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Jonah and the whale as Christian symbolism

Spiritual rebirth / passing from death to life



Let us start with the topic of Jonah, generally, before moving on to symbolism in the Christian context. Philo of Alexandria gives us numerous examples of symbolism and allegory employed in the Hebrew Bible. For example, his interpretation of the tree of life in Genesis.
For no trees of life or of knowledge have ever at any previous time appeared upon the earth, nor is it likely that any will appear hereafter. But I rather conceive that Moses was speaking in an allegorical spirit.
On Creation, LVI (154). However, the Hebrew Bible also contains large amounts of history. How do we distinguish between statements of history and allegory? I generally look for the appearance of magic. The more fantastic and impossible the event, the greater the likelihood we find ourselves in the realm of allegory.

Jonah and the whale
It's rather obvious the story of Jonah is allegory. Jonah refused to follow the command of God and, while fleeing via sea, God sent a violent storm upon the ship. Jonah realized that the ship was doomed as God sent the storm due to his disobedience. Being a good sort, Jonah instructed the crew of the ship to throw him overboard in order to save the ship from God's wrath. Rather than drown in the sea, Jonah was swallowed by a whale or large fish. He resided in the whale for three days and nights before being spat out onto the shore, whereupon he undertook the mission given to him by God. What does it mean? The prayer Jonah uttered while inside the whale gives us a strong clue: "From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help." Jonah 2:1, emphasis added. This quote from Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld says it best:
The symbolism of three days and nights is also associated with the time it takes to travel to Sheol, the Netherworld; Jonah's descent into the fish can thus be viewed as a descent into a type of death. Furthermore, the belly of the fish directly parallels the womb of a mother. Jonah's emergence from the fish can then be seen as a type of rebirth. After traveling to Sheol, Jonah repents and is then resurrected. It is only after this rebirth that the narrative relates (3: 1), "The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time."
Link to the Rabbi's full sermon on Jonah. "Resurrection from the grave at sunrise of the third day is characteristic of many sun-gods whether the Egyptian Serapis, the Chaldean Bel, or the Greek Hercules, who like Jonah, lived three days in the belly of a great fish." Bruce Johnson article. Notice that Jonah never actually died in this resurrection or rebirth analogy, thus, we are dealing with a spiritual death and rebirth (aka the second birth).

Christian symbolism: rebirth and passing from death to life
I dislike use of the term "resurrection" when discussing rebirth in the Johannine sense. There is a fixation in the greater Christian community with bodily resurrection, which is either a myth or derived from a misunderstanding of Paulinian doctrine (depending on your point of view). Dr. Tabor nails the topic squarely in his essay, Why People are Confused about the earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead? What we now discuss under the topic of rebirth is purely a spiritual transformation.

If Jonah did not actually die and travel to Sheol (hell) while in the whale's belly, what does the belly of the whale symbolize? It represents spiritual death, meaning ignorance of your divine self. You overcome this spiritual death and become spiritually alive through knowledge of the word of God. "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word, and believes him who sent me * * * has passed out of death into life." Jn. 5:24. Jonah resided in death (spiritual ignorance) but passed to life (knowledge of God's word). See also "For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace." Romans 8:6; And, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren." 1 John 3:14 (i.e., we are spiritually alive when we act upon the word of God just as Jonah followed the direction of God after being spat out by the whale). The result of hearing the word of God and becoming spiritually alive by walking in accordance with his word is that one defeats death. "[W]hoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." John 4:14.

The so-called "Resurrection Tomb"
Simcha Jacobovici and Dr. Tabor led an excavation of a tomb very close to the Talpiot tomb (that Jacobovici and Tabor promote as the Jesus family tomb). A documentary on this event aired on Discovery Channel in April. Admittedly, I have not been a fan of the Jesus tomb theory mainly because the names found there were rather common Jewish names in the first century CE. The Resurrection Tomb is different in that Jacobovici and Tabor found it undisturbed. Apparently, no one had been in there for centuries thus ruling out modern tampering. Before excavation, they snaked a video camera into the tomb. This is what they found.


Dr. Tabor has taken considerable heat from the academic community for his assertion that the image on the front of the ossuary is in fact Jonah exiting the whale. See essay of Dr. Tabor replying to his critics. I admire his willingness to perform out-of-box research, report the findings as he honestly views them, and then take the heat from all sides. That requires stones. Here is a close-up of the panel on the ossuary containing what is thought to be Jonah and his whale.



I did notice one thing in particular from the video: it was the Jewish researchers who first identified the image as a fish, not Dr. Tabor. He jumped in with his Jonah theory after they had first identified it as a fish. One other telling symbol appears on the ossuary repeatedly: the Ichthys. To my knowledge, there is no Jewish, pre-Christian use of the Ichthys symbol. This symbol identifies this ossuary as that of an early Christian, which makes it historically significant on this point alone. Also, as Dr. Tabor has said, there are other examples of ancient Christians using the symbol of Jonah in burial tombs. See 3rd century, Rome, Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter (middle of page).

Let's assume the ossuary depicts Jonah and the whale. Does it signify anything of importance or is this just a symbol early Christians liked to put on their tombs? Applying the above analysis of the Jonah symbolism to its use on the ossuary, I conclude the Jonah image marks this ossuary as belonging to someone who spiritually passed from death to life. In my view, this symbol (assuming it is Jonah) means the individual inside the ossuary was a high initiate of the early Jerusalem Nazarene community. It's a major find regardless of any association to the actual family of Jesus (which I have a hard time accepting).

JJR
5-9-2012

Related Article--Let the dead bury the dead, A Gnostic Interpretation



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