This is a journalistic dialogue with an article written by Timothy J. Stone at Zomba Theological College in Malawi. It fits in with my Bible-reading for this week, which is the Gospel of Matthew. Consider first the well-known storm story as told in Matthew if you haven’t read it, specifically 8:23-37.
To start, Stone has a funny quote about pre-modern interpretations.2Accessed June 6, 2017 Following the Church Fathers: An Intertextual Path from Psalm 107 to Isaiah, Jonah, and Matthew 8:23-27 Timothy J. Stone Zomba Theological College, Malawi
[Quoting Cassiodorus on Ps. 107] “Ships, as we have often said, denotes the Churches which sail over the stormy waters of this world on the wood of the cross…
Precritical interpretations of Scripture are often bewildering, appearing as though interpreters have performed a kind of calculus on the text, giving the final answer without recording each step in the equation, yielding results that are questionable at best, incomprehensible at worst. Many critical scholars tend to leave precritical interpretation behind—or ignore it completely, even as they demonstrate all the steps in their own equations but often leave theological insights aside.
Often we are left perplexed at how precritical interpreters thought. But I think Stone is on the right track in saying they might have a better method than seems at first glance.
He goes on in his article to try to duplicate the process, to link Matthew 8, the Jonah text, Isaiah, and Psalm 107 together.
At first glance this may seem like a random assortment, but really Isaiah, Jonah, and Psalm 107 were all probably written about the same time, clustered together and sharing many similarities among them.
The symbol of the sea will become quite important later on (English readers may note there is not usually ‘the sea’ in Psalm 107, but more on that below).
What is also important to remember, is unlike moderns, who fragment everything, trying to learn by reductionism, these people are reading Scripture far more as if it is one book.
This actually is a kind of ‘literal’ reading, meaning ‘literary’, but it is a different kind of literalism, that comes to different conclusions than we mean when we say ‘literally’. Literal refers to ‘literary interpretation’, and literature is influenced by where you think the beginning and endpoint is (Genesis-Revelation, rather than the modern emphasis, for example ‘beginning of Isaiah-end of Isaiah’).
Stone quotes Hans Frei, who says,
Hans Frei summarizes this tendency well: “Figural reading had been literalism extended to the whole story or the unitary canon containing it.”
Then Stone begins musing on Psalm 107 for a moment, that note about the sea.
The redeemed have been gathered from the “east and from the west, from the north, and from the sea The oddity of this last geographical indicator has long been observed”.(מי) -even though it is continually obscured by modern translations, which of ten render the direction “the south.”
So, North, East, West, ‘Sea?’ Why is ‘South’ left out. Well, if there is one thing we know, the sea is often a symbol…consider Augustine’s sign theory if you catch my allusion. Here are Psalm 107’s connections to Isaiah, though the ancients in his observation never linked the two together that tightly.
“the redeemed” in v. 2 (as a Qal passive participle) appears elsewhere only in Isa 35:9; 51:10; and 62:10. The redemption from earth’s four corners is similar to the geographical language of the return from exile envisioned in Isa 11:12; 41:9; 43:5-6; and 49:12 (here, “the sea” is one of the directions)
And here are connections to Jonah. We can see the theological milleu of the era of Isaiah, Psalm 107, and Jonah. They may not have been cross referencing each other directly…but it’s the theological community coming to this conclusion by guide of the Holy Spirit.
The meaning o f Jonah’s story defies pigeonholing, but there is a significant subtext in which Jonah symbolizes the nation in exile (cf. Jer 51:34). Like Israel, Jonah rejects God’s call, is judged to the point of death, longs to look again on the temple, and finally is delivered from Sheol’s depths to proclaim God’s prophetic word to a foreign city. This picture echoes much of Isaiah, but especially his vision of Israel as a “light to the nations.”…
…The many analogous episodes in Jonah function like a narrative kaleidoscope; with every turn, one reevaluates the text’s colors and hues.
The church’s historical Jesus and Jonah symbolism and the ‘sea symbolism’ is not energetically unfounded. Aquinas knows this. It’s in the Book of Matthew itself.
Jesus’ sleep (καθεύδω) in the storm reveals his exhaustion, but it may also be a symbolic image of death. In Matthew’s next chapter, an official asks Jesus to heal his dead daughter; when Jesus arrives, he informs the parents that she is not dead but asleep.
In a passage unique to Matthew, when Jesus dies on the cross, Matt 27:52 tells how the tombs were opened and many of the saints who had fallen asleep (κοιμάω) were raised (έγείρω). This has conceptual affinities with Dan 12:2, where waking from sleep is used as a metaphor for the resurrection (cf. John 11:12; Eph. 5:14).
The connection between death and sleep may be why Matthew, in contrast to Mark and Luke, emphasizes that the boat was covered by the waves. As Aquinas has observed, the image ofJesus asleep under the waters could symbolically preview his death.3pg. 52
This brings us to the final and most important clue in Matthew. Consistently, commentators mention how odd it is, in contrast to Mark and Luke, for Matthew to call the storm a “great earthquake” (σεισμός μέγας)…This leaves two other instances of the term that are unique to Matthew. The first is 27:54, where the centurion and those with him, seeing the “earthquake”and the other events at Jesus’ death, say, “Truly this man was God’s son.”
…The second is in Matt 28:2: Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew 28:2a says, “And be- hold, there was a great earthquake” (ιδού σεισμός έγένετο μέγας)—almost a verbatim echo of Matt 8:24: “and behold, there was a great earthquake” (ιδού σεισμός μέγας έγένετο). Matthew 28:2 is an unmistakable innertextual echo of Matt 8:24.4pg. 53