How long was Jesus in the Tomb? Part 1

Unlike a lot of people, I actually enjoy having my faith positions challenged. Anything from the existence of God to whether or not the virgin birth actually happened. During this recently past Easter season, multiple people asked me about the timing of the death burial and resurrection of Jesus. I also noticed quite a few social media posts around the same question.



The question of the chronology of the resurrection is not a new one. In fact, I have worked it out in my own mind before. This time though there was a new twist, two Sabbaths in the same week.

In this post I will analyze the argument for the Wednesday crucifixion.

Here’s the gist of the challenge as I understand it:

  • Premise 1: Jesus states that “the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40) based on the time that Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish (Jonah 1:17).
  • Premise 2: Literal 24-hour days are required in order to fulfill the timeline. Jesus defines a day as having 12 hours of sunlight in John 11:9.
  • Conclusion 1: A 72-period (three 24-hour days) is required to fulfill the “sign of Jonah”.
  • Premise 3: Between Friday evening (approximately 6:00 p.m.) and Sunday morning (approximately 6:00 a.m.) there are only 36 hours.
  • Premise 4: The teaching of a Friday crucifixion and Sunday morning resurrection is a doctrine that was developed later by the Christian church.
  • Conclusion 2: The traditional teaching of a Friday crucifixion and Sunday morning resurrection is neither Biblical nor accurate.
  • Premise 5: During the week of Christ’s Passion, the Jewish calendar contains an additional “high-day Sabbath”, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
  • Premise 6: The day prior to the “high-day Sabbath” is a day of preparation.
  • Conclusion 3: Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for the annual high-day Sabbath, not the weekly Sabbath. Thus fulfilling both the prophetic and historic aspects of the Gospel narratives of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

(Disclaimer: It is possible that I have misrepresented the argument for the Wednesday crucifixion. If so, I invite someone that holds this view and might know their position better to offer an amendment to the above.)

Let’s look at the above premises and conclusions one by one:

The first premise seems pretty straightforward. Jesus clearly stated that the sign would be that of Jonah being in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights. Was this a literal three days and three nights? We don’t know. Could it have been literal? Yes. Could it also have been figurative? Yes. Since we are given no indication either way, we shall assume that it is a literal three day period of time.

Premise 1: Accepted.

The second premise also seems fairly cut and dry. A literal reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:40 would necessitate literal 24-hour days. But the questions is, does the resurrection narrative require a literal reading of Matthew 12:40? Regarding the John 11:9 proof text, yes, Jesus does state that there are 12 hours of daylight in a single day. The problem is that the context of John 11 has absolutely nothing to do with the crucifixion or the resurrection. To remove a verse from its context and apply it to an unrelated verse is very bad hermeneutics.

Premise 2: Rejected.

We have now disproved conclusion 1 based upon the falsifying of premise 2. As such, we don’t really need to go any further, but we will.

The third premise flows from conclusion 1. Since we have shown that conclusion 1 is false and a literal 72-hour, three-day period of time is not necessary, we can also confidently say that premise 3 is likewise false.

Premise 3: Rejected.

Premise 4 needs more supporting evidence than what I have been able to find. It actually seems to me that there is more evidence for the traditional understanding of a Friday crucifixion. We will see more of that in the subsequent entry in which I will defend the traditional Friday crucifixion. As such, I submit this premise is a committal of the begging the question fallacy.

Premise 4: Rejected.

Because premises 3 and 4 have been shown to be false, conclusion 2 is not necessarily true. Again, we will see the evidences for the traditional chronology later.

Premises 5 and 6 are both based upon the idea that the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread is a “high-day Sabbath”. We find some details about this day in Leviticus 23:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts.

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.

“These are the appointed feasts of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall proclaim at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight, is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any ordinary work. (Leviticus 23:1-7 ESV).

A surface reading of this passage could lead one to confuse annual feasts as “Sabbaths” due to the inclusion of the restrictions for the weekly Sabbath preceding the restrictions for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, one the annual feast days. However, the annual feast days are never actually referred to as “Sabbath days” in the Law of Moses at all. Not only are the feast days not called “Sabbath days” in the Bible, I could not find a single Jewish reference that classifies the annual feast days as high Sabbaths or Sabbaths at all. Yes, they are a day of rest. Yes, they are a day where the people assemble to worship God. But they are not Sabbaths. I think the reason for the confusion is due to a misunderstand of what “Sabbath” means. Quite simply, it refers to the 7th day of the Jewish week. In essence, it is Jewish name for the day referred to in English as “Saturday”. To say there are two Sabbaths in a week is like saying there are two Saturdays in a week. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Premises 5 and 6: Rejected.

With all but one of the premises of the argument completely falsified, the ultimate conclusion cannot follow. Thus, case for a Wednesday crucifixion is weak, at best.

In the following post, I will attempt to show why a Friday crucifixion and a Sunday resurrection can and does fulfill both the prophetic and historic accounts of the Gospel narratives about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as well as harmonizing quite nicely with the broader text of Scripture.

What are your thoughts? Are you a believer in a literal 72-hour burial period? If so, where did I miss the mark on that view? Have you ever been confused about the “three days and three nights” passage? Contact me on Twitter, or join the conversation on my Facebook page.

(Update, 4/7: Premise 2 has been altered to better represent the argument for a Wednesday crucifixion.)