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18. Bible and Qur'an Series
BOOKLET 2 - What Indeed Was the Sign of Jonah?
(A reply to Ahmad Deedat's Booklet: What was the Sign of Jonah?)

2. Three Days and Three Nights

It is universally agreed among Christians, with a few exceptions, that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and that he rose from the dead on the Sunday immediately following. Deedat accordingly argues that there was only one day on which Jesus was in the tomb, namely Saturday, and that this period covered only two nights, namely Friday night and Saturday night. He thus endeavors to disprove the Sign of Jonah in respect of the time factor that Jesus mentions as well and so concludes:

Secondly, we also discover that he failed to fulfill the time factor as well. The greatest mathematician in Christendom will fail to obtain the desired result - three days and three nights. (Deedat, What was the Sign of Jonah?, page10).

Unfortunately Deedat here overlooks the fact that there was a big difference between Hebrew speech in the first century and English speech in the twentieth century. We have found him inclined to this error again and again when he sets out to analyze Biblical subjects. He fails to make allowance for the fact that in those times, nearly two thousand years ago, the Jews counted any part of a day as a whole day when computing any consecutive periods of time. As Jesus was laid in the tomb on the Friday afternoon, was there throughout the Saturday, and only rose sometime before dawn on the Sunday (the Sunday having officially started at sunset on the Saturday according to the Jewish calendar), there can be no doubt that he was in the tomb for a period of three days.

Deedat's ignorance of the Jewish method of computing periods of days and nights and their contemporary colloquialisms leads him to make a serious mistake about Jesus' statement and he proceeds to make much the same mistake about his prophecy that he would be three nights in the tomb as well. The expression three days and three nights is the sort of expression that we never, speaking English in the twentieth century, use today. We must obviously therefore seek its meaning according to its use as a Hebrew colloquialism in the first century and are very likely to err if we judge or interpret it according to the language structure or figures of speech in a very different language in a much later age.

We never, speaking English in the twentieth century, speak in terms of days and nights. If anyone decides to go away for, let us say, about two weeks, he will say he is going for a fortnight, or for two weeks, or for fourteen days. I have never yet met anyone speaking the English language say he will be away fourteen days and fourteen nights. This was a figure of speech in the Hebrew of old. Therefore right from the start one must exercise caution for, if we do not use such figures of speech, we cannot presume that they had, in those times, the meanings that we would naturally assign to them today. We must seek out the meaning of the prophecy Jesus made in the context of the times in which it was given.

Furthermore we must also note that the figure of speech, as used in Hebrew, always had the same number of days and nights. Moses fasted forty days and forty nights (Exodus 24:18). Jonah was in the whale three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17). Job's friends sat with him seven days and seven nights (Job 2:13). We can see that no Jew would have spoken of “seven days and six nights” or “three days and two nights”, even if this was the period he was describing. The colloquialism always spoke of an equal number of days and nights and, if a Jew wished to speak of a period of three days which covered only two nights, he would have to speak of three days and three nights. A fine example of this is found in the Book of Esther where the queen said that no one was to eat or drink for three days, night or day (Esther 4:16), but on the third day, when only two nights had passed, she went into the king's chamber and the fast was ended.

So we see quite plainly that “three days and three nights”, in Jewish terminology, did not necessarily imply a full period of three actual days and three actual nights but was simply a colloquialism used to cover any part of the first and third days.

The important thing to note is that an equal number of days and nights were always spoken of, even if the actual nights were one less than the days referred to. As we do not use such figures of speech today we cannot pass hasty judgments on their meaning, nor can we force them to yield the natural interpretations that we would place on them.

There is conclusive proof in the Bible that when Jesus told the Jews he would be three days and three nights in the earth, they took this to mean that the fulfillment of the prophecy could be expected after only two nights. On the day after his crucifixion, that is, after only one night, they went to Pilate and said:

Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again'. Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day. (Matthew 27:63-64).

We would understand the expression "after three days" to mean anytime on the fourth day but, according to the colloquialism, the Jews knew this referred to the third day and were not concerned to keep the tomb secured through three full nights but only until the third day after just two nights. Clearly, therefore, the expressions "three days and three nights" and "after three days" did not mean a full period of seventy-two hours as we would understand them, but any period of time covering a period of up to three days.

If someone told anyone of us on a Friday afternoon in these days that he would return to us after three days we would probably not expect him back before the following Tuesday at the earliest. The Jews, however, anxious to prevent any fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy (whether actual or contrived), were only concerned to have the tomb secured until the third day, that is, the Sunday, because they knew that the expressions “after three days” and “three days and three nights” were not to be taken literally but according to the figures of speech that they used in their times.

The important question is, not how we read such colloquialisms which have no place in our figures of speech today, but how the Jews read them according to the terminology of their times. It is very significant to note that when the disciples boldly claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead on the third day, that is, on the Sunday after only two nights had passed (e.g. Acts 10:40), no one ever attempted to counter this testimony as Deedat does by claiming that three nights would have to pass before the prophecy could be deemed to be fulfilled. The Jews of those times knew their language well and it is only because Deedat is ignorant of their manners of speech that he presumptuously attacks the prophecy Jesus made, simply because he was not in the tomb for an actual three-day and three-night period of seventy-two hours. (This means that Jonah's sojourn in the fish also only covered a partial period of three days and was not necessarily three actual days and nights either).

Having therefore adequately disposed of Deedat's weak arguments against the sign Jesus offered to the Jews we can now proceed to find out exactly what the Sign of Jonah really was.

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