How did Jesus die and rise again in three days?

Q: If Jesus died on Good Friday, and rose from the dead on Easter, how could Jesus have risen on the third day when there are only two days between Friday and Sunday?

TL;DR Answer: Jesus didn’t die on Good Friday.

More Detailed Answer:

This is a common question asked by sceptics as an attempt to try to disprove the truth of the Bible. The most common answer is to say that Friday was the first of the three days, then Saturday (last day of the week) is the Sabbath, so Sunday (first day of the week) becomes the third day. Honestly, that’s a stretch, and one that isn’t necessary. What it does require is an understanding of how the Jewish Passover works.

Perhaps the best way to show how Jesus did indeed die, then arise in the three days that he prophesied, is to work through the account of his crucifixion and resurrection, while focusing on some important points about the timeline. For our purposes I’m using Luke’s account as Luke is perhaps the least biased of the four evangelists. His purpose for writing his account was simply “having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3–4).

In the 22nd chapter of Luke, the writer begins with a very important piece of information. “Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is called the Passover, was approaching” (v. 1, emphasis mine). There is a very important aspect of Passover that comes into play when working through the final moments of the life of Jesus.

The feast of Passover is instituted in Exodus 12:

Now this day shall be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove dough with yeast from your houses; for whoever eats anything with yeast from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. And on the first day you shall have a holy assembly, and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except for what must be eaten by every person—that alone may be prepared by you. You shall also keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your multitudes out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall keep this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days there shall be no dough with yeast found in your houses; for whoever eats anything with yeast, that person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall not eat anything with yeast; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.1

It’s repeated again in Leviticus 23, this time with specific dates:

These are the appointed times of the Lord, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at the times appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover. Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work. But for seven days you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord. On the seventh day is a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work.’ (Leviticus 23:4–8)

As was done in Exodus, the first and seventh days (specifically, the 14th and 21st of Nisan (the first month) in the Jewish calendar), are called as “High Sabbaths” in the Jewish calendar (the NASB calls them “holy convocatons”; other translations use the term ‘Sabbath’ explicitly). Another detail about this is also important: these Sabbaths do not necessarily occur on the last day of the week. In this case, it appears there were actually two Sabbath days in a row (the High Sabbath of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, followed by the regular Sabbath of the last day of the week).

So, as we continue, here comes the timeline:

  • 13th of Nisan: Jesus celebrates Passover with his disciples, prays in Gethsemane, is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin during the night (Luke 22).
  • 14th of Nisan: Passover at twilight. Jesus is brought before Pilate, beaten, and crucified, dies (Luke 23). He is buried in a hurry in a borrowed tomb because “[i]t was a preparation day, and a Sabbath was about to begin” (Luke 23:54). The Sabbath in question is the High Sabbath on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on 15th Nisan. It is not necessarily the Sabbath on the last day of the week (Saturday).
  • 15th of Nisan: First day Jesus in the tomb. First day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (a High Sabbath).
  • 16th of Nisan: Second day Jesus in the tomb. Also the last day of the week, so a regular Sabbath.
  • 17th of Nisan: The third day, Jesus rises from the dead on the first day of the week (Luke 24:1). Feast of First Fruits?2

A few other interesting pieces of information, by the way, about the 17th of Nisan:

  • Noah’s ark beached on Mt. Ararat after the Great Flood on the 17th day of the “seventh” month (Genesis 8:4). The seventh month was redesignated as the first month (Nisan) in Exodus 12:2.
  • The Hebrews entered Egypt (Exodus 12:40–41).
  • Moses led the Jews through the parted Red Sea (Exodus 3:18; 5:3).
  • Israel entered the promised land and ate its first fruits (Joshua 5:10–12).
  • Hezekiah cleanses the temple (2 Chronicles 29:1–28).
  • Queen Esther saves the Jews from extermination (Esther 3:12; 5:1).

So why do we observe Jesus’ death on “Good Friday”? It appears to be more or less from early Catholic tradition, when it was called Feria sexta in Parasceve, or “Friday of Preparation”, among other names, with the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday rather than the High Sabbath that is part of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. In Catholic tradition it is part of the Easter Triduum, comprised of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

  1. Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. 

  2. In the sources I looked at, there is disagreement as to the exact date of the “Feast of First Fruits”. The Bible does not give a specific date, but Numbers 28:26 specifies a High Sabbath on that date, which would suggest the High Sabbath on the first day of the “Feast of Unleavened Bread”, or on the 16th of Nisan, keeping in mind that days in the Jewish calendar begin at sunset. Putting the date on the 17th of Nisan would coincide with the other biblical events that happened on the same date, but I nonetheless leave a question mark on this because of the disagreement between sources.