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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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JONAH (Ἰωνᾶς, Heb. וֹנָה ‘dove,’ Authorized Version of NT Jonas).—A prophet, the story of whose mission to Nineveh is related in the Book of Jonah, and who is probably to be identified with the Jonah of 2 Kings 14:25; referred to by our Lord twice at least (see below) in the Gospels (Matthew 12:39-41 || Luke 11:29-32 and Matthew 16:4).

Certain of the scribes and Pharisees, not content with our Lord’s many miracles or signs (cf. John 12:37), some of which were, after all, like those performed by their ‘sons’ (Matthew 12:27, Luke 11:19), demanded of Him a special sign, most probably, as in Matthew 16:1 || Mark 8:11, from heaven, since such a sign would at once attest His Divine mission (cf. John 6:30-32). He replied: ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it [and we must naturally understand such a sign as they demanded] but the sign of Jonah the prophet: for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, a greater than Jonah is here.’ The parallel account in Lk. has the appearance of being a summary report of that in Mt., and there are some notable differences. In place of the reference to the three days, Lk. has, ‘For even as Jonah became a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of Man be to this generation,’—words which many think refer only to Jonah’s preaching. Again, the verse concerning the rising up of the men of Nineveh in the judgment follows that referring to the queen of the south instead of preceding it as in Mt. The reference to Jonah in Matthew 16:4 was obviously made on another occasion; it contains only the words, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign [here plainly from heaven, cf. Matthew 16:1]; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of Jonah.’

Although it is not the purpose of this article to discuss the difficulties connected with the story of Jonah as told in the OT, or to consider the arguments advanced for and against the historicity of the book, it will yet be necessary to allude to some of them in connexion with the problems arising out of our Lord’s references to the prophet. Those who maintain the historicity of the Book of Jonah, and who hold that it contains a record of facts, find no special difficulties in our Lord’s allusions to it,—He referred to Jonah and to facts in his history, just as He referred to other historical personages and to facts in their history, as to Abraham, for instance, to Moses, or to the queen of Sheba; for such persons the only difficulties are the subordinate ones belonging to the exegesis and application of the passages in question. On the other hand, those who deny the historicity of the book, and who hold, with whatever modifications, that the story is a fictitious symbolic narrative with a didactic purpose, like some others in the OT and in the Apocrypha, find many grave difficulties in our Lord’s use of the book—difficulties which perhaps do not admit of an absolutely certain solution. Before, however, adverting to them there is a preliminary point to be considered.

It has been maintained by some that Matthew 12:40 is no part of our Lord’s original utterance, but is either an amplification by the Evangelist of Matthew 12:39 (and cf. Luke 11:30, Matthew 16:4), or at least a very early interpolation. Against the verse it is said: (1) It runs counter to the Gospel history, for according to that history Jesus had wrought many signs, and could not therefore say, ‘No sign shall be given.’ (2) The resurrection was not a sign to the men of that generation, i.e. such as they demanded (cf. Acts 10:41). (3) The clause is unnecessary, and interferes with the balance which without it exists in Matthew 12:41-42 || Luke 11:31-32, for it was Jonah’s preaching and the consequent repentance of the Ninevites, in contrast with His own preaching and the indifference of the men of His generation, to which Jesus especially alluded; His words without Luke 11:40 are a complete answer to their demand for a sign: the repentance-preaching Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites of God’s mercy; the repentance-preaching Jesus of Nazareth was a sign, though a greater one, to the Jews. (4) Add that (3) harmonizes well with Luke 11:30, which was perhaps the original out of which Matthew 12:40 was evolved. (5) There is the difficulty about the reckoning of the three days and three nights in the case of our Lord’s resurrection.

To these objections it may be replied: (1) There is no contradiction of the Gospel story, for the scribes and Pharisees plainly demanded a sign of a different character from those which they had so far witnessed (see above). (2) The resurrection was a sign, since the Apostles proclaimed it (Acts and Epistles passim), and made it the corner-stone of their teaching about the Christ. (3) Matthew 12:40 is unnecessary only on the gratuitous assumption that Jonah’s preaching was the only way in which he was to be a sign to the men of Christ’s generation; the introduction in Matthew 12:40 of another particular in which Jonah was to be a sign does not weaken or interfere with what our Lord says about the prophet’s preaching. (4) Luke 11:30, instead of being the original, may well be a summary report of Matthew 12:40 as suggested above,—an explanation rendered not improbable by the whole form and tenor of the passage in Lk. referring to Jonah. (5) This difficulty, such as it is, makes rather for than against the authenticity of the verse (see below). To these replies it may be added: (6) There is some ground for the conjecture that allusion was made on another occasion by our Lord, and also by St. Paul, to Jonah’s deliverance after three days from the ‘whale’ as typifying the resurrection (Luke 24:46, 1 Corinthians 15:4), it being much more unlikely that the reference in these places is to Hosea 6:2 or Genesis 22:4; and this may be thought to add some strength to the probability that our Lord did utter the words recorded in v. 40 (cf. also Matthew 27:63, Mark 8:31, John 2:19). (7) There is no textual authority for the rejection of the verse. On the whole, the conclusion that this verse is really part of our Lord’s original utterance can be fully justified.

We have now to consider briefly the difficulties connected with our Lord’s use of the story of Jonah on the supposition that the book is not historical, but a fictitious narrative with a didactic purpose. (1) Did our Lord cite details from the story of Jonah as facts, He Himself thinking them to be facts? If we reply in the affirmative, we must admit that our Lord was not completely omniscient, and that on a point of literary knowledge He was and could be in error. Into a discussion of the great question of the limitation of our Lord’s human knowledge we cannot, of course, enter here; it must suffice to point out that the most earnest maintainers of our Lord’s Divinity have in all ages recognized, in view of such passages as Matthew 24:36 ( Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885) || Mark 13:32, Luke 2:40; Luke 2:52, Philippians 2:7, not only a gradual growth of His human knowledge, but even a mysterious limitation of His knowledge of Divine things; and however difficult it may be to understand the union of the Divine and the human in one Person, we must not, in maintaining His Divinity, forget that He was ‘perfect man.’ ‘Is it,’ asks Dr. Sanday, ‘inconsistent with our Christian belief to suppose that He who called Himself the Son of Man, along with the assumption of human flesh and a human mind, should also have assumed the natural workings of such a mind, even in its limitations?’ (Bamp. Lect. viii. p. 415). (2) But did our Lord know in Himself that the story of Jonah was fiction and yet cite details from it as though they were facts, His hearers thinking them to be such? Here, again, we might reply in the affirmative, and that without detracting from our Lord’s honesty as a moral and religious teacher, for He would have been but speaking according to the beliefs of His hearers, as many other teachers in all ages have done. Speaking to children in knowledge, He spoke to them as such. In this way, it is nearly universally agreed, we are to explain His words about Hades and Abraham’s bosom in the graphic parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus; i.e. in warning and in inculcating truth He spoke according to the beliefs of His hearers and of His age, without necessarily endorsing those beliefs as true. (3) Or did both our Lord and His hearers, the scribes and Pharisees, regard the story of Jonah as a parable or fictitious narrative, like others in the OT and in the Apocrypha, and did He thus refer to it? Although in view of Tobit 14:4; Tobit 14:8, 3 Maccabees 6:8, Josephus Ant. ix. x. it is not very probable that our Lord’s hearers regarded the book as fictitious, we might yet admit without hesitation that part of our Lord’s reference could be thus explained. Even so firm a maintainer of the historicity of Jonah as Huxtable writes in the Speaker’s Commentary: ‘The reference to Jonah’s experiences, as yielding an illustrative parallel to what would be seen in His own case, or even as predictive of it, seems as cogent on the supposition of the book being an inspired parable, as on that of its being authentic narrative.’ And in fact a teacher might, without doing any violence to right teaching, cite well-known fiction (The Pilgrim’s Progress, Rasselas, Shakespeare’s characters) to enforce warnings or moral truth, and so could our Saviour have done. There is, however, an objection to this explanation, besides that referred to above, which, if it be not a fatal one, is at least of considerable force, viz. that our Lord would not naturally have said of persons whom a fiction represented as repentant, that they would rise up in the Judgment; nor would He have put as a parallel case to a fiction the facts of the queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon.

It does not seem possible to pronounce a decided verdict in favour of any one of these hypotheses to the exclusion of the others, though it may he allowed that (3) contains more of difficulty than (1) or (2); and whilst of these latter (2) is perhaps the more attractive, (1) can certainly be held without belittling our Lord’s Divinity or detracting from His authority as a moral and religions Teacher, and without weakening the force of the lessons for all generations derivable from the use He made of the story of Jonah for the edification and warning of the men of His own day.

It remains to notice the difficulty connected with the reckoning of the three days and three nights. It is certain that this length of time did not literally elapse between the burial and the resurrection of Christ, and the commentaries in explanation usually follow the lead of St. Jerome and of St. Augustine, who point out that we must understand the passage on the principle that the part is taken for the whole; and accordingly it is usually said that our Lord was in the ‘heart of the earth’ on three day-night periods or νυχθήμερα (reference is made to Genesis 1:5; Genesis 1:8 etc., Leviticus 23:32, 1 Samuel 30:12-13, 2 Chronicles 10:5; 2 Chronicles 10:12, Daniel 8:14 margin). It must be confessed, however, that this explanation seems somewhat forced, in view of the peculiar form of the sentence in Luke 2:40, and there is not a little to be said against it; and it is perhaps more satisfactory to suppose that our Lord was speaking only in general terms. At any rate the difficulty, such as it is, lends support to the arguments for the authenticity of the verse, since if it were an amplification by the Evangelist, or an interpolation, the Evangelist or the interpolator would hardly have made our Lord utter a prediction expressed in a form not in literal and precise accord with the facts of the resurrection as related in the Gospels.

It is worth noticing that the story of Jonah had a peculiar interest for the early Christians; his deliverance from a strange sea-monster is depicted many times in the Roman catacombs as typifying the resurrection.

Literature.—Jerome. Com. in Jonam, ii. 405, also in Evang. Matth. 2:12, 83; Augustine, de Consensu Evang. iii. 24, 66; ‘The Book of Jonah, How far is it Historical?’ by M. P. in JSL [Note: SL Journal of Sacred Literature.] , Oct. 1865; Liddon, Bampton Lectures, on ‘Our Lord’s Divinity,’ Lect. viii.; Introduction to ‘Jonah’ in Speaker’s Commentary; C. H. H. Wright, Biblical Essays, 1886, pp. 34–98; Farrar, The Minor Prophets, 1890; Lux Mundi, pref. to the 10th edition; J. Kennedy, A Monograph on the Book of Jonah, 1895; Gore, Bamptan Lectures, on ‘The Incarnation,’ Lects. vi., vii.; Sanday, Bampton Lectures, on ‘Inspiration,’ Lect. viii.; G. A. Smith, The Book of the Twelve Prophets, vol. ii., 1898; Driver, LOT [Note: OT Introd. to the Literature of the Old Test.] 6 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , pp. 321–325; art. ‘Jonah’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, in the Encyc. Bibl. 1901, and in the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1904.

Albert Bonus.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Jonah'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​j/jonah.html. 1906-1918.
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