Fact or fiction?

Is the book of Jonah historical narrative or fictional narrative?  Are we really expected to believe that a man was swallowed by a large fish, survived for three days, and was then spewed out alive?

Does it matter?

For some, the historicity of Jonah is closely tied in to the doctrine of inspiration.  Allen quotes F.A. Maloney:

If the book of Jonah is history, it is part of the evidence for the most important truth imaginable, namely that the Almighty God seeks to bring men to repentance and will pardon those who truly repent.  But if the book is not historical, then it is only the opinion of some singularly broadminded Jew that God ought to pardon even Gentiles if they truly repent.

But this polarisation between ‘historical = the infallible word of God’ and ‘fictional = the fallible opinion of man’ is simplistic and misleading.  It is patently true that God can and does inspire fiction as well as historiography as the case of the parables demonstrates.

Stuart (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets) suggests that the book would effectively convey its message regardless of whether it was regarded as historical or fictional.  After all, the parables of Jesus convey their truths without asking the hears and readers to ask, ‘Did this really happen?’.  Nevertheless, says Stuart, the historicity of the story of Jonah does have implications: people’s response is heightened when a story is regarded as true in practice and not merely true in theory.

Study of Jonah has been skewed because discussion of it as a story has commonly focused on whether it is historical or fictional/parabolic. But God likes both history and parable, as the Gospels show, and Jonah is inspired and authoritative either way. Telling the difference is actually really hard.  I do think that the prominence of irony and humor and hyperbole suggests that the Jonah scroll is an imaginative short story. But fortunately it’s not important whether Jonah is history or parable. The insight, importance, truthfulness, and reliability of Jonah are the same either way.

(John Goldingay)

The real questions have to do with genre of the book, and the internal and evidence pertaining to historical or fictional character.

Widder (Lexham Research Commentary) summarises the dilemma:

The main character is known from one of the historical books of the Bible (2 Kgs 14:25), and the locations mentioned in the story are all real places, suggesting the writer intended to ground the story in reality and was not fabricating a fantastic tale. On the other hand, the story is filled with absurdities, hyperbole, and irony that suggest the writer may not have intended the story to be taken fully at face value.

The conservative approach

According to Allen, most of the Church Fathers admitted the historicity of Jonah, even though they tended to use it symbolically.  Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) and Theophylact (11th century) were among the minority who doubted the historicity of the book.

In 1927 Ambrose John Wilson published a paper in the Princeton Theological Review entitled ‘The Sign of the Prophet Jonah and its Modern Confirmations’.  He mentions the case of a sailor who had been lost overboard, and was later found – alive- in the stomach of a large sperm whale.  This case is passed on, without critical comment, in Hard Sayings of the Bible.  But I have to say that the physiological claims made by Wilson (on behalf both of the whale and its dinner) are implausible.  (For example, he says that a sperm whale must have air in its stomach in order for it to achieve buoyancy, but any gas in its stomach would be methane, not air).  For more on this fishy tale, see here.

The historicity of Jonah continues to be maintained by a number of scholars.  Positively, such scholars point to Jon 1:1, where the author appears to be identified as an historical figure (cf. 2 Kings 14:25).  Negatively, it is suggested that nothing within the book is inconsistent with an historical understanding of the narrative.  Decisive for most conservatives is the teaching of Jesus:

It is clear from Mt 12:40-41 that Jesus himself regard the story of Jonah as historical; therefore it is denial of his authority for us to claim otherwise. ‘If one denies the facts of the story of Jonah, he (or she) must then assume ignorance or deception on the part of Jesus, who believed its authenticity. This would, in effect, destroy his claim to being God.

(McDowell, Answers to Tough Questions)

Frank Page (NAC) argues for the historicity of the narrative on the following grounds:

  1. ancient tradition regarded the book as historical
  2. its historicity has been regularly questioned by biblical scholars only since the 19th century.
  3. the opening verses are just what we would expect from a historical narrative
  4. Jesus appears to assume and affirm the historicity of the narrative in Mt 12:40f.

Geisler and Howe (When Critics Ask) suspect that the tendency to deny the historicity of Jonah arises from an anti-supernatural stance.

Archer (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties) defends the historicity of the Jonah story on the basis of Jesus’ teaching:

In speaking of His approaching death and resurrection, Jesus affirmed in Matthew 12:40: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (NIV). Apart from a theory-protecting bias, it is impossible to draw from this statement any other conclusion than that Jesus regarded the experience of Jonah as a type (or at the very least, a clear analogy) pointing to His own approaching experience between the hour of His death on the cross and His bodily resurrection from the tomb on Easter morning.

If the Resurrection was to be historically factual, and if it was to be antitypical of Jonah’s three-day sojourn in the stomach of the huge fish, then it follows that the type itself must have been historically factual — regardless of modern skepticism on this point.

The facticity of the Jonah narrative is further confirmed by Matthew 12:41: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (NIV) — namely, Jesus Himself. Jesus implies that the inhabitants of Nineveh actually did respond to Jonah’s stern warning and denunciation with self-abasing humility and fear — precisely as recorded in Jonah 3. Jesus declares that those raw, untaught pagans were less guilty before God than the Christ-rejecting Jews of His own generation. Such a judgment clearly presupposes that the Ninevites did precisely what Jonah says they did.

This means that Jesus did not take that book to be a mere piece of fiction or allegory, as some would-be Evangelicals have suggested. Adherence to such a view is tantamount to a rejection of Christ’s inerrancy and therefore of His deity.

Alexander (TOTC) puts the case for historicity in a more nuanced way.  He emphasises the didactic nature of the text, but maintains that the message ‘derives from actual historical events and that these form the basis of his account’.

Nick Cady underscores the ‘key literary device’ used in the Book of Jonah – satire:

The story of Jonah is a fantastical story about a rebellious prophet who runs away from his calling, then tries to kill himself and gets swallowed by a giant fish who transports him back to where he started and barfs him up on the beach. Then he walks into a large city, preaches the worst sermon ever, and the whole city repents – much to Jonah’s dismay.

If, for this reason, Jonah were to be understood as allegorical, then

Jonah represents Israel: a nation who has not shared the heart of God for lost people and has run away from their calling to be God’s light to the nations. The fish would represent Israel’s (at that present time: current) captivity, which would mean that the calling to go to Nineveh represents the implied proper behavior or response that Israel should have once their captivity is over.

Nevertheless, Cody adduces the following reasons why ‘most scholars’ consider Jonah to be historical and not allegorical:

  1. Jonah is a historical figure, 2 Kings 14:25
  2. There are specific historical and geographical details within the book that we would not expect to find in an allegorical story.  See Jonah 1:1-3; 3:2-10; 4:11.
  3. There is no strong evidence against its historical nature, providing we accept the possibility of miracles.  Given the nature of historical record-keeping, there is no reason for insisting that any secular account should have been retained of Nineveh’s repentance.
  4. Jesus spoke of the story as being historical, Mt 12:40f.

The case for non-historicity

As has been noted, a minority of early Christian writers doubted the historicity of Jonah.  According to Allen, Luther also view the story as non-historical.

Fretheim (Harper’s Bible Commentary), while noting that Jon 1:1 roots the book in history, suggests that the literary features (irony, satire, hyperbole, repetition, humour, and so on) indicate a nonhistorical purpose.  Others, finding a late Hebrew style and many Aramaisms in the text, postulate a post-exilic date for Jonah.

Achtemeier writes:

Arguments over the historicity of Jonah, especially as they center on the probability of the big fish swallowing Jonah, are…misguided. Like the parables of Jesus, the book of Jonah conveys its revelation of God in the form of a story. Brevard Childs has even described the story as “parable-like” (Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 421) while pointing out its differences from prophetic legend, midrash, and allegory (p. 422). I think it is quite sufficient, however, to term the book a “didactic story” as many commentators have done.

But does not our Lord’s teaching Mt 12:39-41 show that an historical understanding of Jonah is essential to an historical understanding of his resurrection?  The question is discussed in the 1st edition of ISBE:

G.A. Smith..necessity that, if the resurrection of Jesus was a physical fact, Jonah’s abode in the fish’s belly must also be just as historical. On this point also the saying, A greater than Jonah is here, holds good. But, on the other hand, how arbitrary it is to assert, with Reuss, that Jesus regarded Jonah’s history as a parable! On the contrary, Jesus saw in it a sign, a powerful evidence of the same Divine power which showed itself also in his dying in order to live again and triumph in the world. Whoever, therefore, feels the religious greatness of the book, and accepts as authoritative the attitude taken to its historical import by the Son of God himself, will be led to accept a great act of the God who brings down to Hades and brings up again, as an actual experience of Jonah in his flight from his Lord” (The Twelve Minor Prophets, 172, 3).

A number of recent scholars, including Allen, continue to support the point of view articulated by Smith.

Referring to the naming of Jonah in Jon 1:1 (cf. 2 Kings 14:25), some scholars think that this suggests an historical kernal to a story which has then been elaborated.  Others think that the link to an historical prophet is consistent with a non-historical understanding of the book as a whole.  Allen, for example, suggests that behind the parables of the Good Samaritan, of the pounds, and of Dives and Lazarus lie real historical events and persons: but the original hearers would nevertheless understood the parables themselves to be non-historical.