by Peter Ditzel
Is knowing the precise number of hours Jesus Christ’s dead body lay in the tomb of any great significance? Worldwide Church of God (WCG) founder Herbert W. Armstrong (1892–1986) would have had you believe it is. The WCG published The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday and The Crucifixion Was Not on Friday. Both of these booklets—the first written by Armstrong and the second by Armstrong’s disciple, Herman L. Hoeh (1928–2004)—cover this subject.
Armstrong asserted, “Jesus staked his claim to being your Saviour and mine upon remaining three days and three nights in the tomb.” By “three days and three nights” Armstrong meant precisely 72 hours. This amazing claim is the reason I decided to cover this topic on this website. There can hardly be anything more vital than whether Jesus Christ is our Savior. Before examining any relationship between the amount of time Jesus was in the tomb and His being our Savior, I will first ask, How long was Jesus in the tomb?
Three Days and Three Nights
The key scripture upon which the Worldwide Church of God bases its teaching on this subject is Matthew 12:39-40: “But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: for as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Herbert W. Armstrong and his current-day followers say that for Jesus to have been in the “heart of the earth”—the tomb—for three days and three nights, He could not possibly have been crucified and buried on Friday and then rise on Sunday morning. This, they say, would be only two nights—Friday night and Saturday night—and one day—Saturday. Instead, Armstrongism teaches a Wednesday crucifixion: that Jesus died late Wednesday and rose from death late Saturday afternoon. Notice that according to Armstrong, Jesus rose on the seventh-day Sabbath as opposed to the teaching of orthodox Christianity that Jesus rose on the first day of the week.
What Armstrong says on this matter has the sound of being reasonable. After all, 72 hours prior to a Sunday morning resurrection would mean Jesus had to have died Thursday morning. But Jesus could not have died in the morning because the three synoptic Gospels say that Jesus died about the “ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45-50; Mark 15:33-37, and Luke 23:44-46), meaning about three o’clock in the afternoon. This does not, however, mean that Armstrong is correct. In fact, he makes a major error in taking “three days and three nights” to mean 72 hours.
“Three days and three nights” is a Hebrew idiom that the Greek of Matthew 12:40 follows. Concerning this idiom, a near contemporary of Jesus, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah (circa A.D. 100), said, “A day and a night make an ’onah [a twenty-four hour period], and the portion of an ’onah is reckoned as a complete ’onah.” In Hebrew, then, a portion of a day could be counted as a complete day. As R. T. France writes, “Three days and three nights was a Jewish idiom appropriate to a period covering only two nights.” Numerous commentators support this position. Although written in Greek, Matthew 12:40 expresses the Hebrew idiom—”three days and three nights”—that was understood by the Jews listening to Jesus to mean one full day and portions of two others with the intervening nights.
Flying in the face of this evidence, Armstrong appeals to some anonymous “higher critics” who supposedly “admit that in the Hebrew language, in which the book of Jonah was written, the expression ’three days and three nights’ means a period of 72 hours—three 12-hour days and three 12-hour nights.” The scripture in question in Jonah is, “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).
Now notice what C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch write concerning Jonah 1:17 in their Commentary on the Old Testament: “The three days and three nights are not to be regarded as fully three times twenty-four hours, but are to be interpreted according to Hebrew usage, as signifying that Jonah was vomited up again on the third day after he had been swallowed.” George L. Robinson writes, “The statement that Jonah was in the belly of the fish ’three days and three nights,’ is an oriental way of expressing the fact that he was in the fish so long that apart from God’s sustaining power, he was dead and beyond the possibility of human resuscitation.”
Besides agreeing that “three days and three nights” was a Hebrew idiom, H. L. Ellison adds this practical note:
Once Jonah was on dry land again, he could make some kind of estimate of how long he had been in the fish. Yet, to make any exact measure of the number of hours would have been impossible for him. Roused suddenly from a deep slumber, stupefied by the violence of the storm, and in all probability seasick, Jonah would have been in no position to know at what hour he was thrown overboard. Furthermore, on reaching the shore he would have needed time to collect his wits. Clearly, then, the term “three days and three nights” is intended as an approximation, not a precise period of seventy-two hours.
Further evidence that Jesus was using a Hebrew idiom may be found in Luke 11:29-32: “And 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 it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. 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.”
Notice that Luke completely leaves out any reference to “three days and three nights.” Why? Luke was a Gentile. As such, he left out the Hebrew idiom. Instead, in Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; and Acts 10:40, Luke uses the much clearer and more direct “the third day.” Luke’s omission of “three days and three nights” will prove significant later when we examine the nature of the sign of Jonah.
Is there anywhere else in the Bible that contains further evidence that “three days and three nights” is not to be understood literally? Yes. Esther 4:15-16 reads, “Then Esther bade them return Mordecai this answer, Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day: I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish, I perish.”
Esther says she and her maids are not going to eat or drink for “three days, night or day.” Only when she is finished fasting will she go in unto the king. This is made a little clearer in the Revised Standard Version (and many other translations), which says, “I and my maids will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king….” In other words, Esther is saying that she is going to fast, and then—after the fast—she will go to the king. If “three days, night or day” is to be taken literally, it would mean 72 hours. Esther’s fast would last 72 hours, and she would not be able to go to the king until after 72 hours. This would be the fourth day at the earliest. Is this what the Bible says? No.
Esther 5:1 states: “Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel, and stood in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house: and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the gate of the house.” Esther did not wait until the fourth day to go to the king. She went on the third day. The fast that was to last for “three days, night or day” was, by the third day, already completed.
Completely ignoring that Esther said she would fast and then go to see the king, the Worldwide Church of God’s Herman Hoeh, in an attempt to say that Esther fasted for a full 72 hours, writes, “Which day was this? The third day of the fast. Suppose Queen Esther had requested the Jews late Friday evening, shortly before sunset, to fast. The first day of their fast would have been Saturday, the second day would have been Sunday, and the third day, Monday, the queen would have entered the king’s palace. Isn’t that plain? The Jews did not fast parts of three days, but three days, night and day.”
This makes no sense unless Esther was still fasting when she went to see the king. But she said she would fast and then go to see the king. Need further proof that Esther’s fast of “three days, night or day” was completed by the third day? Read Esther 5:4: “And Esther answered, If it seem good unto the king, let the king and Haman come this day unto the banquet that I have prepared for him.” The day called “this day” in this verse is the very same day that is called “the third day” in verse 1. In verse 6 we read, “And the king said unto Esther at the banquet of wine, What is thy petition? and it shall be granted thee: and what is thy request? even to the half of the kingdom it shall be performed.” The Revised Standard and other modern versions render the first part of this verse as, “And as they were drinking wine.” So on the third day Esther was drinking wine at a banquet, even though she said she would not eat or drink for “three days, night or day.” “Three days, night or day” must mean a period of less than 72 hours. The Bible itself proves that Herbert Armstrong’s explanation is flawed.
1. Herbert W. Armstrong, The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday (Pasadena, CA: Worldwide Church of God, 1988), no version number given, December 1989 printing. Return
2. Herman L. Hoeh, The Crucifixion Was Not on Friday (Pasadena, CA: Worldwide Church of God, 1979), version 1.1, May 1991 printing. Return
3. Armstrong, The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday, p. 2. Return
4. Ibid., p. 3. Return
5. Ibid., pp. 2-3. Return
6. Ibid., p. 8. Return
7. As quoted by H. L. Ellison in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), p. 375. Ellison credits the quote to j Shabbath 9.12a. Return
8. R. T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), p. 213. Return
9. Armstrong, The Resurrection Was Not on Sunday, p. 3. Return
10. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. X (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), p. 398. Return
11. George L. Robinson, The Twelve Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 79. Return
12. Ellison, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, p. 375. Return
13. Hoeh, The Crucifixion Was Not on Friday, p. 4. Return
Copyright © 1993-2009 Peter Ditzel