Theology in 3D

Three Days and Three Nights, or Not?

Layton Talbert | March 15, 2018
New Testament

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.


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 42:17-181 Sam 30:12-131 Kings 20:292 Chronicles 10:512Esther 4:165:1). 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.


But I want to offer more than just a negative argument. So consider 2 Cor 11:25What 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 12:40Jesus 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.

12 responses to “Three Days and Three Nights, or Not?”

  1. Zach Sparkman says:

    Thanks for writing this Dr. Talbert. I’ve also questioned/wondered about the Friday date for the crucifixion based on the reasons you articulate here. Maybe I’m too simplistic but the math doesn’t work for Friday unless there is something I’m missing. Perhaps this would be a separate post but how does a Thursday date fit with the Jewish Passover festival and ensuing Sabbath day? I’ve read in the past that Friday had to be the only day because of how the Passover was celebrated; unfortunately I can’t remember the specifics or where I read that. Any insight would be helpful!

    • Hey Zach, great question. The blogpost attempts to address only one piece of a complicated puzzle made all the more challenging by chronological distance, calendrical differences, four complementary but partial accounts, and some details we just don’t know the answers to. So at some point everyone is reduced to some level of speculation; that becomes very apparent if you read enough of the commentators on enough of the passages involved. But as my Synoptics teacher said long ago: Whatever the Scriptures say will work.
      Your question brings up another piece of that puzzle. My answer, as concisely as I can put it here, is as follows. John places Jesus’ trial and crucifixion on “the day of preparation of the Passover” (19:14). After the crucifixion, “since it was the day of preparation [of the Passover, as he already said in 19:14], and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day),” the Jews asked Pilate to remove the bodies (Jn 19:31). The day after Passover is always the first day of week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread; and, according to OT law, both the first and final days of that feast were observed as Sabbaths regardless of what day of the week they fell on (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 23:6-8). That means that IF the crucifixion occurred on a Thursday, Friday would have been a Sabbath (as the first day of Unleavened Bread), followed immediately by the regular weekly Sabbath on Saturday. (John’s reference to the “Sabbath” on the next day after the crucifixion as a “high day” may well refer to the fact that it was a special festal Sabbath rather than the regular weekly Sabbath; no one, so far as I’ve seen, is quite sure exactly what that phrase means, so that becomes one of those speculation points regardless of what view you take.)
      Hope that helps a little.

  2. Thanks, Dr. Talbert, for this post. It only confirms my thinking. Several years ago I started questioning my own position as I had no reason at the time to doubt the traditional view of a Friday crucifixion and was content to accept what I had always heard or read. What started my questioning was when I came upon Matthew 28:1 and discovered that the word “sabbath” there is plural. I thought that very intriguing. So that led me to think there had to have been two Sabbaths associated with the crucifixion which makes the Friday crucifixion view difficult for me to maintain. When I discovered the OT passages you quoted, they shed further light and opened my understanding of the very statement you made, “The day after Passover is always the first day of week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread; and, according to OT law, both the first and final days of that feast were observed as Sabbaths regardless of what day of the week they fell on (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 26:7).” So I also think perhaps a Thursday crucifixion is the correct view rather than the traditional Friday view. Since every chronology of the events that occurred during Passion Week that I have read advocate a Friday crucifixion, do you have a chronology that factors in a Thursday crucifixion or know of an author that has put one together? I’d be interested in obtaining that. Thanks for your article and your time in writing it.

    • Glad you found the post helpful, Miguel. Interestingly, Mark 16:1 does not use the plural form like Matthew 28:1 does. It’s my understanding that sometimes “Sabbath” appears in the plural to denote a festival period, so that may be all that’s going on in 28:1. (Of course, why the plural is sometimes used in such contexts is unclear; could it be because certain festivals sometimes involved multiple Sabbaths?) Also, in 28:1 both “Sabbath” and “week” are the same plural form of the same word (sabbatwn); could it just as accurately be translated “After/Late in the week as it was dawning toward the first/beginning of the week”? In short, I’m not sure what to make of the plural in 28:1, so I don’t want to make too much out of it. I’m more comfortable on what seems to me the firmer footing of other passages.
      I’ve not come across a published chronology for a Thursday crucifixion, so I’ve developed my own which attempts to account for all the chronological details in the Gospels. If you’re interested, feel free to fill out the contact form on the blog site, and I’ll be glad to get in touch and share that material with you. Thanks again for the interaction.

  3. Dr. Talbert,
    In your response to Zach stated above, I think your reference of Lev. 26:7 is a typo; shouldn’t it be Lev. 23:7?
    Also, with regard as to why Mark 16:1 doesn’t use the plural (sabbatwn), would not a simple answer be that Mark only intends to refer to the Saturday sabbath(regular weekly sabbath)rather than to the plurality of sabbaths to which Matthew is referring? Being that Matthew is a gospel aimed primarily for a Jewish audience, I would expect him to allude to a plurality of sabbaths occurring within the same week that Lev. 23:6-8 mentions whereas the other gospels that have primarily a Gentile audience in view would not have done so.

    • Miguel,
      Good catch on the Leviticus reference. Thank you. I edited that reply accordingly. On the plural of “Sabbath,” that would certainly be a simple solution; I’m just not sure how dogmatic one can be about an explanation without a little more data. After all, Mark was just as Jewish as Matthew, even if their original target audiences were somewhat different.

  4. Also, if I am correct in my assessment, the second use of the plural (sabbatwn)found in Matt. 28:1 also occurs in Luke 24:1 and in John 20:1. So it appears that whenever sabbatwn is combined with or preceded by an ordinal, it changes its meaning from “sabbath” to “week” since the days are calculated in order after the end of the week or Saturday Sabbath (i.e. the first day after the sabbath). However, when not preceded by an ordinal, then sabbatwn retains the meaning of “sabbath.” Is this observation correct?

    • The connection of sabbaton to an ordinal does appear to consistently signify a “week” as opposed to a Sabbath day.(Of course, the only NT examples pertain to the “first day of the week,” in the Gospels as well as Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor. 16:2.) However, your second observation (if you’ll forgive my Charlestonian) ‘ain’t necessarily so.’ In Luke 18:12 there is no ordinal (though there is a number), yet the meaning of sabbaton is clearly “week” and not “Sabbath.”

  5. […] Note–The reference to “Good Thursday” in the tagline below is not accidental. See the following article for an explanation: […]

  6. […] of the weekday on which Jesus’ crucifixion actually occurred, tomorrow Christians worldwide will observe […]

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