In Matthew 12:40, Jesus says:

Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.

This has widely—and correctly—been understood as a reference to the period he spent in the tomb, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

However, it raises a question about the timing of these events. Many people ask, if Jesus was crucified on Good Friday, how could he rise on Easter Sunday? That’s not “three days and three nights” later—at least by our reckoning.

To solve this dilemma, some propose that Jesus was actually crucified earlier—on a Wednesday. That way he could lie in the tomb all of Thursday, all of Friday, and all of Saturday, only to be raised early on Sunday.

Every year at this time—and periodically throughout the year—I get email from people telling me that I, and the vast majority of scholars (Catholic and Protestant alike), don’t know what we’re talking about when placing the Crucifixion on a Friday.

Some are positively insulting about it, presenting Matthew 12:40 as conclusive proof that we—apparently—have never thought about before.

But we have.

So, let’s talk about it and the other evidence we have from the New Testament about the day of Jesus’ Crucifixion.

 

Not a Matter of Faith

Let’s start by noting that, although the Church commemorates Jesus’ death on Good Friday, the traditional chronology of Holy Week is not a dogma of the Faith, and scholars can explore other options.

For example, in his Jesus of Nazareth series, Pope Benedict XVI discussed the view of the French scholar Annie Jaubert, who proposed that the Last Supper actually took place on Holy Tuesday rather than Holy Thursday.

That view is commonly shared by advocates of a Wednesday Crucifixion (though Jaubert still places the latter event on Good Friday).

After exploring the arguments proposed by Jaubert, he observes that the theory is “fascinating at first sight,” but that it “is rejected by the majority of exegetes” (2:111).

He then offers his own conclusion, stating:

So while I would not reject this theory outright, it cannot simply be accepted at face value, in view of the various problems that remain unresolved (Jesus of Nazareth 2:112).

For the pope to publish a book in which he says that he doesn’t “reject this theory outright,” even though he ultimately isn’t persuaded by it, is a clear indicator that alternative chronologies are possible.

But it’s a question of what the evidence supports. So what evidence is there?

 

The Day of the Resurrection

All of the Gospels indicate that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Sunday morning.

  • Matthew says this happened “after the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning” (Matthew 28:1).
  • Mark says it was “when the sabbath was over” (Mark 16:1).
  • Luke says it was “at daybreak on the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1).
  • And John says it was “on the first day of the week” (John 20:1)

This gives us a solidly fixed day of the week, which is unmistakably Sunday—the day after the Jewish sabbath and the first day of the week on everyone’s reckoning.

Since no human eye witnessed the Resurrection itself, one could propose that Jesus actually rose some time Saturday (or any point after the burial), but this was not the understanding of the early Christians.

They universally understood Sunday as the day of the Resurrection, which is why they began gathering every first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2) and why this day came to be known as “the Lord’s day” (Revelation 1:10; cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Magnesians 9:1).

We thus begin with the premise that Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, at least as it was reckoned at the time (remembering that Jews began the day at sundown, so for them Sunday began on what we would call Saturday night).

 

“The Sabbath”

You’ll note that Matthew and Mark both say that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty after “the sabbath.”

In ordinary Jewish speech, “the sabbath” was overwhelmingly used to refer to the day of the week known to us as Saturday.

There are a few exceptions to this, where certain other holy days could be referred to as sabbaths:

  • The day of atonement (Leviticus 16:31, 23:32)
  • The feast of trumpets (Leviticus 23:24)
  • The first and eighth days of the feast of booths (Leviticus 23:39)

However, these usages were rare, and the fact that Matthew says this sabbath preceded “the first day of the week,” which Luke and John confirm, indicates that it is the weekly sabbath we are talking about, which is what we’d expect from the unmodified use of “the sabbath.”

What else do we know about this particular sabbath?

Luke records that as soon as Jesus was buried, the women “returned and prepared spices and perfumed oils. Then they rested on the sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 24:56).

If we back up a few verses, Luke records that the burial was done in haste, for “it was the day of preparation, and the sabbath was about to begin” (Luke 24:54).

Bear in mind that this is the same weekly sabbath that the Gospels report as the day before the Resurrection, so the chronology Luke gives is:

  • “the day of preparation”: Jesus buried
  • “the sabbath”: the women rest
  • “the first day of the week”: the women find Jesus’ tomb empty

 

“The Day of Preparation”

Modern people aren’t typically familiar with the phrase “the day of preparation,” but it was a way of referring to the day before the sabbath.

It was called that because devout Jews had to make preparations to rest on the sabbath. For example, they needed to prepare all the food that they would eat on Saturday. Thus, Moses declared:

“This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay by to be kept till the morning’” (Exodus 16:23).

Friday thus became known as the day of preparation. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes:

“The idea of preparation is expressed by the Greek name paraskeuê, given by Josephus (Ant. 16:6:2) to that day (compare Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; Matthew 27:62; John 19:42). In Yer. Pesaḥim 4:1 the day is called ‘Yoma da-’Arubta’ (Day of Preparation)” (s.v. Calendar).

What Luke is saying thus is that Jesus was crucified on Friday, the women rested on Saturday, and they found his tomb empty on Sunday.

The same is indicated by the other Gospels. Speaking of the same day that the women rested, Matthew records:

The next day [after Jesus was buried], the one following the day of preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember that this impostor while still alive said, ‘After three days I will be raised up.’ Give orders, then, that the grave be secured until the third day” (Matthew 27:62-64).

Matthew thus indicates that Jesus was buried on the day of preparation (Friday), and the next day—Saturday—the priests requested a guard be posted until the third day (Sunday).

Mark says that Jesus was buried, “the day of preparation, the day before the sabbath” (Mark 15:42). This is particularly significant because he then says the women found the tomb empty “when the sabbath was over” (Mark 16:1). Mark’s chronology thus has Jesus being buried on a Friday and raised on a Sunday, with the weekly sabbath intervening.

Finally, John says that Jesus was crucified “the day of preparation of the Passover” (John 19:14, LEB)—that is, the Friday in Passover week.

He then says that the Jewish leaders asked for the legs of the crucified to be broken “since it was the day of preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day)” (John 19:31)—and a sabbath falling in Passover did have extra solemnity.

Finally, John indicates that Jesus was buried hurriedly, in a nearby tomb: “So because of the Jewish day of preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:42).

He thus indicates that Jesus was crucified and buried on the day of preparation (Friday), which preceded the sabbath (Saturday), and he was discovered alive again “on the first day of the week” (John 20:1).”

All four Gospels thus point to the same Friday-Saturday-Sunday chronology, with each saying specifically that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation (cf. Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14, 31, 42).

 

“On the Third Day”
You’ll note that in Matthew the Jewish authorities asked that the tomb be secured until “the third day” (Matt. 27:64).

This is the standard way that Jesus referred to the time he would rise. There are at least eight cases in the Gospels indicating that he rose on “the third day” (Matthew 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, Luke 9:22, 18:33, 24:7, 24:31, 46).

Mark also records three instances of him saying he will rise “after three days” (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34), and John has him saying it will happen “in three days” (John 2:20).

However, the standard way of referring to the timing of the event was “on the third day”—a usage also found outside the Gospels (Acts 10:40, 1 Corinthians 15:4).

To understand which day was the third, one must understand a couple things about how biblical authors counted:

  • The first unit of time after something happens begins immediately after the event. We still use this convention today. It’s why a president’s “first” year in office is the one that begins immediately upon his inauguration. His first year isn’t complete until he reaches his twelve-month anniversary.
  • Where the ancients differed from us is that they would often count parts for wholes. For example, they would often consider an emperor’s first year to be the time from when he took office to the beginning of the next calendar year. His “second” year would begin with New Year’s Day, meaning that his “first” year wasn’t 12 months long. Yet though it was only part of a twelve-month period, it was counted as a year.

The same thing applied to other units of time, such as months, weeks, days, and hours, and this has implications for the Crucifixion:

  • Jesus died at around 3 p.m. (cf. Luke 23:44-46), which means the first day of his death was the remainder of the day of preparation, between 3 p.m. and sunset.
  • The second day then began at sunset and lasted through the entire sabbath (i.e., it was Friday night and Saturday daytime).
  • The third day then began at sundown on the sabbath and lasted until sunset on the first day of the week (i.e., it was Saturday night and Sunday daytime).

This is why, on the road to Emmaus, the disciples can tell Jesus that “it is now the third day” since the Crucifixion (Luke 24:21).

We thus have abundant evidence pointing to the Friday-Saturday-Sunday chronology, with Jesus being raised “on the third day.”

 

“Three Days and Three Nights”?

How, then, do we explain the single verse in which Jesus says he will be in the belly of the earth for “three days and three nights”?

If we took that literally to mean three full days—no more and no less—then it would mean Jesus would be dead for exactly 72 hours, which would place the Resurrection at 3 p.m.—something nobody proposes.

We must therefore recognize that this expression is not to be taken fully literally. It involves a figurative expression.

To understand that expression, we can’t impose our own culture’s ideas. We need to look at how ancient Jewish authors used language, and here scholars are clear.

As conservative Protestant Bible scholar R. T. France notes: “Three days and three nights was a Jewish idiom to a period covering only two nights” (Matthew, 213). 

Similarly, D. A. Carson, another conservative Protestant Bible scholar, explains: “In rabbinical thought a day and a night make an onah, and a part of an onah is as the whole. . . . Thus according to Jewish tradition, ‘three days and three nights’ need mean no more than ‘three days’ or the combination of any part of three separate days” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8:296).

“Three days and three nights” is just an especially demonstrative way of saying “three days.” It doesn’t literally mean 72 hours.

And because of the ancients’ tendency to count parts for wholes—that is, to round numbers up—the three days of Jesus’ death were the final part of Friday, all of Saturday, and the first part of Sunday.

Of course, the phrase “three days and three nights”—with no further context—could mean 72 hours, but we have context for Matthew’s use of this phrase.

Ultimately, one cannot use a single verse that can be understood in more than one way to overturn all other the evidence we have from the New Testament—and from later in the Gospel of Matthew itself.

Scholars thus are on safe ground when they maintain the historic position that Jesus was crucified on a Friday.