A Closer Look:
4 Three Days and Three Nights

By Joel Heller

Then some of the experts in the law and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” But he answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet, for 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. (Mt 12:38–40)

Here, Yeshua predicts that after his death on the cross, he would be buried for three days and three nights and then be resurrected. If words have any meaning, it is impossible to squeeze three days and three nights between late Friday afternoon, a time called “between the evenings,” and Sunday morning, before dawn.

Some, in an effort to preserve the tradition of death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday, have suggested counting the period of darkness from the third to sixth hour (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44) on the day of the crucifixion as another “night.” I suggest that it would be more “Berean” to adjust tradition to match the text than to squeeze the text into a tradition, no matter how longstanding the tradition.

The one event pinpointed precisely in time in the crucifixion-resurrection narrative is that “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.” (John 20:1, emphasis added) Biblically, the days of the week are not named as we do in English: Monday, Tuesday, etc. The days are called “First Day, Second Day, etc., with the First Day corresponding to what we call Sunday. Also, for the Hebrews then and until today, the day and date change at sundown, not at midnight as in the Gregorian calendar used in the West.

Mary Magdalene noticed that the stone was already removed from the tomb, and Yeshua was already gone from there before sunup on Sunday. We therefore cannot count any of Sunday day as part of the three days and three nights buried.

While John is specific and precise as to when the tomb was found empty, the Synoptics leave a little ambiguity. If we resolve the ambiguities in light of the specific, we propose the following scenario:

On Tuesday, the 13th of the Hebrew month Nisan, as dusk fell transitioning into Wednesday the 14th, Yeshua and the disciples had their last meal together. Later that night they all went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. There Yeshua was arrested. The next morning, still Wednesday the 14th, Yeshua was crucified and the Passover lambs were slaughtered (Ex 12:6), in preparation for the Feast that evening after the date rolled to the 15th.

Yeshua was buried sometime between the 9th hour and sunset on the 14th. (Matt 27:46–51) At sunset, the date turned to the 15th of Nisan, a Thursday, the day of Passover, a “high day,” a special Sabbath where no work may be performed. (In addition to the weekly Sabbath, certain holidays are also called “Sabbaths,” regardless of which day of the week they fall on.) Since work and commerce are not done on either kind of Sabbath, the women bought and prepared burial spices on Friday, the 16th of Nisan.

They did not take the time to finish Yeshua’s burial that day, since they needed to prepare for Sabbath that night, which runs from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday the 17th. The planned to finish the task on Sunday, Nisan 18, the first day of the week, before starting their regular weekday work. I imagine that they didn’t think that Yeshua was going anywhere in the meantime, what with being dead and all.

As it happens, in the year 28CE, the days and dates fell out just that way.1 Many scholars believe that Yeshua was born either on Yom Teruah, the Feast of Trumpets, or on Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles in the Julian year 3bCE.2

If Yeshua was crucified and rose at Passover in 28CE, we can find the difference as 28-(-3) then subtract another year, since there was no “zero” year, we find that Yeshua began his ministry when he “began to be about thirty years of age,” in 27CE (Lk 3:23) and died and rose in his 31st. His ministry was thus “about one year” as the early “church fathers” report, and not three-and-a-half years as is commonly taught today.

Does it really matter whether Yeshua died on Wednesday or Friday? Or that he rose on Saturday late in the afternoon or on Sunday morning? Probably not. But what does matter is that when tradition disagrees with the biblical text, we must be willing to set tradition aside. What matters is: What is our final authority, the Bible or human traditions?


1 Rood, Michael, The Chronological Gospels, Aviv Moon Publishing; 2013. §§180–226.
Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar named for him for use in the Roman Empire. Pope Gregory VIII in 1582 reformed the Julian calendar to correct for a discrepancy of about ¾ of a day per century. The reformed calendar is named for this Gregory.

Joel Heller Profile Picture

Joel Heller is the author of Neither Yavne nor Antioch: Recovering Nazarean Judaism. He is a retired member of the Kansas Bar. In place of traditional Protestant presuppositions, he brings the common-law principles of legal interpretation to the interpretation of God’s Law, called the Torah or Nomos. You can reach him by email.