Was Jesus Crucified on Friday? Was Easter on Sunday?
Was Jesus in the tomb literally 72 hours?

How can Catholics fit three days and three nights from Friday to Sunday, and be consistent with Matthew 12:40?

"For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth." (Mat 12:40)

There are some Protestant fringe groups who claim the Catholic Church has the wrong day for Jesus' Crucifixion, others say the Last Supper and his arrest were on the Wednesday. Others claim he did not rise on Sunday. Other attacks on traditional Catholic celebration dates are made by liberal scholars in books that are usually released on Easter or some other Catholic holy day which refutes various aspects of Church Tradition or teaching. Matthew 12:40 seems to always be quoted when these criticisms of the traditional Catholic dates are challenged.

Mat 12:40 cannot possibly be reconciled using the interpretation of 72 literal hours in the tomb with 1 Cor 15:4 which says:

"...and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures."

There is no mathematical formula that will enable someone to spend three days and three nights in a grave and rise from the dead on the third day (1 Cor 15:4). If you are in a grave for three days and three nights, then you rise on the fourth day.

After 72 hours and one second it would be the fourth day, which would contradict 1 Cor 15:4, and Mat 16:21, which clearly show He rose on the third day.

It's kind of like this. A baby can't celebrate its first birthday until it finishes one year. It is in his second year immediately after its first birthday. Similarly, after 72 hours in the tomb, Jesus would have begun his fourth day. Try it! There is no way to calculate 72 hours in a tomb and rise during the third day. So one of the passages has to be understood in a different way. The majority of references to Jesus rising from the dead refer to the third day, including the prophesies:

Matthew 16:21 - "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life."

Hosea 6:2 - "After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence."

It can logically be assumed therefore that it is the reference in Matthew 12:40 that we have to re-visit in order to reconcile the two. Scripture is the Word of God, and it will not conflict with itself. If one part of the Bible disagrees with another part of the Bible there is ALWAYS an explanation. Perhaps we were reading one of the passages with the wrong lens. Perhaps we were making the wrong interpretation or one passage was to be understood poetically, but they must always be reconcilable, or else God would contradict himself, which is impossible.

The Bible is clear Jesus rose on Sunday

Let's review the events leading to the crucifixion:

  • Jesus arrived at Bethany six (6) days prior to Passover (Jn 12:1), hence Saturday. His triumphant entry into Jerusalem was the next day, Sunday (Jn 12:12).
  • They could not crucify him on the Sabbath. So they woke everybody up and did it all Thursday night to Friday morning, to make a Friday crucifixion before the Sabbath began Friday night.
  • John 19:14 says "It was the day of Preparation for the Passover ..." and John 19:31 says "Since it was the day of the Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the Sabbath. We know that the Sabbath for Jewish people ALWAYS falls from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. The dawning of the first day of the week was therefore on Sunday.

Matthew 28 says:

"After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb... he has been raised from the dead."

This passage clearly gives Sunday morning as the Resurrection. I (Hugh) was in Israel. The day of preparation is Friday before sundown. Everybody is rushing all over the place, and cleaning like mad, because they can do nothing from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

What do we do with the three days and three nights in Matt. 12:40?

Here are some explanations of Jonah and Mt. 12:40. I'm not going to make a proposition right now about which one is the definitive rebuttal, because that is not necessary. The only thing that is necessary to preserve the Catholic celebration dates is to debunk the "72 hours in the grave" theory and present a plausible explanation for Mt 12:40 which is consistent with Mat 16:21 and 1 Cor. 15:4.

Phil Vaz, who often posts on Catholic Forums did some research and came up with these quotes:

"'Three days and nights' (Jonah 2:1 [1:17]) need NOT imply complete days; PARTS of a twenty-four-hour day counted as representing the WHOLE day. In early Jewish law, only after three days was the witness to a person's death accepted." (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary [Intervarsity Press, 1993], p 81)

"'Three days and three nights' is a special phrase used in the ancient world with the meaning 'long enough to be definitely dead.' It derives originally from the ancient pagan notion that the soul's trip to the after-world took three days and three nights. Jesus' use of the same phrase for the duration of his death before his resurrection (Mt 12:40) carries a similar force: it is a way of saying that he would really die, NOT that he would be literally dead for exactly seventy-two hours. 'Three days and three nights' was a Jewish idiom for a period covering PARTS of three 24-hour 'days-and-nights' (cf. 1 Sam 30:12-13; Est 4:16-5:1)." (New Bible Commentary, p 819,920 under Jonah 1:17/Matt 12:40)

"In ancient literature [three days and three nights] indicated a period so long that if someone appeared to be in the realm of death for that length of time, only divine intervention could bring him back to life. ...Three days may also simply mean a fairly long time (cf. 1 Sam 30: 12; Esther 4:16). In Jonah it heightens the picture of the great power of God who can save his disobedient messenger even after 'three days and three nights.' Much later Jesus' disciples on the way to Emmaus had given up hope because 'this is THE THIRD DAY since it happened' (Luke 24:21)." (The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah commentary by John D.W. Watts [Cambridge Univ Press, 1975], p 82f)

"Jesus stayed in the realm of the dead PARTS of three twenty-four-hour periods, not three whole days and nights. But the reference to three days and three nights comes out of Jonah 2:1 [1:17] rather than from the story of Jesus and causes no problem in view of the Jewish method of reckoning PART of a twenty-four-hour day for the WHOLE (see Gen 42:17-18; 1 Sam 30:1,12-13; 2 Chron 10:5,12; Esth 4:16-5:1; and rabbinic references in TDNT 2:949-950). Here is the only reference to his death and resurrection that Jesus made in the hearing of Jewish leaders. The chief priests and Pharisees will allude to it in recalling that he said he would rise 'AFTER three days' (27:63)....The reason is that Matthew's Jesus spoke to the Jewish leaders about staying in the realm of the dead three days and three nights. But Jesus rose ON the third day. Though the peculiarity of the Jews' method of reckoning time eliminates a necessary contradiction, Matthew suits the two different ways of phrasing the matter to the audience of Pharisees on the one hand (27:63 with 12:40) and to the historical event on the other hand (16:21; 17:23; 20:19) [which read 'ON the third day']." (Robert H. Gundry, MATTHEW: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution [Eerdmans, 1994], p 244-245)

Now for the scholarly Theological Dictionary of the New Testament referred to above as TDNT, edited by Gerhard Kittel, under "DAY" :

"The difficulty has often been advanced that there is a discrepancy between the ['on the third day'] of Matthew, Luke, and Paul and the usual ['after three days'] of Mark. But in this connection it has to be remembered that difficulties always arise in the reckoning of days according to Jewish usage. Thus 'in Halachic statements PART of a day is reckoned as a WHOLE day' [Footnote has rabbinic source Str-B I,649 and the original Hebrew 'part of a day counts as a whole day' e.g. bNazir 5b; Pes 4,2]

"and already in the first century A.D. we read: 'A day and a night constitute a -onah- ([Hebrew for] a full day), and part of a -onah- counts as a whole -onah-' (jShab 12a,15,17)

"IT IS IN THIS LIGHT THAT WE ARE TO UNDERSTAND MATTHEW 12:40...Thus the Marcan narrative ['after three days'] means that Friday and the night up to the resurrection are each counted as a day, while Matthew, Luke and Paul...use a mode of expression ['on the third day'] which would be regarded as more correct by Greeks. Both forms are found in close proximity in Matthew 27:63f..." (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [TDNT], vol 2, p 949f)

[Footnote 30 also refers to Josephus "inclusive" reckoning of days and references are given: Antiquities 7:280f; 8:214/218; 5:17]

The exact same point is made by Evangelical Protestants Kenneth Barker (Hebrew scholar and general editor of the NIV), and John Kohlenberger in the NIV Bible Commentary (Volume II: NT, Zondervan, 1994) that Jewish tradition says that an -onah- is a day and a night and that PART of an -onah- is considered as the WHOLE.

Three Days and Three Nights begins upon the Arrest

Another viable proposal put forth to explain the 72 hours is that it began on his arrest. The web site Blessed Cause has an article which I've reprinted below with permission.

  1. "Heart of the earth" does not mean dead in the tomb. It means becoming man’s sin and thus separated from God. "He has made Him to be sin for us...that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor 5:21)

  2. Jesus Christ became sin on the night He was betrayed, right after His last miracle when the soldiers took Him. Payment for our sins did not begin with His death but with His blood, which began to flow on the night He was betrayed.

    "[We were redeemed]… with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." (1 Peter 1:19)

  3. The mysterious "man in linen" (Mark 14:50). The righteousness of the saints, the linen, was left by this spiritual being as men [soldiers] took hold of him, and he fled naked as Jesus was arrested. When Adam sinned and ate the fruit, "he knew that he was naked and hid from God among the trees of the garden" (Genesis 3:7-8).

When Adam sinned and when Jesus became sin, both times righteousness was removed, nakedness was revealed, somebody fled and hid…

Adam sinned and thus the fall. Jesus was the second Adam who became sin and bought us back by His blood. When this event happened, Jesus was delivered into the hands of men and was beaten, bruised and scourged. He bled the precious blood to redeem us.

Jesus entered the heart of the earth on the night He was betrayed, He became sin and the blood began to flow and payment began exactly three days and three nights.

The Catholic Encyclopedia covers the controversy in the early Church regarding the time to celebrate Easter, but that is independent of this issue.

On a different thread, we reached an interesting topic...

Let's not forget that in the Jewish custom a day started at sundown on the previous day. Part of a day was considered the whole day. He might have arrived in Bethany on Saturday evening and Jerusalem on Sunday morning.

This is the same way to explain the "3 days" in the tomb. Jesus was buried on Friday evening and rose from the dead on Sunday morning. Friday, Saturday, Sunday - 3 days

What did Jesus refer to when he said he'll spend three days and three nights in the "depths of the earth" (Mt 12:40), with a reference to the sign of Jonah. This may liken "earth" to the heart of man, which is also described as exceedingly wicked (Gen 6:5-7, Jas 4:4). Thus, when Jesus shares in our sin, He is in the "depths of the earth".

Christians have argued that part of the day is counted as a full day and a full night in Jewish reckoning.

Non-Christians have argued that this is fanciful reckoning, and Jesus is not the messiah because he didn't fulfill his own prophecy. (He may have spent three days in the tomb, but he clearly spent only two nights.)

Whenever Jesus refers to His suffering of three days, it begins when he is handed over to the authorities. This occurred on the Thursday night when Judas betrayed Him.