It may seem like splitting hairs, and perhaps no one cares or needs to care, but picky scholars want everything to fit together like parts in a machine. We are told that Jesus was in the tomb 3 full days and 3 full nights to fulfill the prophecy of Jonah.
Jonah 1:17 Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
If Jesus died on Friday He spent only 2 ½ days in the grave. We need account for the additional one-half day.
Jesus Himself made a point of citing the Jonah relevance in this passage.
Matthew 12:40 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.
If Jesus was crucified on Thursday and died at 3 p.m. on that day we can account for a complete 72 hours.
First, modern readers must realize that the official day for Jews did not begin at midnight but at sunset. This came from Genesis where God said the day began at evening and ended at 6 p.m. The entire world clock system is based on day first and then night so one must adjust his thinking.
Genesis 1:5 God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Second, Roman Law specifically said that Jewish citizens could not be prosecuted on their high holy days or on the “day of preparation” which is always a Friday. This preparation day was an opportunity for the Jew to cleanse his home and person so that he was clean enough to celebrate.
Jewish law also stated that one would not be clean enough to celebrate a Sabbath (Saturday worship) or the Passover if an individual had been near a dead body. Nor could someone go near a tomb without becoming unclean.
If Jesus was tried by both Jewish and Roman law, crucified and died on Friday this would have been a violation of the law of Caesar Augustus. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews Book 16, Chapter 6 gives the passage of the Roman law which applies here. If local Jewish believers had been required to conduct the crucifixion and move Jesus to his grave on Friday that would have given the workers only a few minutes to prepare for the Sabbath not a full day of preparation.
Meanwhile Roman soldiers were an army of occupation. Soldiers would not be charged with handling any dead bodies; they would delegate that to local citizens. And after all there were three bodies to dispose of not just Jesus.
Romans were able to conquer and dominate many nations because they did not change local custom or break local religious rules. They were not popular conquerors but they were tolerated because they were sensitive to indigenous people’s way of daily life and custom. In addition the Romans thought the whole Jewish religious thing was nonsense so they were not anticipating anything to come of either the Jewish laws or the prophecies of Jesus.
Because the Hebrew laws were so specific, Roman managers knew that the Jews would do things by the book so they did not need to post a guard at the tomb until Sunday morning. If, as was predicted, Jesus’ disciples would move his body, they would not do it until the holy days were past.
Modern church dramas often show the tomb guarded for the entire three days but this is not correct. If that were so then when the Mary came to the tomb and found the stone rolled away the guards would have stopped her.
One of the major proofs that Jesus was raised from the dead is the fact that for over 2,000 years no one has been able to produce a body of Jesus. That Sunday morning an entire cohort of Roman soldiers could find only two badly damaged corpses in all of Jerusalem.