Ancient time

Question: Jesus says in Matthew 12:40 that he will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. But in fact, he was only two nights in the tomb. Can you shed some light on this passage?

Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado

Answer: The answer lies in several factors. The first is that in the ancient world where modern clocks and calendars were not the daily fare, references to time were understood more generally and less specifically.

Even today, if I say, “I was in the city for three days,” I do not thereby mean exactly 72 hours. I mean that I was there for a good part of three days. I may have arrived at some point on a Friday, been there on Saturday and left at some point on Sunday. So, it is not exactly three days, but “three days” captures the gist of it. The ancients spoke like this, perhaps more frequently, but we do as well.

As to the question of “three nights,” it is important to recall that, for the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, a day began at sundown, whereas we more often reckon sunrise as the start of a day. Thus, for the ancients, “Friday” began on what we call “Thursday” at sundown. We still maintain this notion with Church feasts and Sundays. Thus, in liturgy, “Sunday” actually begins Saturday after 4 p.m. Solemn feasts of the Church also have vigil Masses that are able to be celebrated the evening before.

This provides something of a background for the fact that in the ancient Jewish way of speaking “three days and three nights” is just another way of saying what we modern people mean when we say, “three days.” Thus, although Jesus was placed in the tomb sometime after 3 p.m. on Friday, that Fri-“day” had actually begun with a night. Satur-“day” had begun with its night on the sundown of Friday. Sun-“day” had begun with its night on the sundown of Saturday. So, it is possible to reckon three nights along with the three days.

But all this insistence on exactitude bespeaks a certain modern impatience that is inappropriate. The modern, Western mind controls by measuring.

Precision is a bit of preoccupation with us, but one that misses the fact that people don’t always speak with exactitude or mean things precisely. “Three days and three nights” is simply a mode of speech, a way of speaking of a period of about three days, not 72 hours exactly.

St. Augustine

Question: I read recently that St. Augustine had first been a “heretical Manichean.” What does this mean?

Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York

Answer: St Augustine, before embracing the Catholic faith, spent about nine years as an adherent of Manichaeism. It was one of several dualist, gnostic heresies of the time that held that good and evil are equal powers, and both have always existed. The Darkness of Evil invaded the Goodness of Light, and fragments of light are still entrapped in the darkness. Jesus is of the Light, and is pure spirit, showing us how the light in us (our soul, which is trapped in our body) may be freed.

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The heresy was named after Mani, who lived in the third century in what is today Iran. It was heretical because it denied the Incarnation of Christ and saw the body and matter as evil. It was quite a rival of Christianity in certain regions during the third and fourth centuries.

Thankfully, St. Augustine was drawn away from this heresy by the preaching of St. Ambrose and entered the Church.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to