This article is extracted from chapter “Inconsistencies in the Gospel Accounts of the Crucifixion” in the book The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources
The Old Testament contains a story of a Jonah who was commissioned by God to go to preach in Nineveh. Jonah disobeyed the divine order and, traveling by sea, tried to escape from God and the mission. While in the sea, a powerful wind started to shake the boat dangerously. Jonah confessed to the sailors that this was the result of God’s wrath at him, and suggested a solution: “Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you” (Jonah 1:12). After he was thrown in the sea, “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17). Having repented and prayed to God from inside the whale, “the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10).
Matthew records a prediction in which Jesus likens his burial and resurrection to what happened to Jonah:
Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, “Master, we would see a sign from thee.” But he answered and said unto them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: 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.” (Matt. 12:38-40)
There is hardly any similarity between the two events, yet there are clear and fundamental differences. Indeed, drawing similarity between the two disappearances is rather meaningless:
i) Jesus is not simply likening his burial to the disappearance of Jonah in the belly of the whale, but he is also emphasizing the duration of his death, making it clear that it is three days and three nights, like Jonah’s. The problem is that Jesus did not actually stay that long in the tomb. The Synoptists agree that he died just after 3 pm (Mark 15:33-37; Matt. 27:45-50; Luke 23:44-46). John does not tell us the time of Jesus’ death on the cross, but it must have happened after midday when he was handed over to be executed. All four Gospels also agree that Jesus had already risen from the dead by the early morning of the Sunday that followed the Friday of the crucifixion (Mark 16:1; Matt. 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1). This means that Jesus remained buried for only one day and two nights, which contradicts the prediction in Matthew. The apologetic argument that Jesus’ mention of the three days and nights was not intended to refer to an exact period of time is inadmissible, as it makes the reference to that specific, or indeed any, timeframe meaningless.
Luke has his own version of Jesus’ prophecy which, unlike Matthew, he places after the Transfiguration, when Jesus appeared radiant and spoke with Moses and Elijah. This Evangelist perhaps realized the contradiction in Matthew’s account so he makes no mention of the time:
And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, “This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.” (Luke 11:29-30)
But a different problem with this briefer account is that it also omits the resemblance that Jesus clearly establishes in Matthew’s version between the two temporary disappearances of Jonah and himself, thus leaving the comparison meaningless to his audience.
ii) Jesus’ alleged miracle was his resurrection from death. This miracle would not become more impressive if Jesus had stayed, say, 10 days in the tomb or less impressive if he had spent only one night. The reported miracle is simply one of resurrection from death. Conversely, the miraculous aspect of Jonah’s experience is his survival inside the whale for three days and nights. Inside the tomb Jesus did not experience any miracle; he was dead like all the dead.
iii) Jonah’s ordeal was a punishment for his failure to obey God. Jesus’ miracle is supposed to have happened to fulfill a divine plan that reflected his unique, high status in God’s eye.
iv) Matthew reports a second incident in which Jesus was asked to show a “sign from heaven,” which he refused to do, and pointed to Jonah’s miracle:
The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, “When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” And he left them, and departed. (Matt. 16:1-4)
The reply that Matthew attributes to Jesus is completely irrelevant to the challenge, and that is because the Evangelist failed to understand what the Pharisees and Sadducees meant by a “sign from heaven,” which had nothing to do with a miracle like Jonah’s. A demand for such a miracle by the Pharisees is mentioned by Mark and another by unidentified people is reported by Luke (11:16):
And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, “Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation.” (Mark 8:11-12)
As I explained in my book The Mystery of the Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources, this request was intended to test whether Jesus can bring food from heaven in the same way that God sent down manna and quails from heaven to the Israelites in the desert of Sinai after fleeing Egypt with Moses (Exo. 16:11-15). The miracle of bringing down food from heaven is described in the Qur’an:
Lo! When I inspired the companions: “Believe in Me and in My messenger.” They said: “We believe. Bear witness that we are Muslims.” (5.111) Lo! When the companions said: “O Jesus son of Mary! Can your Lord send down for us a table of food from heaven?” He said: “Be pious to Allah, if you are true believers.” (5.112) They said: “We wish to eat of it, have our hearts be at ease, know that you have spoken the truth to us, and be witnesses to it (the table)”. (5.113) Jesus son of Mary said: “O Allah our Lord! Send down for us from heaven a table of food, that it may be a feast for the first and the last of us, and a sign from You. Give us sustenance; You are the best of Sustainers.” (5.114) Allah said: “I shall send it down for you, so whoever of you disbelieves afterward I will punish him with a torment that I do not inflict on anyone among all the nations.” (5.115)
John has an account that clearly refers to this incident, with the most noticeable difference being the fact that the Jesus of John declines to perform the required miracle, whereas the Jesus of the Qur’an does it:
Then said they unto him, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” They said therefore unto him, “What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Then Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.” (John 6:28-33)
This account confirms my interpretation of what sign from heaven people asked Jesus to show and the fact that it had nothing to do with Jonah’s miracle in the sea.
v) Jesus’ alleged likening of his death and resurrection to what happened to Jonah is also contradicted by the Gospel reports of how his disciples and followers behaved after his crucifixion. Their behaviors suggest that they were not aware that he was going to rise from the dead. For instance, his followers who visited his tomb were not expecting an empty tomb. Also, when Jesus appeared to his disciples after rising from the dead, they first did not believe that it was him (also Matt. 28:17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:25-29):
And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not. After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country. And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them. Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.(Mark 16:11-14)
So, the similary that the Gospels claim Jesus made between his resurrection and the miracle of Jonah is contradictory and cannot be historical.