Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 28, 1952

"Three Days . . . Three Nights" -- No. 2

J. W. McGarvey

Finally, Jesus himself has the same usage in his own references to the time between his death and his resurrection; for he at one time says that he would rise on the third day, and at others, that he would rise after three days. See Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34, for the latter; and Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7,46, for the former.

Now of the passages cited, it is only those in Mark which contain the words, "after three days"; while the parallels in Matthew and Luke have the words, "the third day." If we understand that Jesus in every instance used the words given in Matthew and Luke, then we must understand that Mark construes his expression, "on the third day," as the equivalent of "after three days." And on the other hand, if the expression which Mark has is the literal quotation from Jesus, then Matthew and Luke give "on the third day," as the equivalent of that. The Pharisees, as we have seen, understand him as saying, or at least as meaning, that he would rise "after three days"; for such is their expression in addressing Pilate. (Matt. 27:63)

"Three Days And Three Nights"

We are now prepared to consider the particular words of Jesus which are under discussion — "The Son of man shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." We have seen that "after three days," and "on the third day," were equivalents with him and with his contemporaries; but after three days is actually after three days and three nights. To make this very simple, if you begin to count on Monday morning, after one day would bring you to Tuesday morning; after two days brings you to Wednesday morning; and after three days brings you to Thursday morning; but in passing over three days you have also passed over three nights, viz, Monday night, Tuesday night, and Wednesday night. If, then, Jesus could at one time say in strict compliance with Jewish usage, that he would rise after three days, he could with precisely the same meaning say that he would be in the grave three days and three nights. Neither assertion would be true according to modern usage, but both would be strictly true according to Hebrew usage.

"Whole" Years, "Whole" Days

This conclusion is confirmed by another consideration. It is this — that when Jewish writers wished to be exact in the use of the cardinal numbers for years, months, etc., they used the qualifying term full, or whole, before the substantive. Thus a law in Leviticus provided that if a house in a walled city were sold, the owner might redeem it "within a whole year after it is sold; for a full year shall he have the right of redemption." (Lev. 25:29) It was after "two full years" that Absalom took revenge on Ammon, and when he returned from banishment on account of slaying Ammon, he dwelt "two full years" in Jerusalem before he saw the king's face. Zedekiah, the false prophet, said that the vessels of the house of the Lord, which had been carried to Babylon, would be brought back within "two full years." (Jer. 27:3) Stephen says that Moses was "full forty years old" when he slew the Egyptian and fled. Luke says that Barnabas and Saul remained with the church at Antioch "a whole year," and that Paul dwelt in his own hired house in Rome "two whole years."

In view of this usage we can see that if Jesus had meant that he would be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights as we understand the words, he would have said three full days and nights; or if he had meant what we mean "after three days," he would have said, After three full days, or three whole days.

Analogous Usages

If it shall still appear to any one that such a usage is so far from accuracy of expression as to be somewhat incredible, let him consider some usages of our own, which, though not the same, are analogous. Suppose that a freshly landed Chinaman were to employ an American laborer for a month, agreeing to pay him twenty dollars. At the end of the month the man claims his wages, though he has labored only twenty-six days. The chinaman would think himself cheated out of four days' labor until he was informed that according to American usage a month's labor is not counted at thirty days, but at only twenty-six.

Or suppose that he sends his son to an American school which begins the first day of March and is to continue five months. The Chinaman counts the time, and expects his son to receive instruction to the end of July, which would be twenty-one weeks and six days. But at the end of twenty weeks the tuition fee is demanded, and he thinks that he has been cheated out of two weeks, until he learns that in American school parlance a month, which he counted as sometimes thirty days, and sometimes as thirty-one, is only four weeks. But worse still, he finds upon careful count that there were two days in every week of the twenty in which his son was not taught; and thus the twenty-one weeks and sixty days for which he thought he was contracting, has been reduced to just one hundred days, or fourteen weeks and two days. He thinks that these Americans have a very strange way of counting time, and he is right in so thinking; yet we go on counting this way without stopping to think how strange it is.

So it was with the Jews in their method, and in reality their method did not involve so many and so great inaccuracies as our own. This consideration should silence all caviling about the method of the Jews, and about the apparently inconsistent statements with reference to the time that our Lord spent in Joseph's tomb.