Jesus and Jonah

Germany_Worms_Cathedral_JonahLast week I put up a post summarizing Walter Moberly’s chapter on Jonah, Forget the Fish Already!. The post focused on the genre and message of the book. Moberly, like most OT scholars, considers the book to be something of a parable rather than a record of an historical event. Many Christians object to this reading, not because the Bible cannot contain books other than history, but because of the references Jesus made to Jonah.

Although no comments brought this up (this time), I did receive e-mail expressing this concern. The point raised is that Jesus specifically connects with his own death and resurrection with the event recorded in Jonah. Thus relegating Jonah to meaningful fiction may well be equivalent to relegating the death and resurrection of Jesus to a meaningful fiction. At very least it is a step too far … likely off the cliff.

This is an issue worth digging into more deeply.

The references to Jonah in the Gospels (and the only references in the New Testament) are:

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”

He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Matthew 12:38-41

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.
Matthew 16:1-4

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.
Luke 11:29-32

The key question is whether these passages carry the intended meaning if the book of Jonah is a parable or story rather than history. If the meaning depends on the genre of the book of Jonah, then we have a serious issue here. If the meaning remains the same, then there is no conflict and there should be no objection to allowing the book of Jonah itself inform us as to its genre.

The first passage from Matthew is the one that causes the most trouble because here Jesus draws a specific parallel between Jonah’s time in the fish and his own death and subsequent resurrection. The reference to Jonah is a quote from the Septuagint (some translations indicate this specifically others, like the NIV, do not). Most commentaries I consulted note that the comparison uses a common Jewish phrase and it is of no concern that Jesus was not in the heart of the earth three nights according to our standard Holy Week reckoning, and only a part of three days. Thus we do not believe that Jesus meant “three days and three nights” with mathematical precision. The importance is in the parallel.

The sign of Jonah. According to the commentaries, there is no explicit reference to “the sign of Jonah” in the Jewish literature of the time. Thus there has been some speculation as to what this means. Some scholars suggest that the reference “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” is a later addition by Matthew because it is not found explicitly in Luke. There is no conclusive reason to think so, however. In his commentary R.T. France notes “References to the book of Jonah in extant Jewish literature show that it was not his preaching that was their main interest, but his experience in and deliverance from the sea monster, so that an unadorned reference to “the sign of Jonah” would be more likely understood in that light.” (p. 490) The fish is the most impressionable part of Jonah today and the same was true for a first century Jewish audience. Given this, it appears that the sign of Jonah likely does involve his time in the fish.

The sign that the wicked generation craves will come in the death and resurrection of Jesus – certainly not in the way the questioners desired.

But the message of these passages goes deeper than a prophecy of his death and resurrection. Jesus makes explicit connection to the response of the Ninevites. They repented and received divine mercy. In contrast the current “wicked generation” is refusing to repent and follow the teachings of Jesus. Certainly this was true of most of the Jewish teachers and leaders. The attitude of those who are asking for a sign is wrong – they are not turning to God with the child-like faith displayed by the Ninevites in the book of Jonah.

In addition, France and others note that Jesus says that he is greater than Jonah (a prophet) and Solomon (wise man and king, 12:42). He is also greater than the temple, the other center of authority (12:6). France concludes his commentary on this section: “If “something more/greater” than all these key authorities is now present, and if, moreover, all their functions have now been brought together into a single person, Jesus’ questioners have a thought-provoking basis on which to consider the question of his authority. Temple and priesthood, prophet, king, and wise man – something greater is now here.” (p. 493)

And if we dig a little deeper yet – Jonah and Solomon are not terribly good examples to follow. Jonah does not fare well as the book ends with him sweltering and rebuked. Solomon did pretty much everything a king was called to avoid. There were certainly problems with the temple leadership in the first century. Jesus is something greater.

Do any of these messages depend on the genre of Jonah?

I don’t think they do. Jesus was an intelligent and sophisticated thinker and preacher and he could certainly have used the book of Jonah in this manner if he so chose irrespective of its genre. It would strike a chord with his audience and that was always his intent. He spoke in parables and hyperbole for a reason (if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away). I see no reason to think that historicity would be a requirement before Jesus would use the book in the fashion that it is used in these passages. Yes, he used it to foretell his death and resurrection. However, its value as a parallel lay not in some physical reality, but in the meaning the book had for his hearers.

We can let the structure of Jonah itself inform us of its genre. Moberly and others make a convincing argument that the book is not history, but a fictional story carrying a message designed to provoke thought. This conclusion doesn’t arise from a disdain for the supernatural, or a desire to belittle and dismiss scripture. It comes from a desire to read the Bible for all it is worth.

What do you think?

Does the reference Jesus made to “the sign of Jonah” fail if the book isn’t recorded history?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If you would like to comment please see Jesus and Jonah on Jesus Creed.

Added based on comments at Jesus Creed:

From Moberly, p. 187:

There is, of course evidence for a historical Jonah, the eight-century prophet mentioned in Kings, who prophesied territorial expansion for the northern kingdom of Israel and who is the subject of our story (the notation in both contexts that Jonah is “son of Amittai” is presumably meant to identify the two figures; 2 Kings 14:25, Jon 1:1); but stories about historical figures do not themselves need to be historical.

Walton makes the same point … good satire intentionally uses known details and people. We can’t judge the genre of Jonah from the fact that it identifies the main character with a minor prophet mentioned briefly in 2 Kings.

And then in a footnote, also p. 187:

There is a still-persisting conservative apologetic argument that Jesus, by his appeal to the story “clearly” regarded it as historical, and the believer should do likewise. This argument is a good example of category confusion. To enter into the text with full imaginative seriousness reveals nothing about the literary genre of the text.

The point is that we don’t really have any specific evidence that Jesus did regard it as historical – only that he used the text to make a point. This can be done with a historical text or any story well known to the audience.

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