Problem: The Easter chronology is out of sync
Verses: Mark 8:31, Matthew 12:40, others; Status: Minor

There's an apparent discrepancy in the Easter story: Jesus is killed on Friday, spends 3 days in the tomb, and is resurrected on Sunday. Here's Jesus describing his impending death in Mark 8:31:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (ESV)

To modern readers, it seems as if Jesus expected to rise three days after his death, which would therefore mean Monday. However, there's ample evidence that parts of days were counted as full days in many parts of the Bible - for example, in the following passages, which I borrowed from Tektonics and the Apologetics Press:

Et cetera. These passages convince me that part days were indeed sometimes counted as days. So if Jesus spent part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday in the tomb, that could count as "three days" passing. Therefore, I had originally classified this problem as Weak.

However, I had overlooked the following verse, Matthew 12:40:

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. (ESV)

The "three nights" in Matthew cause a bigger problem. From the various gospels, we understand Jesus' death to have occurred around 3 p.m. on Friday. And we also understand the resurrection to have occurred around dawn on Sunday. So at most, Jesus spent the night of Friday and the night of Saturday in the tomb. There is simply no way to count this as three nights.

An idiom?

Ken Collins writes:

The answer is that the phrase 'three days and three nights' is an idiom that does not require there to be three nights.

This seems unlikely, but Collins argues that this idiom is also found in the Book of Jonah itself:

Jonah was swallowed by the fish during the day time and was vomited out during the day time (Jonah 1:17-2:10). In order for that to be three days, only two nights could have been involved. Yet it is called three days and three nights.

But this is simply false. Nothing in the Book of Jonah indicates what time of day (or night) Jonah was "vomited out", nor is it clear what time he was swallowed. I urge you to read it for yourself. Collins also misquotes Esther to make the same point. I won't bother with that.

Moving on, the Apologetics Press gives Genesis 7:12,17 as another example: first we are told that "forty days and nights" have passed, and then simply that "forty days" have passed. But I'm not sure this is relevant, since obviously if forty days and nights really have passed, then it's perfectly true to say that forty days have passed.

The strongest evidence may be external to the Bible. Here's the Apologetics Press again:

The Jerusalem Talmud quotes rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, who lived around A.D. 100, as saying: "A day and night are an Onah ['a portion of time'] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it" (from Jerusalem Talmud: Shabbath ix. 3, as quoted in Hoehner, 1974, pp. 248-249, bracketed comment in orig.)

I've not yet checked this quote, but if accurate we might just have to accept that the phrase "three days and three nights" could mean "three days and two nights", bizarre though this is.

Updated: 2009-01-09

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