goes down. Yeshua died on the cross while the priests were busy slaughtering the Passover lambs in the temple, so that he is truly our Passover Lamb.

The Passover festival is always known as a Sabbath, regardless of the day of the week, because it is a non-working day. However, in the year that Yeshua died, the Passover Sabbath coincided with the regular weekly Sabbath, so it was known as a High Day.

The resurrection was on the "first day of the week" although this is a rather awkward translation of the Greek phrase "mia ton sabbaton" which is more likely to refer to an annual festival which happens to be on a Sunday, rather than a direct reference to Sunday itself. For details see The Resurrection of Yeshua and the Festivals of Firstfruits.

The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. (John 20:1)

Among the non-canonical early church writings, the Epistle of Ignatius quoted earlier, which mentions the "three days and three nights", is probably the earliest direct reference to the timing of the crucifixion and resurrection, and is dated about 115 AD. An earlier document, known as the Didache, or "The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles", was produced somewhere in Syria or Palestine. The date is uncertain, but estimates vary between  60-100 AD. Use the Adobe Acrobat Reader to display this file. The relevant text is in Section 8 as follows:

And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day.

In this passage, the Preparation Day on which Yeshua was crucified is identified as the sixth day of the week (Friday). They had a tradition of fasting on that day, and also on Wednesday which is believed to be the day when Judas Iscariot made his deal with the Pharisees to betray Yeshua.

Ignatius also mentions the fast days, in another of his epistles dated about 115 AD.

Various Exhortations and Directions
... Do not lightly esteem the festivals. Despise not the period of forty days, for it comprises an imitation of the conduct of the Lord. After the week of the passion, do not neglect to fast on the fourth and sixth days, distributing at the same time of thine abundance to the poor. If any one fasts on the Lord's Day or on the Sabbath, except on the paschal Sabbath only, he is a murderer of Christ.
(Epistle of Ignatius to the Philippians, Chap. XIII)

The period of "forty days" is probably a reference to the time that Yeshua spent with the Apostles, between the resurrection and ascension, teaching them the things of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:2-3). It is unlikely to be connected with the pre-Easter period which is now known as Lent.

Days of Creation and Eighth Day Millenialism

Iraenus was Bishop of Lyons, Southern France, from 177-202. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of John the Apostle. He wrote five books against heresies. The first four books refute the common heresies of his day, and in his fifth book he gives his own views, including the following:

The devil is well practised in falsehood, by which Adam having been led astray, sinned on the sixth day of the creation, in which day also he has been renewed by Christ.
1. He had indeed been already accustomed to lie against God, for the purpose of leading men astray...
2. Thus, then, in the day that they did eat, in the same did they die, and became death's debtors, since it was one day of the creation. For it is said, "There was made in the evening, and there was made in the morning, one day." Now in this same day that they did eat, in that also did they die. But according to the cycle and progress of the days, after which one is termed first, another second, and another third, if anybody seeks diligently to learn upon what day out of the seven it was that Adam died, he will find it by examining the dispensation of the Lord. For by summing up in Himself the whole human race from the beginning to the end, He has also summed up its death. From this it is clear that the Lord suffered death, in obedience to His Father, upon that day on which Adam died while he disobeyed God. Now he died on the same day in which he did eat. For God said, "In that day on which ye shall eat of it, ye shall die by death." The Lord, therefore, recapitulating in Himself this day, underwent His sufferings upon the day preceding the Sabbath, that is, the sixth day of the creation, on which day man was created; thus granting him a second creation by means of His passion, which is that [creation] out of death. And there are some, again, who relegate the death of Adam to the thousandth year; for since "a day of the Lord is as a thousand years," he did not overstep the thousand years, but died within them, thus bearing out the sentence of his sin. Whether, therefore, with respect to disobedience, which is death; whether [we consider] that, on account of that, they were delivered over to death, and made debtors to it; whether with respect to [the fact that on] one and the same day on which they ate they also died (for it is one day of the creation); whether [we regard this point], that, with respect to this cycle of days, they died on the day in which they did also eat, that is, the day] of the preparation, which is termed "the pure supper," that is, the sixth day of the feast, which the Lord also exhibited when He suffered on that day; or whether [we reflect] that he (Adam) did not overstep the thousand years, but died within their limit,--it follows that, in regard to all these significations, God is indeed true. For they died who tasted of the tree; and the serpent is proved a liar and a murderer, as the Lord said of him: "For he is a murderer from the beginning, and the truth is not in him."
(Iraenus Against Heresies, Book V, Chap. XXIII)

The early church clearly considered the passion week to be related to the days of creation. They were also eighth day millenialists, according to the Jewish belief that the world exists in its present form for six thousand years, followed by a millenium of rest known as the Great Shabbat. The eighth millenium is the new heaven and new earth.

The False and the True Sabbath
Further, also, it is written concerning the Sabbath in the Decalogue which [the Lord] spoke, face to face, to Moses on Mount Sinai, "And sanctify ye the Sabbath of the Lord with clean hands and a pure heart." And He says in another place, "If my sons keep the Sabbath, then will I cause my mercy to rest upon them." The Sabbath is mentioned at the beginning of the creation [thus]: "And God made in six days the works of His hands, and made an end on the seventh day, and rested on it, and sanctified it." Attend, my children, to the meaning of this expression, "He finished in six days." This implieth that the Lord will finish all things in six thousand years, for a day is with Him a thousand years. And He Himself testifieth, saying, "Behold, to-day will be as a thousand years." Therefore, my children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, all things will be finished. "And He rested on the seventh day." This meaneth: when His Son, coming [again], shall destroy the time of the wicked man, and judge the ungodly, and change the sun, and the moon, and the stars, then shall He truly rest on the seventh day. Moreover, He says, "Thou shalt sanctify it with pure hands and a pure heart." If, therefore, any one can now sanctify the day which God hath sanctified, except he is pure in heart in all things, we are deceived. Behold, therefore: certainly then one properly resting sanctifies it, when we ourselves, having received the promise, wickedness no longer existing, and all things having been made new by the Lord, shall be able to work righteousness. Then we shall be able to sanctify it, having been first sanctified ourselves. Further, He says to them, "Your new moons and your Sabbath I cannot endure." Ye perceive how He speaks: Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made, [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. And when He had manifested Himself, He ascended into the heavens.
(Epistle of Barnabas, Chap. XV)

This is not a declaration that the Sabbath should be replaced by the Lord's Day, but that it should not be celebrated falsely in idleness, a point that is also made by Ignatius.

Let Us Live With Christ
If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death--whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master--how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead. If, then, those who were conversant with the ancient Scriptures came to newness of hope, expecting the coming of Christ, as the Lord teaches us when He says, "If ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed Me, for he wrote of Me;" and again, "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it, and was glad; for before Abraham was, I am; "how shall we be able to live without Him? The prophets were His servants, and foresaw Him by the Spirit, and waited for Him as their Teacher, and expected Him as their Lord and Saviour, saying, "He will come and save us." Let us therefore no longer keep the Sabbath after the Jewish manner, and rejoice in days of idleness; for "he that does not work, let him not eat." For say the[holy] oracles, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread." But let every one of you keep the Sabbath after a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law, not in relaxation of the body, admiring the workmanship of God, and not eating things prepared the day before, nor using lukewarm drinks, and walking within a prescribed space, nor finding delight in dancing and plaudits which have no sense in them. And after the observance of the Sabbath, let every friend of Christ keep the Lord's Day as a festival, the resurrection-day, the queen and chief of all the days[of the week]. Looking forward to this, the prophet declared, "To the end, for the eighth day," on which our life both sprang up again, and the victory over death was obtained in Christ, whom the children of perdition, the enemies of the Saviour, deny, "whose god is their belly, who mind earthly things," who are "lovers of pleasure, and not lovers of God, having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof." These make merchandise of Christ, corrupting His word, and giving up Jesus to sale: they are corrupters of women, and covetous of other men's possessions, swallowing up wealth insatiably; from whom may ye be delivered by the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ!
(Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chap. IX)

At the beginning of this passage, Ignatius seems to suggest that those who have a new hope should abandon the Sabbath altogether and observe the Lord's Day instead. But as we read on, it becomes clear that this is not what he means. He believes that the same day can be a true or false Sabbath, same as in the Epistle of Barnabas. He is telling them to abandon the idleness of the Sabbath, and observe it as a day of meditation on the law. Then he tells them to observe the Lord's Day as a festival of the resurrection.

The early church writings commonly refer to the "eighth day of the week" as the day of resurrection. The number eight has a spiritual significance, being the number of resurrection, and is used in relation to the eight people in Noah's Ark (see 1 Pet. 3:20). There are seven days in the week, and the eighth day is the first day of the next week. The day of resurrection is likened to the first day of creation, and also the first thousand years of the new heaven and new earth.

Sabbath and Lord's Day

As stated earlier, the Sabbath and Lord's Day are two different days, although they have become confused in recent times so that Sunday is considered to be "Sabbath". The true Sabbath is identified in the Ten Commandments as the seventh day of the week. Sunday is the first day.

Unfortunately, some of the early church leaders, including Ignatius, were anti-semitic. However, they did not allow their anti-semitism to interfere with their observance of the Sabbath, because they didn't consider it to be a Jewish festival. The Sabbath is a festival of creation, and they observed it because God rested on the seventh day. Although it is in the ten commandments, it does not begin with Moses. Some of the laws of Moses are simply written versions of laws and customs that existed already, and the Sabbath is one of them. The Sabbath is based on creation, therefore it applies to the whole of humanity. For believers in Yeshua, it is followed by the Lord's Day, in which we celebrate the resurrection. This dual festival is probably the origin of our two-day weekend consisting of Saturday and Sunday. Unfortunately, Christians today have made the Sabbath into a day of idleness or doing odd jobs (if they can get away from their regular work) when it should be a day of study and meditation.

I have written about this subject in more detail in my article on Sabbath and Lord's Day.

Copyright 1999 Updated March 2000

Mike Gascoigne
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