I. Introduction

We begin with some preliminary comments about the gospel of Matthew in general, followed by an in-depth analysis of the passage, Matthew 12:38-42, and then end with a reflection on what the message of the particular passage in question means for us today.

There is a  general consensus among biblical scholars in dating the composition of the gospel of Matthew around 80 to 90 A.D. This would have been a period in time after the destruction of the temple and when the early Jewish Christians were being expelled from synagogues and facing strong opposition from the Jewish community led by the Pharisees.  There are exceptions to this opinion among scholars but the majority go with this date.  The location of the gospel text is generally considered to be in Antioch but there are also exceptions to this opinion.[1] The authorship of the gospel is also a matter of debate among scholars, with the majority holding the  opinion that the author was an unknown (to us) Jewish Christian.[2] The presumptions made in this paper will go with the general, majority consensus.

The thesis that will be argued in this paper is that this particular passage is an illustrative of the confrontational relationship that existed between the emerging early church and the community of Jews, led by the Pharisees, who were competing with the early church over the issue of who truly were God’s chosen people, those who rejected Jesus as Messiah or those who accepted him.


II. Analysis

a) Locating 12:38-42 within the narrative

There are many ways to divide Matthew structurally, but since ancient times, scholars of Matthew have identified the narrative structure of the gospel as consisting of an Introduction (1:1-2:23) followed by a five major discourse pattern, and closing with the climax of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.  These five discourse sections are 1) The Proclamation of the Kingdom (3:1-7:29), 2) Ministry and Mission in Galilee (8:1-10:42), 3) Questioning and Opposition to Jesus (11:1-13:52), 4) Christology and Ecclesiology (13:53-18:35), 5) Journey to and Ministry in Jerusalem (19:1-25:46).[3] The passage under consideration is set within the third section of Matthew identified as the “Questioning and Opposition to Jesus.”

This section contains a series of incidents that have a recurrent theme: Jesus preaches and does wonders yet the people are unrepentant.  We first read about John the Baptist sending someone from his cell to ask Jesus if he is truly the one to come.  Jesus answers the question with a recounting of all the miracles he is performing and then adds “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (11:6)[4] This is followed by Jesus telling “the crowds” that John the Baptist is the greatest “among those born of a woman” yet “this generation” fails to recognize John, as well as himself, for who they are. (11:7-19)  This is followed by Jesus reproaching “unrepentant cities” “…in which most of his deeds of power had been done…” for failing to repent. (11:20-24)  The key verse here seems to be “For if these deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (11:23b)  Key, because this theme of “great and wondrous signs are given but to no avail because this generation is unrepentant” arises again in the account of the curing of the man with the withered hand in 12:9-14, and finally in the sign of Jonah passage.

Before we get to the sign of Jonah passage, we are also told by the author that Jesus is the fulfillment of what had been spoken of by the prophet Isaiah and he is truly the servant of God.  This is followed by an incident where the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being in league with Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons. (12:22-32)  This incident is followed by a criticism of the Pharisees by Jesus as being evil because of the evil “fruit” they bear, the words of blasphemy they utter against him, in the parable of the tree and its fruit. (12:33-37)

Finally, we get to the sign of Jonah passage, where the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign.  He replies that an (implying “this”) evil and adulterous generation will receive no sign, except the sign of Jonah.  Even still, this generation will not repent at the sign before them, which is greater than the sign of Jonah, and again the formula is present where men of Nineveh that received the sign of Jonah will rise up in the last days to bear witness against this generation because this generation has a sign greater than Jonah but refuse to repent.  This point is hammered home in the following “unclean spirit” parable, where this generation will be even worse off because they are like a person whom was rid of a demon, but became even worse because the demon returned with other demons and took up residence.

Then the narrative moves into the incident where Jesus identifies his true family as “…whoever does the will of my Father in heaven…” (12:50) This is followed by a series of parables, all of which seem to be stressing the importance of staying true to the kingdom of heaven among “weeds” (those who fall away) and adversity.  The reason Jesus speaks in parables is given in an answer of Jesus to his disciples, who ask him why he speaks in parables. His answer is essentially “so that the scriptures may be fulfilled”, specifically the prophet Isaiah. (13:10-17)

b) 12:38-42 in depth

There are several things we will look closely at:  1) The word “sign”, 2) the significance of “Jonah” as a sign, and 3) the differences between this account according to Matthew and the other accounts in Mark and Luke.  Although the majority of the focus will be on 3, the editorial changes, because the goal here is to determine what theological intent Matthew had in mind when he structured and edited this account, it will also be necessary to spend a good amount of time on 1 and 2, since, as will become clear, Matthew added quite a bit to this passage as it is found in Mark and Luke. This will therefore require us to try and ascertain what the sign of Jonah meant for him as well as for his audience.

1) Sign (shmeion)

The word “sign” (shmeion) appears in the Greek Old Testament 125 times, 85 times for the Hebrew original. It appears for the most part in the Pentateuch and in the prophets.  In 79 instances, the Hebrew word (aleph, vav, and tav, transliterated as ’oth) is translated into the Greek shmeion. In the other instances of use in the Greek OT, the word shmeion is used to interpret what is there in the Hebrew.[5] In our case, we are looking for anything that might help us determine what the sign of Jonah might have meant to the original audience, the people who heard or read it who shared the same frames of reference as the author.  Karl Regenstorf, in his lengthy and comprehensive study of the word in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,[6] begins his survey with its general Greek usage.  He concludes his survey of the early Greek usage of “sign” with the conclusion that there is no connection with the religious sphere, at least at the outset.  It acquires religious significance only when used in a religious context.  Even when it is in a religious context, the function of the word “sign” is natural, in the sense that a sign is something which discloses information and this is a function it serves for all knowledge.[7]

2) Sign of Jonah

There is much debate regarding what the “sign of Jonah” refers to.  In his entry on Jonah for the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Joachim Jeremias argues that “the sign of Jonah” refers to the miracle of his deliverance from the belly of the sea monster.[8] He states that,

Above all, it is highly unusual to describe the preaching of repentance as a (sign), since a sign consists, not in what men do, but in “the intervention of the power of God in the course of events.” (He cites Schl. Mt., 416 here) The sign of Jonah must refer to the miracle of the deliverance of Jonah from the belly of the great fish (Jon.2).

Jeremias notes that Luke links the two, Jonah and Jesus, as divine messengers who receive authorization by being delivered from death.[9] He concludes that this is what the sign of Jonah must be referring to.

Regenstorf criticizes Jeremias for making this conclusion, however.  He maintains that Jeremias, as well as the source cited by Jeremias (Schl. Mt., 416) are “…going beyond the limits set by investigation of the meaning of shmeion.”[10] He argues that the most that can be said about the meaning of the sign of Jonah is

…that which takes (Jonah) as a genitive of apposition and finds in (the sign of Jonah) the sign which Jonah himself is in the singularity of his historical manifestation.  This does not answer the question in what sense he is taken to be a sign.  According to the context and also the meaning of (sign) it seems very probable that the saying characterizes Jonah as the one whom God Himself shows Himself to be present with the prophet and at work through him and his call for repentance. Only to this extent does the saying relate to the authentication of Jonah, and this less in respect of his person than of the cause which he represents.[11]

3) The Editorial Differences

The sign of Jonah account is found in Matthew and in Luke, and a portion of it is found in Mark.  Using Kurt Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels,[12] we see that in Mark all that we have is an account of the Pharisees asking him for a sign, to which Jesus replies no sign will be given.  The only text in Mark that is found in Matthew and Luke is “generation seek(s) a sign” and “no sign shall be given”.  Matthew qualifies “sign of Jonah” by adding “of the prophet” so that it reads “sign of the prophet Jonah.” Matthew also adds the comparison between the time Jonah spent in the belly of the whale with the time the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth, three days and three nights.  This comparison is missing in Luke, but Matthew and Luke both have the additional text of the men of Nineveh and the queen of the South rising up “…at the judgment” to condemn this generation, because a sign greater than Jonah and something greater than Solomon is here for this generation, yet they refuse to repent.  Matthew has also rearranged the men of Nineveh and the Solomon text in an apparent attempt to place the men of Nineveh saying in an order that follows after the text of three days and three nights and the sign of Jonah.

Ulrich Luz proposes Mark and Q as the sources for this passage.[13] Both Luke and Matthew have heavily redacted the material, Matthew most extensively. In addition to the passage under consideration, we also find the demand for a sign from Pharisees and Jesus’ answer that no sign but the sign of Jonah will be given, in Matt 16:1-4.  Luz concludes from this, “Thus our text belongs to the doublets that are intentionally created in the Gospel of Matthew.” [14] Luz also identifies the text as coming from Q and that it’s found in it’s “Q form” in Luke 11:29-32, 24-26.  The demand for a sign by the Pharisees is missing in Luke but present in Mark and Matthew, so Luke probably removed the reference to Pharisees.  That the Q text is found for the most part in Luke is argued from the assumption that if the Christological text (Matt. 12:40)  found in Matthew had been present in Q, then Luke surely would not have eliminated it.  Therefore, it seems that Matthew has added the Christological text to the Q text.[15] This seems to be a reasonable conclusion.  Joseph Fitzmyer maintains the same conclusion, adding,

It is unlikely that Luke would have omitted it, if it had been there.  It is rather Matthew who has added it, allegorizing, as it were, a detail in the OT story about Jonah in hindsight-reflection on Jesus’ resurrection.[16]

Fitzmyer goes on to compare Luke and Matthew to determine in what sense was Jonah a sign.  He notes that many commentators agree that the sign is the person of Jonah and that for some this implies “Jonah as saved from the fish”. However, he argues that one is committing eisegesis when reading it to mean “Jonah as saved from the fish”.  He maintains that in the Lucan context, the sense is of Jonah and his preaching which caused the Ninevites to repent.  This sense is also present in Matthew, but with a second sense added “…in his reference to the resurrection by the allusion to the stay in the fish’s belly…”[17] Fitzmyer also does an excellent job of summarizing the book of Jonah and distills the message from it, the “sign” if you will, as “…the classic OT account of Yahweh’s universal salvific concern.”[18] Fitzmyer comments on Jeremias’ interpretation that the sign of Jonah must refer to the miraculous delivery from the belly of the fish by observing that Jeremias provides no citations in support of his contention that Jonah’s contemporaries understood it this way.[19]

Regardless of the way one answers the question “in what sense was Jonah a sign?”, the message is pretty clear.  Matthew has taken the text as found in Mark and Q and by reworking it, has made it a poignant allegory which illustrates the hardheartedness of those who reject Jesus as the Messiah.  The signs and wonders performed by Jesus were ignored by his generation, specifically the scribes and Pharisees.  They demanded more from him.  Matthew situates this account right after the healing of the man with a withered hand (12:9-14), and the curing of a blind, mute demoniac (12:22-31).  The Pharisees reacted by accusing Jesus of being in league with Satan (12:22-31) and began to figure out how to destroy him (12:9-14).  The parable of the tree and its fruit leads directly into the sign of Jonah, thus setting the stage for the double-condemnation leveled against the evil generation, represented by the scribes and Pharisees, who not only refused to repent after hearing Jesus preach and seeing all that he did, but were also audacious enough to demand a sign after seeing many signs.  You know the tree by the nature of its fruit.  The addition by Matthew of the three days and three nights analogy serves to hammer home the guilt of “this generation” because they refuse to believe in the resurrection, which is the ultimate refusal in the face of signs and wonders of who Jesus is.  Matthew employs his “doublet” style, wherein he repeats key sayings, incidents, and stories in order to emphasize his point,[20] and repeats this sign of Jonah incident in abbreviated form later in 16:1-4.  Here again, Matthew has ordered the text so that Jesus has just performed several miracles, “signs”, one after another: the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter,  a healing session of many people, the feeding of four thousand.  The demand for a sign from the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the response that no sign will be given except the sign of Jonah is repeated, but without any more additional elaboration as found in 12:38-42.  Following in 16:5-12, we also find Jesus warning his disciples against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (their teachings). This general tone which is repeated throughout Matthew is understandable within the context of the probable date of composition, (approximately 80 to 90 A.D.) since it would have been a time of intense polemic against “the Jews”.  The early Church was becoming more and more broken off from her Jewish roots and thus the opposition between those Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and those who didn’t was becoming more pronounced and even exaggerated by the addition of a growing number of Christians who were not Jews to begin with.  The tone itself definitely reflects the time of schism with Israel.  It’s also likely that the community it addressed was under persecution for there are many sayings that seem to be exhortations to faith and perseverance.[21]

III. Application

In our scripture reading for today, we have a clear vision of who the dummies are and who the bright ones.  Or, to be more precise, we have a clear idea of who has faith and who doesn’t.   The scribes and Pharisees are the blind ones and the people to whom Matthew is speaking, the believers, are the presumed people of faith.  Yet at the same time, we see Matthew again and again exhorting his readers, through the words of Jesus, to have faith and persevere.  We see that even the disciples struggled with a lack of faith and are constantly upbraided by Jesus for it.

Even after we take into account the fact that Matthew’s audience was going through a painful separation from their Jewish identity, thus we find a real harsh tone against the leaders of the Jews of the time, the scribes and Pharisees, we can still marvel at the struggle of faith that those closest to Jesus, those who walked with him and ate with him, apparently underwent.  In Matthew’s account, we are reminded that the greatest sign of all, the sign of the Son of Man, three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, is ours to behold.  The resurrection of Jesus exceeds the greatest sign of God’s wisdom in Solomon and the greatest sign of God’s mercy in the sign of Jonah, (who moped around because God repented of punishing the people of Nineveh after they repented in response to Jonah’s preaching so had to be reminded of how much God cares for his creatures), that the Jewish world had known up to that point.  Are we, too, like the scribes and Pharisees?  Do we still need more from Jesus than a simple resurrection?  Have we embraced this sign in its totality and let it penetrate into the deepest core of our very being?  Do we know how much mercy flows into us from God?  Does the resurrection belong up there on the list of things we believe because we are Christians, or is it indistinguishable from the very air that we breath and the water that we drink?  Is it the very source and ground of our life… or do we really need more?


Aland, Kurt, editor.  Synopsis of the Four Gospels.  New York: American Bible Society, 1985.

Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Davies, W.V., and Allison, Dale. International Critical Commentary, Matthew, Vol. I. Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1988.

Edwards, Richard. The Sign of Jonah. London: SCM Press LTD, 1971.

Fitzmyer, Joseph. The Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Garden City: Doubleday, 1985.

Jeremias, Joachim. “‘Iwvnaß”, entry in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III. Edited by Gerhard Kittel, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.

Luz, Ulrich. Matthew 1-7:   A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

________ . Matthew 8-20: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.

Regenstorf, Karl. “shmeion”, entry in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume VII. Edited by Gerhard Friedrich, trans. By Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971.


[1] W.V. Davies, and Dale Allison, International Critical Commentary, Matthew, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark LTD, 1988) 127-147.

[2] Ibid., 10-11.

[3] Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 172.

[4] All scripture quotes and references, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version, (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

[5] Karl Regenstorf, “shmeion”, entry in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume VII, edited by Gerhard Friedrich, trans. By Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971) 208-210.

[6] Ibid., 200-269

[7] Ibid., 202-204.

[8] Joachim Jeremias, “‘Iwvnaß”, entry in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III, edited by Gerhard Kittel, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968) 406-410.

[9] Ibid., 409

[10] Regenstorf, 233, note 229. (I think Richard Edwards, in The Sign of Jonah, (London: SCM Press LTD, 1971, page 15) misread Regenstorf here, unless the German text he was working from has been mistranslated in the English.

[11] Ibid, 233.

[12] Kurt Aland, editor, Synopsis of the Four Gospels, (New York: American Bible Society, 1985) 174-175.

[13] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 214.

[14] Ibid., 213.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), (Garden City: Doubleday, 1985) 931.

[17] Ibid., 933

[18] Ibid., 932

[19] Ibid., 935

[20] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007) 6-7.

[21] Ibid., 56