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Notwithstanding that Good Friday has a long-standing history as the accepted day of the Crucifixion, in our skeptical era when long-held views are routinely questioned, some Christian groups have used modern ways of counting to adopt a Wednesday or Thursday Crucifixion as an essential point of their doctrine. They claim that, notwithstanding its long acceptance by Christianity, Good Friday reflects a faulty understanding of Scripture. But we must attempt to look at the matter as the Jews themselves did, not impose a modern understanding of counting on the ancient text.

If we accept the inerrancy of the Scriptures, all of the passages in the New Testament dealing with the Crucifixion/Resurrection period simply must put Christ in the grave for the same amount of time. We cannot focus on just a single passage interpreted in isolation from its parallels. We owe it to the God of the Bible to seek a way to reconcile all of the various Scriptures on this subject with each other, not favoring one over all the rest.

Those who advocate for a Wednesday or Thursday Crucifixion over Friday adopt a particular interpretation of the expression “three days and three nights” in the “sign of Jonah” Jesus gave in Matthew 12:39–40:

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will 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 will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (NASB 1995)

The traditional date for the Crucifixion puts Nisan 14 on a Friday. This makes the Nisan 15 “high day”—the proper biblical term, not “high Sabbath,” which is an interpretation—coincide with the regular Saturday Sabbath. The result is that, from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection, two nights and one full day pass. But those who see a so-called “high Sabbath” as an extra rest day to count say this is not enough time and violates Scripture. They adopt a hyper-literal modern perspective that insists each day and each night of Matthew 12:40 must be 12 hours long, no more and no less, then seek to account for three 12-hour days plus three 12-hour nights—a total of 72 hours for Jesus to be “in the heart of the earth.” They therefore object to the historical understanding that He was in the grave only from Friday evening to early Sunday morning.

Well, we may say the hearts of these folks are in the right place; they want to honor Scripture as the Word of God. But their understanding of the Word is improperly influenced by modern ways of counting time, so that what they are honoring is actually their particular interpretation. The fact is, “three days and three nights” in Matthew 12:40 reflects a known Jewish idiom. It is not to be understood as requiring exactly a literal 72-hour period from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection.

“Three Days and Three Nights” as a Jewish Idiom

It goes without saying that during His life, Jesus learned as a child the common language of His time, including its figures of speech and idioms. He did not speak King James English, or any English at all! Any idiomatic expressions He would have used would have reflected the vernacular of His day.1

When we do a search for verses in the New Testament dealing with the time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, we find that Jesus Himself used different expressions at different times when speaking about it: “three days and three nights” (Mt 12:40), “after three days” (Mk 8:31), “in three days” (Jn 2:19), and “on the third day” (Lk 9:22).2 He would not have contradicted Himself; therefore all of these expressions must mean the exact same thing. The apostles Peter and Paul likewise used “on the third day” in Acts 10:40 and 1 Corinthians 15:3–4.

It is obvious that, despite the differences in expression, these passages must all refer to the same span of time. The only way we can reconcile them is if we do not try to apply a strictly literal modern English sense to them all. A solution is needed that allows them to peacefully coexist, to speak with one voice. We get this when we acknowledge that the ancient Jews characteristically reckoned the passing of time inclusively, such that part of a day was counted as a whole. This may not be the way we today are accustomed to reckoning time, but no matter. If we accept the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, we are obliged to view the writings in the New Testament through first-century eyes, acknowledging when they use idioms that are distinctive to them. It is pure stubbornness to do otherwise.

If we accept the reality that there were particular turns of phrase distinctive to Jewish expression in the time of Christ, it prepares us to understand how the statement in Matthew 12:40 was probably understood by Jesus’s hearers. The basic question before us is, does “three days and three nights” equate with 72 hours—three periods of 12 hours of daylight plus three periods of 12 hours of darkness—as a mathematically correct English rendering seems to indicate, or does it reflect an idiomatic Jewish expression that should not be interpreted that way?

Scripture is replete with examples that show we should regard “three days and three nights” as an idiom. A particularly clear example is seen in the story of Cornelius, the Roman centurion who asked Peter to visit him in Acts 10. Verse 3 says he saw a vision at the ninth hour of a certain day. Verses 7–8 then say he promptly responded to the vision by sending a couple servants and a soldier to Peter that same day. Then the next day (Acts 10:9), right after Peter saw a vision, the messengers from Cornelius arrived at his gate and explained their mission, and Peter invited them in to spend the night (10:17–23a). Then the next day (10:23b), Peter and some brethren left with Cornelius’s servants. They did not arrive at Cornelius’s home in Caesarea until the following day (10:24). The way we count time today, we would say that Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house three days after Cornelius dispatched his servants to fetch Peter. We would not include the day of their departure from Cornelius as part of the elapsed time. But what does Cornelius do? He relates his story, saying that “four days ago”—to the very hour, the ninth—he had his vision that prompted him to send his servants to Peter (v. 30). When one counts the hours from the time of the vision to the arrival of Peter, there were exactly 72 hours (three days), yet Cornelius called it the fourth day. This reflects the characteristic Jewish idiomatic way of reckoning time inclusively.

In the Tyndale commentary on Matthew, R. T. France likewise argues that “three days and three nights was a Jewish idiom appropriate to a period covering only two nights.”3 A webpage on Evidence Unseen that refers to France’s statement adds that the phrase “can be understood as ‘spanning three calendar days’” and further lists three examples from the Old Testament that show the phrase’s idiomatic usage:

Joseph put all of his brothers in prison for “three days,” but then we read that they were released “on the third day” (Gen. 42:17-18). Did they actually stay in prison for 72 hours? No, but this demonstrates that the Hebrews counted the part as the whole.

David came to his men in Ziklag “on the third day,” but then we read that David had not eaten for “three days and three nights” (1 Sam. 30:1, 12-13). Again, this is an idiom where the part is being counted for the whole.

Esther told Mordecai to fast for “three days, night or day,” but she came to the king “on the third day” (Est. 4:16-5:1). Again, this same idiom is being used for less than 72 hours.4

The website summarizes by observing,

Critics might argue that three days and nights are explicitly mentioned. But this misses the meaning of what an idiom is. Idioms—in any culture—simply shouldn’t be pressed for literality. . . .

. . . An idiom shouldn’t be pressed for technical precision.5

Other examples could be cited. Scripture defines “the third day” in Exodus 19:10–11 and Luke 13:32, where both speak of “today and tomorrow, and the third day.” This illustrates the kind of inclusive reckoning seen in the crucifixion accounts, which sees the day counting began as the first day. Leviticus 19:6–7 is similar: “It shall be eaten the same day you offer it, and the next day; but what remains until the third day shall be burned with fire” (v. 6; NASB 1995). This idiomatic Jewish way of counting a third day inclusively should remove any doubt from our minds that it also applies to Matthew 12:40.

Jewish Christians today, who know the quirks of their language better than Gentile believers, agree that we are dealing here with a Jewish idiom. One, Joseph Hoffman Cohen, draws our attention to John 19:31:

“For that Sabbath day was an high day.” Bible students unacquainted with Jewish law and custom do not realize the significance of this passage, and so stumble into a wrong interpretation. The Sabbath day to the Jews means only the seventh day of the week; but Scripture often speaks of other holy days; if, for instance, any feast began on a Monday, then that Monday was a holy day in the Jewish colloquial, although the Scriptures, in order to distinguish between the common days and that holy day, call it a Sabbath but never, the Sabbath. A holy day is called a Sabbath only for the reason that certain work is forbidden and differs from the Sabbath on which all work is forbidden. Now it so happened that on this particular occasion, the first day of the Passover fell on a Saturday; hence the scrupulous care taken by the Evangelist, to specify, “that Sabbath day was an high day.” That is, it was a sort of double Sabbath, it being the regular weekly Sabbath Day as well as the first day of the Passover Feast. To prove that this Sabbath was the weekly Sabbath, one has only to consider the words, Day of Preparation. In Exodus 16:5 we read, “And it shall come to pass, that on the sixth day they shall prepare that which they bring in,” which is the only time such an expression occurs in the Old Testament. On this expression the ancient rabbis built up hundreds of laws forbidding the eating, on the Sabbath, of food not prepared on Friday, whether it were fruit that fell from the tree or an egg laid on the Sabbath. Therefore, the words “Preparation Day,” which is another expression among the Jews for Friday, can never be applied to the day preceding any other day than the Sabbath when food could not be prepared.6

Another Jewish perspective is given by Rich Robinson, who is on the staff of the Jews for Jesus organization.7 Among other things, he points out that Josephus, in Antiquities 7.280–81 and 8.214, 8.218, uses “after three days” and “on the third day” interchangeably (in the latter passage, the original Greek literally says “after three days”). Robinson also observes the parallels between Matthew 4:2—“And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He then became hungry” (NASB 1995)—and Mark 1:13 and Luke 4:1–2, which simply say that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days. In his estimate, the parallels in Mark and Luke suggest that the “forty days and forty nights” in Matthew is an expression equivalent to “forty days.”

There is also what that famous Messianic Jew, Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul, wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. (1 Cor 15:3–4; NASB 1995)

The sequence Paul gives implies the Lord died on Day 1, remained buried on Day 2, and was raised on Day 3 (the day of the wave sheaf of First Fruits—the typology of this ceremony with the resurrection of Christ is inescapable).

To summarize this discussion, “three days and three nights” is known to be a Jewish idiom that is equivalent with saying “three days.” Both Scripture and modern Jews know the idiom, and it is the height of presumption to argue against this united testimony and say it actually means 72 hours.

Three Days in the Talmud

Informed proponents of a Wednesday or Thursday Crucifixion know that the Friday advocates count each fraction of a day as a full day because it was an idiom, but dismiss it as an assertion made without evidence. But in fact, there is actually very strong historical evidence that this is precisely how the Jews themselves looked at things, and it is apparent in both the Talmud and Scripture.

Respected New Testament scholar John Lightfoot noted that in the Talmud, the Jews regarded half of a day as countable as a whole day. Speaking of a three-day period, he observed,

According to the first sense we may observe, from the words of R. Ismael, that sometimes four Onoth, or halves of a natural day, may be accounted for three days: and that they also are so numbered that one part or the other of those halves may be accounted for a whole. Compare the latter sense with the words of our Saviour, which are now before us: “A day and a night (saith the tradition) make an Onah, and a part of an Onah is as the whole.” Therefore Christ may truly be said to have been in his grave three Onoth, or three natural days (when yet the greatest part of the first day was wanting, and the night altogether, and the greatest part by far of the third day also), the consent of the schools and dialect of the nation agreeing thereunto. For, “the least part of the Onah concluded the whole.” So that according to this idiom, that diminutive part of the third day upon which Christ arose may be computed for the whole day, and the night following it.8

Under the entry for “day,” the authoritative Jewish Encyclopedia makes the same point from a different angle:

In Jewish communal life part of a day is at times reckoned as one day; e.g., the day of the funeral, even when the latter takes place late in the afternoon, is counted as the first of the seven days of mourning; a short time in the morning of the seventh day is counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day. Again, a man who hears of a vow made by his wife or his daughter, and desires to cancel the vow, must do so on the same day on which he hears of it, as otherwise the protest has no effect; even if the hearing takes place a little time before night, the annulment must be done within that little time.9

These two references clearly illustrate, once again, that it was Jewish custom to count a part of a day as representing an entire day. It was a manifestation of a general norm, not only of the Jews but also the ancient Romans as well, of reckoning spans of time inclusively by including the start of the count in the count.

When all is said and done, the only fair thing to conclude is that when Matthew 12:40 speaks of “three days and three nights,” it means the exact same thing as “on the third day.”10 Friday was the first day, the Sabbath the second day, and Sunday, the first day of the week, was the third.



1 A number of biblical examples are given at “What Are Some Idioms in the Bible?,” Got Questions, Got Questions Ministries, last updated October 23, 2023,, and still others at Wes, “37 Bible Idioms & Phrases (Examples & Definitions),” English By Day, September 14, 2022,

2 The implications of this are discussed in depth in Joe Crews, 3 Days and 3 Nights (Roseville, CA: Amazing Facts, 2011),

3 R. T. France, The Gospel according to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 213; italics original.

4 “(Mt. 12:40) Was Jesus Dead Three Days and Three Nights or a Day and a Half?,” Evidence Unseen, accessed February 21, 2024,; bold in the original. Other respected commentators cited on this webpage are David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 327, and D. A. Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: With the New International Version of the Holy Bible, ed. Frank E. Gæbelein, vol. 8 of 12, Matthew, Mark, Luke (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1984), 296.

5 “(Mt. 12:40) Was Jesus Dead Three Days and Three Nights or a Day and a Half?”

6 Joseph Hoffman Cohen, “Three Days and Three Nights?,” Messianic Good News, October 1, 2012, http://www‌; italics and bold in the original.

7 Rich Robinson, “Three Days and Three Nights,” Jews for Jesus, March 30, 2007, For Robinson’s interesting bio, see Rich Robinson, “Rich Robinson: Coming In through the Back Door,” Jews for Jesus, January 1, 2005,

8 John Lightfoot, From the Talmud and Hebraica (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.), 152,; italics original.

9, s.v. “Day,” by Emil G. Hirsch and Michael Friedländer, accessed February 22, 2024,

10 For another discussion on the Jewish idiom, see “Did Jesus Fulfill the Sign of Jonah? — Three Days and Three Nights,” Never Thirsty, Like the Master Ministries, accessed February 22, 2024,

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