I’m writing to ask if you have any explanation for one apparent
discrepancy that I have often wondered about: “three days and three
nights”. I have read that the “days” part of that statement was due to
the Jewish tradition of counting any part of a day as a whole day in the
description of passing time. However, I can’t see how the “three nights”
can be explained. Was it a later editorial insertion, or is there some
other explanation?

About the three days and nights, you are accurate in describing
it as an “apparent” discrepancy. It is only apparent because the
discrepancy is a matter of usage of a common idiom of the Jews in that
time with which we are not familiar. Apparently, according to scholars,
the Jews used the expression “a night and a day” to refer to any part of a
twenty-four hour period. This may seem odd to us, but I am sure that
there are many idioms in American or any other cultural usage for that
matter, which would seem very strange to an outsider. For example we say
that the sun rises and sets when everyone knows (hopefully) that the suns
is not moving: the earth is spinning!

The Jews counted their days from sunset to sunset. Jesus died
on Friday before sunset (remember that the Jews wanted the bodies down
before sunset so that they would not be on the crosses during Sabbath).
After sunset on Saturday, it was already the third day of Jesus being
buried, by Jewish custom. The following morning, Sunday, Jesus rose from
the dead. Even though by our accounting he was only in the tomb for two
nights and three days, it was customary usage for Jews in that time to
call this “three days and three nights.”

An analogous example of this interesting way of describing
time used by the Jews was in how they counted the reignal years of their
kings. If a king of Judahruled for 400 days, and if those days happened
to fall in three different years (their years started with the first of
Nisan, near the time of Passover), then the Jewish historians would say
that particular king ruled for three years. We might say he ruled for one
year and one month, but that is not how the Jews would describe the reign
of the king. This is important to take into account for those who try to
measure the years from, say, David to Hezekiah. If they add up reignal
years, they will overestimate the total time.

You should not take my word for it if you want to be a careful
student of the Bible. I am not quoting primary sources here. If you want
to do more careful study, you could find a very thorough study of the
Passion events or a really good commentary on one of the gospels which
will supply a primary source for the claim that the Jews used “three days
and three nights” to mean any part of three successive days.

John Oakes

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