Is the book of Jonah historical narrative or fictional narrative?

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.

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.

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)

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’.

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.

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…holds the view that Jesus did not mean to teach the historicity of Jonah’s experience in the fish.

“Christ is using an illustration: it matters not whether that illustration be drawn from the realms of fact or of poetry” (BTP, II, 508). In a footnote Dr. Smith says: “Suppose we tell slothful people that theirs will be the fate of the man who buried his talent, is this to commit us to the belief that the personages of Christs parables actually existed? Or take the homiletic use of Shakespeare’s dramas as Macbeth did, or as Hamlet said. Does it commit us to the historical reality of Macbeth or Hamlet? Any preacher among us would resent being bound by such an inference. And if we resent this for ourselves, how chary we should be about seeking to bind our Lord by it.”

Notwithstanding Principal Smith’s skillful presentation of his case, we still think that our Lord regarded the miracles of the fish and the repentance of the Ninevites as actual events. Orelli puts the matter judiciously: “It is not, indeed, proved with conclusive 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.