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Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Mysterious Creatures of the Bible: Jonah’s Great Fish and Saint Maximus the Confessor’s Interpretation

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The Mysterious Creatures of the Bible: Jonah’s Great Fish and Saint Maximus the Confessor’s Interpretation

The sign of Jonah

The confrontations of Our Lord Jesus Christ with the priests became all the more intense as His earthly life approached its end. After presenting Him as a dangerous sorcerer who performed exorcisms with the help of demons (Luke 11:15), they began to continuously tempt Him with questions designed to give his adversaries the opportunity to incriminate Him. Mockingly, they even asked Him for miracles: “Master, we would see a sign from thee.” (Matthew 12:38) However, knowing the hardness of their hearts, the Savior only offered them one sign: “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet.” (Matthew 12:39)

 

The Benedictine monk Saint Rabanus Maurus (c. 780–856) commented on the Savior’s response, showing that due to their unworthiness, they did not receive “a sign from heaven” but a sign “from the deep beneath.” The very words of the Savior indicate this: “For as Jonas was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40). In chapter 11 of the Gospel according to Luke, we find the “sign of Jonah” mentioned again (Luke 11:29). Following a similar interpretation to that of Rabanus, Saint Basil the Great (330–379) provides enlightening details:

“A sign is a thing brought openly to view, containing in itself the manifestation of something hidden, as the sign of Jonas represents the descent to hell, the ascension of Christ, and His resurrection from the dead. Hence it is added, ‘For as Jonas was a sign to the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.’ He gives them a sign, not from heaven, because they were unworthy to see it, but from the lowest depths of hell; a sign, namely, of His incarnation, not of His divinity; of His passion, not of His glorification.”

Beyond the details and teachings that we can glean from the mention of “the sign of Jonah,” we understand that the prophet represents an Old Testament figure with a very special, symbolic-allegorical significance, referring to the death, descent into hell, and resurrection of the Savior, Christ.

The identification of the giant fish that swallowed Jonah with a whale is first made in La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), a medieval text probably composed in the 11th century of the Christian era. Since then, in several Bible translations, the sea monster that swallowed Jonah is identified as a whale. However, the more ambiguous term “great fish” is preferred.

What was the great fish?

The story of Jonah is one of the most well-known in the entire Old Testament. This is undoubtedly due to the appearance of that fish which, at God’s command, swallowed Jonah. For three days and three nights, the prophet was in the belly of the giant creature. As a result of his fervent prayers, God would ultimately command the fish to “vomit” him onto the shore. In the verses from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke quoted in the first part of our article, we saw that Jesus Christ refers to the “sign of Jonah,” associating His own descent into hell with the swallowing and dwelling of the prophet for three days in the belly of the enormous creature. Although truly fascinating, this biblical episode has puzzled readers of all ages.

In the Greek text of the Septuagint, the words used to refer to the sea monster are “κήτει μεγάλῳ,” which can be translated as “a great fish.” Similarly, in St. Jerome’s Vulgate the words “piscem grandem” do not specify the species of the fish but rather emphasize its enormous size. The Greek noun “κῆτος” (ketos) on which the Septuagint translation is based can refer to any kind of giant sea monster in the oldest texts. Often, such monsters are described as giant sea serpents, while at other times, they seem to be creatures like whales. Therefore, it’s not surprising that from this Greek term, through the Latin language with its word “cetus,” the word “cetacean” emerged, referring to the category to which whales and dolphins belong.

The identification of the giant fish that swallowed Jonah with a whale is first made in La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), a medieval text probably composed in the 11th century of the Christian era. Since then, in several Bible translations, the sea monster that swallowed Jonah is identified as a whale. However, the more ambiguous term “great fish” is preferred.

Very interesting are the ancient iconographic representations of this biblical episode. In some of them, it is clear that the creature is actually identified as a serpentiform being, more precisely, a dragon. Furthermore, Saint Jerome mentions an ancient Jewish interpretation that–quoting verse 26 of Psalm 103 where it is said that God created a “sea dragon”–claims that this is the very monster created by God to swallow Jonah at the right moment.

It is certain that without invoking the supernatural power of the Creator, a purely naturalistic interpretation would raise serious problems. This does not mean that even today there are interpreters who try to prove that it is perfectly possible for a large fish to swallow a man. Without denying the value of such attempts, I will follow a different path. This is the interpretation suggested by Our Lord himself when he spoke of the “sign of Jonah.”

Clues for a valuable interpretation

God Himself desires that we read and meditate fervently on the sacred texts of the Bible. The main reason of this is connected to the fact that through these texts, the entire divine truth is shaping the minds of the readers who follow the rules of interpretation Tradition guided by the Holy Spirit. God is always the one who guides us towards a correct understanding. He even leaves certain clues within the texts themselves that can orient our understanding. For example, in the famous episode of the barren fig tree recounted in the Gospel according to Mark, an incredible detail is provided: Christ the Savior seeks fruits even though “it was not the time for figs” (Luke 11:13). What rational person would search for fruits out of season, when the trees cannot bear fruits? At first glance, the Savior’s action seems completely absurd. However, if we consider the fact that all these texts have the Logos Himself as their author, who does nothing by chance, then such an episode will immediately suggest that an interpretation is needed–an interpretation that has nothing to do with horticulture. God cursed the barren fig tree out of season precisely to draw our attention to much more important symbolic-allegorical meanings than any lesson about trees.

The ambiguity with which the biblical text has surrounded the monstrous sea creature that swallowed Jonah has its own very significant meaning. However, this meaning cannot be linked to any known animal, even if it is gigantic, as it refers to something that, though symbolized by a creature of great proportions, is of a profoundly different nature.

In the same vein, the ambiguity with which the biblical text has surrounded the monstrous sea creature that swallowed Jonah has its own very significant meaning. However, this meaning cannot be linked to any known animal, even if it is gigantic, as it refers to something that, though symbolized by a creature of great proportions, is of a profoundly different nature. We understand this from the extraordinary interpretation given to the entire story of the prophet Jonah by one of the most brilliant representatives of the spiritual-allegorical interpretation of the Bible: Saint Maximus the Confessor (580–662).

Saint Maximus the Confessor, the fall and the restoration of man

With the exception of Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c.335–c. 395), Saint Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098–1179), Saint Bonaventura (1221–1274), and Saint Gerard Sagredo (1000–1046), it is hardly possible to find interpreters of the Bible comparable to Saint Maximus. The breadth of his biblical commentaries and their mystical depths enchant us, inviting us to a humble silence filled with wonder. In one of the volumes where his responses to various questions about the meaning of biblical episodes were gathered, Quaestiones ad Thalassium (Questions Addressed to Thalassius), we find a lengthy commentary on the entire story of the prophet Jonah. The words of Saint Maxim are so laden with wisdom that I will let you enjoy reading and reflecting on a significant excerpt where he unveils the symbolic-allegorical significance of Jonah’s story.:

“The prophet Jonah, then, signifies Adam, that is, the common nature of human beings, and in himself he mystically figures our nature, which slipped away from the good things of God, as if from Joppa, and descended, as though into the sea, into the misery of this present life. Our nature, I say, which was submerged in the chaotic and roaring ocean of material attachments; which was swallowed by the whale, that intelligible and insatiable beast, the devil; and which was inundated by water on all sides, taking on, up to its very soul, the water of temptations to evil, so that human life was submerged in temptations; and which was encompassed by the final abyss, that is, imprisoned by the complete ignorance of the intellect, and overwhelmed by the great weight of evil pressing down on its power of reason. Our nature, whose head was sunk into the clefts of the mountains, that is, whose primary principle concerning faith, which is the head, as it were, of the whole body of virtues, was locked away, as if in the clefts of dark mountains, by the designs of evil powers, and divided into multiple opinions and false imaginings—for Scripture called ‘clefts of mountains’ the deceptive designs of the spirits of wickedness who lie somewhere in the depth of the final abyss of ignorance.”[i]

The entire history of humanity that followed the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in Paradise is described in terms that clarify, based on the divine Revelation, the true state of fallen human nature. What interests us here is the fact that the gigantic fish – κῆτος (ketos) – is symbolically interpreted by Saint Maxim as representing the devil, who “swallowed” the fallen human nature through the power of death. This interpretation is confirmed by the entire Christian Tradition.

Starting with the holy Sacrament of Baptism,[ii] in which exorcisms hold a very important place (the water and salt themselves being exorcised), everything confirms the reality of a true “submersion” of the world and humanity into evil, as suggested by Saint Jerome’s Vulgate where we read, in the first epistle of Saint John, that “the whole world is seated in wickedness.” (1 John 5:19) The original Greek text sounds a little bit different: “The whole world lies in the evil one.” Beyond the question of the accuracy of the translations of the Greek text, it is certain that it deals with the doctrine of the consequences of original sin. One of these consequences is the state of slavery of humanity to the devil,[iii]  who has created a true “empire of death.” (Hebrews 2:14) Saint Maximus sees in the entire history of Jonah a recapitulation that exposes essential truths about the fallen state of humanity–including the one about the slavery of sin and death.

The liberation came through the death on the cross of the Savior Christ–an event followed by His descent into the realm of eternal death, i.e. hell. It is extraordinary that in some old images from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, the burial of the Savior after His descent from the cross is painted in the same frame in which, on the side, the swallowing of Jonah by the gigantic monster is depicted.

IMAGE Jonah Christ

The visual analogy perfectly corresponds to the interpretation of Saint Maximus. For this is the true and deep meaning of the history of the prophet, indicated to us by Jesus Christ Himself in the Gospels where He speaks of the “sign of Jonah.” So, it’s not just the history of man’s fall but also the history of his restoration through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Savior Christ. A teaching that is the foundation of the virtue of Hope, in whose spirit–invoked by the words of Saint Maximus the Confessor–we conclude this article:

“For our Lord and God Himself became man and entered into the ocean of our life, as if descending into the sea of this life from the heaven of Joppa, which translated means ‘contemplation of joy,’ as Scripture says: ‘He is the one who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame.’ He even willingly descended into the ‘heart of the earth,’ where the Evil One had swallowed us through death and was keeping us prisoners; and when He snatched us away through the resurrection, He led up the whole of our captive nature to heaven. And He is truly our rest, and our healing, and our grace. Rest, because through His brief life He abolished the law of our dire slavery to the flesh. Healing, because through His resurrection He healed us from the wound of death and corruption. Grace, because through faith He distributes adoption in the Spirit of God the Father, and the grace of divinization to each who is worthy.”[iv]

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[i] Saint Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture. The Responses to Thalassios, Translated by Fr. Maximos Constas, Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021, p. 489.

[ii] When I speak about any of the Holy Sacraments I am always referring to their Traditional form, as described, for example, in the Roman Catechism (1566) based on the teachings of the Council of Trent (1545–1563).

[iii] Regarding this difficult theme we can read the monograph signed by the German theologian Ludwig Ott: Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Edited in English by James Canon Bastible, Translated by Patrick Lynch, Tan Books, 1960, p. 107.

[iv] Saint Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture. The Responses to Thalassios, pp. 491-492.

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Last modified on Thursday, October 12, 2023
Robert Lazu Kmita | Remnant Columnist, Romania

A Catholic father of seven and a grandfather of two, Robert Lazu Kmita is a writer with a PhD in Philosophy. His first novel, The Island without Seasons, was published by Os Justi Press in 2023.