The Gospels tell us that the day on which the women discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty was Sunday morning. The Gospels say that the women came to the tomb “at dawn on the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1), “very early on the first day of the week” (Mark 16:2), “on the first day of the week, very early in the morning” (Luke 24:1), or “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). The women came to the tomb around dawn on the “first day of the week” (or Sunday), and found it empty. It appears from these accounts that Jesus was raised sometime during the early hours of Sunday morning.
The question remains: On what day of the week was Jesus crucified and buried in the tomb? Those who believe Jesus was crucified on Wednesday refer to Matthew 12:40. This verse has Jesus saying: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Proponents of a Wednesday crucifixion say that this statement means Jesus was exactly three days and three nights – or 72 hours – in the grave. Thus he was buried near sunset Wednesday evening and resurrected Saturday evening.
However, if we read the 20 other places in the New Testament in which Jesus and the apostles refer to the length of time he would spend in the tomb, we would be forced to conclude that they do not teach a literal three-day stay in the tomb. You may check the following verses where the length of time between Jesus’ death and burial, and his resurrection, is mentioned: Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40, 64; Mark 9:31; 10:34; 14:58; 15:29; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; John 2:19, 20; Acts 10:40; 1 Corinthians 15:4. In 20 places indefinite expressions such “on the third day he will be raised” are given as the length of time between these events.
Those who believe in a Wednesday crucifixion disregard the inexactness as to time in these passages and interpret them by Matthew 12:40 in a literal manner, as exactly 72 hours. But this line of reasoning creates a contradiction. For example, Matthew, who used the phrase “three days and three nights” to refer to the length of Jesus’ burial, also has him saying: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life” (17:23, emphasis ours).
Taking the phrase in 12:40 “three days and three nights” as denoting exactly 72 hours creates an internal problem with 17:23 in the Gospel of Matthew. Here’s why. The elapsed time between being killed and then rising “on the third day,” as described in 17:23, is longer than the time between rising after being buried, as discussed in 12:40. Yet, 17:23 uses an expression (“on the third day”) that implies a shorter period of time – if we demand that Matthew 12:40 (“three days and three nights”) must be a literal 72 hours. For something to occur “on” the third day is for it to happen in less time than at the point when three literal days have passed. But Jesus was killed some time before he was buried. How, then, could the time between his death and resurrection be “on the third day” (or less than three literal days) but the time between his burial and resurrection be after three days or 72 hours?
Therefore, to demand that the phrase “three days and three nights” must be taken literally as a 72-hour period creates a contradiction within the Gospel of Matthew. The 72-hour theory also causes Matthew to be in conflict with what Mark, Luke, John and Paul say about the duration of time between Jesus’ death and burial, and his resurrection.
Yet, proponents of a Wednesday crucifixion still say that we should take Matthew 12:40 literally. Their view is that Jesus said he would be resurrected after three days and three nights in the tomb, and that is how we should read him. But, must we or should we take Matthew 12:40 literally?
Perhaps the source of the confusion over Matthew 12:40 occurs precisely because we try to read it in a literal fashion, as though it referred to a time period of exactly 72 hours. What we may be doing is reading our modern views of time exactness into an ancient figure of speech that didn’t contain it, or imposing our sense of precise time-telling on the ancient Jewish sense. In fact, Matthew 12:40 may be consistent with and reflect the way people thought of time in their day, not in our era.
Are there any biblical examples where “after three days and three nights” may not mean exactly 72 hours? Yes, 1 Samuel 30 is an example. The account in this chapter is about David and the Amalekites, and certain events in the village of Ziklag. Verse one tells us that, “David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day” (emphasis ours throughout). Upon arriving at Ziklag, David encountered an Egyptian, the slave of an Amalekite. He told David, “My master abandoned me when I became ill three days ago” (verse 13). The account also says that the Egyptian had not eaten or drunk for “three days and three nights” (verse 12).
“On the third day” is not necessarily three full days. In fact, it would be less than 72 hours. “Three days ago” is equally vague, as it could be less than three full days. Yet, this time is equated with “three days and three nights.” It’s certainly possible, or even probable, that we are not dealing with a full 72-hour period here. “Three days and three nights” could be an idiomatic expression that refers to parts of three days. 1 Samuel 30 indicates that “three days and three nights” was an expression that did not necessarily mean a full 72 hours. Other examples where variants of the expression “three days” are used includes the following passages: Genesis 42:17-18 (“for three days” = “on the third day”); 2 Chronicles 10:5, 12 (“three days later” = “in three days”) and Esther 4:16–5:1 (“for three days” = “on the third day”).
Do we lose anything meaningful about Jesus’ death and resurrection if Matthew 12:40 is an inexact reference to the time lapse between these two events? The New Testament references mentioned above are inexact as measured by our time-telling standards, but they still establish the fact that Jesus was in the tomb for a long enough period of time that there would be no question he was dead. Being in the tomb parts of three days, perhaps about 36 hours (which a Friday crucifixion-Sunday resurrection would allow) is enough to demonstrate this.
However, proponents of a 72-hour burial say that how long Jesus was in the tomb was the sign that he gave of his messiahship. But is this true? While the apostles referred in a general manner to the length of time Jesus was dead and buried, they never used the chronological measurement as the proof. They used such expressions as “after three days” or “on the third day,” but they did not attempt to prove an exact length of time. The apostles spoke of the resurrection itself, not the length of time, as the proof that Jesus is the Messiah. It stands to reason that the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection is what demonstrates him to be our Savior. Whether Jesus was in the tomb two days, three days or ten days has no bearing on the issue of his messiahship.
If we remember that the phrase “three days and three nights” is an expression of the disciples’ culture, rather than scientific exactness, then we should have no problem with understanding Matthew 12:40. The “sign” that Jesus gave was not the length of time that he would be in the tomb, but it was the fact that he would die, be buried and be raised to life. We need not be concerned about the exact time Jesus was in the tomb, for our salvation does not depend on that. What is important is that Jesus died and was resurrected to become our Savior (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).