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Holy Week: The Problem of Three Days and Three Nights

Ian Taylor

Most people assume that Jesus died on “Good Friday” and rose from the dead on “Easter,” Sunday morning. Since Jesus said He would rise, “the third day” some count part of Friday as one day, Saturday as the second, and part of Sunday as the third. But when we take a closer look at the Scriptures, we find that Jesus spoke of the time between His burial and resurrection as, “three days and three nights.” From Friday afternoon until Sunday morning is not three days and three nights! What then is the correct explanation?

The Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign that He was truly the Messiah. He said no sign would be given them, except the sign of the prophet Jonas. “For 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. 12:38-40; Jonah 1:17). In other verses, Jesus said He would rise “the third day” (Matt. 16:21; Mk. 10:34; Luke 24:7). There is no contradiction between this expression and the term “three days and three nights.” Both expressions are used interchangeably in Scripture. In Genesis, for example, we read: “God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening (darkness) and the morning (light) were the first day. … So the evening (darkness) and the morning (light) were the second day …So the evening (now 3 periods of night) and the morning were the third day” (Gen. 1:4 - 13). Here is an example of the “third day” counted up and shown to include three days and three nights.

Bearing in mind that Jesus arose “the third day,” notice that Sunday is not the third day after Friday: one day after Friday is Saturday, the second day after Friday is Sunday, and the third day after Friday is Monday! Mark 8:31 says that Jesus would “be killed and after three days rise again.” It seems evident then that there is something wrong with the widespread belief about Friday as the day of the crucifixion or Sunday as the day of resurrection – or something wrong with both!  At the time all these events took place, from raising Lazarus, the Passover and to the Resurrection, this was near the Spring equinox where day and night are of equal duration. Thus, there were twelve hours in the day and Jesus said so (John 11:9-10). Three days and three nights would amount to 72 hours as the time interval between burial and Resurrection. But was this time exactly 72 hours? According to the Scriptures, Jesus was in the tomb no less than 72 hours. He was in the tomb for “three days and three nights” and He arose “after three days” (Matt. 12:40; Mk. 8:31). This has to be a full 72 hours. On the other hand, Jesus was in the tomb no longer than 72 hours. He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19) He spoke, of course, about His body.  The time interval here expressed could not be anymore than 72 hours, for if it was, Jesus would have arisen on the fourth day, not the third. Therefore, since the Scriptures indicate that Jesus was in the tomb no less than and no more than 72 hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was in the tomb exactly 72 hours. God is a God of exactness and His words are precise. It was “when the fullness of the time had come” – not one year too early, or one year too late, but right on time – “God sent forth His Son” (Galatians 4:4). The time when He was to be anointed, and the time when Jesus would be “cut off” for the sins of the people was spoken of by the prophet Daniel. Those who tried to kill Him before this time failed, for “His time was not yet come”! And not only was the year and time of His death fore-ordained, but even the very hour was a part of the Divine plan. “Father,” Jesus prayed, “the hour has come …” (John 17:1). Now, since there was an exact time for Christ to be born, an exact time for His anointing, an exact time for His ministry to begin, and an exact time for His death, it should not be regarded as inconsistent to believe that there was also an exact time period that was to elapse between His burial and His Resurrection – 72 hours exactly.  Bearing this in mind, we can now understand what time of day the Resurrection took place. Since Jesus was in the tomb exactly 72 hours, we know that the Resurrection took place at the same time of the day that He was buried only three days later. Thus, if He was buried at noon, His Resurrection would take place at noon. If we can find the time He was buried, we will know the time He rose from the dead.

Scripture tells us that Jesus died about, “the ninth hour” (Matt. 27:46-50; Mk. 15:34-37; Luke 23:44-46). The Jews divided their daylight hours into four divisions. The Passover is very close to the Spring equinox where daylight and darkness are each of 12 hours, thus each division was of three hours and the “ninth hour” was 3 PM. Following the Genesis account of creation, the Jews faithfully reckon each new day to begin at sundown (Levit. 23:32). Jesus was crucified on “Preparation Day.” There were two “Preparation Days” that week: the first on the day before Passover and the second on the same day as Passover and before the Festival of First Fruits. Both Passover and First Fruits were “high days” or sabbaths.  Measures were thus taken to ensure that His body was removed from the cross before sundown, that is, before the high day sabbath, the Feast of First Fruits. “Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away… But when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead …” (John 19:31-33).  He was then taken down from the cross and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea “for the tomb was nearby” (John 19:42). These things took place: “… when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the sabbath” (Mk. 15:42).  The Greek word here translated “evening” is opsios, meaning “in the late afternoon.” Therefore, since the Resurrection of Jesus was to take place three days later, but at the same time of the day as when He was buried, we know the time of day He arose. He was buried in the late afternoon and His Resurrection must have been in the late afternoon only three days later. We do know for certain that His Resurrection did not take place at sunrise because Jesus was not buried at sunrise. This is also evident from the fact that when the visitors came to the tomb as the next day was dawning, the tomb was already empty (Mk. 16:2). Nor did Jesus rise during the night, for He was not buried during the night. He was in the tomb three days and three nights, but He rose the third day – not at night. On what day then was the Resurrection? Scripture tells us that when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on the first day of the week, “it was yet dark,” and Jesus was not there (John 20:1,2). The gospel writers tell of different visits made by the disciples to the tomb on that “first day of the week,” that is, Sunday morning. In every case, they found the tomb empty. An angel said, “He is not here; for He is risen, as He said.” (Mt. 28:6). Therefore, since the Scriptures indicate that Jesus arose before sundown, and since He was not in the tomb early Sunday morning, we may reasonably suspect the Resurrection took place late in the afternoon of the day before. According to this, the Resurrection was late on Saturday afternoon. The reader will immediately point out from Mt. 28:1-6; Mk. 16:2-6; Luke. 24:1,2 and John 20:1,2 that Christ rose on the first day of the week, very early in the morning. However, careful reading shows that the tomb was simply found empty at this time; these verses do not teach that this was the time of the resurrection. An objection might also be raised that Mark 16:9 teaches that the resurrection was on Sunday morning: The KJV translates: “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week” Other translations, e.g. NKJV, say: “Now when He rose early on the first day of the week.”

In the first place, every bible footnotes that verses 9 to 16 are not found in the earliest manuscripts so that any argument using these verses is immediately suspect. Secondly, the Greek word here rendered “was risen” in the KJV and “rose” in the NKJV is anastas and has the meaning of “having risen,” indefinitely in the past. If the Greek is correct then both bible versions are the result of the translator’s bias of traditional teaching that the resurrection took place on the Sunday morning.  A further fact frequently overlooked, is that the original Scriptures had no capital letters or punctuation. Some bibles use capital letters for “Sabbath” and others do not. Every day set aside for a festival was a sabbath in addition to the weekly Saturday Sabbath. In this little paper I have tried to separate the sabbaths by capitalizing only the weekly Sabbath. Punctuation marks, such as periods and commas, were introduced in the fifteenth century by Aldus Manutious. The translators placed these marks wherever they thought it appropriate. By placing the comma after the word “week” this connects the first day of the week with the time of the resurrection. However, the comma could have equally as well been placed after the word “risen” and in this case would separate the act of arising from the time when He first appeared to Mary. A study of Mark 16:9-14 shows that Mark is simply telling his reader of the various appearances that Jesus made on the first day of the week. The context makes it clear that he is not explaining which day the resurrection took place.

Accepting then that Jesus had left the tomb before Sunday morning and had risen late on Saturday afternoon, we can now determine the day on which the crucifixion took place. Counting back three days and three nights, or 72 hours from late Saturday afternoon, brings us to Wednesday as the day of crucifixion. As we have seen, He died at 3 PM but then the body had to be taken down from the cross, transported to the tomb of Joseph, washed and wrapped and placed in the tomb before sundown. The preparation of the body had not been completed while the next day, Thursday, was The Feast of First Fruits, a “high day” and another sabbath. This only left Friday to prepare the 100 pounds of spices for burial. Saturday was another Sabbath thus first light on Sunday morning, was the first opportunity for Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James to finish the work of anointing the body with the spices (Mk. 16:1, Luke 23:56-24:1, John. 19:39-40).

Some have pointed out that Luke 24:21 records the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened.”  Now because Jesus appeared to these disciples on the first day of the week (“same day,” Luke 24:13), and this was the “third day since these things happened,” this might seem to indicate that Jesus was crucified on Friday. Not really. One day “since” Friday would be Saturday, the second day “since” Friday would be Sunday and the third day would be Monday! Again, this is no proof for crucifixion on Friday. The disciples pointed out this was, “the third day  since  these things happened” and  further  spoke  about  “all these things which  had happened” (Luke 24:14). No doubt they were talking about more than just the one event and “these things” included the arrest, the crucifixion, the burial, and the setting of the seal and watch over the tomb. All of these things were not “done” – were not completed – until Thursday. Jesus was crucified on Wednesday, “the Preparation Day.” The following day, Thursday, was a sabbath or “high day,” the Feast of First Fruits, (John. 19:14, 31) and the same rules applied as in the normal weekly Sabbath on Saturday. It was on this Thursday that the chief priests and Pharisees met with Pilate, saying, “Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will arise.’ Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first.” (Matt. 27:63). So that Sunday, the first day of the week when the disciples were walking to Emmaus, was truly “the third day since these things were done.” However, it was not the third day since the crucifixion.

It is understandable then that since Christ was crucified “before the Sabbath” this is perceived to be the weekly Sabbath (Saturday) and tradition celebrates the day before as “Good Friday.”  There were in fact, three sabbaths that week: Passover and First Fruits both known as “high days,” then the normal weekly Sabbath. The first two festivals always occur in the same sequence within the overall Feast of Unleavened Bread and that 8-day period is determined by the time of the new moon for the month of Nisan. Passover took place on the Wednesday (Tuesday evening) and First Fruits on Thursday; then, a regular work day on Friday and the weekly Sabbath on Saturday. When this is made clear it becomes easier to understand how Christ was crucified on the Wednesday, the day before the First Fruits sabbath, then rose from the tomb three days and three nights later on the weekly Sabbath. With three sabbaths in the week it becomes clear how confusion arises and Jesus is shown to have fulfilled His words about three days and three nights.

A careful comparison of Mark 16:1 with Luke 23:56 provides us with further evidence that the First Fruits sabbath was on Thursday. Mark states: “Now when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, that they might come and anoint Him” (Mk. 16:1. The KJV is the only version that places the verb in the past tense, “had bought” i.e. purchased). Mark, the Jew, states plainly that it was after the sabbath that these women bought their spices. Here he refers to the First Fruits sabbath on Thursday. On the other hand, Luke, the gentile, states that they bought and prepared the spices before the Sabbath. “Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56). Luke refers here to the weekly Sabbath, Saturday, so that the women had bought and prepared 100 pounds of spices on the Friday. That was a lot of work and there was no time for them to anoint the body that same day; they had no choice but to wait until Sunday. 


Attributed to R. A. Torrey, 1907