Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 21, 1952
NUMBER 16, PAGE 2,5c

"Three Days...Three Nights"

J. W. McGarvey

The words of Jesus, "As Jonah was three days and three nights in the bowels of the sea monster, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth," are very puzzling to many modern readers because of their apparent inconsistency with the accounts given elsewhere of the time between his death and his resurrection. That he was buried on Friday evening, and that he arose on Sunday morning, is so clearly set forth in the gospel narratives, and so generally accepted as true, that it must be acknowledged as a settled fact. But this is totally irreconcilable with the statement that he was three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, if the latter is to be understood in the sense now attached to the words. Some scholars have thought the contradiction to be real, and have for this reason thought that the verse containing the words ascribed to Jesus are an interpretation in Matthew's Gospel; while others have been driven to novel theories as to the time Jesus spent in the tomb. Many attempts have been made to show that there is no real contradiction; but the most of these have proved unsatisfactory. It is the purpose of this essay to make another such attempt, and I trust that the reader will find it supported by competent and sufficient evidence.

English Vs. Hebrew Usage

The contradiction between the statement made and the facts recorded is so palpable from the point of view of our English usage, that if the two are harmonious the harmony must be found in some peculiar usage of Hebrew writers and speakers — a usage by which the expression three days and three nights is the equivalent of a small part of one day, all of the next, and a part of the third. Such usage would appear very strange to us, but if it really existed among the Hebrews its strangeness can not nullify it. Its existence must not be assumed in order to get rid of a difficulty of interpretation; it must be demonstrated independently of the passage in which the difficulty is found. Can this be done?

It was the invariable custom of Hebrew writers to count a fraction of a year, or a day, at the beginning of a series and at the end of it, as each a year, or a day. This can be demonstrated by many examples, and especially by the parallel numbers recorded in the Books of Kings. Abijam began to reign over Judah in the eighteenth year of Jeroboam; he reigned three years, and yet he died in the twentieth year of Jeroboam (I Kings 15:1,2,8,9). Evidently the three years are made up by a part of Jeroboam's eighteenth, all of his nineteenth, and a part of his twentieth. Nadab began to reign over Israel in the second year of Asa, and reigned two years, yet he died in the third year of Asa (1 Kings 15:25,28). His two years were a part of Asa's second, and a part of his third; and they may have been not more than one whole year. In the same third year of Asa, Baasha began to reign, and reigned twenty-four years, yet he died in the twenty-sixth year of Asa, one year too soon in our mode of counting (1 Kings 15:33; 16:6,8). Elah began in the twenty-sixth year of Asa, reigned two years, and died in the twenty-seventh year of Asa (1. Kings 16:8-10).

This method is pursued till the fall of the northern kingdom without variation; and the consequence is, that in estimating the duration of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah by the regnal [sic] years of their kings, it is necessary to deduct at least half a year from the given number of every one who reigned more than one year. Even then the result is in some degree uncertain; for we can never know what part of a year is counted in individual cases, as a year. To this extent Hebrews chronology is uncertain, though the uncertainty is confined within narrow limits.

Counting Of Days

That the same custom prevailed in regard to days is proved by a large number of examples. Joseph put his brothers "into ward three days"; yet he released them "the third day." (Gen. 42:17,18) By our count he would have released them the fourth day. Rehoboam said to the people who had petitioned him to make their burdens lighter, "Depart yet three days, then come again to me"; yet the historian says, "Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam, the third day as the king bade, saying, Come to me again the third day." Here it is clear that a part of the day in which he dismissed them, all of the next day, and the early part of the day in which they came back to him, make up the three days; yet there were probably less than two days according to our mode of counting. Esther sent word to Mordecai, "Go gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king"; yet she went in on the third day. (Esther 4:16; 5:1) Here are three examples taken from the Old Testament. There are others in the New.

Cornelius said to Peter, "Four days ago, until this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house"; yet if we count from the time of his prayer as stated in the beginning of the story, we find that it was exactly three days according to our mode of counting. He was praying in the afternoon at the ninth hour when the angel appeared to him (Acts 10:3); he immediately started the soldier and the two servants for Peter (verses 7,8); they reached the house where Peter was lodging the next day at noon (verse 9) not quite one day after the vision; Peter has them to stay all night, and the next day they all start for Caesarea (verse 23); and on the next day at the ninth hour they meet Cornelius. (24,30) In order to make the four days, he counted less than three hours of the first day, the whole of the second and third, and nine hours of the fourth. In this instance we have to deduct exactly twenty-four hours from the number of days given in order to have the exact number. Again, the chief priests and the Pharisees, after the burial of Jesus say to Pilate, "We remember that that deceiver said while he was yet with us, After three days I will rise again. Command, therefore, that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day." (Matt. 27:63,64) Why say, "till the third day," if he was to rise after three days? We would have said, till the fourth day; for if he was to rise after three days it would not be earlier than the fourth day, though it might be later. Evidently they understood the time included in the expression after three days as terminating on the third day. And as Jesus had been buried near the close of a day, and they expected him to rise, if at all, on the third day, they must have counted the small fraction of a day that remained after his burial as one of the three days. Their expression, "till the third day," also shows that they expected him to rise before the third day would end, and that they therefore count a part of that day as a day. (To be concluded next week.)