So, for how long was Jesus in the tomb? Let’s begin by looking at where this question originates.
Jesus prophesied about His death and resurrection multiple times. In one instance, He claimed: “For as Jonah 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.” (Matthew 12:40). He also said that the Jews and Romans shall: “Scourge him, and put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again.” (Luke 18:33)
However, Jesus was crucified on Friday and resurrected from death on Sunday morning. If you count Friday as a day and also Saturday and Sunday you get three days. But if you count the nights of Friday and Saturday you only get two nights. So, there is one night missing.
So how can it be that Jesus claimed to die and resurrect in three days and three nights, yet only be dead for two days and two nights?
The solution can be found in Jewish traditions and knowledge regarding time.
To understand this, one has to know that in the time of the Lord Jesus Christ, there were two groups of Jews. The Jews from Galilee and those from Judah. The Jews from Judah hold on to their original Jewish traditions, and so for them, the day was counted from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. only twelve hours.
But the Jews who were from Galilee had a different way of counting the day. Because those Jews were the Jews who were influenced by the exile in Babylon. When the Jews were taken to exile to Babylon, they were influenced by some of the Babylonian traditions. In the ancient Babylonian traditions, the Babylonians would count a part of the day as a whole day. And also, the new day would start at 5 pm in the evening. As soon as the clock passes 5 pm, in their thinking, they would consider a new day to have started and they would count it as one day and one night, even though the day has not ended yet.
The Jews who came back after exile to Canaan passed this tradition on to their children. This is why at the time of Jesus there were so many different groups of Jews and also this is one of the reasons why the Jews had disputes with each other and didn’t want the others to join them in rebuilding their temple. This is also the reason why there were Jews who ate the Passover on Thursday night and others on Friday.
Also, the idea of the day being counted as a whole day and night, even though the day had not ended, was not new to the Jews. So now when Jesus prophesied about Himself that He will be in the tomb for three days and three nights He was right. Because as soon as He started the new day i.e., Sunday, this day was counted as a whole day and a whole night.
A reference to this explanation can be found in the Gospel of Matthew when the Jews went to Pilate saying:
“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.” (Matthew 27:63-64; KJV)
The chief priests and Pharisees came together to Pilate and demanded guards until the third day, i.e., Sunday. But if they would count three days and three nights then the guards should have stayed until Monday morning. But because they know that a part of the day of Sunday is counted as one day and one night. Therefore they knew that Jesus could rise on Sunday. And therefore, they wanted the guards until Sunday.
So, the phrase “three days and three nights” does not mean literally 72 hours.
It is like in the States if someone says: “I literally died on that day”, but actually doesn’t mean that he was dead already of course! It is a common phrase, and likewise, the understanding of three days and three nights should not be counted literally.
One can also find similar examples in the following Bible verses: Ester 4:15 – 5:1 or 1. Samuel 30:12-13.
There are also two contemplations about the three days and three nights.
First, Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, counts as one day. Then while He was on the cross there came darkness from the sixth to the ninth hour:
“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45; KJV)
This “darkness” can be counted as “one night”. Then of course the night of Friday is the second night. Afterwards, Saturday is the second day and Saturday night is the third night and finally Sunday morning is the third day. So, you have three days and three nights.
Second, Jesus never explicitly mentioned staying in the tomb for three days and three nights. He said: “So shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40). If the phrase “heart of the earth” symbolically refers to His physical suffering, then indeed Jesus’s suffering started on Thursday night when He was led to Caiaphas and Ananias the high priests.
This symbolic understanding can be supported by the Gospel of Luke where Jesus said that the Jews and Romans would “scourge him, and put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again.” (Luke 18:33). Here Jesus referred to the stage of “scourging” as the starting point, not His death. He was indeed scourged on Thursday night. In this case, Thursday night to Saturday night are three nights, and Friday morning to Sunday morning are three days, and the total would make 72 hours.
These are the ways to look at and explain the verse about the three days and the three nights. However, much more important is that Jesus Christ indeed arose from death and conquered death on behalf of all humanity.
For answers to other questions about the death and resurrection of Jesus, follow the links below: