Answering Islam Email Dialogs

Topic: Jesus: His date of birth and the Sign of Jonah

Received: 30 November 2004

Subject: 3 days/3 nights & Date of Jesus' birth

Dear Sir / Madam

I am a Protestant Christian living in South Africa. Recently a Muslim man has confronted me with challenging questions. This has only motivated and confirmed my beliefs and I am stronger in faith than ever. (By the grace of God!) Could you please respond to these questions:

1. What is the Sign of Jonah?

2. Was Jesus really born in 4 B.C.?

I am fully aware of the hidden agenda and the true answers behind these questions. Could you PLEASE help me to compile a cogent and structured argument?

YOurs in Christ,

Our answer:

Dear ...,

Thank you for your email and interest in defending The Faith. We all run across people who challenge what we believe, and that is good because as you mentioned, it does cause us to dig deeper into the Word. This, too, solidifies our own faith, because the deeper we dig, the more things come together.

It is interesting to me, that the Bible has a lot to say about the covenant between Christians and God. A covenant is none other than a contract. A contract has terms to verify actions between 2 parties. The Scripture is the verification that God has kept His part of the contract - and if it had not been faithfully preserved, then we would not be able to verify if God has kept his terms, i.e., God's faithfulness. This is one reason why inerrancy of Scripture is such an important part of the Christian faith.

Now, to try and help with your questions.

1. The Sign of Jonah.
This is referenced in Luke 11:29-32, also in Matthew 12:37-42, which says:

37 "For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." 38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from You." 39 But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 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. 41 "The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 42 "The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." (NAS)

So, in plain reading of this passage, it states that as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for 3 days and 3 nights, so Jesus was to be in the earth for the same time. Also, the people of Nineveh (to whom Jonah went after the fish incident) repented of their ways, whereas the people of Jesus' day didn't repent, though He was much greater than Jonah.

I understand that people tend to attack this portion of Scripture to try and poke a hole in the credibility of the Bible, because other passages states also that Jesus was in the tomb from Friday night to Sunday morning (2 full nights and 1 full day.)

There are several different ways of looking at this. But the most realistic (I believe) is below:

The Jewish people, even in Jesus' day, did not express time as Westerners do. They expressed things in round numbers. They considered any part of a day, however small, as a full day when it was included with a period of days. Thus, they counted the day on which any period began as the first day, and then they did the same thing on the day the period ended. Thus, just as Jonah was in the belly of the giant fish "three days and nights", so Jesus was in the tomb for "three days and three nights" (Matthew 12:40). Such expressions presented no problems for the Jews. Matt. 27:63,64.

The "Jewish Encyclopedia," Vol.4, pg.474, confirms this method of reckoning time. It reads, "A short time in the morning of the seventh day counted as the seventh day; circumcision takes place on the eighth day, even though, of the first day only a few minutes remained after the birth of the child, these being counted as one day."

So, in conclusion, we read this phrase "three days and three nights" as a figure of speech, not a specific time measurement, understandable in the Jewish mindset more readily than in our Western way of thinking.

Think of it this way. If we took the '3 days and 3 nights' literally, we could only assume it was a literal 72 hours. To say it was longer - even one second longer - would mean that you would have to say something like 'longer than 3 days and 3 nights' and if was shorter, then you would have to say something like 'less than 3 days and 3 nights.' I realize this argument seems to be pulling hairs, even being picky, but either you read it literally, or you read it figuratively. Think of being up in the morning - when does the night end and day start (without a watch)? I guess I'm saying even the phrase '3 days and 3 nights' in normal day interpretation has to be to a degree-interpreted figuratively already. (Side note: Such precision is not out of the grasp of God's ability, but obviously, this is not the focus here in this passage.)

So, now that we settled the figurative / literal issue, seeing it in the Jewish mindset isn't as difficult as before.

2. Was Jesus really born in 4 B.C.?

According to my understanding, it was in the sixth century A.D. when the calendar was set to the BC / AD structure that we now use. Their accuracy at that time in pinpointing Jesus' birth was a little off.

Because of this, yes, we believe that Jesus was born in or slightly before 4 BC according to our present day calendar. This is calculated primarily from around the time Cesar Augustus lived, and the date of death of king Herod.

But, as you might be aware, this is a long time ago. Even in one generation, such data can be lost very easily. We don't know for certain even the precise locations where many of the main events occurred in the Bible - like the exact spot Christ was born in Bethlehem, where He was crucified in Jerusalem, where He was baptized in the Jordan, etc.

These are not major issues to me. What is important is that Jesus was born with a sinless nature, lived a perfect life, and by His death on a cross, He died in our place, paying our sin-debt. That He was buried, and rose again on the third day, showing all that the sacrifice He offered was sufficient. And all this was done according to the Scriptures, foretold in centuries past.

A good book that might help in this situation is "All that the Prophets have Spoken." It can be read freely online ( It is an objective overview of the Bible, written to one who has little or no understanding of the Bible. Written this way, important, foundational concepts are not overlooked. Although I had been saved many years, when I read it, it helped me put many of the pieces of the Bible together in a way that made incredible sense. It can also be purchased from GoodSeed as well through the USA Store. ( There also is a list of web pages that give some help in presenting the Gospel to those that are lost:

We can only trust the Holy Sprit to bring these truths into a reality with those around us. We cannot change people's hearts - all we can do is to present what we know as best we can, pray that the Spirit will use that, and to trust the Father with the outcome. He is able to break through, but still allows us the decision to trust Him or not.

Thank you for being used of Him in this situation, and I do pray that you have the wisdom to share with this fellow in a way that brings Him the honor and the glory.

In Christ,


Webmaster's note: The Muslim polemic about the sign of Jonah has been popularized (if not invented) by Ahmed Deedat. The full polemic by Deedat as well as thorough Christian answers to them can be found in the section

Regarding further information about Calendars, see

Answering Islam Email Dialogs
Answering Islam Home Page