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Article 36 - How Long Was Jesus In The Tomb?

                                 How Long Was Jesus in the Tomb?  
Jon Gary Williams

Matthew 12:40 states Jesus was to be in the tomb "three days and three nights." It is generally understood that Jesus was buried on Friday and raised on Sunday morning.

It is argued by some that "three days and three nights" is to be taken literally, that Jesus had to be in the tomb for 72 hours, hence, could not have been buried on Friday and raised on Sunday morning. If the phrase "three days and three nights" is not to be understood literally, how is it to be understood?

The phrase "three days and three nights" is actually an idiom, a figurative expression peculiar to a certain cultures; in this instance, a Jewish idiom. This phrase also falls under a variant of synecdoche, when a definite number is put for an indefinite number. (cf. I Cor. 14:19; I Sam. 1:8; Prov. 17:10) 

That this phrase (Matt. 12:40) is not to be taken literally is shown in that this same period of time is also described with other phrases. For example:

1. Matt. 16:21 - "on the third day" Mk. 8:31 - "after three days" (Obviously all three phrases cannot be taken in an absolute, literal sense.)

2. The Pharisees told Pilate, "This deceiver said while he was yet alive, 'After three days I     will rise again.' Command, therefore, that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day..." (Matt. 27:63,64)  

3. Hence, the phrases "on the third day," "after three days," "until the third day" and three days and three nights" all mean the same thing - they are simply different ways of expressing the same thought.

Also, in the Old Testament we find examples of these same or similar figures of speech.

1. Joseph put his brethren in prison for three days, yet he released them on the third day.  (Gen. 42:17,18)

2. Rehoboam told the people to depart for three days, yet they came back on the third day.  (I Kings 12:5,12)

3. When Esther was to go before the king she told the Jews to fast for three days, night and day, yet she went in on the third day.  (Esther 4:16; 5:1)

Proof that "three days and three nights" does not mean an exact 72 hours is shown in that the burial of Jesus took place the day before the sabbath, or on Friday.  (See Mk. 15:42 - "...the day before the sabbath."  Lk. 23:54 - "...the sabbath drew on.")

Jesus was buried on Friday (the day before the sabbath) and rose early on Sunday (the first day of the week).  Matt. 28:1; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1  Hence, Jesus was in the tomb a part of three days (Matt. 16:21) and in complete harmony with the idiom, "three days and three nights."