The Sign of Jonah

jonah-and-the-whale.jpgThe New Testament doesn’t say much about the prophet Jonah, although the little it does say has made him an important figure in Christianity, his time spent inside the fish prefiguring the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The only references to Jonah in the New Testament are in a saying by Jesus recorded in both Matthew and Luke. The two accounts are similar although different so I put them both below with the words they have in common highlighted in red.

MATTHEW 14:39-41; 16:4

But he [Jesus] 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.  40For 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. 41The 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.

… 16:4  An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.

LUKE 11:29-32

When the crowds were increasing, he [Jesus] 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. 30For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation…32The 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.

It can be seen that the words in red are common to both Matthew and Luke, but in both accounts they are ‘split’ with different words in between. So which of the two accounts records the actual saying of Jesus? The most likely explanation in my view is that the words in red are the ‘actual’ saying of Jesus and that both Matthew and Luke have copied them from a source which they both accessed. There is a widely held view amongst New Testament scholars (known as the “two source hypothesis”) that when Matthew and Luke were written the writers had two written sources in front of them: one was the gospel of Mark, as large parts of Mark appear word-for-word in both Matthew and Luke; the other was an unknown source which scholars often call ‘Q’ which is an abbreviation of the German word Quelle, or ‘source’. If we compare Matthew and Luke in their entirety we discover that much of these two gospels are identical. If we extract those sections which are identical to Mark the remainder is what scholars call Q. An interesting thing about Q is that it consists primarily of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative. It appears that at some stage, before Matthew and Luke were written (although possibly after Mark) a document was written which listed many of the sayings of Jesus, and this is what we now call Q. It doesn’t exist any more, or at least it hasn’t been found anywhere. But who knows, maybe it will turn up some day in a monastic library (like some of the best manuscripts available of the New Testament) or in a Judean cave (like the Dead Sea Scrolls). It appears that another very early Christian text called the Didache, or teachings of the apostles, may also have used Q as a source, but that is another discussion to be had.

It would be a reasonable explanation then that the actual saying of Jesus which may have been sourced from Q went like this:

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  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 problem is, this leaves the reader to guess what this “sign of Jonah” was. Both Matthew and Luke inserted their own explanations into their accounts. This isn’t uncommon as we see this kind of thing happening quite a bit in ancient texts which quoted from earlier ones. In this case, however, Matthew and Luke provide different explanations for Jesus’ saying. Matthew says the sign would be “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.” Luke on the other hand says “as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” We don’t have a case of the two writers recording Jesus’ saying differently (and hence one or both of them ‘misquoting’ Jesus) but of them both recording the same saying but inserting their own explanations, and these explanations differed.

The modern reader is still left to wonder what the “sign of Jonah” meant as the two explanations are different. Luke’s explanation isn’t that different from the saying of Jesus as it focussed on the people of Nineveh and their reaction to Jonah’s preaching. But Matthew’s explanation steps right away from this and offers an allegorical interpretation of the story of Jonah. It is not surprising that a story as strange as Jonah’s which has a host of unusual features (such as someone surviving inside a fish for three days) would attract an allegorical interpretation, and there is evidence in Rabbinic sources that this method of interpretation was applied from an early time. One interpretation, for example, is that Jonah represents Israel and as he was vomited by the fish so Israel was ‘vomited’ from their land when they went into captivity. Leviticus 18 uses precisely this kind of language to describe the land of Canaan vomiting out its inhabitants (18:25) and threatens the same for Israel if they do not keep the statutes and commandments God has given them: “lest the land vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you” (18:28).

Jeremiah 51 portrays Nebuchadnezzar and Bel the god of Babylon as sea monsters that have “swallowed up” Israel: “he has swallowed me like a monster; he has filled his belly with my delicacies, he has spewed me out” (Jeremiah 51:34). Jeremiah use the same word that occurs in Jonah 1:17 for the fish swallowing Jonah (although it uses a different word for vomitting, and “sea monster”), and this may be further evidence that Jonah presents an image of Israel being vomitted out of captivity after being swallowed by the Babylonians. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should interpret Jonah allegorically, although it seems that some of the early Rabbis and Matthew did to some extent. It could be an allusion by the writer of Jonah to both the Leviticus and Jeremiah texts recalling the experiences of Israel being “spewed” from place to place as they go into exile and then being disgorged again by Babylon.

Matthew’s interpretation is similarly somewhat allegorical and adds another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that this was the original intention or meaning of Jonah, as we have clear evidence in the way the New Testament quotes the Hebrew Bible (and also in the way some of the Dead Sea Scrolls quote the Hebrew Bible) that later writers often re-interpreted earlier texts, giving them ‘new’ meanings which were appropriate to their own circumstances and relevant to their audiences. So Matthew gives a new meaning to the Jonah story for his audience. He saw a connection to Jesus’ resurrection while Luke apparently didn’t make the same connection. It suggests there is no ‘right’ way to read many of the stories in the Bible. For Matthew there was one way, for Luke another. Perhaps we can learn something from this when we try to make an argument from the Bible; that even the writers of the Bible read earlier biblical books in different ways.

The Barabbas connection

There is another possible connection between the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus and the discovery of the remains of a crucified man likely to have been the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah.

In 1970 a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – was discovered inside a a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood, dating back to the first century BCE. It had an Aramaic inscription which referred to “Abba, son of Eleazar the priest”:

I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.

An article by Ariel David in Haaretz  refers to a paper published last year in the Israel Exploration Journal by Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian, which notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably, and identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power. Abba later also appears frequently as a personal name in the Gemara (a section of the Talmud).

All four canonical Gospels refer to an incident where Pilate asked ‘the crowd’  if they wanted Jesus to be released (referring to a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover) or Βαραββᾶς Barabbas (several ancient manuscripts give his full name as ‘Jesus Barabbas’). Βαραββᾶς is a Hellenised form of the Aramaic בר אבא Bar Abba, or son of Abba. Barabbas, or Bar Abba, is described in the Gospels as a δέσμιον ἐπίσημον desmion episēmon, that is, a ‘notable (or notorious) prisoner’ (Matthew 27:16), and Mark 15:7 and Luke 23:9 say he had been imprisoned with the στασιαστής stasiastēs or insurrectionists because of his role in an uprising in the city. John 18:40 calls him a λῃστής lēstēs which is sometimes translated ‘robber’ but a better translation would be ‘rebel’ or ‘insurrectionist’.

Barabbas or Jesus?

Barabbas or Jesus?

Barabbas/Bar Abba was no ordinary thief or murderer. He had been caught up in one of the several unsuccesful insurrections against the Romans and was possibly a member of the prominent priestly Abba family in Jerusalem. He was almost certainly facing crucifixion. According to my reading of the Gospels ‘the crowd’ which called for his release was not the same group of people who just days before had hailed Jesus as the Messianic ‘Son of David’, but rather a mob consisting of or backed by the religious leaders. If I have read this correctly, then they were calling for the release of one of their own sons.

Pilate and the body of Jesus

A question arises from my previous post: why would the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, be so willing to allow the body of Jesus to be buried rather than disposed of in the manner common to executed criminals?

Joseph of Arimathaea

Joseph of Arimathaea is one of the most crucial characters in the early accounts about the death of Jesus. Without his appearance in the story Jesus’ body might have been left on the cross to be devoured by animals, or thrown into the city rubbish dump, known as Gehenna. His role in Jesus’ burial was one of the details which are recorded in all four Gospels, yet each writer gives us some information peculiar to his account. Mark tells us that Joseph was “a prominent member of the Council, who was himself looking for the Kingdom of God” (Mark 13:43). Luke informs us that he was “a good and upright man” who had not consented to the decision and action of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50-51). Matthew tells us that he was a rich man and had become a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57) and John adds that he was a disciple “secretly because he feared the Jews”[1] (John 19:38).

Pilate – After the Trial

The Gospels tell us nothing about the activities of Pilate between the time he sentenced Jesus and his audience with Joseph. Commenting on the early hour of Jesus’ trial, A.N. Sherwin–White remarks: “There is ample evidence about the arrangement of the upper-class Roman official’s daily round” to know that Pilate would be “at his official duties even before the hour of dawn” and would have enjoyed “the elaborately organised leisure of a Roman gentleman” by an early hour.[2]

We can confidently deduce a number of other things. First, Pilate would have been in an inhospitable mood, for several reasons. His authority as Governor and his political aspirations had been challenged by the Jews who threatened to report him to Caesar (implied in John 19:12).[3] He had been shown to be judicially impotent, having declared Jesus to be “not guilty” three times before feeling compelled to sentence him to death. He was in trouble on the domestic front as well. His wife had sent him a message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). Imagine his reception when he had to report to her that he had had “that innocent man” put to death!

Secondly, it is likely that Pilate was determined, by the events of the morning, to make the best of his afternoon leisure time. He may well have given instructions to his secretary that he was not to be disturbed, especially by local politicians!

The Arrival of Joseph

Jesus being prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

Jesus being prepared for burial by Joseph of Arimathea

All four gospels tell us that Joseph was from Arimathaea, possibly Ramathaim-zophim, a short distance north-west of Jerusalem. Matthew adds the detail that Joseph arrived in Jerusalem from Arimathaea that afternoon “as evening approached” – in other words around 3 p.m.[4] How long he had been away from Jerusalem, and why, we can only speculate. According to Luke, Joseph had not consented to the actions of the Sanhedrin of which he was a member. It may even have been his cross–examination which had revealed the accusers of Jesus to be “false witnesses”, although that is mere speculation. As a result, he may have felt threatened or intimidated by the hostile enemies of Jesus, and had consequently gone into hiding in Arimathaea. John’s description of him as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jerusalem religious leaders” can be translated to read that Joseph was “a disciple in hiding, for fear …” (the word translated “secretly” – κρύπτω kryptō – is a perfect participle passive). Joseph may have recently gone into hiding but he now came out of his seclusion. We can only guess what caused him to return so soon. It may have been the isolation of Arimathaea and the opportunity to think about the circumstances of the day in the quietness of his own home which allowed Joseph to re-assess his position.

Joseph Before Pilate

Joseph must have arrived in Jerusalem at about the time of Jesus’ death, and did not have a moment to waste. He had approximately three hours to arrange and expedite the burial of Jesus. By Roman law the body of a criminal would normally be disposed of ignominiously[5]. “The Roman law was that a convict, after execution, might not be buried: the crucified, in particular, were left on the cross until beasts and birds of prey devoured them. Guards were mounted on duty at the cross to prevent kinsfolk or friends from taking down a corpse and burying it; unauthorised burial of a crucified convict was a criminal offence. The emperor or his officers might, exceptionally, grant kinsfolk or friends authorisation to bury the convict.”[6]

However, according to Jewish law, even a criminal’s body might not be left hanging all night, but had to be buried that day (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), even more so when the next day was one of the most important Sabbaths in the year (John 19:31). Jesus’ family and friends, however, were in no position to claim the body. His disciples had all fled after his arrest in the garden and would not have risked their lives to beg for his body. His family, being Galilean, would almost certainly have great difficulty in finding anywhere in Jerusalem to bury him with such short notice. Had it not been for the appearance of Joseph, Jesus’ body would no doubt have been consigned to Gehenna, the city’s rubbish dump.

Why was it that Pilate was persuaded to grant Joseph’s request? It is improbable that Pilate would have known of Joseph’s opposition to the Sanhedrin’s actions and, having been forced to deliver Jesus for crucifixion in the morning, it is strange that he should be prepared so generously to deliver his body to one of their number for burial. I speculated earlier that Pilate would have been in no mood to receive any Jewish visitors that afternoon. Perhaps the reason he agreed to this audience was that he knew Joseph to be a very rich man. Philo tells us that Pilate was accustomed to taking, or demanding, bribes. He may have hoped to make this wealthy ruler pay dearly for whatever he was to ask, and so agreed to see him, hoping he might be compensated for the earlier aggravation. Surprisingly, he immediately granted Joseph his request. Mark’s use of the word δωρέομαι dōreomai (Mark 15:45) indicates that he made a gift of the body, as though to emphasise that no bribe or payment was sought – something quite unusual for Pilate. Something transpired during that meeting that persuaded Pilate to allow the body to be taken down from the cross and be buried. But what?

It has been said that Roman crucifixion was designed to prolong the agony for days and Pilate was surprised to hear of Jesus’ death after only six hours (Mark 15:44). He called for a report by the centurion. Almost certainly this was the same centurion who was in command of the execution; the centurion who, having seen the way in which Jesus died, was persuaded that he was ‘a Son of God’ (Mark 15:39). He may have seen a countless number of crucifixions, but never had he seen a man die so willingly; never had he seen a man “yield up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50) as Jesus did. The manner of his death may have persuaded him that this was no ordinary crucifixion – and that this was no ordinary man. The centurion may have expressed this conviction in his report – we will never know. But hearing Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God previously, Pilate was afraid (John 19:7-9). If the Centurion had expressed his own conviction in his report then Pilate’s fears would have intensified and, perhaps in a superstitious effort to appease the gods for executing one of their sons, he immediately granted Joseph his request.


[1] Joseph himself was, of course, a Jew. So too were Jesus and all his disciples. The term “the Jews” in John’s Gospel refers to the religious leaders in Jerusalem and not to Jews in general.

[2] A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, page 45.

[3] Pilate was no doubt sensitive to such threats, as complaints against his handling of important issues had been made previously to Tiberius who over-ruled him. His career ended as a result of such a complaint and he was recalled to Rome in AD 37.

[4] Evening was reckoned to be approx. 3 p.m. to sunset.

[5] It was after Jesus’ prediction of his crucifixion (Matthew 26:2) that Mary anointed him with costly perfume which she was saving for his burial (John 12:7). No doubt she understood that if Jesus was to be crucified she would not be allowed the privilege of anointing his body, so she did it in advance.

[6] Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus, page 238.

What happened to the body of Jesus?

Antonio Ciseri: Il trasporto di Cristo al sepolcro (The transport of Christ to the sepulcher)

Antonio Ciseri: Il trasporto di Cristo al sepolcro (The transport of Christ to the sepulcher)

I have read two interesting and unrelated posts in the last day or so which touch on the question of what happened to the body of Jesus after his death on the cross.

Dustin Smith, continuing his review of Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God, today tackled Ehrman’s claim that ‘the common Roman practice was to allow the bodies of crucified people to decompose on the cross and be attacked by scavengers as part of the disincentive for crime’. Ehrman argues that the body of Jesus, after crucifixion, would have been eaten by wild dogs or other animals. Smith counters this by citing nonbiblical sources in support of his view that the Roman governor Pilate would make exceptions for the Jews in regard to their ancestral customs and that Jesus would have been given a proper Jewish burial.

I agree with Smith, not only for the reasons he provides, but also because of other historical and archaeological evidence. In an unrelated post George Athas recently referred to evidence that the bones of the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah, and one of the nails used to crucify him, were buried together in Jerusalem.

The remains of the last Hasmonean King?

The remains of the last Hasmonean King?

Skeletal remains of other crucified victims have also been found in Israel, which is clear archaeological evidence that the Romans made exceptions to the rule of leaving crucified victims to decompose on their crosses. In fact, the evidence has been there since at least 1968, when the remains of Yehohanan, a first century CE Temple worker, were found in a cemetery in Giv’at ha-Mivtar in northeast Jerusalem and it has received so much scholarly attention since then that I doubt very much that Ehrman would be unaware of it.

Eminent Israeli Jurist Haim Cohn notes that “The Roman law was that a convict, after execution, might not be buried: the crucified, in particular, were left on the cross until beasts and birds of prey devoured them. Guards were mounted on duty at the cross to prevent kinsfolk or friends from taking down a corpse and burying it; unauthorised burial of a crucified convict was a criminal offence. The emperor or his officers might, exceptionally, grant kinsfolk or friends authorisation to bury the convict [citing, in an endnote, Ulpian, Digesta, 48,24,1; Paulus, Digesta. 48,24,3], and what in Rome was the imperial prerogative was in a province the right of the governor.” (Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972, page 238).

It seems that the historical and archaeological evidence is against Ehrman. There is no reason to doubt that the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried. What happened after that will, however, continue to be debated.