Jonah, Sign of

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The answer that Jesus gave when His adversaries asked Him for a sign in proof of His heavenly mission as recounted in Mt 12.3842; 16.14; and Lk 11.2932. These three passages create a problem because they give different explanations of what He meant by the sign that He offered, "the sign of Jonah." The matter is further complicated by the partial parallel in Mk 8.1112. The solution seems to be that the words and deeds of Jesus were not always recorded by the Evangelists exactly as they were spoken or done, but they were often given new meanings in the inspired kerygma of the apostles, and these different interpretations were then recorded in the Gospels. see form criticism, biblical.

Gospel accounts. In Mk 8.1112 it is stated that when the pharisees demanded of Jesus a sign from heaven as a means of embarrassing Him, He became angry and answered simply: "A sign shall not be given to this generation."

According to Luke, when Jesus was asked for a sign (Lk 11.16), He first said, "This generation is an evil generation; it demands a sign, but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah" (11.29); then He adds this explanation: "Even as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. The men ofNineveh will rise up in judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here" (11.30, 32).

According to Mt 12.3842, when "certain of the scribes and Pharisees" asked Jesus for a sign (v. 38), He first said in answer: "An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah the prophet" (v. 39); this is parallel with Lk 11.29. Then He added a first explanation of the sign: "Even as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (v. 40); this is unique to Matthew. Finally a second explanation is given: "The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and will condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, a greater than Jonah is here" (v. 41); this is parallel to Lk 11.32.

According to Mt 16.14, in a context that is similar partly to Mk 8.1012 (a boating scene) and partly to Lk 12.5455 (signs of the weather), when "the Pharisees and sadducees asked Him to show a sign from heaven" (Mt 16.1), He answered: "An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given it but the sign of Jonah" (v. 4); this is parallel to Lk 11.29 and Mt 12.39. In this passage no explanation of the sign is given.

Original logion and kerygmatic explanations. Most exegetes are now agreed that the original logion (saying) of Jesus was as in Mt 12.39; 16.4; Lk 11.29, i.e., simply that no sign at all would be given to the present wicked generation except the sign of Jonahwith no explanation of the sign. It is therefore certain that the sign concerns the future, after the present generation is dead; this is clear from the future tense of the verb δοθήσεται(will be given) and from the fact that the sign of Jonah is not mentioned in Mk 8.1112 (the present generation will not see any sign, not even the sign of Jonah). Actually, Jonah gave no "sign" to the Ninevites.

The two explanations of the sign that are given in the Gospels, viz, the Ninevites converted by Jonah testifying against the present generation on Judgment Day (Mt 12.41; Lk 11.32) and the comparison between Jonah's salvation from the belly of the fish and the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Mt 12.40, a passage that presupposes the Resurrection as already having happened), although not originally spoken by Jesus to His adversaries, are inspired interpretations of the Apostolic preaching that give a key for solving the puzzle of the sign of Jonah. Since the kerygmatic explanations of this sign connect it with the Resurrection and the Last Judgment, it can be explained best as designating the parousia of the risen Christ coming in judgment. Other interpretations, viz, that the sign of Jonah is the preaching of Jesus on repentance and the coming judgment, or the entire ministry of Jesus, or solely His Resurrection, do not do justice to all the passages concerned. The notion that takes the meaning of Jonah's name (Heb. yônâ, dove) as the basis for an interpretation whereby the "sign of the dove" would refer to Jesus under the symbol of a dove cannot be taken seriously.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 120002. a. vÖgtle, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 5:111617. j. howton, "The Sign of Jonah," Scottish Journal of Theology 15 (1962) 288304. o. glombitza, "Das Zeichen des Jona," New Testament Studies 8 (1962) 359366.

[j. m. lane]