Saturday, December 13, 2014

Jonah Adventures in Pre-Modernism

The book of Jonah is a pretty good case study in biblical reading paradigms. I use the term "pre-modern" reading of the Bible in reference to an ahistorical reading of the Bible that doesn't know it's ahistorical (as opposed to an ahistorical reading that is intentional).

1. For example, Jonah is not at all written in a way that would suggest that Jonah himself wrote it. It is all in the third person (he did this, he did that). It is about Jonah but written in a way that doesn't sound like it is Jonah himself telling the story (I did this, I did that). It has a prayer from Jonah in it, but this is quoted not given as the words of the author. Default paradigms for reading Scripture often can't see this because the paradigm doesn't read the way you would normally read something.

2. In the Gospels, Jesus talks about the Jonah story, but he doesn't ever say, "Jonah said." So the NT doesn't even present us with the question the Bible expert asks: "Is this way of referencing the OT a matter of paradigm or a divine indication of authorship?" Since the NT authors spoke in the categories of their day, I personally as a Bible expert do not think that comments in relation to OT authorship were the point of NT statements by Gospel authors and Jesus but rather some of the cultural clothing in which those points came.

3. Another point of paradigm shifting is to point out that when Jonah the prophet lived and when the book of Jonah was written are two completely different questions. So Jonah may have lived in the 700s, before Assyria (the empire of which Nineveh was the capital) destroyed the northern kingdom. But there is a very real possibility that the story of Jonah was not written until much later.

After all, I could write about Jonah even though he lived 2750 or so years ago. When the book was written is a completely different question than when Jonah lived.

4. In fact, my hunch is that Jonah was written long after even Assyria was decimated by the Babylonians. This makes its message even more powerful because the readers of Jonah knew that Assyria was an arch-enemy of Israel. God was willing to have mercy even on Nineveh! I think there are lots of very powerful messages that come out of this thought but I'll leave it at that.

5. Finally, and this is more a point of method, I usually emphasize that the literary context of Jonah is just the book of Jonah. The books of the OT were not bound together originally. Literary context gets a little complex when you think of some of the parts of the OT belonging together as units. Then there is the hypothetical literary context of sources and then the literary context of edited compilations.

But, as far as I know, Jonah was originally written as Jonah, not as part of a collection. So only the four chapters of Jonah are the literary context of Jonah.

If Jonah presupposes any of the other material in the OT, whether as books or as oral traditions, that is part of the historical context of Jonah. We cannot assume off hand that the author of Jonah knew the Pentateuch (or that Jonah did) or any other part of the OT. There are connections between 4:2 and other parts of the OT that are at least suggestive of connections, however.

Finally, the NT is neither part of the literary or historical context of Jonah. Nothing written after Jonah is part of the context of Jonah, at least not from an original meaning perspective. That material didn't exist for the author of Jonah to draw on.

1 comment:

Susan Moore said...

Even though Jonah was written before the arrival of the incarnate Son of God, what's amazing to me is that the author still got this right: "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord."
And when he repented and stopped rebelling, he was saved.