Friday, October 21, 2011

A Fishy Fisherman's Tale

We are progressing through the Gospels, where we recently examined when Jesus was accused of using Satanic power to cast out demons, and discovered that the one unforgivable sin is saying anything bad about the Holy Spirit. This next study follows immediately after Jesus saying that people would be condemned or acquitted based on their words.

A Fishy Fisherman's Tale
Have you ever made a reference to something to draw a more vibrant mental image, yielding a deeper meaning to your words? For example, instead of saying “my father is very frugal,” you might instead say “my father acts as frugal as if he had lived through the Great Depression.” But if you misapply such a reference, it can make you look like you are out of touch with reality. For example, let us look at Matthew 12:38-42.

The passage begins with the Pharisees asking Jesus to perform a miraculous sign (Matthew 12:38). Presumably, these particular Pharisees were asking for Jesus to prove to them that He was operating as a prophet with God's blessing. Jesus makes the bad reference shortly into His reply. We find in Matthew 12:39-40:
[Jesus] answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous 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." NIV
Quickly, let us discuss the word “generation” in Jesus' reply, so we know who Jesus is talking about. The word “generation” comes from the Greek word transliterated as “genea,” which can denote a family, a race of people, a nation, a period of time (an age), or people living during a particular time. So while Jesus was replying to the particular Pharisees who were confronting Him at that moment, He is speaking about a much larger group in His reply; perhaps the people of that region, perhaps all of the Jews, or maybe even to everybody living at that time.

Next, note that Jesus states that no sign will be given to this group of people other than the sign of Jonah. This is in huge contradiction to the rest of the Gospels. Jesus has already worked miracles in front of other Pharisees in that same region of Galilee, such as healing the man with the shriveled hand earlier in this same chapter (Matthew 12:9-14)! The miracle of the few loaves and fishes feeding thousands would happen in the same region after Jesus had made this proclamation (Matthew 14:13-21). Plus, the entire chapter of Matthew 24 is full of various signs of the times which would supposedly come to pass (and would be visible to everyone), including the proclamation in Matthew 24:34 that all of those signs would come to pass before that generation passed away. There is no way to reconcile Jesus' words here with the rest of the Gospels.

Now, what about that reference to the “sign of the prophet Jonah?” The story of Jonah is in the small, four-chapter book of Jonah. You can read the entire book for yourself starting here in about 20 minutes, or read my chapter-by-chapter summary in about 5 minutes. In my opinion, it stands out as being the one books in the Bible which were most likely to be written as purely allegorical, yet Jesus references it like it is fact, so we will too for this study.

So according to Jesus, the sign of Jonah was Jonah being swallowed by a whale, or a big fish, for three days. As mentioned above, a miraculous sign would be used to indicate that God authenticated a prophet present God's message to a particular people.

However, when you look back at the story of Jonah, you find that Jonah being swallowed by a fish was not a sign at all, but rather it was a slight punishment and big route correction. God had told Jonah to deliver a message to the people of Nineveh (located in present-day northern Iraq) (Jonah 1:1-2), but Jonah tried to run away on a boat headed in the opposite direction (into the Mediterranean Sea, leaving roughly from present day Tel Aviv in Israel) (Jonah 1:3). God had made the sea so rough that the men in the boat cast Jonah over board in an attempt to pacify God's rage (Jonah 1:14-15). With Jonah overboard, God “provided” a big fish to swallow him whole for those three days and nights (Jonah 1:17). The fish then barfed him up onto dry land (presumably still in Israel) (Jonah 2:10). God then told Jonah again to go to Nineveh with a message, and this time Jonah obeyed God (Jonah 3:3).

The people of Nineveh never saw this “sign” of Jonah, but they did repent when they heard Jonah's message from God according to Jonah 3:5. Jesus cites this repentance in His next sentence as if Jonah's prophetic message had completely turned the people of Nineveh onto the right path (Matthew 12:41).

The funny thing is that God supposedly continued to pronounce judgements against Nineveh. The three-chapter book of Nahum is essentially one long prophesy that God will destroy Nineveh in the process of restoring the Hebrews to their former glory, and in Zephaniah 2:13 God says that He will make Nineveh desolate. Curiously enough, the actual history suggests that the city was sieged in 616 BC, and destroyed in 612 BC, leaving the city essentially desolate. So if the people of Nineveh did repent, then either God destroyed them anyway (via the army invasion prophesied in Nahum 2), or their repentance was only halfhearted and they soon went back to their old ways. If it was a halfhearted repentance, then it does not make sense that somehow the men of Nineveh would stand in judgement of anyone like what Jesus suggests in Matthew 12:41.

All of this evidence suggests that by making this reference to the Jonah/Nineveh tale, Jesus was out of touch with reality. Technically speaking, that should be impossible, so believers should discredit these verses as false. If these verses are false, then which other ones are untrue, and are the other Gospels tainted? (I hope you have got a sled, because the slope is looking long, and rather icy.)

Speaking of the other Gospels, you should know that John omits this episode altogether.

Mark 8:11-12 does cover the Pharisees asking Jesus for a sign from Heaven, to which Jesus replied that there would be no sign at all for this generation (not even the sign of Jonah). Mark's anecdote happened right after Jesus had fed a bunch of people with a little bread and fish. Curiously, Matthew's Gospel repeats the request for a sign after feeding those same people too, but again Matthew says that there will be the sign of Jonah (Matthew 16:1-4).

And we cannot forget Luke. Luke 11:29-32 parallels the Matthew 12:38-42 account, and is placed in roughly the same timeline presented by Matthew; right after Jesus had been accused of using Satanic powers. However, as noted in other studies, Luke appears to be a bit of an editor. Here it seems that he had recognized the issue created by claiming that the sign of Jonah was Jonah being swallowed by a fish, and so Luke recast that the sign of Jonah as simply Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh (Luke 11:30). Unfortunately, Luke did not research far enough to know that God had still directed the devastation of the entire city of Nineveh, so he also makes the claim that the people of Nineveh will stand in judgement of this generation (Luke 11:32).

Yet again, the credibility of the Gospels is diminished when you look into the details.

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