Questions From Readers
● The Bible speaks of Jesus’ being in the tomb for “three days and three nights.” Does that mean that he was in the tomb for a full seventy-two hours?—Brazil.
The reason this question comes up is that Jesus once said: “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” (Matt. 12:40) Many Bible readers take that to mean three full days and nights, or seventy-two hours. Scriptural evidence, though, shows that Jesus was in the tomb for a period less than seventy-two hours.
Jesus died on Passover day, Nisan 14, on the day now known as Friday. And by early morning of the day now termed Sunday he had already been raised from the dead. Mark’s account reads: “Very early on the first day of the week [Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome] came to the memorial tomb, when the sun had risen. . . . When they entered into the memorial tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side clothed in a white robe, and they were stunned. He said to them: ‘Stop being stunned. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was impaled. He was raised up, he is not here.’”—Mark 16:2-6; John 20:1.
If Matthew 12:40 means three complete twenty-four-hour days, when would Jesus have been buried? Counting back seventy-two hours from early Sunday morning, we would come to early Thursday morning. But since Jesus died about 3:00 p.m., he would have had to be laid in the tomb on Wednesday afternoon. (Matt. 27:46, 50) The Bible account regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, in no way suggests that the period involved extended all the way from Wednesday to Sunday. Let us, then, examine the evidence.
The reason the women went to the tomb was to grease Jesus’ body with spices. They bought some of these spices immediately after the sabbath. (Mark 16:1; compare Luke 23:56.) Which sabbath could this have been? If Nisan 14 had extended through Wednesday afternoon, this would make Thursday, Nisan 15, the first day of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes and hence also a sabbath day. (Lev. 23:5-7) The next sabbath would have been the weekly sabbath, starting on Friday evening and running to Saturday evening, since the Jewish days began at sundown.
It does not seem reasonable that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome would have purchased spices immediately after Nisan 15 (Thursday evening, according to such reckoning) and then waited until early on the morning of Nisan 18 (Sunday) to go to Jesus’ tomb. That would have been more than three and a half full days since the death of Jesus. Any greasing with spices would have been of very little value for the corpse then. (See John 11:39.) It would also appear strange indeed for the women to allow Nisan 16 (a day that would not have been a sabbath) to pass by without doing anything and then to rush to the tomb as early as possible on Sunday morning, Nisan 18.*
In view of these factors favoring a period of less than three full days between Jesus’ burial and resurrection, the question arises: Why could Jesus say that the “Son of man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights”? (Matt. 12:40) This is because the expression “three days and three nights” can refer to parts of three days, as is clearly shown at 1 Samuel 30:12, 13. Under the heading “Day,” The Jewish Encyclopedia says: “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.” Accordingly, as Bible commentator Lightfoot observes, three days and three nights “included any part of the first day; the whole of the following night; the next day and its night; and any part of the succeeding or third day.” Was this true in the case of Jesus?
The answer to this question is clear once the year in which Jesus died is determined. Knowing the year, it is possible by computation in line with the principles of the Jewish calendar to ascertain the day of the week on which Nisan 14 fell, even back in the first century C.E. Happily the Bible provides enough evidence to fix the year.
According to Luke 3:1, John the Baptist began his ministry “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” As Luke used a Greek word literally meaning “governorship,” some have concluded that the “fifteenth year” should be counted as starting from the time that Tiberius was a coregent with Augustus. Hence, they would place the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in 27 C.E. However, just exactly when such coregency began is in question.*
While the start of the coregency is uncertain, the beginning of Tiberius’ reign as Caesar is well established. The date is August 17, 14 C.E. (Gregorian calendar). Hence, the fifteenth year extended from August 17, 28 C.E., to August 16, 29 C.E. This would place the start of Jesus’ ministry in 29 C.E., about six months after John the Baptist began his activity. It was first at the time of his baptism that Jesus was anointed by God’s spirit, thereby becoming the promised Messiah or Christ. Bible prophecy specifically foretold the exact time for this event. (Dan. 9:25) And applying that prophecy to historical data also points to 29 C.E. as the time for Messiah’s appearance.—See the book Aid to Bible Understanding, pp. 137, 328-331, 348.
Daniel 9:27 indicates that at the middle of the “week,” or three and a half years after beginning his ministry, Messiah would “cause sacrifice and gift offering to cease.” This he did by laying down his own life in sacrifice, thereby causing all animal sacrifices to cease having any value in God’s eyes. Accordingly, his ministry as Messiah lasted three and a half years, extending from the fall of 29 C.E. to the spring month of Nisan in the year 33 C.E. As established by computation, in the year 33 C.E. Passover day or Nisan 14 began on Thursday evening and ran to Friday evening.
This harmonizes well with the Bible accounts concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus died on Friday afternoon and was buried before the sabbath began. This being the case, the weekly sabbath coincided with the first day of the Festival of Unfermented Cakes, which was also a sabbath. It is logical, then, that this is why the Bible calls the day following Jesus’ death a “great” sabbath. (John 19:31, 42; Mark 15:42, 43; Luke 23:54) As soon as that sabbath was over (which would be at sundown, Nisan 15) Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome bought additional spices for greasing Jesus’ body. Their earliest opportunity to use the spices came at daybreak Sunday morning, Nisan 16. By that time Jesus had already been resurrected, after having been in the tomb for parts of three days.
And this Scriptural view of matters accords with the numerous Bible statements to the effect that Jesus was raised “on the third” day, not on the fourth day.—Matt. 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4. Also, see the article “Firstfruits of Resurrection,” published in The Watchtower under date of March 15, 1944, particularly from the subheading “Firstfruits Identified” (p. 86 onward to end of article).
Some may argue that Matthew 28:1 proves that there were two separate sabbaths between the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That text reads: “After the sabbath [literally, sabbaths], when it was growing light on the first day of the week.” However, the fact that the plural is used in the Greek does not prove that more than one sabbath was involved. According to respected authorities, such as A Greek-English Lexicon by H. G. Liddell and Robert Scott, the plural form frequently refers to just one day. Also, the plural “sabbaths” is used in the Bible to designate a week. (Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1, 19; Acts 20:7) That is why Rotherham renders Matthew 28:1: “And late in the week when it was on the point of dawning into the first of the week.”
Indicative of the uncertainty, The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia states: “In 13 AD (or according to Mommsen 11 AD) T[iberius] was by a special law raised to the co-regency.” It may also be noted that, although Tiberius was associated with Augustus in rulership, not until his sole rule did he begin to reign as Caesar. Logically, therefore, the ‘fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’ was the actual fifteenth year of his reign. Though himself favoring the count of the fifteenth year from the time of the co-regency, Dutch scholar J. J. Van Oosterzee acknowledges: “The reigning years of a Roman emperor were, indeed, commonly dated from the time when he governed alone.”