Gospel Disproof #39: The Sign of Jonah

In Matthew 12, Jesus makes a prophecy concerning his own burial.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for asign; and yet nosign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

This same story also appears in Luke 11 in more general terms, and there’s a further reference to the Sign of Jonah in Matthew 16, but Matthew 12 is unique in specifying exactly three days and three nights. And it’s a problem, because according to the Gospels, this prophecy got the duration wrong.

According to the Gospels, Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried on the day before the Sabbath. Thus, the beginning of the “three days and three nights” would be around sunset Friday evening. From Friday sunset to Saturday sunset is one day and one night. From Saturday sunset to Sunday sunset is also one day and one night. But oops! Jesus is supposed to have arisen around sunrise on Sunday morning. So that’s two days and two nights, but take away one of the days, because the resurrection allegedly happened before the second day started. That means instead of three days and three nights, the Son of Man was only two nights and one day in the heart of the earth.

Christians sometimes get around this by explaining that the Jewish day begins at sunset, which is an interesting bit of trivia, but doesn’t really solve the problem. If he was in the tomb by a few minutes before sunset on Friday, ok, count those few minutes as “one day” because it was Friday. Then the Sabbath begins with the sunset, and ends with the following sunset, which adds one day and one night. Then the third day (by Jewish reckoning) begins at sunset, and adds one more night, but oops again, it’s still only a day and a half later, and counting the last few minutes of Friday as a full “day” only brings us to two days and two nights, so Jesus is still wrong.

If you reeeeally want to say that Jesus was in the tomb 3 days and 3 nights, you have to lie a little bit and count the same night as being two different nights. Thus, you can go back to the Roman system of counting the days from midnight to midnight, but also mix it up a little bit with the Jewish system of counting days from sunset to sunset, and say, “Ok, he was in the tomb for the last few minutes before sunset on Friday, so that’s one ‘day,” then he was in the tomb from sunset Friday to midnight Friday, so that’s one ‘night.’ Then from midnight (between Friday and Saturday) until sunrise Saturday morning is another ‘night,’ (even though it’s really the same night as before midnight) Saturday sunrise to sunset is another day, Saturday sunset until midnight is another ‘night’, and then midnight until the following sunrise is another night. Then if Jesus rises from the dead a little after sunrise, we have a few minutes of Sunday morning that we can call another ‘day.’ So by this system, we have 3 days and—one, two, three, oops! four nights. Darn.”

In the end you have to use the last method, except you count one of the nights as two ‘nights’ and two of the ‘nights’ as being one night because shut up that’s why. In other words, you just have to lie. Matthew says Jesus predicted that he would be “in the heart of the earth” for “three days and three nights,” and if you’re a believer you simply have to ignore the fact that this prediction never actually because true. For bonus points, you can even claim that the Sign of Jonah is one of the fulfilled prophecies that proves Jesus was God, despite the fact that it was wrong.


  1. grumpyoldfart says

    The Good News Bible translators found an easy solution by tossing out “three days and three nights” and replacing it with “three days and nights”.

    Cunning buggers!

  2. Brad says

    This passage creates another problem for believers that hold (like many Catholics and liberal protestants do) that Jonah and the more fanciful old testament stories shouldn’t be taken literally.

    If the story of Jonah was just a metaphorical morality tale, and he wasn’t literally inside a giant fish for 3 days, what does that say about Jesus’ claim about burial and resurrection? Should that be interpreted metaphorically, too, and not taken literally?

    • NonyNony says

      Not really. Because you can just as easily imagine someone comparing themselves to, say, Achilles, or Odysseus, or Harry Potter, without actually literally believing that any of those guys existed.

      Also – most of the folks in the “liberal” tradition don’t necessarily accept that Jesus said everything attributed to him. They accept that the Gospels and other books were written by people who were trying to record what Jesus had said long after the fact, and so of course mistranscriptions and errors have crept in because it would be silly to assume otherwise. And heck the Catholics don’t even read the Bible much – Jesus didn’t have to say much of anything attributed to him outside of having 12 apostles and telling Peter he was the bestest apostle for their religion to work.

      This is why liberal faith is much, much less brittle than conservative faith. The conservative requires absolutes and when those absolutes are broken the faith shatters. The liberal believer is more flexible and can come up with rationales to justify almost anything.

      • davidct says

        “This is why liberal faith is much, much less brittle than conservative faith. The conservative requires absolutes and when those absolutes are broken the faith shatters. The liberal believer is more flexible and can come up with rationales to justify almost anything.”

        What you say makes a lot of sense but the twisted power of “faith” is such that standing up to inconsistencies leads to only more elaborate rationalization. It makes the faithful believer more committed more often than leading to the “weakness” of doubt. Human psychology is funny that way.

  3. rikitiki says

    Thanks for this, Deacon. That bit always bothered me growing up Catholic. I had someone pull that Jewish day/night thing on me when I brought up the 3-days/3-nights thing also, but it just don’t wash no matter how you try to mix it up.

  4. mikespeir says

    Oh, now you’re just nitpicking. It doesn’t have to be factual to be true. (I never realized something could be factual but not true until I got into a debate with an advocate of the so-called Framework Hypothesis. So, apparently there’s true and then there’s true true. Or something.)

  5. says

    As we learned from the old earth creationists, at beginning of Genesis Biblical days were not always the same length. they don’t really specify when the days become the same length as we have now. This lets them off the hook for time calculations.

  6. RobNYNY1957 says

    Counting any part of daylight before sunset as a whole day is not as uncommon as you think. It’s how a Jewish male baby’s life is calculated for a bris (on the eighth day, usually one week later). It’s why the Catholic Feast of the Holy Circumcision of Jesus comes on January 1(one week after Christmas), not January 2.

    In French, the way to say “a week from today” is “aujourd’hui en huit jours,” “today in eight days.”


    But it still doesn’t get them the third night.

  7. Bob Jase says

    Can anyone tell me how Jonah was able to time while he was inside the great fish? Did he have a sundial with luminous paint?

  8. Jer says

    This is one of those open questions about the origins of Christianity that puzzle me and I’d really like to know how this happened. “Prophecy” said that the “Son of Man” was supposed to lie in the tomb for three days and three nights. The Gospels have Jesus lying in the tomb for not nearly that long. Why? How did this happen? You would expect this to be the kind of thing that would have gotten straightened out by the time “Matthew” got put to paper – that whoever wrote “Matthew” would have had enough sense to realize that 1+1 did not equal 3. But instead he tries to shove a square peg into a round hole. Why?

    • says

      Perhaps the tradition of Jesus rising on Sunday came first. By the time Matthew comes up with the Jonah ‘prophecy’ several decades later, the tradition was too strong to change.

    • CJO says

      It is a puzzlement. Moreso to me that somehow “the Sign of Jonah” was apparently a freefloating prophecy without a set interpretation. Luke 11 says of the Sign, “For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.” Nothing about three days and three nights. Elsewhere in Luke, where the duration between crucifixion and resurrection is considered, it reads “on the third day.”

      I take this alternative construction (used sometimes also in the earlier Pauline epistles) as evidence that the author of Luke was a little more on his game than the author of Matthew (true in general), more interested in plausibility and consistency in the narrative, and that the former had noticed the discrepancy and chose not to perpetuate it.

      “Three days and three nights” was probably a Semitic idiom denoting the period of time after which a corpse had perceptably begun to decay (the only absolutely reliable indicator of certain death; before modern medicine it was not unheard of for victims of deep coma to be buried and so it was an issue [cf. Lazarus]). Consider, also, the wealth of mishaps and hijinx that could accompany funerals and interment in Greco-Roman literature generally; it was a trope.

      My guess is that very early Christian tradition already had “three days and three nights” in this idiomatic sense intended to show that Jesus was really, truly, fersure dead prior to his resurrection. But this was before any detailed chronology of the Passion had been devised. So the author of Matthew creates the contradiction by combining his particular interpretation of the Sign of Jonah with the Semitic idiom for “certainly dead” and introducing it into his version of the earliest narrative chronology. It’s not that he was too stupid to notice the contradiction, it’s that he simply didn’t care: “three days and three nights” for him was more on the order of English idioms like “a month of Sundays” or “a year and a day”. This is after all the same author who has Jesus entering Jerusalem simultaneously riding two animals, because he took literally the common use of parallel construction in Biblical Hebrew. “How it must have happened” based on tradition and the scriptures was simply more salient than basic common sense. Yet more evidence that we’re dealing with imaginitive literature based on scripture and not any historical or biographical information.

  9. Kevin says

    I used to watch televangelists for giggles (I stopped once CSI and NCIS went into reruns).

    One of those guys made a stab at this — his premise was that because Jesus saved the “whole earth”, then you’d have to count both the day in Jerusalem AND the night on the other side of the world (OTSOTW).

    So..Friday day plus OTSOTW night. 1 day and 1 night.
    Saturday night plus OTSOTW day. 1 night and 1 day.
    Sunday morning (day) plus OTSOTW night. 1 day and 1 night.

    Voila! 3 days and 3 nights.

    The camera actually showed a woman in the audience counting with her fingers. No, I’m not making this up.

  10. exrelayman says

    Well, there is also this little detail that doesn’t get emphasized enough. Implicit in saying this is the only sign you shall be given, is that the hearers will be given this one sign. But mysteriously, Jesus appears only to his devotees, and does not give the sign to the people addressed in that passage. Would have made a whole different evidential package had he indeed done as promised, and say marched through Jerusalem in plain sight to everyone. (Not that that is the only unfulfilled prophecy Jesus made.)

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