The Problem of Matthew 12:40

A Bible-Related Commentary

One of the most problematic passages in the New Testament — as far as bible prophecy is concerned — is Matthew 12:40. It is an especially important passage because the prophecy it contains is said to have been uttered by none other than Jesus himself. As we shall soon see, that prophecy was never fulfilled.

It perhaps in the Galilean town of Capernaum that certain ‘scribes and Pharisees’ approached Jesus and asked him to perform a ‘sign’ for them. Their request was certainly understandable. These scribes and Pharisees had heard some of the amazing stories being circulated about this Galilean. They, naturally, wanted proof that what they had heard about Jesus was true. The fact (and I use the term loosely here) that Jesus had just ‘healed’ a man described by Matthew as, ‘possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb’ (12:22) was for them not enough. It was believed such a ‘healing’ could be achieved through the intervention of demonic forces. What the scribes and Pharisees wanted Jesus to produce was a no-doubt-about-it sign from heaven. Jesus, however, appears to have been quite irritated by their request. He coolly says to them:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign but no sign shall be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so will the Son of man (i.e., Jesus himself) be three days AND three nights in the heart of the earth. (Mt. 12:39-40; emphasis added.)

Before examining Jesus’ reply in detail, we would point out that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is on record a stating that ‘no‘ sign would be given his generation. That is a statement which is flatly contradicted by both Matthew and Luke.

The reader will note that Jesus prophesied that he would be interred in the heart of the earth of the earth for precisely three days AND three nights. Well, exactly how long was Jesus interred in the ‘heart of the earth’?

The gospels indicate that Jesus died at approximately three o’ clock on the afternoon of ‘Good Friday’, and was buried before sunset that same day. The gospels further indicate that the purported ‘Resurrection’ took place either before dawn of Easter Sunday (Jn. 20:1; Mt.28:1[?]) or shortly thereafter (Mk. 16:1; Luke 24:1). In either case, one can readily determine that Jesus’ stay in the ‘heart of the earth’ in no way totals three days and three nights.

Christian exegetes, however, are quick to counter that in biblical times part of a day was reckoned as all of a day; and since Jesus was in the grave parts of Friday, Saturday and Sunday (But see Jn. 20:1!), his prophecy was legitimately fulfilled.

This, however, is a contrived and misleading explanation. While it is certainly true that an event, whether it took place during the daytime or at night was (and is) is said to have taken place on a particular ‘day’. It is equally true that when being specific, the terms ‘night’ and ‘day’ were (and are) not synonymous or interchangeable. They refer to two distinct and diametrically opposed portions of a day. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus is being very precise. He is not saying that he will be buried for ‘three days’ as some scholars suggest, but for three days AND three nights. For Jesus’ prophecy to have been accurately fulfilled, his ‘resurrection’ would had to have occurred between sunset on Easter Sunday and dawn, Monday. That, according to the gospels, did not happen. Hence, Jesus’ prophecy was a “false” one–however nit-picky that may seem.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of Matthew 12:40
  1. Nice site Greywolf!

    And interesting topics!

    Best of luck with this new venture of yours.

    May I add a link to this to my New Atheism blog?


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