Jonah's Story Was A Central Motif in Jesus's Preaching
Did Jonah die and return to life? An authorized excerpt from the author's new book, "The Reason of Job" (chapter 14). It not only covers Job but also other prophets as well, including Jonah. Request a free Review or Exam copy at the publisher's website: https://wipfandstock.com/9781725295308/the-reason-of-job/.
The number of occurrences of “Jonah” in the New Testament are comparable to those of Joseph, except that they all are attributed to Jesus himself. In other words, no other New Testament voice mentions Jonah besides Jesus, as recorded seven times in two of the four gospels: three times in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 12, once in verse 16:4, and three times in the Gospel of Luke chapter 11. Here is Matthew’s account:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him [Jesus], saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 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. (12:38-40, bolding mine)
Here is Luke’s account:
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. (11:29-30)
As you can see, the two respective passages in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 are similar, so we can call them ‘parallel’ passages meaning that they appear to be two independent accounts of the same one discourse-event of Jesus made by these two respective authors. That is, we could reasonably surmise that Jesus spoke of Jonah on only one of those two occasions reported by both writers. However, it is also possible that they are two separate but similar sermons.  The lone statement in Matthew chapter 16:4 is also almost identical to the one in 12:39 but with a different context, so we can reasonably infer that Jesus probably made that statement on a different occasion. That means that we could (possibly) subtract the Lukan verses from the total count, which would leave us with a total of four references to Prophet Jonah, three less than those of Joseph.
But it is what theses verses say that we should really be interested in, and what we should focus on. Because they seem to be parallel, we could largely harmonize, or blend, the substance of the meanings of the two gospels’ passages. In short, in both passages Jesus uses Jonah as a type of himself, or as a “sign.” But certainly not the part of Jonah’s story where he tried to run from God. Only Jonah did that. Rather, they both are concerned with everything other than that embarrassing part. Just as Job and other prophets modeled redemption-through-descent, or through suffering, so also did Jonah. In the best sense, Jesus exploited the Jonah motif.
I. Jonah and Jesus in Matthew 12
In Matthew Jesus zeros in on Jonah’s suffering, his descent, into the belly of the great fish. Refer back to the bolded part of Matthew’s passage. Jesus used the three days of Jonah’s descent to refer to his own. Not that Jesus was ever swallowed by a big fish; rather, he descended into death, into the “heart of the earth.” Exactly where the “heart of the earth” is and what it is might seem one of the cryptic expressions of Christ, but it really isn’t. The original Greek for this phrase is καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς, literally “heart of the Earth.” The majority of English translations (51 of 62) render it as exactly that, or as “belly of the earth” on one occasion, which seem obviously synonymous. Seven render it as simply “the grave” (5) or “a deep grave” (2), three as either “depths of the earth” (2) or “deep in the earth” (1), and one as “the ground.” A commonsensical understanding of this phrase, then, is that at the very least, Jesus believed he would die and would be buried, exactly how the Jews understood it too. According to some commentators, the phrase might mean more than that, but there is large consensus among scholars that it cannot mean less. It is clearly an expression of Jesus’s foreknowledge, or a prophecy—a prediction that he would die, but very temporarily—"three days and three nights” to use Jesus’s exact verbiage. Not that his spirit, or soul, or real essence would die, of course, only his body. In death, nobody’s real essence dies. So if Jesus was truly a divine being, God, as Christians believe, it is not requisite to infer that God would have died with Jesus’s death.
A Technical Problem
But there is a technical problem to wrestle with. If Jesus was crucified and rose again at all, some skeptics and Muslims ask, was he really in the grave for “three days and three nights”? Short answer: no, probably not.
It is popularly believed that Jesus was executed on a Friday morning and buried on the afternoon of the same day. Then, his resurrection took place very early on the “first day of the week” which is Sunday morning. The problem is, that is only two nights and one whole day. Couldn’t Jesus do basic math? some mock, who also deem this reason enough to dismiss this statement as inauthentic. Even though his prediction of his own death is clearly established by these texts, as is his resurrection, some take issue with this apparent discrepancy, so much so as to dismiss the two most important event-facts entirely. Even if this were an actual discrepancy, i.e. an error, the four gospels are in perfect agreement with Jesus’s prediction that he would die and rise again over the course of mere days—not years, months, or even weeks. And if he foretold those two things right, who would get hung up on the basic math? Still, detractors are not easily satisfied when a technical problem like this presents.
For many of us, there is a simple explanation of the math. First, although chapter 1:17 of the Book of Jonah reveals that Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, we need not understand that as a specific duration of, say, exactly 72 hours in the precise ‘scientific’ or mathematical terms of our day, which would be three 24-hour days. In those terms, if he was there for three nights then he was really only there for two whole days: Midnight from October 1 to midnight on October 3, for example, would entail three nights but would only be 48 hours, and only one whole night. Or, midnight on October 1 to say 6am on October 3 would entail three nights but only two-and-a-half days. Midnight on October 1 to 10pm on October 3 would be three nights and days, but neither three whole days nor three whole nights.
The point is, if whole days and whole nights are demanded then there is no way to encompass three whole nights and three whole days. So in doing one’s calculations, one has to decide on the definition of “day” and “night.” If it is insisted that a ‘day’ is 24 hours, then the problems above obtain, and there is no solution. But if the definition is adjusted to mean 12 hours, or the period of daylight, then the solution is possible. And isn’t that closer to the way we think of days and nights? In reality, every 24-hour day includes a day and a night, or even more precisely, one whole day from dawn to dusk, and two partial nights, one before and one after.
But in real life, even today, we aren’t even that precise when we don’t have to be. We usually use “day” and “night” loosely and imprecisely. And to the present time in history, “day” can refer to any part of the daylight hours or the 24-hour period. It was no different for the ancient Jews of Jonah’s day. So the phrase “three days and three nights” could not have been a literal 72 hours even then. Rather, it was a vernacular expression indicating a round number of days and nights. The same should be understood for Jesus’s expression of his time in the “heart of the earth,” or grave. Therefore, Jesus’s personal comparison to Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish is not a discrepancy at all. Several citations from Bible commentaries should suffice to support the point, the first from Ellicott:
The purely chronological difficulty is explained by the common mode of speech among the Jews, according to which, any part of a day, though it were but a single hour, was for legal purposes considered as a whole. An instance of this mode of speech is found in 1Samuel 30:12-13, and it is possible that in the history of Jonah itself the measurement of time is to be taken with the same laxity.
Here is one from Barnes:
This computation is…strictly in accordance with the Jewish mode of reckoning. If it had "not" been, the Jews would have understood it, and would have charged our Saviour as being a false prophet, for it was well known to them that he had spoken this prophecy, Matthew 27:63. Such a charge, however, was never made; and it is plain, therefore, that what was "meant" by the prediction was accomplished. It was a maxim, also, among the Jews, in computing time, that a part of a day was to be received as the whole. Many instances of this kind occur in both sacred and profane history. See 2 Chronicles 10:5, 2 Chronicles 10:12; Genesis 42:17-18. Compare Book of Esther 4:16 with 5:1.
And here is a final one from Matthew Poole:
“What we call day and night made up the Jewish nucyhmer-on. It appears by Genesis 1:5, that ‘the evening and the morning’ made up a day. Three days and three nights is with us but the same thing with three natural days, and so it must be understood here. Christ was in the grave three natural days, that is, part of three natural days; every one of which days contained a day and a night, viz. twenty-four hours.”
This explanation alone should satisfy the reader. But there is another dimension to the problem and its possible solution: Did Jesus really die on a Friday? After all, the gospels do not specify. Therefore some are convinced that he actually died on a Thursday, or even a Wednesday, views for which there are plausible rationales, respectively. The former has to do with the plethora of events that occurred between the execution and resurrection, and the latter has to do with the reference to the “sabbath” in all four gospels. The question is whether this sabbath was merely the single, weekly one (Saturday) or actually two sabbaths, for the Sabbath associated with the annual Passover may also have fallen at that time. But this is beyond the primary scope of our discussion, and I do not wish to stretch the reader’s attention beyond its limits. Suffice it to say, again, that Jesus believed he would die—not be delivered from death—but only for a period of days, not weeks, or months, or years, or forever. For just as Jonah would come out of the belly of the fish, Jesus believed (i.e. he knew) that he would come out of the state of death that he would enter into. Thus, in Matthew 12 Jesus used Jonah’s descent and ascent to prefigure his own.
For those who are inclined to dismiss the story of Jonah, or at least the part where he gets swallowed by the fish and survives, it should count for something that Jesus believed it, apparently in a literal sense. Supposing he believed the story in a figurative or mythical sense, it seems hard to draw that conclusion from his words. Still, for those who insist that it was mythical, it doesn’t matter. It is then true myth. It is quite palpable enough for Jesus to use it for his purposes, to communicate his own descent and ascent.
Immediately after this part of the passage (vv. 38-40) in the same segment comes Jesus’s extension of it:
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. (vv. 41-42, bolding mine.)
I want to say this is self-explanatory. But in the interests of clarity I shall explicate: Jesus not only compares himself to Jonah but claims to be greater. Then he mixes in the Queen of the South (i.e. Sheba, today’s Yemen) and King Solomon than whom he also claims to be greater. In both cases, his point is to alert them to the dire consequences of rejecting his warnings. The Ninevites repented with hardly any effort on Jonah’s part, and the Queen of Sheba traveled a great distance to find true wisdom. And since Jesus is greater than them both, his audiences should feel even more convicted.
The second passage in Matthew referring to Jonah (16:4) consists of only one verse, and it is almost identical to the one we have already exposited. It is an example of repetition and a mark of a very good teacher, as we have noted before.
II. Jonah and Jesus in Luke 11
Now let’s examine the second full passage in Luke 11. I referred to it before as a parallel passage, but on closer examination, it does not match Matthew’s account exactly. Actually, this is typical of many parallel passages in the gospels, which attests to the independence of each inspired writer. In Luke’s account, Jesus does not speak of Jonah’s time in the belly of the fish at all, nor does he speak of his own time in the grave. Rather, Jesus highlights a different aspect of Jonah’s mission, or, well, the mission itself. In verse 30 of this passage Jesus says…
For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so
will the Son of Man be to this generation.
Here Jesus leaves out the whole part about Jonah’s being swallowed by a big fish. He refers only to Jonah’s having been a “sign” to the people of Ninevah, and by analogy Jesus’s own ‘sign-ship’ to the people of his generation and his own specific geo-historical context. As I’ve said before, Jesus would have reused his divine material in multiple teaching situations but would have tailored it for each particular audience, say, in each village. In this case, it wasn’t Jonah’s descent into death-like suffering that Jesus wished to analogize, but rather how God used Jonah as a sign to the Ninevites, and how God intended to use Jesus as a sign to the Israelites, Samaritans, Romans, and other gentiles within his cultural milieu.
Then, as in Matthew’s account, Luke reports Jesus’s theological extension to the first two verses as follows:
The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Note that this segment is almost identical to the second part of Matthew’s passage including Jonah and the Queen of the South. But do you notice the one difference? Yes, they are reversed. Does that matter? No, I don’t think so. As in Matthew, here Jesus is asserting that he is greater than both Jonah and Solomon, and that is all the more reason why his audiences should repent. So much so that if they did not, then both the Queen of Sheba and the Ninevites will rise up at the time of the final divine judgment to condemn them. Very strong words. But where did Jesus get off claiming to be greater than both prophet Jonah and King Solomon? Where indeed? Clearly Jesus believed he was the greatest of the prophets, and more than a prophet, the one-and-only Messiah, and rightful King of Israel (even though he never sought political power). If he was not then it was intolerable bravado on his part. But if he really was then God had raised him up as the cumulation of all prophets, saints, and righteous kings before him and the fulfillment of all their prophecies and prophetic motifs. And evidently, according to Jesus himself, certain elements of Jonah and his mission qualified as such. So the Jonah motif is a prime example of the Master Motif that we’ve been relishing all along.
Incidentally, there is one more comparable passage that I want us to look at, this time from the Book of Hebrews again.
…consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house. For Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses—as much more glory as the builder of a house has more honor than the house itself. …Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. (3:1-3 and 5-6, bolding mine)
I say it’s comparable because it’s in keeping with our passages of focus in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 in which Jesus elevated himself above a prophet (Jonah) and even a great king (Solomon). The writer of Hebrews claims that “Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses.” Even though Jesus did not say this himself, it seems entirely consistent with what he did say about himself in our ‘twin’ passages of Matthew and Luke.
And finally we come back to Job in the next and last chapter (15).
*Again, this post is the second half of chapter 14 of my new book, "The Reason of Job," which also covers other prophets including Jonah. You can request a free Review or Exam copy of my book at the publisher's website: https://wipfandstock.com/9781725295308/the-reason-of-job/. I truly hope you will. You can also buy it, of course, but I'm sorry it's so expensive. (I don't control that, and that's why I encourage you to try to request a free copy; let me know when get yours!)
 It is not unreasonable to surmise that Jesus repeated and even repackaged much of what he taught on multiple occasions and settings, e.g. in various cities and villages. So the reader is required to conclude that this is the same discourse event. They could have been entirely different. Bolding mine.
 Barnes Notes on the Bible: In the “heart of the earth” –The Jews used the word "heart" to denote the "interior" of a thing, or to speak of being in a thing. It means, here, to be in the grave or sepulchre; Jamieson-Fausset-Brown: “The expression ‘in the heart of the earth,’ suggested by the expression of Jonah with respect to the sea (2:3, in the Septuagint), means simply the grave, but this is considered as the most emphatic expression of real and total entombment.”
 Some commentators assert that it must mean not only that Jesus was buried in a grave or sepulcher, but also that he also descended into a much deeper place, i.e. the netherworld. Ellicot says, ‘“the heart of the earth,” standing parallel as it does to “the heart of the seas,” the “belly of hell”—i.e., Sheol and Hades—in Jonah 2:2-3, means more than the rock-hewn sepulchre, and implies the descent into Hades, the world of the dead, which was popularly believed to be far below the surface of the earth.’ Meyers agrees: But the question as to what Jesus meant by ἔσται … ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ τῆς γῆς, whether His lying in the grave (so the greater number of expositors), or His abode in Hades (Tertullian, Irenaeus, Theophylact, Bellarmin, Maldonatus, Olshausen, König, Lehre von Christi Höllenfahrt, Frankf. 1842, p. 54; Kahnis, Dogmat. I. p. 508), is determined by καρδία τἥς γῆς, to which expression the resting in the grave does not sufficiently correspond; for the heart of the earth can only indicate its lowest depths, just as καρδία τῆς θαλάσσης means the depths of the sea in Jonah 2:4, from which the biblical expression καρδία in our present passage seems to have been derived. Again, the parallel in the κοιλία τοῦ κήτους is, in any case, better suited to the idea of Hades than it is to that of a grave cut out of the rock on the surface of the earth. If, on the other hand, Jesus Himself has very distinctly intimated that His dying was to be regarded as a descending into Hades (Luke 23:43), then ἔσται … ἐν τῇ καρδ. τ. γ. must be referred to His sojourn there. (https://biblehub.com/commentares/matthew/12-40.htm)
 Gospels of Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1, John 20:1 and 19, and Book of Acts 20:7
 Gospels of Matthew 16:21, 17:22:23, 20:17-19, Mark 9:31-32
 “For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights.” https://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/12-40.htm
 Ibid. Gill and Bengel concur.
 Matthew 28:1, Mark 15:42 and 16:1, Luke 23:54 and 56, and John 19:31.
 For those who are interested see 1) nickcady.org/2017/04/17/was-jesus-in-the-grave-three-days-and-three-nights-heres-how-it-adds-up/ and 2) https://bible.org/question/ were-three-days-and-three-nights-jesus-was-grave-full-72-hours. Also see Appendix 9 for a more thorough explanation of this problem and its considerations.