Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Does John 11 Define A Biblical Day?

(JON. 11: 8-9) 8 The disciples said to Him, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You, and are You going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world."

Many are the times when I have heard someone point to John 11: 9 in an attempt to support a 72-hour length of time for the phrase "three days and three nights" in Matthew 12: 40. "Jesus comes right out and tells us precisely how long a day is," they say, "so we know He had to be 72-hours in the tomb." Are they right about that? Is it truly appropriate to take "are there not twelve hours in the day" and apply that to the phrase "three days and three nights"? Or, are there other mitigating factors we should be aware of before we go this route?

Let's just start off by putting this out there - it is an undeniable fact that the ancient Hebrews (and most of the surrounding cultures besides) did recognize twelve hours in a day and twelve hours in a night, making twenty-four hours altogether. Hebrews apparently got this from the Babylonians, who got it from the Egyptians. Nothing at all that I say here should be understood as disputing or taking away from that fact. It is true.

Does that mean the game is over? Set and match? Let's investigate this further.


Their day had twenty-four hours just as much as ours does. But is it true we always mean a twelve or a twenty-four hour period every single time we say the word day? No. We can use words in colloquial ways. When we use a word in a non-literal sense, it is called an idiom.

Webster's first definition of idiom is:

"1. An expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for "undecided") or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way)"
-Mirriam-Webster, "Idiom",

The meaning of an idiom cannot be derived from its elements. In other words, you say one thing but mean something else entirely. Do you know what the phrase "tickling the ivories" means? It means playing the piano. Every culture has idioms, and the Bible is full of them.
Perhaps the most well known is this:

(PRO. 7: 2) Keep my commands and live, And my law as the apple of your eye.

Is there an apple in your eye? No. Not literally. There is not a Macintosh inside your eye fluid or a Red Delicious in the reflection. Here's a fun fact for you - "apple of your eye" is an English idiom, not a Hebrew one. The literal translation is "little man of the eye". It just means your pupil.
Here is another:

(JOB. 19: 20) My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.

Are your teeth covered in flesh? No. Not literally. A completely other understanding is hiding in that phrase.
Here is an example we all know:

(GEN. 4: 1a) Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain...

You know exactly what is really meant when the Bible says "knew". They say it, but they don't say it. Idioms are very handy for that sort of application.
Here is an example from the very verse we focus on most:

(MAT. 12: 40) 40 For 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.

Jesus was placed inside the literal beating heart within the cardio-vascular system of the earth? No. An idiom is right here in exact same verse which people demand is the most literal of all.
Let's do just one more:

(ISA. 2: 12) For the day of the Lord of hosts shall come upon everything proud and lofty, upon everything lifted up - and it shall be brought low -

I chose this example specifically because it uses the word day in a way that is neither twelve nor twenty-four hours. Taken all together, the many examples of the phrase "day of the Lord" will paint a very clear picture that this is a period of time far beyond a single day. The word day is not always literal, dear reader. It just isn't.

These are all examples of non-literal uses of words and phrases. They are idiomatic expressions. 

Today, we can use the word day every bit as literally or idiomatically as anyone else. Take for example the phrase "in my day." It doesn't mean, "In my literal twelve or twenty-four hour period of time." It means, roughly, "Back when I was in my prime." Jesus used the phrase "my day" (JON. 8: 56). He didn't mean Abraham saw his literal 24-hours. For another example, "Have a nice day!" Do we intend people only to have twelve nice hours, or for their period of niceness to end at sunset? No. Not at all. It was never intended to be chronologically specific. Sometimes language can just be unspecific. It's one of the hardest parts of literal translations of the Bible, and why we sometimes need thought-for-thought translations.

A person went to a job interview at 3 o'clock PM. They did well and got the job. The hiring manager said, "You're hired. You start in two days." Two days later, the employee arrived precisely at 3 o'clock PM. The manager saw the person walking in, and angrily said, "What is the meaning of coming here at this hour? Turn right back around and go home. You're fired!"
Why? The employee arrived exactly forty-eight hours later, didn't they? But starting time was 8 o'clock AM, not 3 o'clock PM. When the manager said, "in two days," their intent was at the appropriate hour on the second day. It is still the case, even in our mathematically and chronologically meticulous day and age, that day is not always meant to be literally twelve or twenty-four hours.

A minute has sixty seconds, does it not? Must it follow that every time we use the word minute it only refers to a literal sixty-second period of time? No. For example, we say "a hot minute." When things get hot, they expand. A hot minute is a completely inexact period of time that is longer than a minute. It has no specific meaning at all. It's the same when we exclaim, "Give me a minute!" We don't mean to say, "Give me precisely sixty seconds because that's the definition of a minute." No. We just need more time. It doesn't matter how much time, precisely, just however much more it takes to finish the task at hand.

Why waste so many words on this simple concept? Two reasons. First, to show that words with specific meanings like day can be idiomatic under the right circumstances. Second, because I intend to demonstrate an inconsistency. It is the tendency of some people to apply a literal meaning to day when they want to force the length of Jesus' interment to be precisely 72-hours. They will go right back to defining a day loosely elsewhere. Let's see that.


As I pointed out in my article "Three Days and Three Nights", the only verse in the New Testament that uses the phrase “three days and three nights” is Matthew 12 verse 40. There are twenty other places where the length of Jesus interment was described. In all of these twenty other instances, none of them repeat Matthew 12: 40. Here is how they play out in the NKJV:

  • "The third day" 11 times.
  • "In three days" 5 times.
  • "After three days" 2 times.
  • "On the third day" 1 time.
  • "Within three days" 1 time.

There is no possible way all of these can be taken literally. All twenty-one instances (these 20 plus Matthew 12: 40) speak of one and the same event. One event that played out one way described with six different phrases. They cannot all be literal. Every single person who just set John 11: 9 as their standard to define day as exactly a twelve or twenty-four hour period of time in order to make Matthew 12: 40 into 72-hours, will now abandon that standard for most if not all of these other phrases.

If someone, unwisely, decides not to abandon their literal standard, they cause a terrible issue. Let's see that. Let's replace the word day with twelve-hour period.

  • The third twelve-hour period.
  • In three twelve-hour periods.
  • After three twelve hour periods.
  • On the third twelve hour period.
  • Within three twelve hour periods.
Do you see the problem caused? The, in, after, on, within... creates several different resurrection times. If we insist on a strict literal interpretation, we turn the Bible into an inconsistent mess. No one involved agreed on the length. Not even Jesus Himself!

Of those, if we only look at what Jesus said, we see: "the third day" 8 times, "in three days" 1 time, and "after three days" 1 time. One man speaking of His own resurrection in four different ways (these three plus "three days and three nights"). When we force a literal definition onto the word day, we see only inconsistency in the words that came from Jesus' own mouth.

There is but one way to solve this issue: they all mean the exact same thing and day is not meant to be taken as a literal twelve or twenty-four hours in any of them. Not even in "three days and three nights".


It seems we have an option. I have shown you why I think day should not be literal. Now we need to ask, what evidence is there to support applying a literal definition to "three days and three nights"?

Please supply a reason why we should. We need some kind of legitimate, biblical reason, not just, "Because it suits our desired outcome of Jesus not dying on a Friday." Demanding a certain definition without plotting out support for it makes it just that - a baseless assertion. If this were some petty point, nobody would really care. But it's not. This is a premier claim for some people, and they use it to accuse billions of other Christians of being pagans. Evidence for something this important is required. So, where is this evidence?

Having spent decades in a church that taught me to believe it should be literal, and having read thousands of articles and booklets over the years, and having reviewed many here at ABD, we have yet to see any particularly convincing evidence. No sermon from any minister I have ever heard, nor article from any author I have ever read or reviewed, nor any response from any person I have ever debated on this topic, has given any convincing reason why we should take that phrase literally. It is just assumed we should. So, I went to look for my own evidence. I went over in my article "Three Days and Three Nights" how there is no other biblical reason. In fact, there are several legitimate biblical reasons why it should not be defined literally. "Three days and three nights" is a known and quite ancient idiom.

Why is "three days and three nights" held as the gold standard, but those twenty other utterances are shoved aside? I will tell you why. Because the claim of 72-hours in the tomb absolutely relies on it. It is necessary in order to get the result they went looking for in the first place.
But, as we hope you have seen, there is no good Biblical reason to take the phrase literally. There is no good reason to showcase it to the exclusion of the others. Therefore, "three days and three nights" is simply a convenient means to an predetermined end. It is a conclusion looking for support.

Predetermined conclusions are not a very good thing. You know how scientific research is suspect when it has been funded by a special interest? It's practically the same thing here. Does that mean it is wrong? No, not necessarily. But it makes peer review more important. What happens when we peer review the 72-hour assertion in the patented As Bereans Did gauntlet? As I said, it comes up completely unsupported. We have a desired outcome looking for evidence and suppressing anything that disagrees.

One strict definition for day is used in one place, and another loose definition is used in twenty other places. One verse is emphasized, twenty others are shoved aside. The modern way to count time exclusively is used, and the way Hebrews count time inclusively is ignored. The demonstrably false claims of Alexander Hislop are promoted, and the historically documented ideas of the Pharisees and the early church are dismissed. The 12-hour definition of day is insisted upon in one verse, and the words sabbaton and prosabbaton used by Matthew and Mark are redefined out of existence.

Did I lose you there? I am referring to topics covered in other articles. See our articles "Three Days and Three Nights", "The Two Sabbaths of Matthew 28", and "Easter FAQ" for more.

There really is nothing whatsoever to support the conclusion. What some people are doing with John 11: 9 is neither intellectually honest nor consistent.


I assure you, dear reader, that even after 14 years, we are still searching the topic, trying to be as even-handed in everything as we can. Perhaps we have missed something. Perhaps someone noticed some new detail everyone else overlooked. We have not come across anything that persuades us to change our minds.
That isn't to say we haven't seen new ideas. There are some. For example, there are people out there saying "the third day" is actually four days.

To explain, let's turn to the first chapter of the Gospel of John.
Some of John the Baptist's disciples are meeting Jesus for the first time and being called to follow Him, then they head together to Cana for the wedding where Jesus turns water into wine. There is a time progression described here that we need to see.

John 1: 29 says, "on the next day," then v.35 says, "again, the next day," then v.43 says, "the following day," and finally we come to John 2: 1 which says, "on the third day". Did you catch that? Day, day, day, third day.  ??
Some people look at that and conclude, "John says 'on the third day' when it was actually the fourth day, so 'third day' is a phrase that refers to the fourth day."

You might be saying, "Huh. I never noticed that before. That's really interesting." If so, that's fine. But please follow that up with, "I am going to go see if there is any other example anywhere within the Bible or without where 'the third day' indicates a fourth day, and if not, this conclusion is merely a simple misunderstanding which needs to be clarified."

There are several examples showing this is not how the Bible uses the phrase "third day". The Hebrews counted inclusively. The phrase "third day" is easily recognizable as being equivalent to saying 'day after tomorrow' (e.g., EXO. 19: 10-11; HOS. 5: 2). You can even find an example of "fourth day", where the timeline is meticulously laid out and there is no doubt that four days are involved (ACT. 10 all). In all of the Bible commentaries I dug through, none agreed that "third day" can be understood as "fourth day". In all the oldest and most reliable extra-biblical sources I read, I found no hint of support. So, we have no examples within the Bible or outside of it to support the claim that third day means fourth day.

It doesn't even make sense chronologically.

The distance between where John was baptizing in the Jordan in Judea, somewhere due west of Jericho, and Cana of Galilee where the wedding was, is roughly 60 miles in a perfectly straight line (verified on Google Maps). If you walk at a steady 4 miles per hour, it would take 15 hours. The terrain is rough, and Samaria lay in between the two. Jews would never go into Samaria unless they absolutely had to. The Bible makes no mention of it. Some time later, when Jesus did go through Samaria, the Apostles protested strongly. Clearly, this was not something they were accustomed to doing. We can reasonably assume they went around at this point. This means they would have to first go east into the Decapolis to go north and then west into Galilee. Your 60-mile trek just got much longer. The only way that journey could have been made in one day is by purchasing transportation, which Jesus was not accustomed to doing.

One cannot simply walk from the Jordan River on day three to Cana on day four. That interpretation is prohibitively difficult. So, I feel justified in rejecting it.

There are four explanations for John's choice of words:

  1. John is referring to Tuesday, which was called 'the third day'.
  2. John starts the count at John 1: 35 where Jesus first gains a following.
  3. John means it had been three days since John 1: 43 where Jesus decides to go to Galilee.
  4. John means it is the third day since Jesus entered the area of Cana.
Options #1 and #2 are weak, and the hardest to accept since they are so arbitrary. Options #3 and #4 are strong. I feel the more reasonable of those is option #3. They left John the Baptists on day one, on foot, and arrived in the region of Cana on day three.

There is no clear way to settle which is the correct option, but it is abundantly clear 'the third day' cannot be defined as 'the fourth day'. This is not only unsupported but contraindicated from the rest of the biblical and extra-biblical evidence. It is simply not a possible option.
Yet, someone is out there right this minute relying on it as part of their Biblical interpretation (in this case, the person making this argument wanted to support a Thursday crucifixion).

These are the wild things we get when people start with a conclusion -- making the cherry-picked evidence go in the direction of the pre-determined conclusion, rather than allowing the total evidence to lead us to the reasonable conclusion. What we should be doing is letting the Bible interpret the Bible.


Is a day defined as 12-hours in the New Testament? Yes, that is a possible option. We granted that at the start. But must that definition always apply to the word day? No. We demonstrated that. In fact, forcing a literal definition in every instance of day causes terrible issues for resurrection timing.
More importantly, does John 11: 9 define the meaning of Matthew 12: 40? Does it apply for "three days and three nights"? From what we have seen in this article and others, I say no.

If there is an option, we need a good reason why we should choose one or the other.

Those who argue Jesus was entombed for 72-hours make assertions without a compelling explanation why. We investigate the claims, and they keep coming up making the same mistakes over and over again. Their conclusion depends on proof-texting and too many other things I categorize as nothing shy of intellectual dishonesty.

As for the evidence we provide for our conclusion, aside what I have shown you here today, As Bereans Did has several articles where we lay our case out in detail. Some of them I have already mentioned. We invite you to our Categories page where our articles are listed under the topic Easter.

All of the best evidence leads us to conclude the phrase "three days and three nights" is a very ancient and known idiom that was never meant to be understood as literally 72-hours. Choose exegeses over eisegesis!


It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )

Acts 17:11



Anonymous said...

It seems strange that if Jesus rose "between the evenings" on saturday evening as Armstrongism teaches in their Wednesday crucifiction/72 hour doctrine, why didn't some of the disciples show up at the grave at that time? Wouldn't they have wanted to be there after sundown Saturday to see Christ's resurrection?
For the Armstrongist 72 hours period, Saturday "between the evenings" was the absolute latest it could be, but again there is no mention of any disciples coming to the grave at that time or even some time before. Why not?

One obvious reason is that the disciples knew that not enough days had passed since the crucifixion which would teach strongly against a Wednesday crucifixion.

According to the Armstrongism timeline, why would the Marys wait 84 hours after Christ's burial to anoint Him with herbs/spices on Sunday morning? If Jesus was buried "between the evenings" on Wednesday evening, why didn't they come early Friday while His body would be fresher instead of waiting another 48 hours?

One obvious reason would be that they knew Jesus was not in the grave on Friday morning.

The 72 hour doctrine has a lot of logical inconsistencies.

xHWA said...

Good points.

You saying "between the two evenings" brings something to mind. When they want to say Jesus rose on a Saturday, "between the two evenings" is late on Saturday, almost to Sunday. But, when they want to say the Jews ate the Passover at the wrong time, suddenly "between the two evenings" is early on the 14th, right after the end of the 13th.