Some argue that the Bible is contradictory concerning how many days and nights Jesus was in the tomb. The argument is that Matthew 12:40 says that Jesus was in the tomb three days and three nights, but Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, and John 20:1 say that Jesus was in the tomb for less than three days and three nights. However, there are at least two reasonable explanations that solve this alleged contradiction in the Bible.
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.Matthew 12:40
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.Matthew 28:1
And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.Mark 16:2
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.Luke 24:1
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.John 20:1
There are at least two possible explanations that would solve this alleged contradiction.
The most likely solution to this alleged contradiction is that Matthew 12:40 is counting days in a different way than we count days. Essentially, each day started at sundown the previous night. So, the counting would look like this:
|Day One||Thursday Night + Friday Day|
|Day Two||Friday Night + Saturday Day|
|Day Three||Saturday Night + Sunday Day|
Another possibility is that for the Hebrews, “after three days” was equivalent to “on the third day.” This is suggested by the book of Esther:
“Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”Esther 4:16
On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, in front of the king’s quarters, while the king was sitting on his royal throne inside the throne room opposite the entrance to the palace.Esther 5:1
Here, Esther was to not eat or drink for “three days, night or day.” However, Esther 5:1 says that the end of this time period was the same as “on the third day.”
So, it is possible that “after three days and three nights” is a figure of speech that essentially means, “on the third day.”
There are some foundational principles that apply to all alleged and apparent contradictions in the Bible. To read more, see Bible Difficulties: Foundational Principles.
To read more answers to alleged and apparent contradictions in the Bible, see “Contradictions” in the Bible Answered.
These books are also excellent resources: