How Long Was Jesus in the Tomb?

There are eighteen separate occasions where either Jesus or his followers spoke of a period of time involving his death and resurrection.

On five occasions, they said, 'in' or 'within three days'. Twice, they used the term 'after three days'. Ten times, it was specified that the resurrection would take place on 'the third day'. Only once, Jesus spoke of being dead 'three days and three nights'.

It appears that all of these expressions were used to describe the same event. There seems to be no controversy regarding the fact that the phrases 'in three days', ' after three days', 'the third day', and 'three days and three nights' are all equivalent when used in reference to the resurrection of Jesus. Can all of the expressions — 'in' or 'within three days', 'after three days', 'the third day', and 'three days and three nights'—be taken in a strictly literal sense and all still harmonize with each other?

For example, 'in' or 'within three days' could mean anytime less than 72 hours. 'After three days' would certainly have to be interpreted as longer than 72 hours. 'The third day' presents even greater problems. 'Three days and three nights' could only mean exactly 72 hours.

Is it possible for all of these phrases to be explained so that there is no contradiction? Remember, Christ used all of the expressions at different times in speaking of his death and resurrection.

The problem with the scriptures containing references to these days and nights is that they cannot be understood without going to the original language, because the meaning of the English words 'days' and 'nights' do not have the same meaning as the words from which they were translated.


"Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, Teacher, we desire to see a sign from you. But answering he said to them, An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, and a sign shall not be given to it, except the sign of Jonah the prophet. And even as Jonah was in the belly of a huge fish three days and three nights, so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights" (Matt.12:38-40 Para.).

Most who believe in a Wednesday crucifixion state that Jesus was in the tomb exactly three days and three nights or 72 hours just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish. The major problem with this 72 hour theory is that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jonah was in the fish 72 hours or that Jesus was in the tomb 72 hours, and no text can be found to support such a belief without twisting the facts.

Also given as proof of a 72 hour period is the scripture in which Jesus says, "Are there not twelve hours in a day?" (Jn.11:9 KJV).

When adding three days and three nights together we obviously get 72 hours. However, this only proves that people who lived when Jesus did knew how many hours were in an average day. Sundials only had 12 divisions for a day and 12 for a night, those who used them knew that of these two 12 hour divisions were only of equal length two times a year because the actual time duration of each hour of a sundial lengthened or shortened throughout the year. There is no argument that a day and night contain approximately 24 hours, but this fact does not prove that Jesus was in the tomb 72 hours.

These two scriptures are the ones that most people refer to when attempting to establish that Jesus spent 72 literal hours in the tomb, that Wednesday was the day of the crucifixion, and that Jesus was resurrected on a Sabbath.

Do these scriptures actually establish these teachings? Should we ignore all the other scriptures on this subject? It should be apparent that the answer is no to both questions. Could it be possible that many people have been looking at only one scripture (Matt.12:38-40), while ignoring the other sixteen on this topic?


There is an abundance of information given in the Bible concerning the three days and nights, which should be examined in order to separate fact from fiction.

What was the sign of Jonah that Jesus said he would give to these people as proof that he was the Messiah? Was it any of the following things?:

Jonah's Three Days and Nights

"And Jehovah had appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (Jon.1:17 Para.).

The English words day and night are translated from the Hebrew words yom and layelah, which basically mean day and night. However, yom and layelah do not have a strict sense of 12 hours, which is usually inferred. Yom and layelah can indicate a whole day or night or any part thereof.

There is no doubt that these words, as they are used in Jonah 1:17, refer to days and nights. However, there is also no indication of whether the time period referred to is to be counted inclusively or exclusively. Therefore, no exact hourly period, such as 72 hours, can legitimately be assigned to the three days and three nights, because there is no linguistic or textual support indicated for an exact 72 hour period. Now, let us see if the rest of the scriptures support a literal 72 hour entombment of Jesus Christ.

As we review the following scriptures, what the sign of Jonah was and what the point that Jesus was making to the Pharisees about their spiritual condition in Matthew, chapter 12 will become clear.

Mark also documents the Pharisee's demand for a sign from heaven which would convince them that Jesus was indeed the Messiah:

"And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly shall no sign be given to this generation" (Mk.8:12 KJV).

Jesus refused to give them such a sign. Luke also gives an account of this demand by the Pharisees:

"When the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign to the Ninevites, so shall also the son of man be to this generation" (Lk.11:29-30 KJV).

Jesus says the sign that he was the Messiah would be the same as Jonah's was to the Ninevites. But, what was it that Jonah did that constituted this sign?:

"The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold a greater than Jonas is here" (Lk.11:29-31 KJV).

"The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and behold a greater than Jonas is here" (Matt.12:41 KJV).

Jonah preached a message of repentance and so did Jesus. Clearly, the sign of Jonah was not the length of time he was in the fish, but the sign was his preaching of repentance to a wicked people.

Jesus told the people the same thing that the prophets had foretold about the Messiah. The Messiah was to preach repentance and the good news of the coming Kingdom of God. This was one of the signs that he was the Messiah, and not just the miracles that he performed.

Jesus performed many miracles; he turned water into wine, healed the sick, created food to feed thousands of people, raised the dead and many other great miracles. These were not insignificant events. These were demonstrations of power beyond that of normal human beings yet these were not the kind of miracles the Pharisees wanted to see. They wanted to see heavenly signs, which would be earth-shaking in magnitude. Although such miracles were well within the power of Jesus, they were not in the plan of God.


Prior to attempting to reconcile the accounts given by the gospel writers about the period of time Jesus was to remain dead before his resurrection, we must understand something about the way language is used and this entails understanding what an idiom is:

An idiom is an expression in usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in grammatical construction or in having a meaning that cannot be derived as a whole from the conjoined meaning of its elements.


The writers of both the Old and New Testaments used inclusive reckoning almost universally; they rarely used exclusive reckoning to determine the length of time between events. They also used idioms to denote length of time. Our task is to determine which of these two types of time reckoning was used for the length of time Jesus was in the tomb, and what Jesus meant when he said 'three days and three nights'.

When one uses the inclusive method of reckoning time in reference to the chronological events surrounding Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, all of the events can be harmonized.

It should also be apparent that, if one is to transmit the true intent of the scriptures, one cannot translate a Greek or Hebrew idiom into an English word without explaining the idiomatic expression.


Quoted below are two extremely thorough works concerning idiomatic expressions used in the Bible:

On Pages 345-346 of Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, by E.W. Bullinger makes the following statements concerning 'three days and three nights':

"In Jn.1:17 that is quoted in Matt.12:40. The expression, 'three days and three nights', is an idiom which covers any parts of three days and three nights.

"In 1.Sam.8:11-12, it is said that a certain Egyptian had not eaten bread and drunk water for 'three days and three nights', and yet it was only three days since he fell sick (v13) not four days.

"In Est.4:16, Esther says she and her maidens will fast 'three days and three nights', and yet it was on 'the third day' that Esther went into the king; and not the fourth day, which it must have been if the expression were literally understood.

"It may seem absurd to Gentiles and to Westerners to use words in such a manner, but that does not alter the fact. Now the New Testament is for the most part Hebrew in idiom, but Greek in language. This is the simple explanation of the difference between it and classical Greek. Moreover, there is reason to believe that the First Gospel, as we have it, is a translation from a Hebrew (or Aramaic, as margins now say) original. This is one of the idioms. It is used in Jn.1:17, and by our Lord in Matt.12:40. And yet many scriptures say that he should rise, and did actually rise on the 'third day.' This could not have been if the expression were used in its literal sense. It must have been the fourth day and not the 'third.'

"The fact is that the idiom covers any part of 'three days and three nights.' This method of Hebrew reckoning is as distinct from Gentiles as their commencing the day at sunset and our commencing it at midnight. All these different modes of reckoning are peculiar to the respective peoples and languages and must be duly taken into account.

"The lord's words in Matt.12:40 do not disagree with the scripture assertion that he should rise on the 'third day.'

"We have the expression 'after three days' once (Matt.27:63) and 'in three days' once (Jn.2:19). But the common expression is 'on the third day' and it occurs ten times. But if the expression be literal (as in English) and not an idiom, all these passages should say 'the fourth day!' Paul preached the resurrection on the 'third day' according to the scriptures (1.Cor.15:4), and this is the great scriptural fact which we cannot get away from. Neither can we alter the fact that he rose on 'the first day of the week.'

"Neither can we alter the history which records his death and burial as taking place before the Sabbath. 'The Sabbath drew on' (Lk.23: 54; Matt.27:21); 'the day before the Sabbath' (Mk.15:42); and yet the two disciples going to Emmaus on the first day of the week. 'This is the third day (not the fourth) since these things were done' (Lk.24:24).

"From all this it is perfectly clear that nothing is to be gained by forcing the one passage (Matt.12:40) to have the literal meaning, in the face of all these other passages which distinctly state that the Lord died and was buried the day before the Sabbath and rose the day after it, viz., the first day of the week. These many statements are literal and are history: but the one passage is an idiom which means any part of 'three days and three nights.' The one complete day and night (24 hours) and the parts of two nights (36 hours in all) fully satisfy both the idiom and history." Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, by E.W. Bullinger.

On Pages 478 and 479 of The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament by Harris, Archer and Waltke, the writers make the following statement concerning 'three days and three nights':

"It is annually recalled in the Passover (Pesach) instructive, in this connection, are three days and three nights of 1.Sam.30:12. Verse 13 plainly says, 'Today is the third [day].' Therefore it may be concluded that the expression is a stereotyped formula which applies when any part of three days is involved, not an affirmation that seventy-two hours have expired" (cf. our Lord's three days and three nights).


The following are a few examples that will help clarify the issue of whether or not Jesus was in the tomb for 72 hours. While reviewing these examples, keep in mind that inclusive reckoning considers any part of a day as if it were a whole day.

The Seven Days of Noah

In Genesis 7:4,10 God said to Noah:

"For yet seven days and I will cause it to rain upon the earth." Literally "for in yet seven days." But in verse 10 we read:

"And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth." Literally "on the seventh of the days."

When did the flood come? In seven days? On the seventh day? Or after seven days. The answer is simple when inclusive reckoning is applied.

The day on which God spoke to Noah counted as the first day, and the day on which it started raining was the seventh day. Even if God spoke just ten minutes before the end of that first day, it was still counted as one of the seven. Moreover, if it started raining at noon on the last day, it was also counted one of the seven.

The same principle is revealed in the Law of circumcision for new born male sons: "He that is eight days old" (Gen.17:12), "In the eighth day" (Lev.12:3), "On the eighth day" (Lk.1:59), and "When eight days were accomplished" (Lk.2:21).

Today, the same method is used in calculating events, which is noted by what the Jewish Encyclopedia says about circumcision: "A short time in the morning of the seventh day 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" (Vol. 4, p. 474). See also Gen.42:17-19; 2.Chron. 10:5-12.

King David and the Egyptian

In 1.Samuel 30:10-13, we find the account of an Egyptian servant telling David that he had not had anything to eat or drink for three days and nights (v12), and then he plainly indicates that the day on which he was speaking was the 'third day.' The indication in the Hebrew language is that this expression is an idiomatic expression which applies when any part of three days is involved, but it is not an affirmation that seventy-two hours have passed. See the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, p.478:9.

The Four Days of Cornelius

In Acts 10:3, we are told that a centurion named Cornelius had a vision at about three in the afternoon. He was instructed in this vision to send men to Joppa and call for Peter:

"When the angel which spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier . . . and sent them to Joppa" (v8 NIV).

"About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray" (v9 NIV).

After Peter's prayer and vision, he received the messengers sent from Cornelius (v17). Notice that this is only one day after the vision Cornelius saw.

The next day, Peter and some others from Joppa went to meet with Cornelius. Note that this day is the third chronological day since Cornelius saw the vision:

"The next day Peter started out with them and some of the brothers from Joppa went along" (v23 NIV).

"The following day they arrived in Caesarea . . ." (v24 NIV).

If we now count the days since Cornelius sent the messengers, we will find that only three days had elapsed. This is a very important point because on this same day while Cornelius spoke to Peter he said, "Four days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon" (v30 NIV).

Notice that Cornelius was talking to them the very hour he had seen the vision, (i.e., 72 before), but he still said, "four days ago."

It had been exactly 72 hours (or three days by exclusive reckoning) to the very hour since Cornelius saw the vision. Yet, Cornelius said, "Four days ago." How could he say it was four days when it was clearly only three 24 hour days as we count time today? The answer is simple, if we count the days using inclusive reckoning as Cornelius did. This meant that only parts of four days were involved.

Jesus and his followers spoke and wrote the common literary usage of their day, and in their day inclusive reckoning of time was used.

Both the Hebrew and Greek calculations of days only required that some part of each day should be involved in order to count it as a day when reckoning time. It should be obvious that the usage of the word 'day' in the Bible is not restricted to a 24 hour day, but it can be any part of a day.

At this point, there should be no doubt as to the inclusive method of computing time. Clearly, any small part of a day could have been and many times was reckoned as an entire day by the writers of the Bible.


We will now consider the expression 'the third day' and apply the rule of inclusive reckoning to establish how long Jesus was in the tomb. At least part of three days had to be included in the period he was actually dead, because the most frequent expression Jesus used in describing the time of his resurrection is 'the third day.'

Jesus Counts the Third Day

Jesus gives us a clear example of how to locate the third day:

"Behold I cast out devils, and I do cures today [1 day] and tomorrow [2 days] and the third day [3 days] I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk today and tomorrow and the day following" (Lk.13:32 KJV).

Jesus used inclusive reckoning to count three days. The third day here is the day after tomorrow. The first day is obviously counted as a whole day, even though it was only a part of a day. All 24 hours of the second day is counted and the third day is counted as if it had already expired. Here, we have all three days accounted for.

Now that we know how Jesus counted days, we can begin to understand when he was resurrected. When he spoke prophetically of his own death and resurrection, he said the following:

"Today [crucifixion], tomorrow [in tomb] and the third day I shall be perfected [resurrected as a spirit-being]."

Here are all three of the days in sequence. Even though he died in the late afternoon, the entire day would be counted as the first day. The second day would span the Sabbath when his body was in the tomb. The third day he rose from the dead. Even though he was resurrected in the early hours of that day, inclusive reckoning would make it one of the three days.


Both Matthew and Luke say that Jesus said he must be killed and be raised the third day (Matt.16:21; Lk.9:22).

Eleven scriptures express the exact thought as Matthew and Luke did when describing the time-frame of Christ's death and resurrection. If inclusive reckoning is used, it does not matter whether the counting started with Jesus' death or his burial—even five minutes before sunset would be counted as a whole day.

These eleven scriptures say that the death of Jesus should be the starting point when counting the three days; therefore; it would seem inaccurate to start to count the three days and nights from the time he was placed in the tomb. Understanding this point also allows us to understand what Jesus meant when he said the following to the Jewish leaders:

"Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (Jn.2:19-21 KJV).

After the crucifixion, the chief priests said to Pilate:

"Sir, we remember that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, after three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night and steal him away" (Matt.27:62-64).

Jesus said he would rise in three days after his death. This is a strong indication that we must count the day he died as one of the three days.


Jesus declared, "Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day" (Lk.24:46 KJV).

Even the apostle Paul confirms that the resurrection of Jesus was on the third day. Paul understood that the scriptures contained prophecies which set forth the time-sequence of the crucifixion and resurrection:

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve" (1.Cor.15:3 KJV).

According to Jesus and Paul, the Christ was to rise the third day. Therefore, logical questions to ask are  where is it written and where are the scriptures which state that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead the third day. One can search the entire Old Testament looking at every reference to 'three days' or 'the third day' and not find the answer in an English translation of the Bible. Were both Jesus and Paul mistaken in their understanding of the scriptures?

A thorough search of the prophecies concerning the Messiah will show that the only scripture which even remotely speaks of his resurrection being on the third day, or for that matter any other day, is found in the Book of Hosea:

"Come and let us return to Jehovah. For he has torn and he will heal us; he has stricken, and he will bind us up. After two days he will bring us to life. In the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live before him. . ." (Hos.6:1-2 Para).


There is a curious thing about the Hebrew text of the Old Testament—it was written in consonants and the vowels were added over a thousand years later. Vowel marks or points were added to represent the pronunciation of the text as it had been passed down from generation to generation, but they are not a part of the original text.

It is important to understand that these marks or points were added in an attempt to preserve the original meaning, intent, and phonetic sound of the Hebrew language. However, adding vowel marks to some texts alters their original meaning and intent. This seems to have been the case with Hosea 6:2; the addition of these marks has hidden the original meaning and intent. If vowel marks are eliminated from the Hebrew script in Hosea 6:2 or a different mark is used on just two words, the text may be read as:

"He will give him life after two days: on the third day he will raise him and we will live before him."

Because there are no other scriptures in the biblical record before the advent of Christ that even remotely speak of the Messiah's resurrection being on the third day, it seems that Hosea's prophecy is what is referred to by both Jesus and Paul.

We suspect that some will challenge the above statement and logic and will diligently search the Bible to find a scripture that states the Messiah would be dead three days and three nights. If you can find such a scripture, please inform us.

The Road to Emmaus

The account of Cleopas and his companion as they traveled to Emmaus after the Passover and the first day of Unleavened Bread is very important in establishing the third day on which Jesus was resurrected.

 Luke 24:13-21 KJV

"And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened" (vs.13-14).

The very first thing that we notice about this journey is that it took place on the same day the women came to the tomb and found it empty. Luke 24:1 shows this day to be the first day of the week, which corresponds to our Sunday. The second thing is that their conversation centers around the events of Christ's crucifixion:

"And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said to them, What manner of communications are these that you have one to another, as you walk, and are sad?" (vs.15-16).

"And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said to him, Are you only a stranger in Jerusalem, and have not known the things which are come to pass there in these days? And he said to them, What things? and they said to him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people" (vs.17-19).

Cleopas began to fix the chronology of events during the days that he numbers in verse 21.

"And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him" (v20).

Notice that Cleopas began the events that had transpired during these days with the account of Jesus' arrest and he ends them with Jesus' death. It is very important to take note that these are the events that Cleopas believed to have happened within the time period of the past few days.

"But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done" (v21).

Note that this conversation between Cleopas and Jesus took place on the third day after these things happened, and the things that happened were the arrest and subsequent death of Jesus.

"Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said to them, thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day" (Lk.24:45-46).

Some might think that Cleopas did not know how to count days, but this is not the case at all. Notice that Jesus himself, while speaking to the two, said he was to rise the third day. Was not the third day the same day that he appeared on the road to Emmaus? In this account, we see both Cleopas and Jesus using the same inclusive method of counting, although it is expressed with different words by each of them.


The Third Day

For additional proof of the time period that is to be included in the three-day idiomatic expression, notice how all related accounts of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection express the same basic thought:

"From that time forth began Jesus to show to his disciples, how that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day" (Matt.16:21).

"And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again . . ." (Matt.17:23).

"And to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again" (Matt.20:18-19).

"We remember that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, after three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, . . ." (Matt.27:63-64).

"And they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day" (Mk.9:31).

"And shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again" (Mk.10:34).

"And be slain, and be raised the third day" (Lk.9:22).

"I cast out devils, and I do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected" (Lk.13:32).

"And put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again" (Lk.18:33).

"And be crucified, and the third day rise again" (Lk.24:7).

"Whom they slew and hanged on a tree: him God raised up the third day; and showed him openly" (Acts 10:39-40).

"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures" (1.Cor.15:3-4).

In every related text, the 'third day' is counted from the time of Christ's death. The sealing of the tomb is never mentioned in connection with the period of time Jesus was dead. And since the sealing of the tomb is never mentioned in connection with the period of time Christ was dead, it should be obvious that the expression 'three days and three nights' does not indicate the precise computation of hours, minutes, and seconds Christ was in the tomb. However, the scriptures repeatedly emphasize the death of Jesus as the starting point of the three days. To begin to count the three days after the entombment of Jesus cannot be substantiated by the biblical text.

The following are the remaining scriptures that speak of a three-day period in reference to the resurrection of Jesus. It is apparent that none of these texts document a 72 hour entombment; however, they indicate a lesser period of time.

Within Three Days

"And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying, We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands" (Mk.14:57-58 KJV).

After Three Days

"Saying, sir, we remember that deceiver said, while he was Yet alive, after three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulcher be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say to the people, he is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first" (Matt.27:63-64 KJV).

"And he charged them that they should tell no man of him. And he began to teach them, that the son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mk.8:30-31 KJV).

In Three Days

"And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, You that destroy the temple, and build it in three days, save yourself. If you be the Son of God, come down from the cross" (Matt.27:39-40 KJV).

"And the scripture was fulfilled, which says, And he was numbered with the transgressors. And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Ah, you that destroy the temple, and build it in three days" (Mk.15:28-29 KJV).

"Then answered the Jews and said to him, What sign show you to us, seeing that you do these things? Jesus answered and said to them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and will you rear it up in three days? But he spoke of the temple of his body" (Jn.2:18-21 KJV).


The linguistics of the Hebrew and Greek languages and the scriptures clearly show the following:

By B.L. Cocherell         b5w43