Pop quiz: How many days was Jesus in the tomb?
a) One and a half
c) Three or
d) This is a trick question so I will first read the article and then decide.
Your average “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contestant would pick “three days final answer” without blinking. Everyone knows Jesus rose on the third day. But that’s not the question. How many days was he actually in the grave? The answer is one and a half days. Or three, depending on if you are a modern Swiss watchmaker or a 1st century Jewish gospel writer.
Put on your Swiss horologist cap for a moment: Jesus died on Good Friday at about 3pm (see Luke 23:44, which calls the time of death at the ninth hour after sunrise). Joseph of Arimathea lays him in the tomb before sundown, and the women interrupt their plans to embalm the body because the Sabbath begins at dusk on Friday. These ladies arrive at the empty tomb at the crack of dawn on Easter Sunday. So that makes for about thirty-six hours or so that Jesus was in the tomb.
An echt Swiss engineer would balk at guesstimating, but if you and I were to round “thirty-six or so hours” off to how many days, we’d probably settle for “a day and a half” or at most “two days.” Right?
Now, let’s say our watchmaker has his quiet time in Matthew 12 before bedtime. He wouldn’t have a good night’s rest after reading Jesus predict, “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).
Let’s just fess up: Jesus was not in the tomb three days and three nights. So what gives?
Now take off your engineer’s cap and put on your yarmulke. If you were a 1st century Jew and heard someone utter the phrase “three days and three nights” you would never expect precisely seventy-two hours. Remember that you would have no convenient, wrist-mounted method of measuring hours after sunset anyway.
The correct way to interpret Scripture is to employ the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. That just means we interpret the Bible by understanding the language the Bible writers used in their own historical context.
Two thousand years from now sociologists will examine flat screen relics from the 21st century and will ponder why people all over the Western world referred to Saturday and Sunday collectively as “the weekend.” Sunday is not at the end of the week, but the beginning. Odd. Those scrutineers will be similarly perplexed by our celebration of a “birthday.” It’s not the day of your birth you celebrate, but the date, irrespective of the day. And yet, to us users of our daily patois, these idioms are so natural that we don’t even register them as linguistically inept.
My wife and I still stumble over the phrase “next Wednesday.” To a South African next Wednesday means, not this coming Wednesday (or I would have said this Wednesday, honey), but the following one. To my American wife, next means next, and two days from now is the next Wednesday.
My point is that we ought not hold Jesus and his contemporaries to a 21st century vernacular standard.
In those days, in that culture, it was common practice to use “three days and three nights” as argot referring to any period longer than two days and shorter than four. Let me prove it to you…
In Esther 4:16 the erstwhile debutant tells Mordecai: “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do.” But then in 5:1 we are told “On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, … And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the king and Haman come today to a feast that I have prepared for the king.” [She ate the feast with them (vs 6)]. Esther’s timetable was not a contradiction of her commitment to fast for three days and three nights because Jews consider any part of the day to count as a duration known as a “day and night.”
I hope this was helpful; I spent a day and a night working on it.