Really Dead for Three Days?
On Friday, Jesus was crucified. That’s the first day. On Saturday, Jesus rested on the Sabbath in the tomb. That’s the second day. On Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead. That’s the third day. The Gospel accounts, and subsequent church tradition, confirm this ordering and counting of events.
Not everyone is convinced that Jesus died on a Friday. There is a fringe view that Jesus must have died earlier than Friday (like maybe Thursday or even Wednesday), because Jesus said, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).
Jesus’s words in Matthew 12:40 seem to suggest a 72-hour period (three full days and three full nights) that can’t be placed between a Friday death and a Sunday resurrection. So if Jesus rose on a Sunday morning, he had to die earlier than a Friday afternoon—right?
No. Several important pieces of information are missing here.
First, the use of “three days and three nights” can simply mean a three-day period. Jesus is reading the story of Jonah typologically. Just as Jonah was delivered (after a period of time associated with the number three), so would Jesus be delivered (also after a period of time associated with the number three). The insistence for a 72-hour period of death for Jesus is an unnecessary and overly literal reading of Matthew 12:40.
Second, we know that Joseph of Arimathea needed to wrap Jesus’ dead body and lay it in the tomb before the Sabbath began. The Sabbath is, of course, the seventh day of the week. Logically, if Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus before the seventh day began (Mark 15:42), then Jesus’s death occurred on the sixth day—Friday. All four Gospels confirm that Jesus was buried after his death and that his burial occurred right before the Sabbath day began (Matt. 27:62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:56; John 19:31). Let that sink in: all four Gospels confirm this.