Following the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10), the Pharisees confront Jesus and begin “asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him” (8:11). The sign would serve as divine verification of his messianic ministry. Yet Jesus is a bit flustered. We are told that “he sighed deeply in his spirit,” a phrase that suggests a deep emotional response to their demands.1 Jesus then replies, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign with be given to this generation” (8:12). He then gets into his boat and leaves for the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
There are a number of questions to be asked. First and foremost in my mind is, Why was Jesus not willing to give “this generation” a sign? Some of it may have to do with the types of signs (Greek, sēmeion) mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. In chapter thirteen there are two types of signs: those signs meant to vindicate messianic pretenders (13:22) and apocalyptic signs from God (13:2-4).2 The Pharisees wanted Jesus to produce “a sign from heaven,” that is, a sign from God. But Jesus isn’t God in Mark and so he cannot produce such a sign. That is wholly up to God. So Jesus tells them that “no sign will be given,” at least not from him.
In Matthew’s version of this encounter things are a bit different. Instead of just the Pharisees coming to Jesus, it is both the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:1) who ask Jesus for a sign from heaven. And Matthew never mentions Jesus’ emotional response like what we say in Mark 8:12 (i.e. “he sighed deeply in his spirit”). Plus, the Matthean Jesus inserts a proverb with which many of us are familiar (16:2-3):
Red sky at night, sailors delight!
Red sky at morn’, sailors be warned!
You don’t find that in Mark’s version.
But most interesting is what Jesus says in 16:4 – “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Recall that in Mark Jesus tells the Pharisees that “no sign will be given,” period. But Matthew’s version has Jesus telling them that the only sign that will be given is “the sign of Jonah.” To what is that referring?
In Matthew 12:38-42 Jesus is approached by the scribes and Pharisees who ask him for a sign (12:38). Jesus tells them there that “no sign will be given…except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (12:39). Jesus goes on to explain that sign: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (12:40). So “the sign of Jonah” is essentially that Jesus would die and be resurrected after three days. And since it is God who is doing the action, it is indeed a “sign from heaven” (16:1).
It should go without saying that “the sign of Jonah” appears nowhere in the Gospel of Mark. The first time Jesus mentions his earthly fate doesn’t come until Mark 8:31 after the Pharisees come and demand Jesus produce a sign as well as the confession of Jesus’ messiahship in 8:27-30. Up to that point in Mark, Jesus’ death and resurrection were known only to the readers of the Gospel. But not so in Matthew’s Gospel. Before the important confession of Jesus’ messiaship in Matthew 16:13:20, Jesus had already made known his fate when the scribes and Pharisees first asked him to produce a sign in 12:38. What was unknown to the characters in Mark has been known for some time in Matthew.
But why? Why is Matthew intent on changing Mark in this way? That is perhaps a more difficult question to answer. It may have something to do with who Jesus is in Matthew versus who he is in Mark. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is a veritable nobody from nowhere. He has no impressive lineage or back story. He doesn’t even become the Messiah until his baptism! But not so in Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, David’s hometown. He is visited by wise men who give him costly gifts. Thus long before his baptism, Jesus is obviously different. In Matthew, Jesus’ messianic sonship is declared to all who are witnessing his baptism whereas in Mark it is directed at Jesus specifically.
So then maybe Matthew alters Mark because he wants to make it clear that Jesus’ death and resurrection was a sign to the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. Perhaps Matthew’s historical circumstances made it so he didn’t want to give the religious authorities an “out” in their treatment of Jesus. They knew all along and therefore are accountable for their actions in condemning their messiah to death. Whatever the reason, there is a stark difference between the Markan and Matthean versions of this pericope. In the former, no sign was going to be given; in the latter, only the sign of Jonah would be.
Interesting to say the least.
1 The Greek participle anastenaxas is from anastenazō, a word that implies groaning. This is the only appearance of anastenazō in the entire New Testament. However, stenazō appears in Mark 7:34.
2 Mary Anne Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2011), 129.
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