A Question I Was Asked:

'Was Jesus in the Tomb for Long Enough?'

The Actual Question

Why was Jesus in the tomb for only two and a half days at the most, when he said he would be there for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40)? Surely God would ensure accuracy in this matter!

My Reply

It is interesting that the early church fathers considered the fact of the resurrection of our Lord as being on the first day of the week a most vital point yet the 'three days and three nights' point was considered of less importance. Since these men lived so close to these events we can be in little doubt that Jesus died on the cross on a Friday and rose early on a Sunday.

This is where it helps to be familar with the typical Jewish use of language of that time. The Jews understood "a day and a night" to include even the smallest part of a day and night - but not necessarily the full possible amount of time.

"A day and a night are an Onah ['a portion of time'] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it." [J.Talmud, Shabbath 9.3 and b.Talmud, Pesahim 4a].

Other examples of this kind of usage can be found throughout the Bible (Gen. 42:16, 1Kings 20:29, Esth. 4:16, Matt. 27:63). Jesus was in the tomb for only a small part of Friday and Sunday, but that counts, according to Jewish idiom, for the entire "day and night" for each of those days. This is simply the way that the Jews counted.

In his reply to practically the same question, J.P. Holding also cites Pinchas Lapide's The Resurrection of Jesus (91-2). Lapide takes the reference to the "third day" as alluding to various passages in the Old Testament where the 'after a third day' something happens in the "history of salvation," (Gen. 22:4, 42:18; Ex. 19:16; Jonah 1:17; Esther 5:1; Hos. 6:2) and thus "has nothing to do with the date or counting of time but contains - for ears which are educated biblically - a clear reference to God's mercy and grace which is revealed after two days of affliction and death by way of redemption." In other words, it is a literary device, and thus must be read as one.

As to the actual year that our Lord was crucified there are various possibilities but by far the strongest candidate is Friday, April 3rd, AD33. This date accounts for all the possible difficulties and accounts for the fact that John records three passovers being celebrated during Jesus' ministry.
Robin A. Brace. April 25th 2009.