Jonah and the…

The story of Jonah found in the book which bears his name is one of the best known in all the Hebrew Bible. Unwilling to warn the Assyrian capital of Nineveh of coming judgment, Jonah stows away onto a ship that is going the opposite direction of the city. When Yahweh hurls ” a great wind” upon the sea, those in the vessel begin to fear for their lives. They begin to throw cargo overboard with the hope that it would make the vessel less susceptible to sinking. The ship’s captain goes down into the hold and finds Jonah fast asleep. Flabbergasted at this, the captain orders Jonah to call out to his god so that they might all survive. What happens next is bizarre in its own right.

First, the sailors begin casting lots to figure out who created the mess they were in. The lot falls on Jonah who admits “he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD” (Jonah 1:10). “What shall we do to you?” they ask him (1:11). Jonah instructs them to treat him as they had their cargo and toss him overboard. If they do so, he tells them, the storm will cease and they will be well. But they don’t. They continue to row but the storm continues to grow. They plead with Yahweh, “Please, O LORD, we pray, do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you” (1:14). Jonah is tossed over the side of the ship. The storm dies down and then men offer a sacrifice to Yahweh. And then

the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (1:17).

The Masoretic Text (1:17 ET = 2:1 MT) refers to the animal as dg gdwl. The Hebrew word dg is not a word that comes up a lot in the Hebrew Bible but without a doubt it refers to fish. The adjective gdwl lets us know that this isn’t an ordinary fish: it’s big.

The dg gdwl in the Septuagint

In the Septuagint’s rendering of the passage the dg gdwl is referred to as kētei megalō. We easily recognize megalō as meaning “great” or “large.” But kētei is more obscure and in some ways a surprise. In Genesis 9:2 where the MT tells us that the fear of humanity would be upon all animal life including “the fish of the sea,” the Hebrew word there is the same word used in Jonah 1:17 (2:1) – dg. But in the LXX the word isn’t kētous but ichthyas, a generic word for fish. Assuming the MT reflects accurately the Hebrew original of the text of Jonah, this means that the translator(s) of the LXX did not think that all dg were kētos and that some dg were ichthys. But what in the world is a kētos?

The first appearance of kētos in the LXX comes in Genesis 1:21 where we read in the MT that God created htnynm hgdlym, “the great sea monsters.” The LXX renders htnynm hgdlym as ta kētē ta megala, a construction very similar to what we find in Jonah 1:17 (2:1). The Hebrew word tnyn is used to describe serpents (Exodus 7:9, 7:10, 7:12) or mythical creatures like Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1). But not every instance of tnyn is rendered as kētos in the LXX. In fact, in some places like in Exodus 7 tnyn is rendered by another Greek word: drakōn. That word should be familiar to anyone who enjoys Game of Thrones. But we do see elsewhere in the LXX that the translators felt that mythical creatures from Ancient Near Eastern lore were kētos. For example, in Job 26:12 the MT’s reference to “Rahab” which is compared with “the fleeing serpent” in 26:13 is in the LXX to kētos (cf. Job 9:13). And in Daniel 3:791 we see reference to kētē kai panta ta kinoumena en tois hydasi, “sea monsters and all those that move in the waters” (my translation).

Thus it appears that the LXX uses kētos to refer to mythic sea creatures and it stands to reason that whoever translated the Hebrew text of Jonah into Greek viewed the dg gdwl not as a big fish but as a great sea monster.2

Jesus, Jonah, and the dg gdwl

Though the prophet Jonah features in both the Gospels of Matthew (12:38-42) and Luke (11:29-32), it is only in the Matthean that the story of Jonah and the dg gdwl is mentioned. The scribes and Pharisees request from Jesus a sēmeion, “a sign.” But Jesus responds with some rather harsh words: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign [sēmeion], but no sign [sēmeion] will be given to it except the sign [sēmeion] of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39). What sēmeion is this? Jesus explains: “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” (Matthew 12:40). So the sēmeion of Jonah is about the death and resurrection of the Son of Man.

As you no doubt noticed, the Matthean Jesus tells the Pharisees that Jonah spent three days and nights “in the belly of the sea monster.” “Sea monster” in the NRSV translates the genitive of the same noun we found in Jonah 1:17 (2:1, LXX) – kētous. In the New Testament, it is the only time the term appears. And other translations do not render kētous as “sea monster” but as “great fish” (ESV) or “whale” (KJV), perhaps in a bid to avoid something as fanciful as monsters. Why the existence of sea monsters is less believable than a man surviving inside of one is beyond me. Given what we know about how people viewed large bodies of water in general, there was constant fear of great creatures lurking beneath the waves. Of course, if you intention is to make the story of Jonah historical then you run into the issue of what the creature was and in our modern scientific society we know sea “monsters” don’t exist.

So What Swallowed Jonah?!?

So if you’re reading the Hebrew text of Jonah then what swallowed Jonah was a pretty big fish (dg gdwl). If you are reading the LXX of Jonah then what swallowed him was a big sea monster (kētei megalō). And if you’re reading the words of Jesus through the lens of Matthew’s Gospel then what swallowed him was a sea monster (kētous).

And that cleared up nothing.

NOTES

1 In the LXX, the book of Daniel features additions not present in the MT, including a large expansion of chapter three. See R. Timothy McClay, “To the Reader of Daniel,” in Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (editors), A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title (Oxford University Press, 2007), 991-994.

2 In other ancient Greek literature kētos is used to refer to sea monsters including Scylla, a six-headed beast mentioned in The Odyssey (12.97).

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Lost in the Weeds: SJ Thomason Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1

To see all posts in this series, please refer to its index.

Last year I wrote a five-part series on Heather Schuldt’s terrible attempt at taking on biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.1 Now pop-apologist SJ Thomason wants to have her moment in the sun as she responds to Bart Ehrman’s fifteen year old book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.2 Her first post entitled “Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Misleads Readers from its Inception”3 is standard pop-apologetic rubbish. Let’s briefly explore why.

Paul, 1 Thessalonians, and the Dating of the Gospels

Thomason begins by addressing Ehrman’s claim that the first epistle to the Thessalonians can be “dated to about 49 C.E., some twenty years after Jesus’s death and some twenty years before any of the Gospel accounts of his life.”4 The pop-apologist claims Ehrman is “intentionally stretching the dating.” But is he?

Despite Thomason’s confidence in dating Jesus’ death to April 3, 33 CE, historians and New Testament scholars aren’t entirely sure exactly when he died.5 Helen Bond notes that

[t]he commonly held assumption that Jesus died in either April 30 or 33 is based on astronomical calculations relating to years in which Nisan 14 fell on a Friday….All we can say with any confidence is that Jesus died some time between around 29 and 33 CE (any later and Pauline chronology becomes problematic).6

Elsewhere Ehrman has shown a preference for 30 CE7 and other scholars tend to lean that way as well.8 If Paul wrote the first epistle to the Thessalonians around 49 CE then this would indeed be “some twenty years after Jesus’ death.”

Thomason next makes two arguments for an early dating of the Gospels. First, she asserts that Paul knew of the Gospel of Luke because in 1 Timothy 5:18 we find the words of Jesus from Luke 10:7 quoted. I have dealt with this issue elsewhere and will not revisit it here.9 Second, Thomason believes that since the Gospel authors fail to mention explicitly the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and that the author of Acts doesn’t discuss the deaths of either Paul or Peter then they must have been written before these events. But she has elsewhere indicated that she believes the Gospel of John was written sometime around 90 CE.10 Yet the Johannine author never mentions the fall of Jerusalem. So why does Thomason accept the standard scholarly date of 90 CE for the writing of the Gospel of John but not the standard dating for the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke? I have already written a post on the dating of the Gospels and so I invite the reader to take a look at that post.11 Needless to say, Thomason’s scheme is off and Ehrman’s view stands.

Other Gospels

Thomason next takes issue with Ehrman’s discussion of other Gospels that were written besides those found in the canonical New Testament. She says,

On page 24, Ehrman makes the claim that “many others” were written, citing Luke 1:1 and his reference to “many” “predecessors.” His examples of many others on page 24 are three Gnostic gospels: Philip, Judas Thomas, and Mary Magdalene.

It is important to note the dating of the three Gnostic gospels that are cited by Ehrman, a point he curiously excluded: Philip was written in the third century, Judas Thomas was written in the middle to late second century, and Mary Magdalene was written in the late second century.

Ehrman does fail to mention the dating of these later Gospels but the context makes it plain he considers them to be written after the canonical Gospels: “Other Gospels, including some of the very earliest, have been lost.”12 Ehrman’s main point is to note that Christians wrote additional Gospels because they “were concerned to know more about the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of their Lord” and therefore “recorded the traditions associated with the life of Jesus.”13 Their canonicity is a non-issue for Ehrman’s point and so Thomason’s subsequent discussion is a red herring.

Setting aside Thomason’s simplistic view of how the canon developed, it is interesting to note what she says about the Lukan author’s claim that “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1).

The fact Luke stated that “many have undertaken to draw up an account” does not mean many were successful in completing their undertakings. It may mean that many started and only a few – or two – finished.

But notice what the author says in Luke 1:3 – “I too decided…to write an orderly account.” Since Luke evidently completed his account, it stands to reason that there were other completed accounts as well.

I won’t touch on her discussion of Q since she evidently doesn’t know what Q is or how it functions with regards to the Synoptic Problem. Heather Schuldt revealed similar ignorance regarding Q and here is what I said about it.

[T]he purpose of Q was to account for passages not found in Mark but found in Matthew and Luke and this leads to a huge problem for Schuldt. The existence of Q is tied to the notion of Markan priority. Markan priority entails that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources in composing their narratives. But why would Matthew – an actual disciple of Jesus – need to use any source, especially Mark’s who wasn’t even a disciple? If Matthew was an eyewitness then there would have been no need to utilize Mark (let alone Q) as his source! Schuldt then has undermined the very position she was trying to promote!14

Ditto for Thomason.

Extra Epistles

Finally, Thomason discusses Ehrman’s mentioning of “lost letters” that were written between Paul and the churches to whom he ministered. But as Ehrman explains, his “point is that letters were important to the lives of early Christian communities.”15 In fact, the entire point of the first chapter of Misquoting Jesus is to explain the “bookishness” of Christianity as seen in the New Testament documents.16 So why in the world does Thomason say the following?

The fact we do not have those or other early letters does not discount the validity of the letters we do have. We have no evidence that any substantive letters are missing – or that early church fathers lamented particular missing letters. One can reasonably conclude no substantive information is missing.

This is nothing more than a strawman set up by Thomason. Nowhere does Ehrman suggest that these missing letters means that what is not missing is somehow invalid. As Ehrman himself explains, the section titled “Christianity as a Religion of the Book” (pages 20-29) was his attempt at “summarizing the different kinds of writings that were important to the lives of the early Christian churches.”17 Imputing to Ehrman a subversive motive that simply isn’t there speaks volumes about Thomason’s inability to read fairly or engage with what she has read in good faith.

Summary

So far, the pop-apologist is not off to a very good start. I do not have high hopes that her future posts will get any better.

NOTES

Amateur Exegete, “Index to Series ‘Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman” (11.9.18), amateurexegete.com. 

2 Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

3 S.J. Thomason, “Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus’ Misleads Readers from its Inception” (2.9.19), christian-apologist.com. Accessed 9 February 2019.

4 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 22.

5 For an overview of the issues pertaining to the chronology of Jesus’ life and ministry, see John P. Maier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1 (Doubleday, 1991), 372-433. See also E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1993), 282-290.

6 Helen K. Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (T & T Clark, 2012), 150.

7 Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (HarperOne, 2012), 56.

8 See John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (HarperCollins, 1992), 218; Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 290; Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (Vintage Books, 1999), 149; Maier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 1, 407.

9 See “On SJ Thomason’s Argument for Dating the Gospels Early” (12.28.18), amateurexegete.com.

10

Screen Shot 2018-12-28 at 2.18.05 PM

11 Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1” (11.2.18),  amateurexegete.com.

12 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 24. Emphasis added.

13 Ibid.

14 Amateur Exegete, “Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman, part 1” (11.2.18),  amateurexegete.com. Accessed 9 February 2019.

15 Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, 23.

16 Ibid., 17.

17 Ibid., 29.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Weekly Roundup – 2.1.19

“I propose the final edition of Genesis is the result of a similar process by an editor of the Holiness school of pre-exilic Israel, who combined and organized these various materials into a continuous and meaningful whole.” – Bill T. Arnold


  • Over on her blog @thclosetatheist has posted her review of Lee Strobel’s book The Case for a Creator. It is a rather scathing indictment of Strobel’s tendency to parade as a skeptic despite going all-in for theism. She refers to Strobel’s creating “the illusion of skepticism” and how often his toughest objections to those he interviews are nothing more than things like “Amazing, tell me more,” etc. She also points out that Strobel doesn’t interview top scholars or scientists in their respective fields but those who have some degree of popularity in the world of evangelicalism. This is Strobel’s habit and one seen clearly even in his latest book The Case for Miracles. (I mean, he interviews J. Warner Wallace, for crying out loud!)
  • @StudyofChrist, whose ability to produce excellent content on YouTube sickens me, discusses some more ways in which many have sought to reconcile the Matthean and Lukan genealogies of Jesus, including the notion that Joseph was adopted by Heli, the possibility of Leviarite marriage being a factor, and the problems with Julius Africanus’ take. Finally, @StudyofChrist concludes that the best approach is to “embrace the differences” between the two genealogies and recognize that there are theological motives in play. I second that motion!
  • Rachel Martin at NPR recently conducted an interview with Robert Alter on his magnum opus, his translation of the entire Tanakh. I’ve read Alter’s The Five Books of Moses and it was insightful, readable, and beautiful. I’ve also read significant portions of his translation of Job and loved what I read there as well. So as soon as I move I plan on getting his translation of the Hebrew Bible.
  • Phil Long, whose work I highlighted last week on Acts, has a short post on “The Times of Refreshing” found in Acts 3:20. He notes that the phrase is a “Second Temple Period way of describing the eschatological kingdom” and brings up a variety of texts – biblical and extrabiblical – that point to the age of the eschatological reign of God in the world.
  • Over a decade ago biblical scholar Bill Arnold wrote about his view of the composition of the book of Genesis in his 2009 commentary on it. A shortened summary of his take entitled “Reflections on the Composition of Genesis” demonstrates that Arnold is in general agreement with the findings of the Documentary Hypothesis that the text of Genesis is made up of three sources: J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), and P (Priestly). He compares the creation of Genesis to the creation of the Synoptic Gospels wherein both written and oral sources were brought together to form a coherent whole.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce – Conflict with Matthew

In last week’s installment of “Musings on Mark” we looked at the Markan Jesus’ take on divorce where we concluded that

if we ask the Markan Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be a resounding “No!” Why? Because marriage is a union of one flesh that no one can separate. Not Moses. Not a certificate of divorce. No one. Only God.1

The sternness of Jesus’ position should not be all that unsurprising. After all, the reign of God was coming (Mark 1:15) and remarriage would not only be a distraction from spreading the gospel with the time that is left but also a violation of God’s commandment, thereby putting violators in a rather precarious spot when the Son of Man returns.

But Jesus’ hard line on divorce in Mark is softened in the Matthean redaction of the text (Matthew 19:1-12). The Matthean author places Jesus’ teaching on divorce in a similar geographical setting as the Markan author (i.e. in Judea; Mark 10:1) and it is “some Pharisees” who approach Jesus to question him on divorce (cf. Mark 10:2). But things quickly begin to diverge between the Markan and Matthean narratives.

Grounds for Divorce

Recall that in Mark 10:2 the question that the Pharisees ask is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This is a yes or no question and Jesus answers it with a no. But the Matthean text changes it up a bit. The question now from the Pharisees is, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause [kata pasan aitian]?” (Matthew 19:3) We immediately recognize that these Pharisees – or at least some Jews – believed that divorce could be initiated for any reason whatsoever but they want to get Jesus’ take on it “to test him” (19:3).

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is to quote from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 just as he had in the Gospel of Mark. But things are out-of-order a bit because the Markan Jesus initially asks the Pharisees, “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10:3) That question never comes from the lips of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Instead, the words of Jesus in 10:3 and the Pharisees’ response in 10:4 have been combined in the question that the Pharisees ask in Matthew 19:7: “They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?'”

The Matthean Jesus initially sounds a lot like the Markan in that he suggests there are no grounds for divorce since God’s design from the beginning was that the union of husband and wife into one flesh could be separated by no one. But with the question from the Pharisees, some cracks begin to appear. As in Mark, Jesus states that the Deuteronomic law (i.e. Deuteronomy 24:1-4) was a concession from Moses because of their hard heartedness and that it “was not so” from the beginning (19:8; cf. Mark 10:5). Instead, Jesus states that “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity [mē epi porneia], and marries another commits adultery” (19:9).

So if we were to ask the Matthean Jesus, “Is divorce permissible?” his answer would be, “Only on the grounds of porneia.” This Jesus is not the Markan Jesus.

Unsurprising Caveats

But in reality, this should not be all that shocking. In another confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus is asked to give a “sign from heaven” but tells his opponents that “no sign will be given…except the sign of Jonah” (16:4; cf. 12:39). But the Markan Jesus tells the Pharisees that “no sign will be given” (Mark 8:12) and there is no “sign of Jonah” to be found anywhere.

There is also another issue at work in the Matthean Gospel: the necessity of the law. Had the Matthean Jesus said what the Markan Jesus had he would have been in direct contradiction with the law of Moses. But the Matthean Jesus isn’t a law-breaker. Instead, he places hedges around the law to protect people from violating it (cf. Matthew 5:21-48). The Matthean Jesus had come to fulfill the law, not abolish it (5:17-18).

A Missing Piece and a New One

So the Matthean Jesus has interpreted Moses in such a way that the only grounds for divorce is porneia, a word that basically refers to some kind of sexual immorality. Gone is the private conversation between Jesus and the disciples we find in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:10-12) that suggested anyone who remarried after a divorce was committing adultery. Instead, a new private conversation between Jesus and the disciples follows wherein the disciples tell Jesus that if it is the case that the only grounds for divorce is porneia then “it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus responds with a strange teaching that features eunuchs.

Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can (19:11-12).

What in the world does that mean?

To be honest, I have no idea and it is a topic debated among scholars. Those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” may simply refer to people who remain celibate, i.e. practically eunuchs. Or Jesus might be speaking of people who actually emasculate themselves. Whatever the case may be, its relationship to Jesus’ teaching on divorce is not entirely clear.2 

A Conflict on Divorce

It is quite clear that we have a conflict between the Markan Jesus and the Matthean Jesus. In the former, divorce is never permissible since it violates the union of one flesh that God instituted from the beginning. Moses be damned! In the latter, the only cause for divorce is that of porneia, thereby revealing how Jesus understood the law of Moses.

NOTES

1 Amateur Exegete, “Musings on Mark: The Markan Jesus on Divorce” (1.9.19), amateurexegete.com. Accessed 13 January 2019.

2 For a discussion on this text, see R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 722-726. France believes that the “this teaching” of 19:11 is a reference to the disciples comment in 19:10. In other words, celibacy is a good option for the sake of the kingdom.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Weekly Roundup – 1.11.19

“What is at stake in that sad progression from Paul to anti-Paul? Why is it of importance that — at least with regard to slavery — radical Christian liberty is being changed back into normal Roman slavery. It means this: Jewish Christianity is becoming Roman Christianity.”

– John Dominic Crossan


  • One of my favorite bloggers, @bibhistctxt, has written another piece in his series on Israelite origins entitled “Israelite Origins: Egyptian Domination of Canaan.” As he shows, Canaan was under Egyptian domination during the periods wherein the Israelites purportedly fled Egypt for the Promised Land. Yet there is no mention of this and related issues in the narratives we find in the book of Joshua. This is problematic for those who believe in an Exodus as described in some narrative texts of the Hebrew Bible.
  • Tavis Bohlinger wrote a piece over on the Logos website on why Paul mentions his “large” hand writing in the epistle to the Galatians. Bohlinger interviewed Steve Reece, a professor Classical Languages at Saint Olaf College, on the background of this comment from Paul. Reece’s proposal is that the ending of the epistle is Paul taking over for his secretary, creating a noticeable difference in handwriting, i.e. Paul’s wrote with larger letters than his secretary did. This also may have served to show that Paul really was associated with the letter and his handwriting was proof. Reece also goes over other manuscripts from antiquity where we see this kind of phenomena.
  • @StudyofChrist recently uploaded a video comparing the Matthean and Lukan genealogies, stressing that these are theological and not historical in nature and therefore do not need to be harmonized. He even quotes from Richard Dawkins!
  • Last week over at The Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta posted a video of exorcist Bob Larson casting out a demon from an atheist. What Larson didn’t know is that the atheist was a plant, someone acting like they were demon-possessed to show just how ridiculous Larson’s work truly is. Larson posted the video to his YouTube channel as proof his ministry works. You can’t make this stuff up!
  • Almost a decade ago New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on “The Search for the Historical Paul: Which Letters Did He Really Write?” There are seven letters which are widely regarded as authentic but others which aren’t. But why? Crossan argues that they exhibit “counter-Pauline and anti-Pauline” tendencies. In effect, “Paul is being deradicalized, sanitized, and Romanized” in those letters. Crossan is frequently the center of controversy and this piece was no exception. But it is a very good read on one scholar’s take on the Deutero-Pauline and Pastoral epistles.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Mark: Will a Sign Be Given?

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.

Matthew’s Version

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.

NOTES

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.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.