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Three days and three nights: What does it mean?

ImageI am publishing this piece in response to a question that I encountered on a facebook forum. For your sake, I will put the question here first before my comments. 

From Friday sunset to Saturday sunset that is one full day. Now before sunset Friday and before sunrise sunday, how many days are there? Howmany days was Jesus dead?

I will first begin by my plan of study.

1. Definition of problem
2. The aspect of ambiquity
3. Linquistical aspect
4. Histo-traditio aspect
5. Apologies
6. Conclusion

1. Definition of problem

The problem we are tackling here is three days and three nights in reference to Jesus’ death and burial which undoubtedly took two nights and three days to our reading. So where does three days and three nights fits? How do we understand this in it’s respective context? 

2. The aspect of ambiguity

First we cannot deny the fact that there is an ambiguity here in the statement three days and three nights. How many days are these? Undboubtedly, three days and three nights are not separate days. It doesn’t mean six literal days. The author has defined the days which is three. This may suggest that, the three nights forms a part of the three days. If not, we found ourselve in ambiguity because three days and three nights will be four days. Because Jewish chronology of day counting begins from “evening and morning” Gen 1, 5, three nights will undoubtedly end in four days. But the death and ressurrection of Christ was three days but not three nights. The same might apply to Jonah and other like texts in the entire Bible. Three days and three nights should have been three days and two nights. Since this is not the case, we must look further to find answers. 

3. Linquistical aspect

Three days and three nights are not metaphorical. As we can notice that the event that involved Jonah is historical and everyone knew that Jonah spent three days in the belly of a big fish. [By the testimony of Jesus on Jonah, He refuted and denied every mythical assumption on the event of Jonah. He recognized the historicity of the event]. In the actual sense, the verse should have read three “mornings and evenings” or “three evenings and nights”. The language however gives us a clue that perhaps we’re dealing with special cases of traditional word usage. But we cannot be sure of that except we look at the historico-traditio aspect.

4. Historico-traditio aspect

As it always come into every culture and society, there are some statements which come to stay which does not necessary have a literal bearing in its application. A typical example is “Red Sea” which we really know is “Sea of reels”. In french Bibles, the translation continues to favor Red Sea. Etymologically, we know what it means when someone uses it. In the same way might apply to three days and three nights. For example:

“Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.” Exodus 24, 18. This text will send us to ambiguity again because forty days and forty nights will however be forty-one days. However, the author made it Forty days. REF: Exodus 34, 28; Deut. 9, 9

Again, it is written that “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” Mathew 4, 1-2. Here too we see the same tradition of day and nights issue. 

These historical timeline that spans from Mosaic regime suggest that we’re more closer to tradition than literal day computation. But we cannot be still sure except we make further studies.

5. Appologies

In order to fix this problem, many scholars have suggested that since a day begins from evening according to Jewish reckoning, Jesus dying on Friday has died in Friday’s night also since it formed a part of the day. So resurrecting on Sunday makes three nights. Jamieson makes it clear this way “Since the Jews reckoned part of a day as a full day, the ‘three days and three nights’ could permit a Friday crucifixion. reference Jamieson, R., A. R. Fausset, and D. Brown, A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997. and Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Wheaton, IL: Scripture Press Publications, 1985.

Further, others have suggested that since Jesus death met two sabbaths (The Passover Sabbath and Weekly Sabbath), the two sabbaths makes two days. But this eisegesis have complications and therefore cannot fully accept it because of Jonah’s incidence which never met any other ceremonial day.


 It is clear that three days and three nights have ambiquity which makes it difficult to ascertain a literal three days. However, as we traced the usage of day and nights days computation, it is clear that the authors follow a tradition which might not merely have a direct literal meaning. Nevertheless, if any part of a day form a part of the day, then Jesus dying on Friday has already passed a night and day. The usage of the phrases fits very well and the authors knew what they were saying. The most important aspect is that their refusal to use “evening and morning” but used day and nights means that they’re following a special tradition which is Jewish reckoning of days. They first define the actual number of days and then tells how it was calculated. If anything else must pose a problem, it must be the “nights”.

In my opinion, as I’ve stated, either the authors tried to be traditional or the night before the day is counted as part of the day and this makes sense as 5th May is the whole full day not just a part irrespective of which time-hour frame.


About Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi

The Life of Christ lives in me


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