The 72 Hour Sign of Jonah

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

If you happened to read or listen to my last post, you may remember that I promised to write a post about “the duration of internalization.” In case you do not recall what I meant by that very catchy, rhyming phrase — “the duration of internalization” — please let me recap and explain. Jesus once said that he would be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, just as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of a humongous fish (think whale). By the way, the passage I am referencing here is Matthew 12:38-42. Go check it out, if you’re so inclined. In saying what he said about the three days and three nights, Jesus was prophesying that though he would indeed die, he would not be dead and buried for long — not long at all. Jesus referred to this “duration of internalization” as the Sign of the Prophet Jonah. And Jesus made a big deal about this promised sign. It was to be the one and only validating sign for that “evil and adulterous generation.” His foretold death, his brief burial, and his resurrection would be the sign or validation that Jesus was whom he claimed to be.

Alright, and if you’re familiar with the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, you know that after Jesus was crucified, his corpse was interred in a donated grave for about two days. But on the morning of the third day, Jesus rose again bodily from the dead. Therefore, the promised Sign of the Prophet Jonah came to pass, just as Jesus foretold.

But hang on. More detail-oriented people might notice a discrepancy. They might notice that Jesus was technically not in the grave for a total of three days and three nights. He was only in the grave for two nights (which we would refer to as Friday night and Saturday night) and just one complete day (Saturday), plus the latter portion of Friday and a few early hours on Sunday. So, what are we to make of the discrepancy? A stickler might insist that for the prophecy and the sign to be true, Jesus must have been interred for around 72 hours, not roughly 36 hours. 

A lot of people will just shrug and say, “Whatever, close enough.” But Jesus did say three days and three nights. Mathematically, that is 24+24+24 hours, which equals 72 hours. And 72 is definitely not equal to 36. So, again, what are we to make of the glaring discrepancy?

An Idiom? A Synecdoche? Or Literal?

What does it matter? Well, it does not matter to a lot of people. The non-sticklers don’t really worry about it, since they can easily point to a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday, so close enough. But the sticklers and literalists do worry about it. They want accuracy, especially since Jesus seemed to be so exact and specific.

It is on basis of this 72 hour Sign of Jonah in Matthew 12:40 that some Bible scholars have suggested that maybe, just maybe Jesus was not crucified on a Friday after all, but on a Wednesday or a Thursday. However, they are demonstrably wrong about that. Still, you can understand why they suggest what they suggest. They want the 72 hours to be accurate. Understandably, they want Jesus’ duration-of-internalization prophecy to be precise. And it bothers them that the traditional timeline just does not fit. 

Why, then, do I insist that the traditional timeline is correct? Well, because 1) Friday is Friday (the day of preparation before the Sabbath) and Sunday is Sunday (the first day of the week) — and in saying that I am quite serious and not sarcastic; and because 2) biblical and extra-biblical historical details about the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate help nail down a narrow time frame and only a handful of possible dates for the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ; and 3) astronomy in rewind shows that there was a lunar eclipse (that is, a blood moon) over the City of Jerusalem on the evening of Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE.       

In elaboration on my first point, that Friday is Friday and Sunday is Sunday, the real issue is whether a close study of the four Gospel accounts yields a coherent and convincing timeline of Jesus’ final week, and especially of the pivotal events of the Passover celebrated that Thursday and Friday. The short answer is, upon close examination, yes. Here are two excellent and exhaustive studies: Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ by Harold W. Hoehner (first published in 1973), and Jesus and the Last Supper by Brant Pitre (published in 2015).

Harold W. Hoehner’s book also explains my second point about Pontius Pilate. Said succinctly, due a massive shift in the Roman political scene, in 33 AD/CE Pontius Pilate was much, much more inclined to appease the insistent, bellicose Jewish religious leaders than he had been previously. A friend of his named Sejanus had fallen out of favor with Caesar and had been executed, so Pilate was very afraid of being deemed disloyal to Caesar. Therefore, when the Jewish religious leaders insinuated that Pilate would not be Caesar’s friend if he acquitted Jesus (see John 18:12), he gave into their demands and had Jesus crucified. It was politically expedient to sacrifice Jesus, and thus avoid any accusations of disloyalty to Tiberius Caesar.

As for the final point about the lunar eclipse, Colin J. Humphreys and W.G. Waddington argue in an article from 1992 entitled The Jewish Calendar, A Lunar Eclipse, and the Date of Christ’s Crucifixion that a lunar eclipse over Jerusalem on the evening of Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE,  was seen and thereafter interpreted as a fulfillment of a prophecy in Joel 2:31. 

Lunar Eclipse

So if Jesus was indeed crucified on Friday, April 3rd 33AD/CE and resurrected on Sunday, April 5th, what about the duration-of-internalization, the Sign of Jonah, the 72 hours?

Some scholars have suggested that the phrase “three days and three nights” was a merely an idiomatic expression. As an idiom, it was not meant to be understood precisely and literally. That may be so. But Jesus could have just said “three days” if he wanted to be a bit vague.  

An explanation I personally find more convincing is that the 72 hours may be precise, but the location of Christ’s confinement be spiritual. The designated location for the duration-of-internalization is the “heart of the earth.” Most interpreters presume that “the heart of the earth” must mean the burial of his crucified corpse in the grave. But what if Jesus’ spiritual experience of hell is actually what is meant instead? What if “the heart of the earth” is a spiritual location instead of a spatial location? Could it be that Jesus meant that he would descend to hell spiritually while he was yet alive on earth physically? After all, Jesus did endure the agonies of hell while on the cross. He may have even begun to experience the agonies of hell while he prayed for a way to escape the cross in the Garden of Gethsemane. Significantly, that would put his experience of the netherworld much, much closer to three days and three nights: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in hell, 72 hours total.

Descensus ad Inferos

Interestingly, the New Testament, the early Church Fathers, and the Apostles’ Creed all give a measure of assent to this particular interpretation. Jesus Christ was not just buried in a tomb. “He descended into hell.”

But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth?

Ephesians 4:9

If this is correct, it is interesting that Jesus’ time in hell was not completely a time of anguished suffering. Upon his physical death, Jesus had triumphed over the powers of darkness. When he declared from the cross, “It is finished,” Christ Jesus had completed his mission. He had triumphed. Thereafter, his time in hell was not a time of more agony and suffering, but a time of conquest. It was his triumphal procession, his occasion to proclaim hell’s defeat and his victory.

Glory. 

6 thoughts on “The 72 Hour Sign of Jonah

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of the Sign of Jonah, something in the Gospels that is often overlooked. I have heard discussion before on the 3-day period being fulfilled through Friday/Saturday/Sunday by the ancient Jewish understanding. But I had not until now heard the possibility that maybe Jesus’ descent into Hell could be related to His time in Gethsemane. Thanks for the new ideas to consider and process!

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    1. Although I did not elaborate on it much, I believe it is quite important that the New Testament writers and the Early Patriarchs of the Church understood “the heart of the earth” to basically mean the realm of the dead, that is Hades/Hell.

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    1. The Bible Hub has a number of older commentaries available on their website. A couple of the commentators offer the same interpretation: the “heart of the earth” means more than the grave, it implies hell. And if you look back at Jonah chapter two, that passage clearly mentions Sheol, which is translated as Hades in the Septuagint. Personally, I think Jonah’s mention of Sheol is the clincher. Jesus was deliberately citing Jonah’s descent into the abyss (which is another word that is there in Jonah 2) and was referencing it.

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