In my Answers Magazine article and in my book (co-written with Justin Taylor) The Final Days of Jesus, I have implicitly assumed that Jesus was crucified on Friday (though our main argument was that Jesus died most likely in AD 33 rather than in AD 30). I’m hardly the only one who believes that Jesus died on a Friday (“Good” Friday), but some have taken issue with the fact that such a belief stands in apparent conflict with Jesus’ statement in the Gospel of Matthew that “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” (Matt 12:40, ESV).
On the face of it, I can certainly appreciate that those who employ a very literal hermeneutic are troubled by this passage, for if Jesus was crucified on a Friday, he was in the tomb at best three days and two nights, which would conflict with Jesus’ own affirmation in Matthew. As we will see, and is so often the case, hermeneutics is critical when tackling this apparent contradiction. In dealing with this question, we come to a fork in the road. Are we going to: (1) start with a word-for-word reading of Matthew 12:40 and, on the basis of a high view of Scripture (inerrancy) try to make the rest of Scripture conform to a literal “three days and three nights” interpretation? or (2) investigate whether there is a way to understand Jesus’ statement that does not involve him in actual conflict with the belief, abundantly attested elsewhere in the New Testament (as we shall see shortly) that Jesus in fact died on a Friday and was subsequently raised “on the third day”?
Of course, the day Jesus died is not nearly as important as the fact that he, the God-man, did die for our sins on the cross. All sides can agree on that. So this is not so much a theological question as it is a hermeneutical and exegetical issue. My preference in the above scenario is (2), so I’m going to proceed accordingly, though you’ll get to the same place (or at least you should, in my view) regardless of where you start.
Before we do so, let me make one more point, related to tradition. When I point out to people that I’m hardly the only one who believes Jesus died on a Friday, the response is regularly, “Well, tradition doesn’t make you right. In fact, tradition can be wrong!” Well, yes, I know. That’s why I departed from Roman Catholicism and moved to an evangelical faith (so it seems a bit odd for me now to defend tradition). Nevertheless, there are often good reasons for a certain tradition, and in this case at least, I submit the reason for the “Good Friday” tradition is rooted in the very Gospels themselves who attest to the fact that Jesus was crucified on a Friday.
Regarding the Gospel evidence, we can observe at least two things. First, the Gospels uniformly attest to the fact that Jesus was crucified and subsequently rose “on the third day” (e.g., Luke 24:7; see also Luke 24:21 where the two disciples on the road to Emmaus tell Jesus that this is “now the third day since these things happened”; this later became part of the gospel message, as we can see in passages such as 1 Cor 15:4 and later still in the Apostles’ Creed). The Gospels nowhere say Jesus was crucified and rose “on the fourth day” or “on the fifth day”; it’s always on the third day. By inclusive reckoning, this means Friday is the first day, the day Jesus was crucified; Saturday, the day he was in the tomb, is the second day; and Sunday, the day he rose, is the third day (other scenarios can be posited, but none of them are convincing). Jesus rose on the third day, just like he predicted numerous times. Second, the Gospels say Jesus was hurriedly buried in a new tomb when Sabbath was about to begin (i.e., Friday late afternoon); then, on the Sabbath, the only thing that happened was that the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to secure the tomb, to which he agreed; and next, on the break of dawn on Sunday morning, the women went to the tomb to finish the job they started on Friday late afternoon in attending to Jesus’ dead body.
Now those who try to fit the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection “on the third day” into a “three days and three nights” scheme, it seems to me, must invariably argue that Jesus in fact rose on the fourth or fifth day. If he died on Wednesday, as some suggest, Wednesday was the first day, Thursday the second, Friday the third, Saturday the fourth, and Sunday the fifth. If on Thursday, Jesus would have risen on day #4 (explanations to avoid this seem strained). Either scenario is in conflict with the uniform scriptural testimony that Jesus died, was buried, and rose on the third day. These proposals also do not work well (to say the least) with the Gospel sequence of the final events in Jesus’ life surrounding the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, as we lay out in The Final Days of Jesus.
For this reason, it is perhaps better to see if there is a legitimate way to account for Jesus’ statement, recorded in Matthew 12:40, that “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.” How can “three days and three nights” mean “three days and two nights”? Well, the answer is not nearly as impossible as those employing a very literal, word-for-word hermeneutic in the interpretation of this verse might suggest (and let me say that literal interpretation is certainly one I generally advocate, except for cases where we’re dealing with an idiom in Scripture). The reason for this is that, in Semitic idiom, any portion of a 24-hour period of time could be called “a day and a night” (i.e., “a day and a night” = 1 day). With Jewish days beginning and ending at dusk, that gives us about 3 hours on “Friday,” 24 hours on “Saturday,” and up to almost 12 hours on “Sunday” – three days, or, in Semitic idiom, “three days and three nights.” (For supporting evidence, see the respective commentaries on Matthew’s Gospel.)
I know that’s different from the way we communicate in English, but that’s what happens when translating from one language into another: we have to accept that people in other languages, culture, and times communicate differently, and sometimes idioms don’t come across perfectly straightforwardly to speakers of other languages. Those who are open to the presence of idioms and other literary devices such as these will readily recognize that this resolves the difficulty, while those who adhere to a very literal interpretive approach most likely will not.
In the end, my preference is to find a satisfactory explanation for the “three days and three nights” reference in Matthew 12:40 such as the one presented above rather than to revision the entirety of the Gospel evidence regarding the day of Jesus’ death. I realize that some very learned arguments have been made for a Wednesday or Thursday crucifixion, though none of them that are convincing to me (or many others). Mercifully, as mentioned, our salvation does not rest on our ability to fit Matthew 12:40 into the Gospel chronology of Jesus’ death. At the same time, I submit that there is a satisfactory way to resolve the apparent difficulty, which provides an excellent case study attesting to the fact that not every apparent contradiction is in fact an actual contradiction. This, too, is something on which all of us who hold to a high view of Scripture should be able to agree.