“And YHWH numbered [i.e., appointed] a great fish to swallow Yonah; and Yonah was in (the) belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
On at least one occasion, Jesus references the famous episode from the book of Jonah, in which the reluctant prophet is thrown into the sea and swallowed by a “great fish” (1:17). This provides the narrative setting for the splendid lament-poem in chapter 2 (vv. 2-9), which, in many ways, forms the heart of the book. The reference occurs at Matthew 12:40, and suggests that the “sign of Jonah” (v. 39) is the miraculous episode of the fish, and that the ‘three days and three nights’ is to be taken as a prophetic allusion to the death and resurrection of Jesus. There can be no doubt that the Gospel writer, along with many other early Christians, understood the matter this way. However, it would seem that, in the original Gospel tradition, the “sign of Jonah” had nothing to do with the famous episode of the fish.
Matthew 12:39-42 has a parallel in Luke 11:29-32, part of the so-called “Q” material—narrative episodes and sayings common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. And yet, each Gospel handles this material in a slightly different way, setting it within a different location in the overall narrative. For Luke, it is part of a collection of teaching by Jesus set during the long journey to Jerusalem (9:51-18:34). It is introduced in a very generic way, with little apparent connection to the preceding sections:
“And (with) the throng (of people) crowding upon (him), he began to say, ‘This (age of) coming-to-be [genea/] is an evil (age of) coming-to-be! (Its people) seek a sign, and (yet) no sign will be given to it, if not [i.e. except for] the sign of Yonah’.” (11:29)
Matthew sets this tradition within the context of various controversy-episodes between Jesus and the religious authorities (‘Scribes and Pharisees’), all of which are rooted in the main Synoptic Tradition:
In addition, the teaching in 12:33-37, similar to other “Q” sayings (7:11, 16-20; Lk 6:43-45), assumes the same sort of controversy-setting (as v. 34 makes clear). The introduction to the “sign of Jonah” saying (v. 38) must be understood within this narrative context:
“Then some of the Writers [i.e. Scribes] and Pharisees gave forth (an answer) to him, saying: ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign [shmei=on] from you’.”
On the surface, this may seem like a simple and harmless request, and yet, the controversy-context of chapter 12 suggests that it must be read as a challenge, of sorts, to Jesus. This helps to explain Jesus’ rather harsh response:
“And, giving forth [an answer back] to them, he said: ‘[Only] an evil and unfaithful [i.e. adulterous] (age of) coming-to-be [genea/] seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it, if not [i.e. except for] the sign of Yonah the Foreteller!'” (v. 39)
I have translated genea/ in an extremely literal way, as an age or period of “coming to be”; it is typically rendered as “generation”, emphasizing the people of the age. The fundamental meaning is of a group/collection of people who have “come to be” (i.e., have been born and lived) in a particular place and time. When Jesus refers, as he frequently does, to “this genea/,” it is aimed directly at those people whom he is addressing—i.e., those alive in Galilee and Judea, etc, at the time. The expression “this genea/” almost always has a harsh and negative connotation.
In Matthew’s version of this material, the allusion to the “great fish” episode in the book of Jonah (1:17ff), follows in v. 40, indicating that the “sign of Jonah” refers to the miraculous episode (and as a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection, cf. above). However, no such allusion occurs in Luke’s version, and most critical scholars would hold that the shorter Lukan version here represents the more original form of the “Q” tradition. Indeed, Luke’s version gives an entirely different meaning to the “sign of Jonah”:
“For, even as Yonah came to be a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this (age of) coming-to-be [genea/].”
There is no indication that the episode with the great fish had any bearing on Jonah’s mission to the people of Ninevah (chapter 3); indeed, the text nowhere suggests that they ever had occasion to hear of the matter. Rather, it was the prophetic message of Jonah, his preaching to the people, that constituted the “sign”. He warned them that, if they repented and trusted in God, the disaster coming upon them would be averted; the king and the people responded to this message, and they were saved from a disastrous judgment (by God), just as Jonah predicted.
This line of interpretation is confirmed by the second illustration offered by Jesus (Lk 11:31/Matt 12:42), regarding the “Queen of the South” (i.e., the Queen of Sheba), who traveled to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom (i.e., the inspired teaching) of Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 10:1-29, par 2 Chron 9:1-12). This wisdom-aspect is related to the inspired message of the prophet—both being manifestations of the word of God given to a specially chosen/gifted individual.
The ultimate point of these illustrations is made clearly enough, with a bit of harsh and biting irony. Faraway heathen peoples (the Ninevites, the Queen of Sheba) responded to the word of God, and yet many people right here in Israel (i.e., in the cities of Galilee) are unable or unwilling to accept it! And how much more should it be accepted when Jesus is the messenger, since he (the Son of Man) represents something even greater than Solomon (or the prophet Jonah). The Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba will rise up (as witnesses) at the tribunal of the great Judgment, bringing condemnation to the Galileans who refuse to trust in Jesus (Matt 12:41-42; Lk 11:31a, 32).
It seems clear enough that, in the original form of Jesus’ teaching, the “sign of Jonah” was the inspired prophetic message that led to faith and repentance by the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3). Now Jesus, a Prophet far greater than Jonah (indeed, even more than a prophet), is bringing a message to the people of Israel—and many of them refuse to accept it!
Interestingly, the rebuke of those who “seek after a sign” would seem to downplay the importance of Jesus’ miracles as a sign of his Messianic/Prophetic identity. It would be a mistake to interpret the passage in this way. To be sure, the emphasis here is on Jesus’ preaching and teaching; however, there is another tradition (also part of the “Q” material) where Jesus rebukes the people of Galilee, in a similar manner, for refusing to respond to his miracles—cf. Matt 11:20-24 / Lk 10:13-15.
The accepted critical view would be that the reference to the fish-episode of Jonah 1:17ff (Matt 12:40) is a Matthean addition to the original “Q” material. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that the Gospel writer, apparently, does much the same thing with the comparable Synoptic/Markan saying of Jesus in Mk 8:11-12:
“And the Pharisees came out and began to seek to (question) him together, seeking (from) alongside of him a sign from heaven, (and thus) testing him. And (to this), giving up a groan in his spirit, he says: ‘(For) what [i.e. why] does this (age of) coming-to-be [genea/] seek a sign? Amen, I say to you—(consider) if a(ny) sign shall be given to this (age of) coming-to-be!'”
This is similar in many respects to the “Q” episode, especially in the Matthean narrative setting of the controversy-scenes with the Scribes and Pharisees (cf. above). Indeed, many scholars would maintain that both Mk 8:11-12 and the “Q” episode derive from a single (common) historical tradition, having been preserved in two variant forms. Matthew seems to contain a version of this Synoptic/Markan tradition (16:1, 4a), combined with an additional illustration (vv. 2-3). As with the “Q” material, the Gospel writer has apparently added the Jonah reference to this tradition (perhaps to harmonize it with 12:39f): “…but no sign will be given to it, if not [i.e. except for] the sign of Yonah” (v. 4b). Of course it is always possible that Jesus may have made the same reference on multiple occasions; however, there are enough instances in the Gospels where separate sayings/traditions are joined together based on a common theme or “catchword” bonding, that it seems likely that this has taken place at both 16:4 and 12:40.
To say that Matt 12:40 represents an ‘addition’ by the Gospel writer does not mean that it is not an authentic tradition or a genuine saying by Jesus. If the “three days” motif was an authentic part of the Synoptic passion-predictions by Jesus (Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:34 pars), it would have been simple enough for Jesus himself to latch on to the traditional motif as it occurred in the Jonah narrative (1:17ff). Along the same lines, one could scarcely fault the Gospel writer for including such an association where he does at Matt 12:40. The “three days” motif in Jonah 1:17 must have been readily applied by early Christians to the death and resurrection of Jesus (even apart from Matt 12:40), and all the more so if the motif was rooted in the early Gospel Tradition (through the passion predictions, etc).
Some commentators have suggested that, even if Luke 11:29-32 does not contain the allusion to Jonah 1:17, the Gospel writer understood (and intended) the association. This is intriguing, in light of the the way the Lazarus parable (in 16:19-31) ends. The Rich Man, in torment in Hades, pleads with Abraham that he be given the chance to warn his brothers, so that they might repent and avoid meeting the same terrible fate (vv. 27-28). This generally matches the idea of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites. Abraham responds that the man’s brothers already have “Moses and the Prophets [including Jonah!]” (v. 29)—the implication being that, if they will not repent their ways while they possess the inspired Scripture, they will likely not repent even if the man is able somehow to warn them. To this, the man further insists, “…if someone from the dead were to travel toward them, (then) they will change (their) mind-set [i.e. repent]” (v. 30). Abraham’s stinging reply is that not even the miracle of someone coming back from the dead is likely to cause them to repent!— “If they do not hear [i.e. listen to] Moshe and the Foretellers, (so) also they will not, even if one stood up out of the dead, be persuaded” (v. 31).