Chapter 1.
Historical Aspect

Chapter 2.
Theological Aspect

Three Days and
Three Nights

Mary Magdelane
at the Tomb

Chapter 3.
Experiental Aspect

Also by
Arthur Custance

How Did Jesus Die?

by Arthur C. Custance, Ph.D.

There still remains to be considered, however briefly, the question of exactly how these three days are to be reckoned. A number of erudite attempts have been made in the past to demonstrate that the tradition, which appears to have existed from very early times, to the effect that the Lord was crucified on Friday, is a mistake. The argument is that although Sunday was unquestionably the day of resurrection, one must go back precisely three whole days and three whole nights, a total of 72 hours, if one wishes to determine the actual day of the Lord's death and burial.

It is insisted that the words of the Lord in Matthew 12:40 are unequivocal and must be taken literally: "For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Certainly, by our standards of reckoning time the appeal is convincing.

Yet one has a strange feeling that somehow the early Christian church would hardly have made a mistake about the day upon which an event of such tremendous importance as the Lord's death had occurred. After all, the event is rather clearly hemmed in, on the one hand, by the fact that the earlier-than-usual deposition from the cross is specifically stated to have been occasioned by the circumstance that the next day (which began at 6 P.M. that evening) was a Sabbath or Holy Day, and on the other hand by the fact that the Resurrection occurred apparently very early in the morning following what appears to be the same Sabbath. We do not know precisely when the Lord broke forth out of the tomb. It could have been any time during the night after 6 P.M. of the previous evening. We do know that all four Gospels seem to go out of their way to make it quite clear that no one who visited the tomb arrived there early enough to find the Lord still there.

Matthew 28:1 "Now, after the end of the Sabbath(s). . . " (see below).
Mark 16:1,2 "very early in the morning. . ."
Luke 24:1 "Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning. . ."
John 20:1 "The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early. . ."

It should be noted in the above list of references that the Authorized Version renders Matthew 28:1 as, "In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn. . ." Strictly speaking, this translation as we now understand the phrase "in the end" does not make sense since the end of the Sabbath would not fall in the early morning, but in the late afternoon, because by Jewish reckoning the calendar day begins at 6 P.M. in the evening. It is generally believed that this method of reckoning was originally based upon the fact that in the Week of Creation, the first day began with a darkness which was turned into light, and thereafter each twenty-four-hour period is identified as "the evening and the morning" -- in this order (Genesis 1:5,8, etc.). Moreover, the original Greek in Matthew 28:1 does not read "in the end of" but "after the close of the Sabbaths," i.e. , According to modern lexicographers has the basic meaning "after the close of," followed by the genitive. It has been argued by some that the plural here, Sabbaths, could mean that these were two Holy Days in succession, which would be Friday and Saturday. This would allow more time to fill out the supposed 72 hours. However, two Holy Days probably fell together on this occasion, much as Christmas Day may fall on a Sunday. The use of the plural is perhaps accounted for in this way. At any rate the meaning "after the close of" is represented in one way or another in the translations made by Rieu, Knox, The Twentieth Century New Testament, Berkeley, Williams, Smith and Goodspeed, the Jerusalem Bible, and the Revised Standard Version.

The simplest reading of the record is that burial was just prior to the beginning of the Holy Day, perhaps between 4 and 5 P.M., and the Resurrection late in the evening or very early in the morning of the day which followed the Sabbath. I say, "the simplest reading," because even if an extra Sabbath day were allowed in order to increase the time interval, we are still not provided with the necessary 72 hours, and if we postulate three Sabbaths, we have far exceeded the allotted time. Attempts to extend the period, such as have been made in the past by people like Bullinger, (21) are unnecessarily complicated when we once learn to accept the well-recognized fact that the Jewish people did not reckon days in the precise way that we normally do. And I use the word "normally" advisedly, because it will be apparent that we also "toy with time" and adopt a similar system of reckoning to that of the Jewish people when it is to our advantage to do so -- from an economic point of view.

The principle which governed their thinking in such matters has been rather clearly set forth in some of their own commentaries on the Scriptures. It is this: that any part of a whole period of time may be counted as though it were the whole. A part of a day may be counted as a whole day, a part of a year as a whole year. Furthermore, a part of a day or a part of a night may be counted as a whole "night and day." I suspect that in the Lord's parable of the man who paid his labourers for a whole day, whether they had worked for a whole day or not (Matthew 20:1-16), is really a reflection of this principle. Thus, in the Babylonian Talmud, the Third Tractate of the Mishnah (which is designated "B. Pesachim," at page 4a) it is stated: "The portion of a day is as the whole of it."

In order to elucidate the next quotation of this kind, it is necessary to explain that the word 'onah' , a word which occurs in late Hebrew, means simply "a period of time." Thus in the Jerusalem Talmud, in the First Tractate of the Mishnah (which is designated "J. Shabbath," at chapter 9, paragraph 3), it is stated: "We have a teaching (Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah who flourished between A.D. 80-100 and tenth in descent from Ezra) which says, 'A day and a night are an 'onah and the portion of an 'onah is as the whole of it'."

Even more extraordinary to our way of reckoning is the fact that if a king has reigned for even the smallest fraction of a year, he is credited with a whole year's reign. It is ignorance of this fact which for centuries confused European scholars in their attempts to harmonize the various lengths of reigns of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. For, every so often, cross references are given which should allow the accumulated years to be harmonized between the two, but every attempt made to achieve such a harmony by taking the totals literally led to hopeless contradiction. Using the key which is supplied by this principle of crediting to any monarch any part of a year as a whole year, enabled Edwin R. Thiele to produce a complete harmony of these lists. (22) He did, however, find that certain other clues were needed in certain situations. In the quotation which follows it should be remembered that 30 days were allowed for the month of "March" and that New Year's Day was "April" 1st, according to the Jewish calendar.

In the Babylonian Talmud, and the Eighth Tractate of the Mishnah (which is designated "B. Rosh Hasshanah," at page 2a and b), it is stated: "Our rabbis have taught that if a king begins his reign on the 29th of Adar ("March"), as soon as it is the first of Nisan ("April") a year is reckoned to him . . . and one day in a year is counted as a year."

I have not been able to verify this, but I understand that formerly, if not even now, Russian railway tickets are issued for whole periods of time which are termed "suthees." If it happens that a suthee has to be used for only a few minutes at the end of a day, it must then be surrendered and does not provide the user with a pass for the balance of 24 hours. The actual date of the calendar day is the important thing. But then, under certain circumstances we make use of the same principle. For example, if a baby is born and the birth is registered as being a few minutes before midnight on New Year's Eve, the proud parents can claim a dependent for the whole of the year which is so soon to end. And ministers are not infrequently asked to perform weddings on New Year's Eve in order to gain the financial advantage of married status for the year that is already 99.9 percent over.

With this background material, then, we could reconstruct the events of those three crucial days as follows:
In this diagram three days only are shown, Friday, Saturday (the Sabbath), and Sunday. Each is divided by shading into a night and a day, and each begins at 6 P.M. in the evening and ends at 6 P.M. on the following evening. On Friday morning the actual Crucifixion is shown as beginning at 9 A.M., the third hour of the day (Mark 15:25). Three hours later at 12 o'clock noon there began a period of supernatural darkness which continued until 3 o'clock in the afternoon, as indicated, at which time -- or very shortly after -- the Lord dismissed His life. Sometime between 3 o'clock and 6 o'clock He was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb before the onset of the Holy Day, a day which was doubly holy being also the first day of the Passover. The deposition from the cross is marked by an arrow pointing downwards which is arbitrarily positioned. Between this and the close of Friday would then represent that portion of the first night and day, i.e., Day 1 by Jewish reckoning. From this to the end of Saturday would naturally represent the second night and day. Sometime during the night of Sunday, as indicated arbitrarily by the arrow pointing upward, the Lord rose from the tomb. The interval from 6 P.M. to this resurrection time would be the portion which represented the third night and day.

This straightforward reconstruction satisfies, as far as I know, all the legal requirements which the Jewish concept of "assured death" apparently demanded. The following is a list of the essential references to this time period which are to be found in the Gospels and Acts.

Matthew 12:40 Matthew 20:19 Mark 8:31 Luke 9:22 Luke 24:7, 21, 46 16:21 27:63 9:31 13:32 John 2:19 17:23 27:64 10:34 18:33 Acts 10:40

Justin Martyr, who lived between A.D. 100 to 167, left us a famous work titled Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew. In Section 107 of this he said that the story of Jonah signifies that "on the third day after the Crucifixion He should rise again." Many Jews apparently engaged with him in this controversy, but in no case is there recorded any challenge to Justin Martyr's interpretation of the Lord's words in Matthew 12:40 with reference to Jonah's three days and three nights.

Next Page - Mary Magdelane at the Tomb

21. Bullinger in his Companion Bible, vol.5, p.170, appendix 144. Dr. Bullinger, while acknowledging that a part may be put for the whole, insists that the use of the phrase "three nights and three days" demands a literal interpretation, i.e., a period of 72 hours. He expands upon this in appendix 148.
22. Thiele, Edwin, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, University of Chicago Press, 1951, xxii and 298 pp.