Jonah and the Whale: Fact, or Fictional Fish Story?

I recently posted on the question, “Am I going to hell if I don’t believe Jonah was eaten by a fish?”

Our response to questions like these are very important because the credibility of the entire Bible is at stake.  It is not good enough to pick and choose the parts of the Bible you wish you to apply and the parts you don’t, nor is it good enough to fudge logic and tell people to believe things that don’t stack up rationally.  What follows is my summary of the article “The Historicity of the Book of Jonah” (p.1474) taken from the NIV Archaeological Study Bible.  I highly recommend this Bible as it provides much more contextual details than a standard study Bible and is refreshingly honest about various theories regarding the Bible’s historicity.

  • There is no question that Jonah was a historical person.  He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, which suggests he was one of the more nationalistic and militaristic prophets.
  • If it is pure fiction, its author could have used this prophet as a character because he wanted to make a point about divine compassion: God, in showing mercy to the Ninevites, humbled this angry, super-patriotic, prophet.

Arguments against reading Jonah as history:

  • Jonah 3:9 is similar to Joel 2:14, suggesting that Jonah was a late work, written long after the lifetime of this historical prophet.
  • The story of being swallowed by a “great fish” is too far-fetched to be believable.  Plus, a great fish/large whale would not normally have been found in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • The account lacks evidence of a real understanding of Nineveh and is history.  i.e. The author greatly exaggerated the city’s size in claiming it would take 3 days to cross it on foot (3:3)
  • There is no historical record that Nineveh experienced a mass revival or conversion

Responses to these arguments:

  • It is difficult to prove which Old Testament text is original when 2 books contain similar wording. No way in this case to determine whether Jonah or Joel was original or whether the authors of both were merely employing common language.
  • The story of the great fish is miraculous only in the sense that God supernaturally provided a whale to swallow Jonah.
  • The word for “belly” in Hebrew is imprecise and does not necessarily mean “stomach.” Jonah may have been in the oral cavity of a large-mouthed whale.  A whale, being a mammal, is a warm-blooded air breather that periodically resurfaces for air, so would have provided Jonah with oxygen, while its body heat would have prevented hypothermia.
  • Jonah was required to walk to every neighborhood and proclaim his warning, thus the longer than normal time it took.
  • The Ninevites’ repentance doesn’t indicate they became worshipers of God, but suggests they ritually asked God to spare them. Historically this was a short-lived event, unlikely to have shown up in the city’s records.

One theory is that Jonah was written after the exile to Babylon (Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah) as a fictional work to counter the nationalistic zeal of Ezra and Nehemiah.  The book presents pagans as ready to repent and portrays the Israelite prophet as disobedient, angry, and vengeful.

The other theory is that it is unnecessary to take it to be a (later) postexilic work or a critique of Ezra and Nehemiah. If Jonah was a nationalistic prophet (like Zedekiah in 1 Kings 22), the book would have already stood as a corrective to this misguided zeal for all prophets who came after him. (end of article summary)

Some look to Jesus’ reference to Jonah in Matthew 12:39-41 to be an open and shut case that the book Jonah was historical.  I think the argument can be made that if Jonah was written as historical fiction, where it was meant to teach godly lessons, Jesus’ conversation would still make sense since he was a Jew talking to a group of Jews.  He could have simply been referring to a story and lessons they all knew very well and to a character they knew very well.

Concluding questions for you to ponder and/or comment on below:

  • Does it matter either way if Jonah was written as a lesson-filled fictional story or as historical fact?  Does either answer make it more or less God’s word / authoritative eternal truth?
  • Is it important that a new Christian believes Jonah is historical fact?  What happens if they don’t?
  • What have you been taught about who wrote the book of Jonah, what year they wrote it, and for what purpose it was written? (And to what certainty we are that these things are spot on or not?) Do these things affect how we should read and apply the Bible in the 21st century?
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3 responses to Jonah and the Whale: Fact, or Fictional Fish Story?

  1. If a man were to survive in the oral cavity of any fish especially a sperm whale which dives. Very very deep to reach it’s natural food source of squid, the immediate pressure changes would have been enough to rupture Jonah’s sinus cavities. It’s also pretty unrealistic that he didn’t fall out of the animals mouth as it was chewing it’s food or that he wasn’t chewed up for that matter and slip into the digestive tract where he would have been suffocated. This is like the theory that there was a canopy of water surrounding the earth before the “huge flood” because water at that volume surrounding the earth would cause a pressure so great that the blood would boil and for enough water to be on earth to cover Mount Everest you would have to dump the amount of water that would fit the volume of the moon. So where’d all the water go?

  2. Jason A Schnur June 20, 2017 at 10:52 am

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, and I would understand if you choose to ignore my post, as I am nowhere near Lansing, MI and won’t be attending your church soon, but as an aspiring theologian who spends much time studying the Word, as well as words about the Word, I am confused. You lay out an ambivalent response to this question at best, and unless I am misreading, seem in the end to agree with those who don’t find the Book of Jonah factual. I especially read this from your defense of Jesus, claiming he could have been speaking to Jonah as factual, but not REALLY speaking to it as factual. Yet you’re the same person who wrote “Yes, I Believe the Entire Bible is God’s Inerrant Authoritative Word.” Something doesn’t jibe. Can you please clear up this mystery?
    This isn’t a “gotcha” post, I truly want to understand how you square a reading of Jonah as other than accurate with a belief in inerrancy. Thank you for your time and attention.

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