The Problem of Matthew 12:40 – Revisited

Jesus' Burial

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 failed to be fulfilled as stated.

It perhaps was 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, indeed, 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. At the time it was widely 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 said 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.

So, for 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 the 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; that by stating “three days AND three nights, ” Jesus was simply using Jewish idiom current at the time. And since Jesus was in the tomb parts of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, his prophecy was legitimately fulfilled. The Christian website Apologetics Press is just one of a myriad of apologetic websites that take this tack and pronounce Matthew 12:40 free of error. To do this, they point to the words of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah in Shabbat 9:3 of the Jewish Talmud: “A day and night are an Onah [i.e., “day”] and the portion of an Onah is as the whole of it.”[1]

Definition of Onah

The Hebrew word onah, which does not occur in the Bible literally means “time period” or “season.” In the context of the laws of niddah, it usually refers to a day or a night. Each 24-hour day thus consists of two onot. The daytime onah begins at sunrise (henetz hachamah, commonly called netz) and ends at sunset (shekiat hachamah or shekiah). The night-time onah lasts from sunset until sunrise.”[2]

In other words, a typical day is divided into two onots; a day onot and a night onot. The two combined make up an Onah, or “day.” And note: “onots” are also referred to as “spans” in the Talmud—as if things weren’t confusing enough as it is already.

So what does Shabbat 9:3 have to do with Matthew 12:40?  Not much, really. Shabbat 9:3 presents four Talmudic Rabbinical views as to how long a woman remains ritually unclean after having sex. The opinions ranged between 4 and 6 onots (or “spans).

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah does claim “a day and a night constitute an onot (or “span”), and part of an onot is equivalent to the whole of it” in Shabbat 9:3[J].[3] But in the very next passage we read:

[4]Shabbat 9:3[K] “And thus has it been taught contrary to the view of R. Eleazar b. Azariah, ‘There are occasions in which there is a day and any small amount of time in addition, and yet [a woman] is clean. There may be two days lacking a [small] amount of time, and the woman will be unclean.” [Hence part of a span is NOT equivalent to the whole of it.]

So we can see that the Christian apologists that have actually READ Shabbat 9:3 and not just aping each other (as is often the case in Christian apologetics) are being very disingenuous. We are left with no proof whatever that 1st-century Jews deemed part of a day as the whole of it—unless one is speaking of a day as we moderns do. For example: If you had a 9 to 5 factory job but had to work on a particular Sunday as well, you would naturally say you worked “all day Sunday.” Everyone would know that you meant you worked 9 to 5 on a given Sunday. But what if you said, “I had to work all day Sunday day AND Sunday night”?  That would be an altogether different matter, wouldn’t it?  Everyone would know you had worked either all or part of the 2nd shift in addition to the 1st shift that Sunday. So one can readily see the argument that “three days AND three nights” does NOT mean roughly “three days” because of Jesus’ addition of the words “AND nights.”

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 very explicit. He is not saying that he will be buried for “three days” as the Christian apologists desperately claim, but for three days AND three nights. For Jesus’ prophecy to have been accurately fulfilled, therefore, his ‘resurrection’ would have to have occurred at dawn on Monday (as per Mark 8:31; 9:31; and Matthew 27:63). That, according to the gospels, did not happen. Hence, Jesus’ prophecy was a “false” one—however nit-picky one might find that to be.

But there’s more. There are solid reasons to believe that Jesus’ Resurrection—if it happened at all—would have to have occurred on Saturday, and certainly not on Sunday or Monday (as Mark 8:31 and 9:31 would have it). For more on this, see my series beginning here. I’ve yet to be refuted in regards to this.

[1] Lyons, Eric. “Did Jesus Rise ‘On’ or ‘After’ the Third Day?”, 2004,, Citing Lightfoot; Hoehner.

[2] “Definition of Onah – Nishmat – Women’s Health and Halacha”. Retrieved 2018-10-10. See also “Onah” – Wikipedia.


[4] Ibid.


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