Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Sign of Jonah and Three Days and Three Nights

I had an interesting conversation after church today. I preached on Jonah 2 and referenced the “sign of Jonah” from Matt 12:38–42. A wonderfully passionate Christian in my church was keen to discuss whether Jesus was dead three days and nights, which would align with Matt 12:40: “for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” He went as far as suggesting that I was not taking Jesus at his word by not believing that Jesus rose three days and nights after his death.

I suggested that the sign wasn’t so much related to the exact three days and three nights, but that Jesus died and rose again, which parallels Jonah in the belly of the fish and being “resurrected” onto a beach. The exact timing is not the point. What I said, clearly did not satisfy my friend, and so I said I would do a bit more research.

The first thing to note is that in later references in Matthew’s Gospel itself, Jesus rises on the third day, both in a summary of Jesus’ teaching (Matt 16:21) and on his own lips (Matt 17:23; 20:10). Now, let’s say Jesus was raised on a Sunday (the morning of the first day of the week), then Sunday would be the third day in relation to Friday (Friday first day, Saturday second day, Sunday the third day). In the discussion, it was claimed that the first day began the night previous (in Jewish thought); this changes nothing because if the day began at night, Sunday morning is still the morning of the first day (which began the night before). So, in Matthew, on the one hand, Jesus says he will be three days and nights dead, but in the same Gospel, it will be on the third day, i.e. deceased for two nights.

Now, this would seem an insurmountable problem where Jesus contradicts himself. On the one hand, he says he will rise after three days and nights, but elsewhere he says “on the third day.” However, this is only if central to the sign of Jonah is the time period. This need not be the case, for there are differing views as to what the sign of Jonah actually implies. Smith articulates the dominant view in Matthean scholarship in his article on the “Sign of Jonah” in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 754–56) when he states that the sign of Jonah is the resurrection not its specific correlation in terms of date. This is proven by the fact that Matthew himself does not take it directly, moving from “three days and nights” to “on the third day.” Smith writes,

Matthew understands the resurrection of Jesus as the fulfillment of the “sign of Jonah” (12:40): “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights [only this limited time].” Matthew’s use of the phrase “after three days” in 27:63 (cf. “on the third day” in 16:21; 17:23; 20:19 par.) is an echo of the Jonah tradition and confirmation that Matthew understands Jesus’ resurrection as the sign of Jonah.

So, while Matthew says “three days and three nights,” the sign is not the time period, the sign is that Jesus’ rose as did Jonah “rose” from the fish. The time period is general, and we make a classic exegetical error when we feel we need to defend it as such. This is reading back modernist temporal expectations into the Bible world, where such things were not determinative.

Second, when Luke records his version of the Jesus’ material in Luke 11:29–32, he makes no reference to “three days and three nights.” He simply says, “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:30). Smith says of this that there are disagreements among Lukan interpreters concerning the meaning of the sign with four views. The first is that just as Jonah was sent as judge to Nineveh, so Jesus will come as judge of humanity at the consummation of the ages. The next view is similar; just as Jonah preached repentance to Nineveh, Jesus preaches repentance, and the Ninevite response is what is required of Israel—repentance. Third, Luke’s main interest is his own generation at the time of writing—they need to repent. The fourth is the same as Matthew—the resurrection. Whatever Luke has in mind, it is not the three days and nights that is the issue. Perhaps because of the widespread understanding that Jesus rose on the third day, he reframed it, to ensure readers didn’t get confused (as some modern readers can be).

A third thing to note is that the better recognised Matthean scholars recognise that the “three days and three nights” is not significant and does not need to be taken literally. Here are three examples (and a fourth cited). Hagner writes:

Furthermore, Jonah was in the whale “three days and three nights,” yet Jesus rose from the dead “on the third day” (16:21; 17:23; 20:19; cf., however, 27:63–64). But this kind of minor discrepancy, the obsession of some modern interpreters, was of no concern to Matthew or to any of the evangelists, nor can it be allowed to affect the discussion of the chronology of the passion and resurrection of
Jesus (Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (WBC 33A; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 354).

Blomberg cites Gundry, “‘Three days and three nights’ represents a Semitic idiom for any portion of three calendar days (Gundry, Matthew, 244—who gives examples). An idiom is a particular form of expression natural to a language, person, or group. So, this is a general way of speaking, not meant for moderns to take literally. So there is no need to see a contradiction with the traditional Holy Week chronology, including a Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection, or to propose any alternative chronologies (C. Blomberg, Matthew (NAC 22; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 206–207).

Finally, Morris, in agreement with Gundry and Blomberg writes:

As we count time, three days and three nights points inexorably to three periods of twenty-four hours each; we thus have a problem with the use of this expression for the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection: the period from toward the middle of the day on Friday (when he was crucified) to early on Sunday morning (when he was seen alive) comes short of what we understand by three days and three nights. But the Jews did not reckon as we do: they counted the day on which any period began as one day, and they did the same with the day on which the period ended. Thus we have Friday, Saturday, Sunday, three days; it does not matter that neither the Friday nor the Sunday was complete. According to the method of counting in use at the time, this is the period during which Jesus would be in the heart of the earth. Matthew elsewhere speaks of Jesus as rising “on the third day” (16:21) and “after three days” (27:63); there is no reason to think that he sees any difference between these expressions. However we understand it in detail, the expression indicates that after the crucifixion Jesus will be three days in the tomb (L. Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (PNTC; Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 325–26).

The fourth thing to realise is that “the sign of Jonah” is effectively a parable. One of the dangers of “amateur” exegesis is allegorizing every aspect of a parable. This has led to some crazy understandings of sayings of Jesus; as if every small part of it must have a correlation. In the case of the “sign of Jonah,” this is tricky. For example, Jonah didn’t actually die; he was near death, was swallowed by a fish (saving him), and was vomited up alive on a beach. He did not die or rise from the dead. So, the analogy breaks down if we force the issue. What we need to do is to consider the context and Jesus’ wider teaching to grasp what it is that Jesus was saying. Here, he wasn’t saying that he was like Jonah literally in every respect, but that Jonah’s experience points to his forthcoming one in which he will die and rise again. The three days and nights need not be forced into an exact analogy, as this is general and approximate. Matthew himself does not consider Jesus was three days and nights in the tomb. If he had been, he would have been raised on the fourth day; rather, he was raised on the third day.

Fifth, the whole question of exactly when Jesus was crucified and when he rose is vexed. However, it does not affect this question. The disciples became aware of Jesus’ resurrection on a Sunday morning (the first day). However, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) appear to say Jesus was killed the day after the evening Passover Feast, the Passover Day (15 Nisan)—remember that Jews began the day in the evening and so the Passover meal is on the evening before the day (Matt 27:57, 62; Mark 15:42; Luke 23:54; John 19:31, 42). John, however, seems to see the Last Supper as occurring the day before Passover, the day of preparation (14 Nisan). Either way, however, the Gospels make clear that the Sabbath comes the day after his death (Matt 27:57–28:1; Mark 15:42–16:1; Luke 23:54–56; John 19:31), so we still have Jesus rising on the third day after his death. The question is, was he killed the day before the Passover or on the day of Passover? He rose on the third day. This is demonstrated across the NT where “the third day” is referenced in relation to the resurrection, not “three days and three nights” (Matt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; Luke 9:22; 13:32; 18:33; 24:7, 21, 46; Acts 10:40; 27:19; 1 Cor 15:4).

Finally, one of the suggestions is that the Sabbath in mind is/was not the actual Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. This supposedly creates space for the three days and three nights. However, "Sabbath" is mentioned seven times in the Passion chapters and fifty times over the Gospels. There is absolutely no indication that its use is any different in the Passion Narratives to the use of the term across the four Gospels—it is the Sabbath, the Seventh Day, holy and sacred to Israel. To postulate alternative calendars is problematic, although it is tried. In my view, it becomes very dodgy to feel one can interpret the Greek word differently from place to place to try and fit in one’s interpretation of “three days and three nights,” especially when Matthew did not seem to feel the necessity himself!

So what was Jesus doing in the sign of Jonah in Matthew’s Gospel? He saw in Jonah’s near death and his being spewed up on the beach as an appropriate a parallel to his own mission and its outcome; actual death and actual resurrection. It is a ready-made analogy. Jonah was a Jewish prophet, Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Jonah preached a message of repentance, so did Jesus (Matt 4:17; 11:20). Jonah preached to Gentiles, so Jesus’ message would be taken to all nations by his disciples (Matt 28:18–20) (but not by Jesus himself, Matt 10:6; 15:24). Jonah was in a fish and as he puts it, the belly of Sheol, for three days and nights; so would Jesus be in the grave and rise on the third day. None of the analogy is perfect, so why should be force the time frame in such a way? (especially when Matthew and Luke do not do so). Jesus was more than a prophet. He did not preach directly to Gentiles but did preach repentance. Jonah did not die, Jesus did. Jonah did not rise again, but his experience and language approximate that of Jesus. So, it was highly appropriate that the “sign of Jonah” was assumed by Jesus in this way. We do not need to line up every part. To do so, we would have to do the same for every one of Jesus’ messages, parables and all. That is a modernist approach to Scripture that becomes very unhelpful as we feel we have to defend every jot and tittle and dig bigger and bigger holes for ourselves trying to place modernistic exactitude on ancient writings. Clearly, for the NT writers, it wasn't an issue. If it had been, they would have tidied up such things. Why should it be for us?

One more thing to add, as a post-publication edit. The context is Jewish leaders demanding signs. Jesus is saying that they will get their sign, the sign of Jonah--the resurrection. That is the real point not exactly three days and nights. For a Jew, 'on the third day' should be enough as the time frame is an idiom and general.


Christine said...

Check out Overcomer channel on YouTube, she has got a timeline about the sign of Jonah and that major significant things are gonna happen after the third solar eclipse in August :)

Anonymous said...

What if the sign of Jonah is that Jesus would be alive by a miracle when people thought that he died? After all, the prophecies about the Messiah is that he would be saved and not killed.
Here's a good debate on it
What do you think?

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