Is the Book of Jonah Historical?

Saint Augustine in the 5th century remarked that the story of Jonah was the “laughing stock of the pagans.”  Skepticism towards the book and the Bible as a whole continues to this day in even greater intensity.

John R. Sampey comments on the views that most modern “critical” scholars hold regarding the book of Jonah (critical scholars generally hold a much more skeptical view towards the Bible than others): 1

Most…since Kleinert (1868) and Bloch (1875) have regarded the Book of Jonah as a work of the imagination.  Some prefer to call it an allegory, others a parable, others a prose poem, others a didactic story, others a midrash, others a symbolic book… Radical critics boldly set aside the teaching of Jesus as erroneous. 2

Even some more conservative scholars like L. C. Allen today suggest that the book should not be read in a straightforward historical fashion but as a parable.  They argue that there are elements in the book that signal to us that the author intended the book to be read in some other way.

Tremper Longman and Raymond Dillard note that there is a level of vagueness in the world found in the story.  For example, Jonah is the only character in the text with an actual name.  Even the important “King of Nineveh” is left nameless; that alone is somewhat unusual given the fact that Nineveh was not a kingdom itself but only the capital city of the Assyrian empire. 3

Some of the book’s literary features too seem to imply a kind of fiction, the most famous being the “repentance of the animals” in chapter 3:7-8.  Some commentators also see the lack of oracles or prophesies like in other prophetic books as being evidence for this view.

The Historical View

Advocates of a historical view, however, find these elements not only possible, but reasonable when one assumes that God exists and takes the whole text seriously.  For example, the repentance of the animals can be explained by the fact that the Ninevites declared a fast and did not allow “man, beast, herd or flock taste a thing.”  The text says they even covered the animals in “sackcloth” (see verses 3:7-8) the traditional ancient symbol of repentance and mourning.  So the animals really did participate in the rituals of repentance.  And if you deny an animal water and food for a time the animals will wail and show signs of mourning just like a human.

Against the parabolic view, historicists will say that parables are usually short, simple and accompanied by an explanation.  Jonah is too lengthy to be a parable, has complexity at points, and lacks any explanation.

Other apologists will point out that this is not the only recorded incident of fish/whales swallowing humans.  Even John Calvin some 500 years ago mentions accounts of men being discovered in the stomachs of great fish with their whole suits of armor on 4.  See this article written by Probe Ministries for an interesting discussion on the possibilities.

But maybe the most powerful argument to a historical reading of the text is the fact that Jesus referred to Jonah, Nineveh, and the event of the fish in a historical way (see Matt. 12:39-40).  We know that Jonah was a historical figure who lived during the time of King Jeroboam II (see 2 Kings 14:23-27) and the language that Jesus uses in Matthew 12 seems to imply such as well (“this generation” vs. the generation of Jonah’s day).  It seems a bit of a stretch to say that one biblical context was historical and the other parabolic.

Conclusion

With Dillard and Longman I agree that it is hard to be dogmatic either way about the historicity of Jonah 5.  There are solid arguments on both sides of the debate.  Those who reject the historicity of Jonah out of hand simply because of the fish incident however need to provide ample reason for why they presuppose the impossibility of miracles, which also requires the proof that either there is no Creator God or that he has no interaction with the world he made.

But I do feel that it is a slippery slope for Christians to imply that it is not a historical book.  To do so seems to open the door to all sorts of debatable interpretations to other books of the Bible which provide essential theological pieces to the Christian worldview (specifically I’m thinking of Genesis 1 through 3).

 

  1. James Orr says this of critical scholars in the 1976 version of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “Criticism is more than a description of phenomena; it implies a process of sifting, testing, proving, sometimes with the result of establishing, often with that of modifying or reversing, traditional opinions.  Criticism goes wrong when used recklessly, or under the influence of some dominant theory or prepossession.  A chief cause of error in its application to the record of a supernatural revelation is the assumption that nothing supernatural can happen.  This is the vitiating element in much of the newer criticism both of the OT and of the NT” (p. 749)
  2. “The Book of Jonah,” in ISBE, 3:1729.
  3. Found in their An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 444.
  4. See Calvin’s Commentaries on Jonah chapter II.
  5. An Introduction, 445.
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