Excerpt from: Kenneth F. Doig, New Testament Chronology, (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).
[Added Introduction: The Sign of Jonah is often misinterpreted as "literal" to establish Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday or Thursday. These are modern "western" misinterpretations which ignore ancient Jewish usage and other scriptures. Jesus' words "three days and three nights" was a figure of speech indicating three inclusive days, which included a partial day on Friday, all day Saturday, and a partial day on Sunday. Jesus was crucified on Friday.]
The scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, and He responded, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matt. 12:39-40; also Jonah 1:17; Matt 16:4; Luke 11:29) The only "sign" promised by Jesus to these doubters was His resurrection.1 Such a sign seems to require a literal fulfillment of "three days and three nights." As will be discussed below, a literal fulfillment excludes Jesus' crucifixion as having occurred on Wednesday or Friday; it is only fulfilled by a Thursday crucifixion. Is "three days and three nights" to be interpreted literally, or is it only a figure of speech?
The answer must be put into perspective with Jesus' answer to the request for a sign. At the first Passover of His ministry the Jews asked Him, "`What sign do You show to us? . . .' Jesus answered and said to them, `Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.' The Jews therefore said, `It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?' But He was speaking of the temple of His body." (John 2:18-21) Jesus here says the sign of His resurrection would be "in three days." The response of the Jews contrasts days against years, suggesting that they understood the three days as calendar days. Just as the Temple had not been in construction for exactly forty-six years, there is no requirement here that the Jews expected Jesus to require three days as exactly seventy-two hours.2 The literal or expected usage here is that the Jews understood Jesus to mean three inclusive calendar days, the typical Jewish understanding.
I. Three Days and Three Nights in Samuel
Jesus referred to the "three days and three nights" that Jonah was in the belly of the fish. However, there is no clue in the Book of Jonah when the fish swallowed Jonah or disgorged him. But, Samuel does relate a story about David with a time reference to "three days and three nights."
In the early day "David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had made a raid on the Negev and on Ziklag," and they "came to the city, behold, it was burned with fire, and their wives and their sons and their daughters had been taken captive." (1 Sam. 30:1, 3) That day "David pursued, he and four hundred men," and "they found an Egyptian . . . and gave him bread and he ate, and they provided him water to drink. . . . For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights." (1 Sam. 30:10-12) In answer to David's questions, the Egyptian said he was "a servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind when I fell sick three days ago. We made a raid on the Negev . . . and we burned Ziklag with fire." (1 Sam. 30:13-14) The Egyptian had become sick after Ziklag was burned.3 That afternoon the Egyptian led David to the Amalekites, and "David slaughtered them from the twilight until the evening of the next day." (1 Sam. 30:17)4 Samuel uses both the terms "on the third day" and "three days and three nights" for a period ending during the mid part of the daylight hours. The Egyptian confirmed that the period began "three days ago." The Amalekite's raid on the Negev and Ziklag would have been during the daytime, followed by night, day, night and ending about midday when the Egyptian ate and drank. The "three days and three nights" consisted of partial days beginning and ending the period with one full day and two full nights intervening. Samuel used "three days and three nights" as a nonliteral figure of speech. Based on Jesus' equivalent use of "in three days" to fulfill His sign it can be expected that Jesus also used "three days and three nights" as a figure of speech.
II. The Portion of an Onah
That the Jews reckoned part of a day as a full day can be shown from both the Old Testament and the Talmud. For example, in context, Joseph put his brothers "in prison for three days. Now Joseph said to them on the third day. . . ." (Gen. 42:17-18) Israel and Syria "camped one over against the other seven days. And it came about that on the seventh day, the battle was joined." (1 Kings 20:29) Rehoboam said, "`Return to me again in three days.'. . . So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day as the king had directed, saying 'Return to me on the third day.'" (2 Chron. 20:5, 12) Esther said, "Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. . . . Now it came about on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes" (Esther 4:16, 5:1) and ate at a banquet that day. More contemporary with the time of Jesus were the words of the first-century CE rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, the tenth in descent from Ezra, who wrote, "A day and night are an Onah (`a portion of time') and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it." (JT, Shabbath 9:3; BT, Pesahim 4a) The Jews counted any portion of a day as a whole day.
III. In the Heart of the Earth
Jesus further said, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later." (Mark 9:31) Here, Jesus specifies that He will rise three days after His death, not His burial. Such a consideration bears upon whether His being "in the heart of the earth" refers to the time His unresurrected body lay physically in the tomb, or to when He went in spirit to Hades. When Jesus died He "cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit." (Matt. 27:50) Peter said, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison." (1 Pet. 3:18-19) After Jesus died on the cross He went in spirit to the "prison" in the "heart of the earth," that is Hades. Jesus was "in the heart of the earth" from the time of his death, several hours before His burial.
[Added speculation: Why did Jesus go into the heart of the earth for "three days and 3 nights"? "He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah." (1 Peter 3:18-19) Jesus also died for the sins of the fallen angels imprisoned in the Abyss since the Flood. Jesus' death extended God's forgiveness to these angels. They can repent and accept Jesus is Lord. They will be released at the future First Woe. (Revelation 9:1-12) Many will follow Satan and others return to God. The last time for angels to make their choice will the the War in Heaven. (Revelation 12:7-9) Of course God will extend His grace to His first creation, the angels. Thank you, Jesus.]
There are many references to the time from Jesus' death to resurrection. This was measured from "three days and three nights," (Matt. 12:40) "in three days," (Matt. 26:61, 27:40; Mark 14:58, 15:29; John 2:19-20) "three days later," (Mark 9:31) "after three days," (Matt. 27:63-64; Mark 8:31) "the third day," (Luke 24:7, 21, 46) or "on the third day."5 (Matt. 16:21, 17:23, 20:19; Luke 9:22, 18:33; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 14:40) The beginning point is with the death of Jesus at 3:00 PM in the afternoon. The three following hours of daylight are counted as a full day according to Jewish reckoning, at least by sunset reckoning. Jesus was "in the heart of the earth" during that first day.
That first day of the crucifixion has been proposed as Wednesday.6 (See Chart XXI) Here "three days and three nights" is treated as a figure of speech meaning "seventy-two hours," with the order of days and nights reversed to "three nights and three days." This proceeds to the premise that Jesus was buried just at sunset on Wednesday. He then lay in the tomb for a seventy-two hour period of three nights and three days and was resurrected just before sunset on Saturday. This timing is nowhere established except by circular reasoning to confirm the seventy-two hours. The empty tomb was not found until the following morning. Here, the time Jesus spent "in the heart of the earth" is only counted as the time His body lay in the tomb, not the about seventy-five hours that His Spirit would have spent in Hades. Also, by either sunrise or sunset reckoning Jesus would have been resurrected four calendar days after His death. A Wednesday crucifixion is not a literal interpretation and cannot be made to fit in three days.
IV. A Literal Fulfillment
With a Thursday crucifixion the first period after Jesus' death was indeed a "day," the first part of a possible literal sequence of "three days and three nights." If Jesus was crucified Thursday afternoon and resurrected just before sunrise Sunday morning (late Saturday night) then this was after three daylight periods followed by three night periods, or a literal "three days and three nights." (See Chart XXII) Also, this was correctly three calendar days according to the Second Temple Calendar beginning at sunrise. It was four days according to the sunset calendar of the Diaspora. The Thursday crucifixion is the only one that literally fulfills three days and three nights in three calendar days.
V. Three Short Days
The third choice is the Friday crucifixion. (See Chart XXIII) With the death of Jesus on Friday afternoon and His resurrection just after sunrise Sunday there are three calendar days by either sunrise or sunset reckoning. However, there are only three days and two nights, including two short days. This requires that "three days and three nights" be interpreted as a figure of speech, as allowed by the above discussion. The Friday crucifixion meets the requirements of three days according to the Jewish usage of the period. It should be noted that the festival "Sabbath" beginning Thursday evening is only applicable if that evening was Passover and Jesus was crucified on Nisan 15. If the crucifixion of Jesus was on Nisan 14 then there was only one Sabbath, which began Friday evening.
[Added note: After Jesus arose the women found His tomb empty on the first day of the week, Sunday. They were reminded Jesus said He would be "crucified, and on the third day rise again." (Luke 24:7) Later that Sunday the risen Jesus met the two men on the road to Emmaus. On His questioning they respond that Jesus the Nazarene had been crucified, and "it is the third day since these things happened." (Luke 24:21) Since Sunday was the third day, by any reckoning Jesus can not have been crucified on Wednesday or Thursday. Jesus was crucified on Friday.]
A Wednesday crucifixion does not meet the requirements of the "three
days and three nights" or three calendar days. A Thursday crucifixion of
Jesus would best fit a literal "three days and three nights" in three calendar
days. By treating the "three days and three nights" as a figure of speech
a Friday crucifixion is possible [Established].
1. E. W. Faulstich, "Dating the Crucifixion," IAT (May, 1986),
6-7, goes beyond the resurrection as the "sign." He extends the prophesied
"forty days" against Nineveh (Jonah 3:4) with a day for a year. (Eze. 4:6)
He then dates from an eclipse in 763 BCE forward forty years to the fall
of Samaria and the end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 723 BCE (actually
722). This period is equated with the forty years from Jesus' crucifixion
in 30 CE to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.
2. The day might be measured from sunrise or sunset, the "day" being the time between rotations of the sun. The length of daylight varied throughout the year, and as fine a measurement as "hour" was seldom used.
3. When the Egyptian last ate may not be synonymous with the raid on Ziklag, but it was most likely before he became sick.
4. N. L. Collins, "The Start of the Pre-Exilic Calendar Day of David and the Amalekites: A Note on 1 Samuel XXX 17," VT 41, 2 (1991) concludes that "twilight" here refers to dawn, and David measured his day from sunrise.
5. J. M. Perry, "The Three Days in the Synoptic Passion Predictions," CBQ 48 (1986), 650 notes that "after three days" and "on the third day" were sometimes used as equivalent expressions. He discusses Luke 13:32-33 as a remnant of Jesus' original sayings predicting His passion.
6. H. W. Armstrong, The Resurrection was Not on Sunday (Pasadena: Worldwide Church of God, 1952).