The Sign of Jonah

Wednesday, the Gospel at Mass was from Luke 11:29-32, in which Jesus speaks of the cryptic “Sign of Jonah”:

While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here.”

What’s He talking about? Two things: His Death and Resurrection, and the destruction of Jerusalem.

I. The Sign of Jonah in the Death and Resurrection of Christ

The first, and central, meaning of the Sign of Jonah is that Jesus will die and rise again.  In Matthew 12, we hear Matthew’s parallel account (Matthew actually records two different occasions in which Jesus uses this same symbol, in Matthew 12 and Matthew 16).  In Mt. 12:39-40, Jesus says, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” It’s clear to us reading this now what Jesus is referring to: the period we Catholics celebrate as the Triduum, from Holy Thursday to the Easter Vigil, in which Jesus bore the weight of our sins, then descended to the dead, and then rose again.

That part’s simple, but there are fascinating implications to it, which Matthew’s second account of the Sign of Jonah touches on.  In Matthew 16:4, Jesus again warns that “wicked and adulterous generation” that the only sign they’d receive was the Sign of Jonah.  Very soon after this, we read in Matthew 16:13-19,

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Now, I’ve addressed the papal implications of this passage elsewhere, but my focus today is on the name “Simon, son of Jonah.”  What’s striking about this is that Simon isn’t the son of a man named Jonah. In Jonh 1:42, Jesus says, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas.”  This is sort of baffling at first.  Some people think that Jonah is another name for John, or perhaps a nickname for the same man.  That’s quite possible.  And certainly, there is a sense in which, in both John 1:42 and Matthew 16:17, Jesus is calling Peter specially by name.

But there’s a theory I’ve heard for this passage that I find intriguing, and fairly convincing.  In John 8:31-47, Jesus acknowledges to a group of Jews He’s dealing with, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word” (John 8:37).  As such, while they’re the descendants of Abraham by blood, they’re not his sons: “If you were Abraham’s children,’ said Jesus, ‘then you would do what Abraham did.’” (John 8:39).  Likewise, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God” (John 8:42). Instead, they’re behaving as sons of the Devil (John 8:44). So to be the “son” of Abraham means to follow his example, same with being a son of God or (conversely) a son of the devil.  In this sense, while Simon is, by birth, the son of a fisherman named John, he’s the “son of Jonah” in becoming a fisher of men (Mark 1:17) by following Our Lord, who has just tied His own Death and Resurrection with the Sign of Jonah.

II. The Sign of Jonah as the Destruction of Jerusalem

There’s another probable meaning to the “Sign of Jonah,” one far more ominous.  Jonah’s mission was to proclaim the coming wrath of God, averted by the people of Nineveh only because they changed their ways:

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you.” So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh, according to the LORD’S bidding. Now Nineveh was an enormously large city; it took three days to go through it. 
Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. 
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: “Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water. Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; every man shall turn from his evil way and from the violence he has in hand. Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish.” 
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.

The story ends well for that generation. But Christ warns in Luke 11 and in Matthew 12 that it won’t end as well for the generation alive in Jesus’ day: It’s for this reason that “At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it” (Luke 11:32), since Jonah’s preaching was enough to convert them back to God, while Jesus’ generation refused to believe in the face of the something greater Jesus promises (namely, His Death and Resurrection).

Remember what Jonah said would befall the people of Nineveh. If they had refused to change their ways, they would have lasted forty days, and then their city would be destroyed.  Since Jesus is saying that things will go less well for His generation than Jonah’s, He might as well wear a sign saying, “Forty days more and Jerusalem will be destroyed.” And if you’re familiar with Scriptural prophesies, you might already know that a prophesy of “days” often symbolizes years: for example, Daniel 9:22-27’s prophesy of the seventy weeks (literally “the seventy times seven”) refers not to 490 days, but to the 490 years between Daniel and Jesus.  There are numerous interplays between the forty days and years in Scripture: both were used as the time of preparation.  But in addition to being symbolic of preparation, forty years are also symbolic of the length of a generation.  Numbers 32:13 says, “The LORD’s anger burned against Israel and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until the whole generation of those who had done evil in his sight was gone” (see also Psalm 95:10). With that in mind, go back and look at the number of references to “this generation” in Luke 11:29-32. Within the space of 3 verses, Jesus reference “this generation” five times, and every time He mentions the Sign of Jonah (Luke 11:29-32, Matthew 12:38-42; and Matthew 16:4), He refers to “this generation” in the same breath — something Jonah never did.  So Jesus seems to be saying that the fulfillment of Jonah’s prophesy will be a prophetic forty years (the length of a generation) rather than a literal forty days.

Now look at history.  While the precise dating of the Crucifixion is disputed, it was probably right at or around 30 A.D.  If that’s right, it’s exactly forty years before the Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.  It’s stunning. Even non-Christians have to concede the basic facts here — the Romans left the Wailing Wall as a perpetual reminder of what they’d done. So it’s not like Christians are somehow doctoring the history. Believe He’s the Messiah or not, it’s pretty well established that (a) the Old Testament  Scriptures put a lot of emphasis on forty day and forty year time periods, (b) Jonah 3 ties the number forty to the destruction of an unrepentant and sinful city, (c) Jesus was Crucified about 30, and (d) the city of Jerusalem was annihilated in about 70.  And it ties the two halves of the Sign of Jonah together perfectly, as forty “days” separate Jesus being in the belly of the Earth from the destruction of the new “Nineveh.”

III. The Incredible Details

What makes all of this more incredible is that the non-Christian historians on both sides of the war (Roman and Jewish) both reported celestial signs at the Destruction.  The famous Jewish historian Josephus, in his War of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter 5, recounts a number of terrifying omens that occurred at the time of the Destruction of the Temple. There’s one he’s even sheepish about admitting, because he thinks it sounds silly, but had so many witnesses he felt compelled to include it:

Besides these, a few days after that feast, on the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost, as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the temple,] as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said that, in the first place, they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise, and after that they heard a sound as of a great multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.”

So there are three things we see.  First, the signs of the Divine Army assembling in the sky. Second, the Lord withdrawing from the Temple of Jerusalem.  And third, God referring to Himself in the plural, as He does in Genesis 1:26 and elsewhere, and which suggests that He’s a Trinity: after all, it isn’t as if the angels dwelt with God in the Holy of Holies, so this can’t be written off very easily.  From the Roman perspective, the Roman historian Tacitus, in Book V, Chapter 5 of his Histories, says that the Romans saw the same thing, and more:

Prodigies had occurred, which this nation, prone to superstition, but hating all religious rites, did not deem it lawful to expiate by offering and sacrifice. There had been seen hosts joining battle in the skies, the fiery gleam of arms, the temple illuminated by a sudden radiance from the clouds. The doors of the inner shrine were suddenly thrown open, and a voice of more than mortal tone was heard to cry that the Gods were departing. At the same instant there was a mighty stir as of departure. Some few put a fearful meaning on these events, but in most there was a firm persuasion, that in the ancient records of their priests was contained a prediction of how at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers, coming from Judaea, were to acquire universal empire. These mysterious prophecies had pointed to Vespasian and Titus, but the common people, with the usual blindness of ambition, had interpreted these mighty destinies of themselves, and could not be brought even by disasters to believe the truth.

As Christians, we know what was going on.  It wasn’t “the Gods,” plural, departing, by the Trinitarian LORD leaving the Temple as God lifted His Hand of Protection.  The prophesy Tacitus is referring to may well be Daniel 2, which prophesies that Jesus will create a global Church that will replace the Roman Empire. Tacitus, of course, puts a pagan spin on it, a spin we now know was false.

In other words, no matter whether you look at this from a Christian, Jewish, or pagan perspective, it looks very much like God (or if you’re pagan, the gods) permitted the Destruction of Jerusalem by departing, as punishment for their wickedness and faithlessness.  That is, the second part of the Sign of Jonah came to an epic and devastating fulfillment.

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