Three days in Tomb?

Did Jesus fulfill his prediction that he would be buried for three days and three nights and then be resurrected?


Answer: The author of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying to the scribes and Pharisees: “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” (Matthew 12:40; cf. Jonah 2:1 [1:17 in some versions]. This reference to Jonah supposedly foreshadows the burial and the resurrection of Jesus. Yet there is an essential difference between what occurred to Jonah and Matthew’s resurrection account. This difference destroys Matthew’s attempt at an analogy. According to all four Gospels, the crucifixion took place on a Friday and the resurrection on the following Sunday. From this it would seem that Jesus was buried for three days (Friday, Saturday, Sunday). Thus, Luke writes that according to prophecy, Jesus was to rise on the third day: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and he said to them: ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead the third day'” (Luke 24:45, 46; see also Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31, 10:34; Luke 9:22, 18:33). While it is true that according to Jewish law part of the day is equivalent to a full day, Matthew’s Jesus promised to be buried specifically for three days and three nights. By the use of the phrase “three days and three nights,” Matthew’s Jesus indicated that he expected to be buried for three consecutive periods between dawn and dark (day) and dark and dawn (night), or approximately seventy-two hours. The Scriptures employ the phrase “three days” in a more general sense than that expressed by “three days and three nights.” For example, “three days” does not necessarily include the period of day or night at either the beginning or end of the total time to be indicated. Therefore, when the phrase “three days” is meant to specifically include three days and three nights, and this is not evident from the text, it must be stated as such: “. . . neither eat nor drink three days, night or day . . .” (Esther 4:16). However, when the phrase “three days and three nights” is stated, it includes either all three days and all three nights or can be deficient in only parts of a day or night at the beginning or end of the entire period, but never of a full segment of day or night out of twenty-four hours (1 Samuel 30:11-13). Although Jesus did not have to be buried exactly seventy-two hours, he did have to be buried at least on parts of three days and three nights. Jesus died on a Friday at the ninth hour, which corresponds to about 3 P.M. The claim is made that Jesus rose three days later, on a Sunday. This would mean that he was buried during the daylight hours of three different days. If this was true, he was buried for only two nights.

The Gospel of John indicates that Jesus’ promise to rise after being buried three days and three nights was never fulfilled. According to Matthew, the women came to the tomb “as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1), Mark says “they came to the tomb when the sun had risen” (Mark 16:2), and Luke says it was “at early dawn that they came to the tomb” (Luke 24:1). But in John it clearly states that it was not yet dawn when the body of Jesus disappeared from the tomb: “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” (John 20:1). Thus, John says that Jesus, having risen before the dawn of Sunday morning, was buried for only two days and two nights, i.e., one full day (Saturday), part of another (Friday), and two nights (Friday and Saturday nights). This contradicts the assertion that in fulfillment of prophecy, Jesus was buried three days and three nights. The New Testament evidence simply does not add up to three days, i.e., daylight hours, and three nights, as specifically promised by Jesus. Therefore, Jesus did not fulfill his very own prediction.


© Gerald Sigal