It is possible that the earliest “Resurrection” image was symbolic rather than literal.  Literal images showing the resurrection of Jesus — and actually depicting Jesus — came later.  In the catacombs are found a number of depictions of Jonah and the Sea Monster (later just called a “whale”).  They appear to have been used as images signifying resurrection from the dead.

That is not a surprising representation to find, because in the gospel called “of Matthew,” we find Jesus saying this (Matthew 12:38-40):

Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we want to see a sign from you.

But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Now interestingly, “Matthew” has made an addition to the text of “Mark” here.  In the parallel incident in the Gospel called “of Mark,” Jesus says by contrast that no sign at all would be given, and there is no “except” addendum (Mark 8:12):

And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and says, Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, There shall no sign be given to this generation.

So what the addition of Matthew has done is to transform the Markan “no sign” into a supposed prophecy — the “sign of Jonas” then signifying that just as Jonah/Jonas was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so the Son of Man — meaning Jesus himself — would be “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”  This of course refers to the burial of Jesus, which was then — in the biblical accounts — followed by his resurrection.

Now oddly enough, there is yet another parallel in Luke 11:29-30:

And when the people were gathered thick together, he began to say, This is an evil generation: they seek a sign; and there shall no sign be given it, but the sign of Jonas the prophet.

For as Jonas was a sign to the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.

Again, no mention of the chronologically impossible “three days and three nights” of Matthew, when applied to the time between the burial and resurrection of Jesus.  In “Luke,” Jonah himself — through his preaching, presumably — was a “sign to the Ninevites.”  This gives the saying a very different meaning:

“…for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here” (Luke 11:32).

Nonetheless, in early Christian art, when we see Jonah being expelled from the mouth of the sea creature after his “three days and three nights” inside the creature, we are seeing what is likely the first symbol of the Resurrection in Christian art — but applied not just to the resurrection of Jesus, but to that of the deceased Christian believer in general, as following the model of Jesus.

And by the way, I will leave aside here the disputes over how the “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” can or cannot be made to fit the Gospel accounts (which add up to Friday night, Saturday, and Saturday night) of when Jesus was buried and resurrected, and the various attempts made to adjust the matter.  Suffice it to say that the biblical chronology makes a literal “three days and three nights” impossible.



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