For many Christians, Biblical literalism is a fraught subject. My own theory is that one can be conservative to different degrees about such matters, but absolute 100% literalism is impossible, because there are at least a few Biblical verses that nobody can accept in pure literal form. The obvious example is Joshua 10.12-13, which assumes that the Sun rotates around the earth. “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”

As a basis for discussion, though, I offer one example that I have often used in classes. In my opinion, it is a clear example of how a Biblical author used and adapted original materials. I’d like to know what other readers think.

I have written about reading documents historically, in order to find which of multiple versions might be the earlier or more authentic. Whenever I’m teaching about Christian origins or the early Church, I inevitably get into matters of scriptural authority, which is deeply sensitive for many students. There’s one passage in particular – or rather, one pair of texts – that I find very useful for illustrating critical approaches to the New Testament in a way that gets students’ attention.

This is the Sign of Jonah, which features in passages in Mark (12: 39-42) and Luke (11. 29-32). The two texts have such close verbal resemblances that they must have a common origin. Because they are in Matthew and Luke but not Mark, most (but not all) scholars would attribute them to the lost gospel source Q.

Jesus is talking about prophetic signs. He refers to the Queen of the South, who traveled to see Solomon, and also the sign of the prophet Jonah. According to Luke

For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation. … The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here (KJV)

Matthew’s reading is similar, but with a critical difference:

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.

In Luke, Jonah is a prophet who calls to repentance. In Matthew, he is relevant because of the direct parallels between his experience and Jesus’s approaching burial and Resurrection. Matthew’s version offers an explicit prophecy of the Resurrection.

Let us assume that these texts come from a common original. I then ask my students which of the two is likely to reflect the original more closely. We really have two options to consider:

A. Luke’s reading is earlier and closer to Q. In that case, Matthew has subsequently expanded or adapted the original in accordance with doctrines of the emerging Church, and its efforts to find prophetic foretastes of the Christian story.

B. Matthew’s reading is earlier and closer to Q. The original text included a prophecy of the Resurrection, which Luke has omitted.

Of the two, it is very difficult to argue against option A, if only because it is so wildly improbable that an author like Luke would have edited out a prophecy – in Jesus’s own words! – that would so precisely have served the evangelist’s purposes. On the other hand, it is easy to imagine an author placing such prophecies retroactively into a narrative, as Matthew seems to have done.

Perhaps the Resurrection element in Matthew’s discourse originated as a midrashic comment or an editorial explanation by the author, which subsequent rewritings transformed into part of a quotation attributed to Jesus. Ancient Greek scribes knew nothing of quotation marks.

I honestly don’t see any alternative to seeing in these passages an editorial reworking of an earlier source to bring it into accord with the church’s post-Resurrection teaching.

I suppose a skeptical academic could draw wild and wonderful conclusions from that point: “Look! The gospels attribute to Jesus something he didn’t say! The whole New Testament is bogus!” Obviously, there’s no need to resort to such inverted fundamentalism. What the Jonah story shows, convincingly, is that the Gospels, like the rest of the New Testament, were written by people who had come to faith, and that faith informed their work. Nothing surprising there. Moreover, standard methods of historical criticism can help us determine just how the authors have interpreted their sources.

  • Just Sayin’

    Excellent. Thank you for this.

  • bdlaacmm

    There is a third option, which Mr. Jenkins does not seem to have considered.

    “For as Jonas, having been three days and three nights in the whale’s belly, was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man, who shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the Earth, be to this generation. The men of Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.”

    • philipjenkins

      And that’s a third option how?

      • bdlaacmm

        The article suggested that one version had to be “correct” and the other somehow altered. The wording I offered shows how both evangelists could have been correct, by fitting the two accounts together like pieces of a puzzle.

        Keep in mind that we have very few of the original words of Christ in the Gospels, since they are Greek translations of what He said in Aramaic. As a former professional translator, I can assure you that you can never precisely duplicate in one language something that was said in another. At best, you might get a close equivalency, but that’s it. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two places in the Gospels where Jesus is quoted without translation.

        My point is there needn’t be any assumption of contradiction between the two accounts here. They are quite reconcilable.

        • philipjenkins

          But why would Luke exclude that prophecy if he knew it?

          • bdlaacmm

            A person can read all the recorded words of Jesus in less than two hours. Surely He said far, far more than that in the three years of His public ministry. Ergo, the individual evangelists made conscious decisions at every step of the way as to which words were relevant to each account and which weren’t. It shouldn’t be a great mystery that they each opted for a different subset of the whole, since each Gospel was written for a different purpose (else why have four, rather than just one?).

  • Paul M.

    Dr. Jenkins,

    I’m not sure that Luke and Matthew’s quotations of Jesus need harmonization (that presupposes a conflict between them). Why can’t they simply be emphasizing different aspects of the same sermon preached by Jesus? None of the gospel authors seemed particularly interested in mere chronicling, instead selecting from their knowledge of Jesus’ ministry to make different (although often overlapping) points to their respective audiences. In other words, Luke and Matthew are only in conflict if we assume both are citing Jesus’s sermon in full rather than excerpting the bits that best fit into the broader theme of each book.

    What is interesting to me about the two passages is that both end the sermon on the same note, “a greater than Jonas is here”. This is Jesus as a better Jonah. Here you have a great example of the typologizing you discussed in an earlier post. The New Testament authors routinely saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament types. He was a better Prophet, Priest, Judge, King, Servant, Lamb, Sacrifice… Of course, the apostles weren’t just fabricating the typology out of whole-cloth. They were following the hermeneutical example of Jesus himself. For example, in John 5:31-47, while arguing for his authority as the Son of God, Jesus tells the Pharisees that He himself is the linchpin of all OT interpretation, “the very scriptures that testify about me.”


    • philipjenkins

      My point is that the passages do seem to be taken from a common original. Again, if Luke knew about the sermon, and its prophecy, why did he exclude it?

      • bdlaacmm

        “the passages do seem to be taken from a common original”

        Maybe the “original” was nothing other than what Christ said?

        I’m not sure that it matters why Luke chose to include only the words that he did. But as I wrote above, I see this as No Big Mystery. After all, as John wrote (slightly altered here to make a point), “There were many other things which Jesus [said]; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

        You just have to accept that no Gospel is a complete record of everything Jesus either did or said, and it should come as no surprise that we find some details in one that are omitted in another, because they all omit something.

  • FA Miniter

    Why does no one ever seem to notice that as prophecy (even retrograde prophecy), the Matthew passage fails miserably. Jesus had to be taken off the cross before the start of the Sabbath (so afternoon on Friday). And the tomb was found empty on the first day of the new week (Sunday). So he was in the tomb for two nights and one day – nowhere near three days and three nights.

    Other than that (which is not the purpose of the article, anyways), the article is a good piece of historical criticism.

    • BobRN

      As I recall, the Gospels simply say that Jesus would rise “on the third day.” No where does this mean three days and three nights. I think you’re stretching. You’re attempting to apply to an ancient culture a mode of speech far too technical and precise for the purpose of dismissing the testimony of that culture. It doesn’t work.

      • FA Miniter

        Sorry, but the Matthew passage distinctly says three days and three nights and puts those words into the mouth of Jesus. The contradiction remains.

        • BobRN

          I see that, yes. Thank you. Even still, I think you’re being too literal. In any case, it’s a moot point. Either Jesus rose from the dead or He didn’t. No one is claiming any other time than Friday afternoon for the crucifixion and early Sunday morning for the Resurrection. Certainly the author of the Gospel According to Matthew and the community to whom he was writing knew the account of the Resurrection. I doubt the contradiction bothered either of them.

          • John Dunham

            There is actually a good explanation for this. You are correct in your assessment that the time does not fit 3 days if you assume a Friday crucifixion.

            Luke 3:1
            In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—

            -Tiberius was appointed 14 AD
            -Augustus died August 19th 14 AD
            -(within the 15th year of Tiberius)

            The 4th Passover in Jesus’ Ministry starts 32 AD
            Some people will come up with an alternate chronology due to the fact that they want to support a Friday Crucifixion. There is however an much more logical alternative explanation: the Passover (crucifixion) on April 10th 32 AD (14th of Nissan) is on a Wednesday. In the critic’s eye, since this is not a Friday (therefore no Good Friday), it couldn’t be 32 AD and must be 33 AD. They then have to go into a lot of justifications with partial days and what not, however that is not what the scriptures say. Jesus specified that there would be three days and three nights between his crucifixion and resurrection. You can’t get that with a Friday Crucifixion (Matt 12:40). There are also two Sabbaths between Passover and Sunday(Matt 28:1) . In that verse the Sabbath word is plural in the Greek. The reason for that is that the Feast of Unleavened Bread intervened between the Passover and the Resurrection. Also, this allows Jesus to be resurrected on the Feast of First Fruits. What do you think his resurrection is? Why do you think God created that festival? So Jesus could fulfill it!

            Most of this information can be found in these two amazing articles. I love all the stuff Chuck Missler puts out, so insightful. You should check it out if you are intrigued. Either way, interesting food for thought, and it goes on to talk about how Daniel predicted down to the very day when Jesus would walk into Jerusalem to proclaim himself King.


  • bdlaacmm

    I am most definitely NOT a “Biblical literalist” (see my comments on translation, above), but I also do not understand why so many scholars feel the need to create “difficulties” where none exist (as in this article). Rather than the simplest (and thus, by Occam’s Razor, the most likely) explanation – i.e., the evangelists were merely quoting the words of Christ, there is this (to me) inexplicable need to posit a document “Q”, for which there are no extant copies (or even fragments), no contemporary witnesses to, no references to in the Early Church Fathers, no evidence OF ANY SORT WHATSOEVER to its supposed existence.

  • PaulBot 1138

    I am not a biblical literalist by any stretch, but the author is simply incorrect in his claim that Joshua 10:12-13 cannot be taken literally because it entails that the sun goes around the earth. It does not, any more than our modern usage of the terms “sunrise” and “sunset” entail that the sun goes around the earth.
    Now, it is highly likely that the people of Joshua’s time did in fact believe that the sun went around the earth, and the miracle they witnessed would have been interpreted with this view in mind, but this need not be the case for the miracle to be a literal, historical event.
    At some point during Joshua’s campaign of conquest, that source of heat and light which traverses the sky above ceased to do so for the span of about a day. This is all we are given to know – and there is insufficient information to speculate on what astronomical or atmospheric phenomena this might have entailed.
    To claim that it is impossible for this miracle – by definition the intervention of God into the laws of nature – to have occurred literally is to place a limit on the omnipotence of God that the text does not give license to do.

    • philipjenkins

      Exactly, the authors interpreted the world as they knew it, which led them to include the words “And the sun stood still” which might have been correct from their point of view. Perhaps God intervened miraculously to ensure that Israel won the battle. But that still means that the Biblical text includes a story, and those specific words, that cannot be reconciled with anybody’s science. Perhaps it is symbolically true, but historically and literally, it can’t be.

      • PaulBot 1138

        I believe you misunderstand my contention.
        In order to determine what the claim “The sun stood still” means, it is necessary to understand what would have been meant by “sun.” For people of Joshua’s time, this term would most likely not have referred to a massive nuclear fusion reaction millions of miles away; it would have referred to that bright spot in the sky that provides heat and light.
        Once this is understood, the claim “The sun stood still” can indeed be taken literally: This same bright spot ceased its course across the sky for the period of a day during a literal, historical event.
        This might have been brought about any number of miraculous ways, and we simply do not have the ability to say that none of them could possibly have happened.

        • philipjenkins

          I see what you are saying, and you are undoubtedly right to say that people at the time framed phenomena in terms of the reality they understood. Context is everything. At the same time, you cannot accept literally the statement that “the sun stood still.” I’m not challenging the possibility of miracle (if such there was) but the fact that we should accept that scientific statement literally.

          • PaulBot 1138

            I think you can accept that claim literally, that’s exactly my point.
            Not to belabor the discussion, but if a person, who had no understanding of astronomy, made the claim “The sun stood still in the sky, and did not go down for a whole day.” this claim would be literally true if that entity he understood to be the sun stopped its apparent progress in the sky for the length of a day. Whether or not the earth actually ceased turning would not be relevant – his claim does not include these concepts.
            Take as a thought experiment:
            On the date in question at high noon, God miraculously intervenes such that, for a space of, say, 500 miles around the site of the battle, the view of the sky ceases to correspond to any astronomical body, and instead presents itself as it would if the earth had ceased its rotation for 24 hours, sans the catastrophic consequences that would have occurred due to cessation of rotation. God brings it about such that all heat and light that normally would be received continue, and then, at high noon the next day, God brings it about that the view of the sky again correspond to the celestial movements as normal.
            Obviously, anyone within the affected zone would say “The sun stood still in the sky, and hasted not to go down.” Furthermore, this statement would arguably be literally true, given the above scenario: their conception of “sun” has no bearing on any astronomical body – it is merely the source of heat and light in the sky that rises and sets regularly every day.
            Now, were a modern astrophysicist to somehow time travel to this battle and witness the same event, if he were to make this same claim, it would not be literally true, because for him “The sun stood still” would have to mean “The earth ceased to rotate,” which arguably has not ever occurred (although even this is not a given.) But for an Israelite of Joshua’s time, his understanding of the sun and its movements – what he means when he says “sun” – would make his claim literally true.
            This is not the only scenario in which the claim “The sun stood still in the sky, and hasted not to go down for a day.” can be understood to be both literally true and correspond to known events of historical record, but one such is sufficient to establish that a literal reading of this passage is indeed possible.

  • James Dowden

    I’m late to the party, I know, but I think we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this being a mixed parallel: Mt 12.38-42 // Lk 11.29-32 has a doublet in Matthew at Mt 16.1-4 // Mk 8.11-13. Luke eliminated the doublet, as he eliminated the doublet of the feedings. Luke’s wording in this case is very close to the Mt 16 version (e.g. the sign is “from heaven” at Mt 16.1 // Mk 8.11 // Lk 11.29, but not at Mt 12.38).

    On one level, one could view Lk 9.30 simply as misremembering what the doublet in Mt said whilst copying from another bit of Mt with reference to Mk (call Mt “Q” here if you prefer). It also produces an emphasis on “this generation” (vv 29, 30, 31, 32), which is symptomatic of something that’s been tidied up into a nice literary structure.

    But just taking the extra passion prediction by itself, Luke may well have found that unduly repetitious and a good candidate for elimination; Luke already eliminates the same resurrection element from the second of Mark’s three (Mt 17.22-23 // Mk 9.30-32 // Lk 9.43b-45). Perhaps it’s that he didn’t want the disciples to appear so stupid in having Jesus repeatedly saying this, only for them not to understand.

    There’s also the aspect of Luke’s inverting the additional section (i.e. the bit without the Marcan parallel), so that the Queen of the South comes before the men of Nineveh, which doesn’t do an awful lot for the sense of the passage, although at least it means it doesn’t end on what looks like a digression.