“According to Matthew 12:40, Jesus said he would be ‘three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’ But, there’s no way to make three days and three nights out of Friday evening to Sunday morning. Even if Friday, Saturday and Sunday are all counted as days, there’s only two nights in between (Friday night and Saturday night).”
This is a good question. In English there doesn’t seem to be any way around the fact that Jesus was in the tomb for only two nights, and therefore this saying is just incorrect. However, the phrase “three days and three nights” was a Jewish idiom for expressing a period of time that included three days– and therefore only two nights.
There are at least two examples of this in the OT. In 1 Samuel 30:12, the same phrase is used (in Hebrew) to express a period of time that began two days earlier, i.e. the day before yesterday. Similarly, in Esther 4:16 Mordecai asks the Jews to fast for “three days, night or day.” The period ends two days later (5:1 “On the third day”). In both cases, the phrase is used for the same length of time Jesus was in the tomb.
A common critique of those of us who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture is that we force a literal meaning on the text – one the text in many cases cannot sustain. This verse is a good counter-example. When we affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, we readily acknowledge that it contains figures of speech, poetic images, round estimates, and the like. Jesus’ hearers would have understood “three days and three nights” to refer to a period of time that was technically only about 36 hours. He wasn’t mistaken about the amount of time he would spend in the tomb; he was just speaking the language of a first-century Galilean.
Jake Hunt, MDiv
Reformed Theological Seminary