Three Days and Three Nights, or Not?
I really don’t have a chip on my shoulder, honest. Or a penchant for taking a minority view just to be quirky and contentious. But I am convinced that God knows how to be precise when he means to be, and how to avoid unnecessary precision when he doesn’t. And in Mt 12:40 Jesus seems to use language that is much more precise than it needs to be. Unless he actually meant what it sounds like he said.
Objections to the Friday view [of the crucifixion] have been based largely on Matthew 12:40 which states that Jesus would be in the grave three days and three nights before rising. Yet it was common practice among the Jews to refer to a fractional part of a day or night as one day and one night.Thomas and Gundry, Harmony of the Gospels, Essay 10, “The Day and Year of Christ’s Crucifixion,” 320
This line of reasoning is the linchpin of the majority interpretation of Matthew 12:40 that assumes a Friday crucifixion. But so far, I can’t seem to make it work.
STATING THE ARGUMENT
If this post sounds obscurantist, it’s because the nature of the argument—on both sides—is grounded in pedantic attention to the use of language. So we have to be precise about the language of the argument. The argument is not that a fractional part of a day equals “one day” and a fractional part of a night equals “one night”; no one contests thatso far as I know. Rather, the argument is whether a fractional part of a day OR a night equals “one day AND one night.” That language is crucial to the argument if a Friday crucifixion is to fit with Mt 12:40. So for example, to apply the argument for a Friday crucifixion, Sunday 12 AM to Sunday 5 AM = Sunday day and Sunday night. The argument in this instance, then, is that (approximately) 5 PM Friday to 5 AM Sunday = the “3 days and 3 nights” of Mt 12:40.
If you’re interested enough to keep reading, I’ll have to beg your patience; the whole debate turns on linguistic precision not just in the verse itself but in our arguments about what the verse means. If you’re not, at least drop down to the section on 2 Cor 11:25; it’s a passage you may not have thought about before in this connection.
Scholars routinely cite all the same passages to prove that any part of a day or a night = “a day and a night” (Gen 42:17-18; 1 Sam 30:12-13; 1 Kings 20:29; 2 Chronicles 10:5, 12; Esther 4:16, 5:1). This proliferation of proof texts looks impressive. Until you actually look them up and realize that most of the alleged proof texts are irrelevant because they do not specify days and nights. That language is central to the whole debate. The only passages that use the “ days and nights” language are 1 Sam. 30 and Esther 4 and 5.
In 1 Sam. 30:12-13, an Egyptian neither ate nor drank “for three days and three nights”; after he was revived he reported that he’d been deserted by his master when he fell sick “three days ago.” But we don’t know what day he fell sick or what day he was found. So what does this proof text prove? Nothing in the passage demonstrates one way or the other that a fractional part of a day or night is being designated as a day and a night.
Esther appears at first glance to furnish open-and-shut proof, until you look more closely at the details: 4:16 specifies “night and day.” This suggests that the fast started at night (in keeping with Jewish practice). Let’s say (for the sake of argument) it began Thursday night (1 night), Friday (1 day), Friday night (2 nights), Saturday (2 days), Saturday night (3 nights), Sunday (3 days). Then, on that “third day” (Sunday), Esther appeared. The result is still 3 nights and 3 days, or at least a part of each day and each night.
In other words, none of the proffered proof texts actually demonstrates that “3 days and 3 nights” = any portion of 3 days or 3 nights. The traditional interpretation insists that Jesus’ language in Mt 12:40 is colloquially precise and entirely consistent with a Friday crucifixion; perhaps some kind of demonstrative evidence for that argument will surface at some point. Until then, it has to be taken by faith.
WHAT ABOUT 2 CORINTHIANS 11:25?
But I want to offer more than just a negative argument. So consider 2 Cor 11:25. What do we naturally assume when Paul says that he spent “a night and a day” in the open sea?Would anyone seriously suggest that even if he was actually marooned for only an hour or two, that would be enough to justify Paul’s “a night and a day”? (I mean, either the phrase “a night and a day” = any portion of a night or any portion of a day, or it doesn’t.) How much time would it take to make “a night and a day” an honest and accurate testimony? Wouldn’t we think Paul was stretching things a bit by reporting “a night and a day in the deep” unless he’d actually been out there for at least a part of a day and a part of a night? And why would that rationale not apply to Jesus’ reference to “three days and three nights”?
In Matthew 12:40, Jesus himself prophesies—as the final, explicit sign to the Jews of His identity—that he would be in the grave three days and three nights. Why not just say “three days” like He did everywhere else? The purposeful specificity of the words he chose was completely unnecessary. Unless He meant them.
Jesus rose early Sunday morning. In my opinion, a Thursday crucifixion and late afternoon burial best satisfies Jesus’ statements (a) that he would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40), (b) that he would rise “after three days” (Mk 8:31), and (c) that he would “rise again the third day” (Lk 18:33). All other considerations aside, a Friday crucifixion seems to create more problems than it resolves for at least two of those statements.