Is Jonah Historical?

It appears that Justin Taylor has weighed in whether or not Jonah was historical. That is, that the man Jonah was physically (let’s not use the word “literally” because that might be the issue at hand) in the belly of a big fish for three days. The reason this post argues this to be a historical event is because Jesus said so.

What do you think of the Jonah account? Historical or not?

Here are the crucial paragraphs from TGC post:

It seems to me that the judgment of T. T. Perowne, written over 100 years ago, still stands up:

Is it possible to understand a reference like this on the non-historic theory of the book of Jonah?

The future Judge is speaking words of solemn warning to those who shall hereafter stand convicted at his bar.

Intensely real he would make the scene in anticipation to them, as it was real, as if then present, to himself.

And yet we are to suppose him to say that imaginary persons who at the imaginary preaching of an imaginary prophet repented in imagination, shall rise up in that day and condemn the actual impenitence of those his actual hearers.

—T. T. Perowne, Obadiah and Jonah (Cambridge, 1894), p. 51. My emphasis.

The words of Jesus are these: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).

First, I want to ask this: Why in the world are we asking this question?

Second, a “plain reading” of this text surely suggests that Jonah, a prophet, was in the belly of a whale for three days. Plain readings are to be taken seriously, but what is “plain” to some may not have been “plain” to others.

Third, everyone knows that there’s not a shred of evidence that the Ninevites ever repented like this, but as far as I’m concerned, what kind of evidence would survive is not altogether clear. The absence of evidence, in other words, is not of that much value.

But, but, but… medical and physical evidence would surely suggest that this is more than a little difficult. It would have to be a very big fish and a lot of acid after all to break down all that stuff and, well, this is probably possible but it begins to border on snakes talking, don’t you think? And belched up onto the “land” could sound like the return from Babylon… and on and on.

Fifth, just what is Jesus saying? No one can deny that I can say today “As the Stone Table cracked and the Lion came back to life, and the Lion is now roaring again, so also we will be raised from the dead” … and no one will either doubt the truth of my claim to the resurrection of Christ, our resurrection, and not think there was a real Stone Table. So, let’s think about this: Do Jesus’ words necessitate that Jonah was in the belly of a whale?

1. We could argue Yes. Jesus said it; it’s the plain reading of the text; Jesus wasn’t wrong; therefore Yes, Jonah was in the belly of a whale. Some would then say “Who cares about actual evidence for ability to exist in a big fish?” or even suggest the fish itself was a miracle so we’ve got miracles inside miracles.

2. We could argue No, and we could argue that Jesus may well have — like other 1st Century Jews — thought there really was a Jonah who got stuck in the belly of a whale. But that’s because, in the ways of God, God accommodated himself to the ways of 1st Century people in the Incarnation and Jesus partook of the limits of knowledge of that time. Some people get nervous about this, but what does Incarnation mean if it doesn’t mean particular world and limitations?

3. We could argue No, and we could say that Jesus knew full well — he was deity after all — that there was no real prophet in a real big fish but that Jesus was speaking figuratively (as I did above about the Stone Table and Aslan) and he knew it and some of his listeners, maybe most, maybe all, knew this too.

Perowne’s paragraphs 3 and 4 are special pleading. The evidence for any kind of interpretation is not the sort that is compelling enough to require a particular interpretation. The Book of Jonah is — read the thing and think of its depiction of Jonah — a satire on the prophets. The book is also comedic, and the careful reader comes away thinking that there must be prophets who are hearing from God and are not responding to the call of Israel to be a blessing to the nations, and when God does act they grumble and groan — and they look so pathetic.

I quote Stu Briscoe, as I remember his saying this in a Trinity chapel years ago: Too many today are worried about Jonah’s whale and not worried about Jonah’s God! And I’d add this: There are plenty today who think they’ve got Jonah right and don’t recognize that they are more like Jonah than they know. [If you think I'm saying this about Justin Taylor, I'm not.]

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://firstthings.com Joe Carter

    and Jesus partook of the limits of knowledge of that time.

    If this is the case, then how are we to decide when Jesus was speaking with the knowledge of God and when he was limited by the knowledge of a 1st century Jew. What sort of hermeneutic do we use to distinguish between, “Jesus knows what he’s talking about on Point X” and “Jesus didn’t know any better about Point Y because he was limited by the knowledge of that time”?

  • SeanR.

    Man, the differences between JT and SM grow larger each day. I should start a file.

  • Paul W

    @1 Joe

    Are you serious? Sounds like you may have seriously misconstrued what Scot wrote.

  • Stephen W

    Actually Paul, Joe does have a point. One you could also apply to the whole “Is this scripture a timeless truth or culturally conditioned” debate. And I think from scripture alone there’s no way of knowing (in either case).

    The question I’d ask is, “how much does it really matter”? Does it make a big difference to how we live whether we understand Jonah’s story to be ‘literal’ (sorry Scot) or not?

  • AT

    One of the challenges that I have with this and also one of the reasons I still cling to some sense of a literal Adam, is the genealogies and personal details that are listed throughout scripture in both of these instances. The OT is grounded in real people and real places. I understand that some genealogies were written for particular purposes but I don’t understand how they could just be ‘made up’ without any grounding in real people. I am open to learn more about this if there is any interesting literature on the historicity and conventions of genealogies written within ANE culture. I don’t understand why the author would have written in family details if this story didn’t have some grounding in literal history. For me (and I acknowledge that I’m no expert) the narratives of the OT appear to be grounded within real history but written with the generic conventions of telling that history e.g. use of the number ’40′ and other symbolic features. The difficulty for my modern-orientated mind is to define what can be categorised as literal history and what is symbolic within this story? What do you think?

  • AT

    Sorry for the word ‘literal’ in the last post but I couldn’t find a way around it. Please understand that I’m not advocating a flat literalism. Also for me the question of real people, real places, real encounters with God within a real history is an important part of this discussion.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    I would lean toward doubting it is, though not wanting to voice that to my friends. But I think your point is excellent, Scot. Perhaps the question itself misses the point. The point of Jonah. As long as we get that and hold to it, I’m not sure the historical part matters.

  • Paul W

    @4 Stephen

    Perhaps your right.

    I just don’t see anything in what Scot wrote that would lead me to conclude that he was suggesting an option in which Jesus is depicted as having had two distinct or segregated sets of knowlege. Even less so did I see anything implying that one would then need to choose which set was at work in any given statement. Scot can obviously speak for himself as to his intentions.

    As to whether it matters if the Jonah story depicts historical events/actions, I guess that would depend. The natural follow up question, ‘matter for what?’ would be relevant to how one would answer.

    Personally, I can’t imagine (given the way I normally read/use Scripture) how it would matter in the least if the Jonah story were recounting events that occurred in time/space or not.

  • http://bramboniusinenglish.wordpress.com brambonius

    The Narnia analogy nails it I think. (also for other discussions like this)

  • Paul W

    Opps.

    Redaction: Personally, I can’t imagine (given the way I normally read/use Scripture) how it would matter in the least “to me” . . .

  • Daniel An

    How about Book of Job? Isn’t that written in a fictional form? Or should we think that Job really existed because James refers to it?

  • Vasile Tomoiaga

    There aren’t too many ravens bringing bread and meat to feed a loneley fugitive prophet, but Scripture testifies there were once.

    There aren’t too many donkeys speaking now to stubborn men but once it was one.

    We read “Now the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” (NIV).

    I see that the fish was not wandering by himself and decide to swallow Jonah, but it was sent by God. There are moments in history for those taking seriousely miracles where laws that normally operate are suspended, changed, reversed with a precise purpose.

    If God “provided” a “fish” would it have been a great trouble for Yahweh to further sustain the prophet live inside?

    Isn’t one of God’s job description to do some tricks here and there?

  • Michael J. Teston

    Ah, the “Trickster” God. Hmmmmmm? And the notion, when was Jesus operating out of just plain old Jesus, the human being or when was he speaking as deity. That’s another Hmmmm? Given the apostle Paul suggesting that he “emptied” himself of all the God stuff and operated like a human, one of us, a servant. I suggest that Jesus had the same challenges we do. That is everyday constantly aligning himself with the Father’s will and purpose. He didn’t hit a God switch. And yeah, I’ve heard for years about what Jesus “knew” was in man/humanity. And so do I. I’ve been in a room paying enough attention to my surroundings to know when people are gunning for me and when they are authentic. I pay enough attention to know that the “woman” who sits in the front seat in church (woman at the well) has serious relational issues. See what makes Jesus authentically human, as opposed to many of us, is his humanity is throttled up to his Father’s creative intent. Often our humanity functions at a much lower level. All that to say, I’m not sure literally, figuratively or something else is going on and it really doesn’t matter when we’re again, paying attention.

  • SteveM

    @8paul: the last line reminds me of Francis Schaeffer’s Genensis in Space and Time…which makes similar comments about the differentiation of man as a clear point of our origins, not the exact “out of clay” means by which God accomplished creation.

    While 3 days in the belly of a large fish could be a “Narnia” like reference to Christ’s non-fictional death/resurrection, the city fo Ninevah and the Queen of Sheba are understood as non-fictional characters. It is an interesting mix of fact and mythology if we do not accept the veracity of the Jonah story.

    Are there other examples from the 1st century wherein fact and fiction are similarly intertwined?

  • T

    Why are we asking this question? We’re asking it because miracles are hard to believe for most everyone, and especially those formed by western culture.

  • http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/ Justin Taylor

    Thanks for the interaction, Scot.

    Just a couple of quick comments:

    First, I don’t think it’s sufficient to point to the satirical and comedic intention of the book, since that’s certainly compatible with its historicity. I think one must wrestle with the genre indicators, like the historical and geographical details (1:1–3; 3:2–10; 4:11; cf. Kings 14:25). Like the Elijah and Elisha narratives, it bears all the marks of prophetic narratives. The burden of proof, it seems to me, would be on someone who wants to argue that this was intended and understood parabolically or allegorically.

    John Wenham’s point seems valid and nuanced to me: “It might not be impossible to consider [Jesus'] illustration take from a folk tale, yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this and several other passages are deprived of force if their historical basis is removed.”

  • RJS

    Jonah is a story that I don’t get too worked up about – I just don’t think it matters one bit if it is historical event or a story carrying truth (the way the parables of Jesus are) or some mix of these. If it is a historical event the big fish and the worm are specific acts of God to serve his purpose not capricious interventions. If it is more akin to a parable this changes nothing in the impact of the story or the truth of the ways in which the story is used in the NT.

    The argument that Jesus used the story to make a point therefore we must interpret it as a literal event carries no weight at all with me. I think that making that argument is a misunderstanding of incarnation, the nature of revelation in scripture, and the nature of human discourse and interaction.

    If someone doesn’t believe that it is history (and I lean this way) – fine, lets talk about Jonah’s God and Jesus’s points.

    If someone does believe that it is history – fine, lets talk about Jonah’s God and Jesus’s points.

    But I think that this post is a very important one – because we need to be able to talk about these issues.

  • AT

    Vasile Tomoiaga
    From your post I have an interesting side point.
    Within the narrative of Jonah in ‘Jonah’ and from references in the ‘Psalms’(e.g. Psalm 18), was Jonah actually sustained alive inside the fish or did he die there and get resurrected. I mean Sheol is mentioned in the different references and the imagery seems to convey drowning. I’m not completely sure from the text but it is interesting and links in with the ‘sign of Jonah’ if he did die in the narrative.

  • Scot McKnight

    Justin, thanks. (I can never tell who writes what at TGC’s blog.)

    I agree that the satirical and comedic dimensions don’t yield a conclusion on this matter, though it might give us the rhetorical context in which the whole is read, and therefore as long as that intent is held to one could sustain either historical or fictional readings.

    On the burden of proof — I suspect many would simply say “people don’t live in fishes three days” or “there aren’t fishes that big” and that immediately would yield for such persons a view that the book is not intended as history.

    On your Wenham point: it’s the same as Perowne — an argument from assertion and simply a claim. It makes no logical sense to me to say deprived of force; I disagree: the points aren’t deprived of force with me and I’m not convinced Jonah was in a real fish. I’m open to being convinced, but that type of logic — it’s the logic of intuition — doesn’t cut it. The logic works only if one is already convinced.

    One of my points is that evidence isn’t clear enough to get dogmatic, which is what Perowne does, so I think we need to be willing to be flexible.

    I take your point about historical stuff in the text, but mixing history and story/fiction isn’t an issue at all as the Jewish romance legends do that. Still, that has to be considered.

  • gingoro

    Maybe “belly of the whale” was an expression or figure of speech meaning that Jonah was tossed about in the sea for a period of time and then managed to get ashore, spit up on the beach so to say. I suspect this explanation has been well explored in the past.

    I grew up in East Africa speaking Amharic, a Semitic language, fluently. Years later in Canada, a refuge was telling me that the revolutionary communistic government gave his brother a bullet to drink. At first he used english words and I was slow on the uptake and did not understand what he was saying. However, the moment her said it in Amharic I knew exactly what he meant which was that his brother was killed by a bullet to the head. If it was that easy for someone who grew up in the culture to not understand the figure of speech, how much easier is it for us removed by thousands of years plus the product of a different culture to miss understand an ancient figure of speech?

    My position on whether Jonah was a real person is agnostic but I would not rule it out.
    Dave W

  • Jim

    It is funny how often it is said in some form or another that people won’t be too bothered if it isn’t historical, and that said as some sort of reasoning, even evidence it may not be. It is funny, because it is so thoroughly irrelevant to any search for truth or understanding, because it only informs of each other, not the text.

  • Albion

    I just don’t think it matters one bit if it is historical event or a story carrying truth (the way the parables of Jesus are) or some mix of these.

    It does to the TGC crowd. One of the commenters on JT’s blog makes the need for historicity plain: “Can someone deny the historicity of Jonah and still claim they are an honest inerrantist?” And if you’re not an honest inerrantist, then how can you possibly be a follower of Jesus?

    Scot points out the hermeneutical issues about how to understand Jesus (omniscient or limited). So when Jesus is on the cross and asks God “Why have you forsaken me?” we can safely assume he didn’t know what he was doing on that cross if you take the omniscient view.

    Inerrancy is only important if you think that grace cannot be grace without a perfect bible. Which is absurd.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    Another option is that there was a historical Jonah upon which this story is based but that the story itself is not a reporting of historical events, but a folk tale based on the historical character. To argue that this must be a completely historical account of events that actually happened is to revisit the fundamentalist/modernist debates and to deny all that we have learned about the literary nature of the Bible and narrative theology. As Scot ably demonstrated from the Narnia reference, “fiction” can communicate truth as well and historical characters can reference fiction as illustrative of actual events without any loss of credibility.

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    Sometimes you get to funny alternatives just by asking the wrong question. And in this case I would like to claim that it is simpy an anachronism by construction.

    Whatever Jesus knew or didn’t know he knew (or didn’t know) some 16 centuries or so before our notion / definition of history / historicity was even developed. Of course, the word “historia” exised even in the ancient world, but it should be clear that before Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Runge, Herder and a couple of other bright minds, “history” simply wasn’t what it is for us today.

    And, after all, what is “historic”?

    “what really happened”
    oh, well, not very satisfactory (I am not going into the discussion what one would mean by “real/reality/really”…)
    But then, I brushed my teeth this morning (it really happend!), but that is hardly a “historic event”

    “what really happend and involved important people”
    not too good, either
    Whether or not Hitler brushed his teeth on a particular day can hardly count as a “historic” datum (even if it really happened).

    “what really happened to important people and was of consequence”
    like “Napoleon died on the 5 May 1821″
    better.

    But really what we need to ask for is all of the above PLUS:
    something that is well (and independently) documented.
    Because, how else are we to assess the first condition (that it really happened)…

    And so in that sense, even though probably many biblical accounts have got some kind of historical core, only few would qualify as “historical” in the sense of “well documented by (independent) historic sources”…

    I think, for the last couple of hundred years we have been contitioned to think “true” can be only what is either “scientifically proven” or “historically documented”. As if “science” and “history” were the only two modes of “truth” that can possibly exist. That is, I think, where the core problem lies.

  • DRT

    ISTM that the burden of proof would have to be on the one claiming supernatural events and not the one claiming allegory. that only maks sense.

  • http://www.brianzahnd.com Brian Zahnd

    Poor, poor modern man with his impoverished imagination, asking all the wrong questions from the sacred text. What matters is the story itself, not the historicity. It’s The Discovery Channel method of interpretation…where nothing that matters is discovered. e.g. The serpent in Eden — what matters isn’t whether snakes can talk, but what the thing said!

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    One reason I am no longer an inerrantist is that it seems to require that I believe God cannot tell stories; he must communicate by reporting historical events. In my view that makes him less of a communicator and turns Christians into the kind of “Just the facts, ma’am” people many of us have become — without any sense of poetry, wonder, or imagination.

  • http://disorietedtheology.wordpress.com Paul A.

    Moruti #24 beat me to the punch, but we need to recognize that we are engaging in anachronistic thinking when we try to ascribe 21st century notions of fact and accuracy to first century rhetoric.

    There are a number of things that work against the historicity of Jonah, some of which Scot mentions. They are not in of themselves proof, but they do present a strong circumstantial case against which I haven’t seen strong rebutting evidence.

    Not only does the story work best as a satire of the prophets, but also as a critique of the prevailing postexilic tendency to ostracize the Gentiles (its nascent stages shown vividly in Ezra and Nehemiah). Read the vignettes about the sailors on the boat with Jonah deciding to worship his God, or the Assyrians converting with sackcloth and ashes – including the cows! Surely *that’s* not considered historically accurate, too, right? – and contrast with the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah’s campaign to revoke the rights of the mixed-race Persian-Jewish residents already living near Jerusalem when they returned from Susa. There is a conversation happening within these stories that transcends modern-day notions of historicity. We are seeing a people debating how best to rebuild and preserve their faith traditions in an often hostile, misunderstanding world. I think we could probably learn a lot more by listening to what they say than spending our time trying to prove the unprovable.

    Further, the quest to support the historicity of Jonah, in my opinion, must undercut the historicity of Joshua, in which God doesn’t send a prophet but a warrior to the unbelieving residents of nearby pagan cities. The Assyrians by all historical evidence were far worse morally than the Canaanites, and their system of exile and repatriation did far more damage to the racial and religious purity of the Israelites than did the coexistence with the Canaanite clans in Palestinian hill country.

    All that to say, the use of historical locations and settings for non-historical stories is not altogether troubling to me. If you need to believe in the historicity of Jonah, be my guest. There are far more disturbing passages about which to make that claim, and I’d rather fight over them because they are, to me, incompatible with the notion of a good and loving God.

  • JoanieD

    I think Jesus could refer to Jonah in the same way I may refer to Pinocchio. If someone was lying, I may say, “Remember Pinocchio!” Someone who knew the story would know what I mean, but they wouldn’t think that I had to believe that Pinocchio really existed to get my point across

  • phil_style

    @Paul A, #28. I wish there was a “like” button.

  • Danny Sims

    This, no matter your view on Jonah, is an example of why we love Scot McKnight. This is a genius piece of writing.

    As for the question… The answer lies not with the whale but with Jonah. Perhaps he was a wee small man and could fit nicely in a large fish…

  • Amos Paul

    “Do Jesus’ words necessitate that Jonah was in the belly of a whale?”

    Absolutely not, most foremost becuase Scripture never mentions a whale. Just a big fish! And prior to our modern, biological categorizations… at that. So who knows what could have ‘really’ swallowed it up.

    But, in any case, Jesus moreover didn’t really validate many of the *details* in ‘Jonah’. What he did seem to validate was that there was someone named Jonah and, moreover, appeared to claim *special knowledge* about the eternal status of the Ninevites.

    I tend to believe Christ on this. I like to think that this was one of his Scriptural proof points that God had always been reaching out in relationship with Gentiles who were not his ‘eternal people’ all along–so that the Jews who saw a God of the Jews for the Jews were sorely mistaken.

    Furthermore, while there is certainly no reason that the details of ‘Jonah’ *must* be historical, I take it to be more historical than not. I don’t see any reason not to. As T said, modern people have a big problem believing in the supernatural alongside and within the natural. I don’t. So it’s no big.

  • AHH

    Certainly another data point must be the apparent literary genre of Jonah. There is hyperbole in the text, like the city taking several days to walk across (it was not nearly that big) and the totality of the repentence where I believe OT scholars say the text has even animals doing the sackcloth and ashes thing. Not to mention a fish swimming from the Mediterranean many thousands of miles to the coast near Ninevah (no Suez Canal back then!) in 3 days. Without the NT references, I think seeing this as parabolic would not be an issue.

    With regard to the NT mentions, Scot’s invocation of Narnia stories is good, but not a perfect analogy since those stories are not Scripture. I prefer the example of a preacher saying “We should love our neighbor like the Good Samaritan did.” The force of the allusion to a familiar story is not diminished by the figurative nature of the story.

    And, of course, one can have similar arguments (though there are differences) about Paul’s uses of the OT “Adam” story.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    My worldview and my theology allow for miracles. So when I read in the Word (which I take to be divinely inspired, something miraculous in itself) that God “prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah” and after three days “The LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land,” I have no more trouble believing that then when I read, “And the LORD God prepared a plant made it come up over Jonah” (4:6), or, “God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered” (4:7), or, “God prepare a vehement east wind” (4:8). Or that God raised Jesus from the dead.

    The point of the book of Jonah, of course, is not about the great fish, or the plant, or the worm, or the east wind — these were merely things God used to bring Jonah to a particular point in his understanding — the point is more about God’ great mercy, even toward a sinful, pagan nation like Nineveh.

    I take it all as something that actually happened. I think that is how the writer intended it and I think that is how Jesus took it. Miraculous? Sure. And Jesus was using the the example Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish to speak of His own coming and miraculous resurrection.

    If one wishes to say that the book of Jonah, with its miraculous elements, was intended as allegory, I think the burden of proof is one them. Likewise, I think the burden of proof is on whoever might wish to say the Gospel accounts of healings and other miracles, including the resurrection, were intended as nothing more than allegory.

  • http://www.deinde.org Danny Zacharias

    I don’t think the problem is that we question because we doubt the supernatural.

    The problem, rather, is that we need to assume a whole bunch of the text of Jonah if it is literal. Aren’t we reading into the text a whole if we assume it is historical?

    Another issue is the verse right before, Mt 12:40. Should we take this really literally too? He wasn’t in the ground for three nights.

  • DLS

    Can I get a list of which biblical supernatural events are okay to believe and which aren’t?

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Danny Zacharias #35, what do you suppose we have to read into the text if we assume it is historical?

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    AHH #33, I don’t think the presence of hyperbole, or other figures of speech, in a text indicates that the text is therefore not about an historical event. If a man comes in soaked and exclaims, “Man! It’s raining cats and dogs out there,” I don’t think the presence of that metaphor means he must therefore not be actually talking about how hard the rain is coming down.

  • Chris

    Jonah has always seemed to me to be classic black comedy. Jonah, the larger than life prophet of God, is the only one in the story who actually resists God. As a result, he finds himself continuously placed in darkly humorous situations. The story even ends on a dark note as black comedy tends to do. While there is little doubt that Jonah himself is real, I think the story itself may or may not be, and it really doesn’t matter either way.

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    “Poor, poor modern man with his impoverished imagination, asking all the wrong questions from the sacred text.”

    Brian, if you think this is what I wanted to say: it is not. We live in a world that is so different from the world(s) of the bible: not just that we use cars and planes instead of donkey. We also use (very) different epistemologies.
    But: “different” is neither “wrong”, nor “better” or “worse” – just different. And since we cannot turn the clock back, we have to live first of all in our own world. But at least to some degree we can try to understand, why stories were told and texts were compiled and witten “back then”… But we should do so with discernment, aware of the anacronistic setup…

  • Cliff

    If it doesn’t matter if Jonah is historical or not (because the real point is the message of the book), then why doesn’t that apply to the resurrection as well? Isn’t this a classic liberal theological formulation, that it really doesn’t matter if Jesus physically rose from the dead–what matters is the faith Jesus inspired in his followers? I think Paul addresses this in 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (v.14)

    I actually think there are some textual reasons to support taking Jonah as a parable, but also some good textual reasons to read it as (miraculous) history. What concerns me is embarrassment and condescension that occurs with our modern (and post-modern, and emergent, etc.) minds towards “non-respectable,” (anything that isn’t just a speeding up of a natural process, like healing) dramatic miracles. When we say “we could argue that Jesus may well have — like other 1st Century Jews — thought there really was a Jonah who got stuck in the belly of a whale,” we can acknowledge that science really has come a long way in understanding the natural world. But we could also be saying these kinds of miracles just don’t happen…ever.

    If we have problems believing God can intervene in miraculous ways to ensure a man would be swallowed and kept alive for three days in the belly of a great fish, then I would say it’s even more unbelievable to read later on (spoiler alert here!) that a man executed by crucifixion would rise from the dead three days later.

  • DLS

    “If we have problems believing God can intervene in miraculous ways to ensure a man would be swallowed and kept alive for three days in the belly of a great fish, then I would say it’s even more unbelievable to read later on (spoiler alert here!) that a man executed by crucifixion would rise from the dead three days later.

    - Correct. A point which I alluded to above at 36. People who believe in the virgin birth and resurrection are science-haters.

  • Scot McKnight

    Cliff, these are not the same level of claims. Suggesting so diminishes resurrection (is it not more important than Jonah being in a fish’s belly?).

    It can’t be said that this view has to be assigned to the desire for intellectual respectability, even though we ought to value mind as something God has given us and to use it as rigorously as we can – to God’s glory.

    Nor does such a view diminish miracles. Jonah’s a one-off case not a generalized summary. If someone says,Miracles don’t occur therefore Jonah is fiction, that would apply. But if someone says God does at times do miracles, but this isn’t likely to be one… completely different.

    The slippery slope argument looms in your comment, no?

  • Kevin DeYoung

    Forgive me if this point was already made. I only had time to quickly skim the comments. But it seems to me the Narnia analogy only works if we can also conclude that “the men of Narnia will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it.”

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Scot, when God prepared a plant, a worm and a vehement east wind, in Jonah 4, would you consider that a miracle? Historical?

    What if the book of Jonah included all the above but left out the thing about the great fish — do you suppose there would be a great push to take the book allegorically or non-historically?

    And what do you make of another ostensibly miraculous event such as when Elisha made the iron ax head float? Should we take that as something the author intended to show actually happened, or is it just some sort of allegory?

  • http://www.internetmonk.com Chaplain mike

    Nice try, Kevin, but I’m not buying it. Jesus need not be speaking bald prediction in saying something like the Ninevites will rise up at the judgment. He could still be speaking within the framework of his literary allusion. You might as well claim that God will actually be judging real sheep and goats.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    #28 is good, and I too love the quote, “it does not matter whether the snake talked or not, what matters is what he said!”

    Also, the fish part had to come from Jonah himself, right? I can easily see him falling overboard and then finding himself on a beach, and he proceeds to elaborate. Think about the story as Jonah telling a story, then it makes sense.

  • jason

    Two observations in this fascinating discussion. First, it seems to me that the historicists in this debate are mischaracterizing the other side a bit – no one is claiming that the presence of a miracle as such in Jonah precludes its historicity. Rather, it’s a constellation of elements – foremost of which, in my view, are literary considerations – absent any compelling reason to see it as a historical event. So the comparison to the resurrection of Jesus is I think unfair – not only are the gospel narratives different than Jonah on literary grounds, but we have Paul’s remarks on the necessity of resurrection that must be factored into the equation.

    Second, it seems to me that in general evangelicals (full disclosure – I’m not one) tend to assume that biblical narrative = history, a rather crude approach to literature. (I know, there are exceptions, but this does seem to be a common impulse) And not only that, but to then squeeze such narratives into a very modern concept of history, as Moruti has so eloquently put it. Thus, ansd somewhat ironically, the modernity that leads many to reject the supernatural as such is also controlling the evangelical penchant to historicize biblical narrative as such.

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    Jeff (#45, etc.) I think you are really missing the point and fighting battles in which others here are not engaged. No one is denying that God can do miracles of the sort portrayed in Jonah; at least not me. This is not higher criticism based on a materialistic worldview that denies the possibility of the supernatural. This is about genre and the recognition of what kind of literature Jonah may be. As Scot said above, a mixture of historical and fictional is not uncommon in Jewish folk literature and we’re talking about a book written long before any of our modern notions of “history” were in place. I believe Jonah was most likely an actual historical person and a prophet. I believe the BOOK of Jonah is a folk tale using him as the main character and giving us a message about prophets and Israel’s view of other nations, and what God is like. As such, it uses hyperbole, irony, fantastic elements, and dark humor to make its point. The fact that Jesus alluded to it and used its characters and “events” as a lesson in no way requires that it be a reporting of actual history. But this judgment is based on grasping Jonah as literature, not some presupposition that such events could never happen in real history.

  • phil_style

    I think the issue of the absence of cultural evidence carries more weight that it is being given credit for. The wholesale conversion of one of the major power and population centers of an ancient culture to a new religion within a very short time SHOULD leave behind significant evidence.

    You would see changes in diet, changes in art, changes in writing, legal structures, and probably architecture too. All of this would lave strong markers in the buried record. But there are no such markers. I think dismissing this leaves us only with the “fish” issue – which is much more easily argued away because one fish is but a moment in time – leaving no evidence. An entire city/population leaves its mark.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    The reference to the Ninevites rising up at the judgment to condemn “this generation” is a law court analogy. For it to be consistent as an analogy, the witnesses would have to be real, not fictitious.

    For example, no lawyer would come into court with a list of witnesses like Little Red Riding Hood, Pinocchio, the Narnians, Donald Duck, or Luke Skywalker. They have no testimony to bear because they do not actually exist.

    If the Ninevites have no testimony to bear against “this generation” at the judgment, because they repented but “this generation” did not — if that did not really happen, then perhaps there is not really a judgment either.

    Jesus concludes with, “Behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” I think that has considerably more force in regard to the actuality of coming judgment if Jonah is understood to be historical instead of a fiction of the imagination. If someone came and said, “Behold, one greater than Luke Skywalker is here,” — well, I could understand it as a fictional reference, but it would mean nothing to me concerning real life, and certainly nothing concerning coming divine judgment.

  • http://brianzahnd.com/ Brian Zahnd

    #40 Dear “Moruti,”

    I was speaking to the whole empiricist approach to reading scripture, not your comment. (I hadn’t read the comments yet when I posted my 2 cents.) -BZ

    And for the viewing audience, what do you think of this?

    http://brianzahnd.com/2009/02/reading-the-bible-right/

  • http://www.internetmonk.com chaplain mike

    Jeff, once again, we’re at the agree to disagree point. Jonah may have “considerably more force” to you because you view it as real history. I can testify that it has had considerably more power for me after coming to view it as a story. Plus, I think it allows me to have a bigger view of God — a God who can communicate in more than one limited way and a God who engages my imagination as well as my penchant for historical accuracy.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I think Jesus is likely disappointed that we cannot rise above the wooden historicism and appreciate the stories for what they say. I would be disappointed if my kids refused to acknowledge my tall tales but still realize their truth.

  • John Mc

    Regardless of whether the story of Jonah accurately relates historical events or is an allegory, is it any less biblical? Does this determination render it less “inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness?” Clearly Jesus found the text valuable, regardless of whether it was fact or allegory. And we know that Jesus was especially fond of using allegorical allusions to communicate truths and that he rarely if ever argued from history (as distinct from Scriptural references).

    Also, the discussion seems too focused on the fish – there are a whole series of miracles mentioned in the story, each of which is historically improbable, and each of which suggests allegory and none of which appear to me anyway to contribute significantly to the climactic exchange between God and Jonah (which exchange itself contradicts the Torah’s claim that God only speaks in dreams to those prophets who would come after Mosses).

    One miracle which needs more attention is whether there any reason whatsoever to believe that at some point in its history Nineveh ever converted as whole (including its king and its animals) to Judaism? And if they all converted, does it make sense that the prophet would still beg for their murder? Would God continue to refer to them as if they were not part of the people of God?

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Oh, Chaplain Mike, I did not imagine that you and I, or many others here, would end up agreeing, but I’m okay with that. I don’t come here to find agreement but clarity.

    I understand that modern understandings of history are somewhat different from ancient ones, and I think I allow for that. But I find no indicators in Jonah that it was intended as a work of fiction. Figures of speech, such as hyperbole or irony, do not demonstrate fiction; even histories and other non-fiction works can contain many different kinds of figurative and metaphorical language.

    I confess that I do find true stories much more compelling than fictional ones, but I don’t think that is just a modern bias, though.

    Luke Skywalker coming to save the universe from the evil empire — that is entertaining. But King Jesus the Messiah coming to establish His rule and reign over all and save the world from the power of darkness — I find that much more compelling, because it is a true story, not a fiction.

  • Joe Canner

    Jeff #51: I have a hard time believing that the people of Ninevah and the Queen of Sheba are going to literally stand in judgment of the first century Jews, mostly since there are no other references to such a judgment elsewhere in Scripture.

    The point Jesus is making is that the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba, despite being foreigners, are on firmer spiritual ground than are the unbelieving Jews. This theme is repeated a number of times in the Gospels, usually with reference to Sodom or other pagan societies. Jesus’ point in no way requires that all of the details about these references be 100% correct.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    DRT #54, you are essentially saying that you think Jesus is likely disappointed because of those who disagree with you about this matter. One could easily turn that around on you and say that Jesus is likely disappointed that people cannot rise above their skepticism to believe the historical truth of the Bible stories. But see, neither statement proves anything; it is just a bare attempt to get Jesus on one’s side.

    If I tell my children something that I have made up, I want them to understand that I have made that up. For example, when my children were little, I did tell them about Santa Claus, but I told them that he was not real and that it was just a game we played. I would have been disappointed if my children believed Santa really existed.

    However, if I tell my children something that I have not made up but something that actually happened, and they refuse to take it as anything other than daddy telling them a tall tale, then I’d be disappointed. See, I want my children to know the difference between a tall tale and a true story.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I have no intention of debating you Jeff, but I ask, Isn’t it expedient and wise to use a story, the way Jesus did, to provide a synopsis of a concept to his hearers without having to build out the whole concept from scratch? So, if there already exists a story that portrays the concept he is after, would it not be wise to use that story?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    …and, it is a tradition in every society to tell tall tales. If you only tell your kids things that you believe are factually true, then they may be missing out on one of the joys in life.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Joe Canner, I have recognized above that Jesus was giving a law court analogy about witnesses standing up at judgment day. But my point is that we should take the analogy to be consistent. Whether the Queen of Sheba or the Ninevites actually stand at the last day to bear witness against “this generation,” it does not mean that they are fictional and that the stories about them really did not happen. The analogy has force because they are not fictional accounts. Otherwise you might as well have Road Runner standing at the judgment to condemn Wile E. Coyote.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Sorry for being so personal, but Jeff, did you really never tell your kids tall tales?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Jeff 61, you are missing the point. The point is not whether they will actually stand up in judgment, the point is that they are worse than the sins portrayed in those peoples.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    … Just as Wile E Coyote eventually realizes he is hanging in mid-air and will fall, Jeff Doles will realize that he is holding on to history that is not historical at all.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    DRT #59, sure it is expedient to use a story to demonstrate or develop a concept. Jesus’ audience was familiar with Jonah and Jesus built on that familiarity. But that does not mean that the events of Jonah did not happen. There are a number of references in the NT to the events of the Exodus. The NT writers make some very important points in regard to that story. But that does not mean that the did not actually happen. Nor does it mean that it is not important whether or not the Exodus really happened.

    There is no evidence the NT writers took the Exodus to be fictional. Likewise, there is no evidence that Jesus took the account of Jonah to be fictional.

    You can take it however you want. I take it as a true account of something that actually happened.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    DRT #63,

    The point of Jesus’ statement, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41), is that the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah and now someone greater than Jonah is here, so the generation that does not repent at the preaching of Jesus is heading for condemnation. Jonah is not merely incidental to the comparison, he is the part of the main point of the comparison. That is, the Ninevites are contrasted with “this generation” and Jonah is contrasted with Jesus.

  • Tom F.

    In reference to the Ninevites testifying against the current generation: The testimony thing is not enough, there are other law court analogies that clearly seem allegorical in scripture, and yet surely we would not say that they lose force.

    In Micah 6, God calls the mountains to be a sort of jury to judge Israel’s sin. Surely Israel is not off the hook simply because this is a metaphor. Why couldn’t Jesus using the Ninevites be a similar metaphor along with the mountains?

    One can not make a list of which miracles are thought to be historical and which are not. But Jesus gives some hint in suggesting that miracles are to point towards the kingdom (which is centered on him), to embody the sort of new life that will come in full in the new creation. The closer a miracle is in representing that new creation, the less negotiable it becomes, and this is why the resurrection is completely non-negotiable. Jonah being swallowed by a fish and then miraculously the fish sends him to Nineveh is not particularly indicative of the life to come.

    Further, it is important to emphasize that God is certainly capable of intervening in the ways listed in Jonah. Anyone who throws Jonah into the metaphorical/allegorical category on principle alone would be open to the charge of enlightenment skepticism. But to take miracle stories in the Bible on a case by case basis is, IMO, consistent with a careful exegesis that does not read our anxieties about the “supernatural” back into the text.

    In other words, we would never think to mix history and allegory and miracle because miracle is such a contested idea in our society. Because it was so much less contested back then, the biblical authors would have had much more freedom in this way than we do today.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    DRT # 64, you said you don’t want to debate me, although you have continued to present your arguments to me. But I see here that you do want to make personal comments such as “Just as Wile E Coyote eventually realizes he is hanging in mid-air and will fall, Jeff Doles will realize that he is holding on to history that is not historical at all.” That is simply an ad hominem attack. Is that really how you want to proceed? I have no time or interest for that.

  • Willie

    If you want to take the story literally, then you absolutely have to take Jonah 3:10 literally as well – “God changed his mind.” This verse messes with traditional doctrines of omniscience and omnipotence.

    I think a better cultural point of reference for this discussion than Narnia is the Tim Burton film “Big Fish.”

  • http://brianzahnd.com/ Brian Zahnd

    Of course Jonah is a true story. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a historical story. The truth we’re looking for in scripture far transcends empirical historicity.

    Literalism is a kind of escapism by which you move out of the crosshairs of the probing question. Prose flattened literalism makes the story small, time confined and ultimately irrelevant. But poetry and parable, allegory and story travel through time and space and keep the question relevant. Inert, historical facts are easy enough to set on the shelf, but a story conveying truth, when well told, will haunt you.

    I heard a sermon once on Noah and the Flood where the preacher calculated how hard it would have to rain for forty days and nights to place the 29,035 foot summit of Mount Everest under water. I thought, “So that’s what you got out of the story?” Well, it’s a lot easier than wrestling with our addiction to violence which lies at the heart of the Noah story. Just say you believe in a literal Flood and you’re good to go — you don’t have to think about troubling matters like God’s attitude toward human violence.

  • PaulE

    I’m confused, Brian. In #69, are you saying that if God didn’t really flood the earth because of the violence of men, I should be more concerned about my attitude towards violence than if he did?

    Also, I’m wondering: if we accept the account of Jonah as fictional, what does it say about who God is that he would send a prophet to warn the people of Ninevah of his judgment because of his “concern for the great city” – that he would send a prophet only in a fictional account, but not in reality?

  • dopderbeck

    Amos (#32), I think makes an important comment. Jesus didn’t say, “The book of Jonah is a literal newspaper report.” So, we might say that the the satirical and perhaps hyperbolic and perhaps partly-”historical” literary form of the story isn’t a problem at all.

    If Jesus here is really prophesying that the repentant Ninevites will judge Israel, I have no problem saying there were, in fact, repentant Ninevites and a Hebrew prophet named Jonah. And I further have no problem with the possibility of a miraculous transport of Jonah in a big “fish’s” belly, if that’s what happened.

    Note also, however, that this is eschatological speech. As a genre, this tends to be speech that is symbolic. The genre of Jesus’ discourse here is not itself some kind of historical reportage, nor is it some sort of modern exegesis of the book of Jonah. Jesus isn’t writing the NIV Application Commentary on Jonah. He’s using the figure of Nineveh as an eschatological symbol. Maybe it’s best just to inhabit the eschatological force of the illocution and not overly confuse things with our contemporary preoccupations.

  • Joe Canner

    Jeff #61: Sorry, I didn’t get from your comment a sense that the judgment was anything other than literal. Your insistence that the analogy be to literal figures and historical events seems to be motivated by a belief in a literal judgment.

    If I said to you: “after I get done, you will be worse off than Wile E. Coyote” you know exactly what I mean. The analogy might be to something fictional, but the beat-down could be real.

    Also, as has been mentioned before by others, Jonah and Ninevah could be real, preserving the force of the analogy, without all of the details of the story being precisely historical. Just like if I made reference to George Washington and the cherry tree in order to encourage someone to be truthful.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Tom F.,

    In Micah 6, though the mountains are a metaphorical jury, Israel is not off the hook, because it is God Himself who gives witness against her, and God is not metaphor or allegory or fiction. The mentions of the mountains is, I think, a reference to the covenant between God and Israel being made in the presence of the heavens and earth (i.e., Deuteronomy 4:26).

    The reason I take the account of Jonah to be true is not because of any anxiety about finding or defending miracles against skeptics, nor out of “wooden historicism” (as DRT has suggested), but because, as I read through the minor prophets, when I come to Jonah, I take it the same way I take the others. For example, when I read Obadiah, it opens, “The vision of Obadiah.” I don’t wonder if it was really meant to convey that Obadiah had a vision (which is a miraculous thing), the content of which constitutes the entire book.

    Likewise, when I read Jonah 1:1-2, “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amitai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city,’” I don’t wonder, “Gee, was there really a Jonah? Was there really an Amitai? Was Amitai really the father of Jonah? Is that what the author intended to convey or was he speaking allegorically about something else? Did the word of the LORD really come to Jonah as it did to the other prophets?”

    It does not present itself to me as allegory or as fantasy or as fiction. In 1:17, when it says “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah,” I find no reason to doubt that this was something that actually occurred. I see no indication, here or elsewhere in the book, that the author has shifted into allegory. So I take it that God prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah, just as I take it that “God prepared a plant” and “God prepared a worm” and “God prepared a vehement east wind.” It comes as no surprise to me that God moves in history and prepares this or that, so I accept the events described in Jonah as having actually happened.

  • http://brianzahnd.com/ Brian Zahnd

    Dear PaulE,

    I’m just saying that obsessing over the historicity of these kinds of stories can be a way of avoiding the point; e.g. if I fight tooth and nail for a literal tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then I don’t have to think too much about what the story might mean; if it’s a literal tree…well, there you have it…it was some weird tree. But if I liberate the story from literalism, I am left asking myself what the story means; which is to say the story itself becomes more important than trying to force the story into certain Enlightenment categories of historicity. (Note: I’m not really saying “these kind of stories” are not historical; I’m just saying it doesn’t really matter — their historicity is ultimately irrelevant to the truth they are trying to convey.)

    BZ

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Brian Zahnd,

    I understand very well that fiction can convey truth to us. But when I speak of “true story,” I use it in the very commonly understood sense of “not fiction, but something that really happened.”

    I believe in interpreting literature according to its genres, whether poetry, or parable, or history (that is, describing things that happened), or apocalyptic, or epistle, etc. I watch for indications of what the genre might be or when a text shifts into a different genre. I don’t think I have been flattening out anything, nor do I think I have been literalistic. I understand that a text, particular a Scriptural text, can have many layers of insights and truths.

    Also, as I have noted in a post above, I recognize that the “great fish” is not what the book of Jonah is actually about — to focus on the fish is to miss the point. The point is more about God’s mercy toward even sinful nations such as Nineveh.

    However, when I read through the minor prophets and come to the book of Jonah and see “The LORD prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah,” I find no reason to think that that is fiction, that the author does not intend for us to think it really happened. Taking it as an actual event that occurred in time in space does not, I think, really change the layers of meaning in the book.

  • Tom F.

    Jeff, thanks for your interaction. I don’t have the slightest problem with you taking Jonah in a more historical fashion. I’m not especially inclined to try and “talk you out of it”. I think you have reflected on why you think it is historical, and that’s enough for me. If we engaged in further discussion, you may convince me that it is indeed a historical account, as I am open to that possibility.

    However, all of that is a far cry from suggesting that to take it allegorically/metaphorically/poetically ect, is automatically unfaithful to the text. (This is the simple inverse of enlightenment skepticism, what you might call “philosophically forced credulity”). As long as that possibility of allegory is open, and those who interpret it as such are not excluded by default, than I think there is plenty of space for honest, reasoned disagreement.

    As to the substance of whether Jonah is historical, I would defer to Scot’s comments about the irony and comedy of the book. To me, this does not read the same as the other minor prophets, but this is a matter, to some degree, of judgment.

    I don’t disagree with anything you have said about the mountains, although it isn’t clear to me why metaphorical mountains in one context are fine and metaphorical Ninevite witnesses in another context are problematic. Is not the God in both contexts “non-metaphorical”, and therefore doesn’t God’s presence as witness in both accounts free up Jesus’s statement from needing “historical” witnesses? I guess I would just like you to unpack what you were saying in this area a bit more.

    Thanks,

  • nathan

    I agree that the point of Jonah is Jonah’s God…it’s the theology…

    whether liberal, conservative or whatever on how to read the text from a the POV of history, it doesn’t matter now int eh 21st. c.

    Why?

    Because we all have to access the text from the same location in our time and the take away from Jonah for liberal or conservative or whatever is God’s radical freedom and constant move to destabilize our concretized notions of God that make God into a self-serving idol.

    The lesson is the lesson, regardless of your view of history. The only value of pitting the historical views against each other is to simply re-inscribe on others and reaffirm in ourselves “in group/out group” sociological impulses that are not properly theological, and are only pertinent to the substantive theological claims of the Jonah text as the object of the very critique the said text raises.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Tom F.,

    I have not suggested, nor do I, that to take the book of Jonah as allegory or metaphor or poetry unfaithful to the text. I just find no indications of such (apart from 2:2-9, which is poetical in form), nor any indication that it should not be understood as about events that actually occurred. The presence of irony and comedy does not disqualify because real life is full of irony and comedy.

  • Tom F.

    Jeff, of course you haven’t, but the original post talked about how metaphorical Ninevites were somehow inadequate to Jesus’ own use of them in a statement of judgment. Other comments in the thread talked about the seeming slippery slope that metaphorical interpretations of some miracles somehow means that you will eventually interpret all miracles this way. I’m sorry if you felt like my initial comments were aimed specifically at you.

    Of course life is full of comedy, but the comedy of Jonah seems so “neat and tidy” that it reads to me like a satire, a genre that often includes comic exaggeration and, dare I say it, “big fish stories”. :)

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • TJJ

    There seem to be two general approaches to this passage of scripture. One is to read it as historical, and he other to read it as non-histroical. The literary aspects of the book can support either approach.

    As long as both sides come to the table with an openess that either could be correct/possible, and an acknowledgement that there are some elements in the text that seem to point to some type of historicity, and other elements that seem to point to some type of non-historicity, regardless of which view one may favor, there can be a productive and informative discussion.

    The reference to Jonah by Jesus in Matthew seems to be an almost superseding factor for many regarding its historicity, quite apart from the textual indicators in the book of Jonah itself.

    The question raised in this post is an interesting one:
    What does the text of Jonah itself indicate about its historicity, genre, literary form, intent, message? I do find the text to be very different from the other major and minor prophetic texts. And I do ask why.

  • http://www.TilledSoil.org Steve Wilkinson

    While I have not looked at this topic in-depth, let’s just grant that all of your options are possible proper interpretations. Given that, is there some reason one would be inclined NOT to see it as historical? (ie: be inclined to pick one of your other options over that one)

  • John Mc

    TJJ,

    I would think that by introducing so many different fantastic elements – Jonah’s whirlwind escape to the end of the world (Tarshish), the purposeful storm, three days travelling in the fish, the multi-thousand mile three-day journey from Tarshish to Nineveh, the three day journey across the city, the conversion of the entire enemy city by Jonah in a language he didn’t speak, and in just three days, including the King and the animals, the tricks with the shade plant and the worm (a single miracle is usually enough of a sign, but serial miracles are not usually God’s style – and even with all those miracles Jonah is oblivious to the momentousness of both the divine intervention and the wholesale conversion event) – I have to to believe the writer wants us to take for granted the mythological nature of the event and instead listen for truth to what the characters are saying, Jonah blinded by hatred and God ever manifesting compassion.

  • Robert

    I think sometimes we get so carried away with the idea of Jesus’ divinity that we forget that theological tradition also insists that he was fully human. If so, wouldn’t he share the presuppositions of the people he lived his life with? If he didn’t, I seriously question whether he can properly be described as ‘human’! Sometimes, I feel we drift into a sort of subtle docetism.

  • dopderbeck

    Steve (#82) — beyond the big fish, it’s because Ninevah is a well-studied site and there are things in the story that don’t seem to match up at all. Importantly, there is no indication that Ninevah ever had a ruler who led the population to worship Yaheweh. In fact, during the time period the Biblical book of Jonah mentions, there is no evidence that the city was a royal residence at all. It didn’t become the city of the King of Assyria until later. There is also an odd reference in Jonah 3:3 about it taking “three days” to walk the city, and the archeological record shows that the city could’ve been traversed in well less than three days.

    But again, it seems to me that the literary genre could represent a somewhat imaginative or parodic commentary on events that wouldn’t necessarily show up in the archeological record. For example, “Ninevah” may refer to the general region and the “King” may refer to a provincial ruler (See Walton, Zondervan Illus. Bible Background Commentary, chapter on Jonah). I generally don’t like rationalizing difficulties in the texts, but OTOH nothing here seems to me enormously problematic if we relax our expectations in light of genre.

  • dopderbeck

    Robert (#84) — excellent point and I think that is an important part of the response to Comment #1 in this thread. And part of any hermeneutic of the Gospels or of any Biblical text is trying to understand how this culturally situated, fully human communication conveys a timeless, divinely inspired message.

    In reader-response language, what is the “perlocutionary act” of Jesus’ discourse about Ninevah? What response is Jesus trying to invoke? Does it have anything to do with what we today would call historical-critical exegesis of the book of Jonah? Does it have anything to do with how the text of Jonah may or may not line up perfectly with archeology? I don’t think so. Nothing like that was on Jesus’ radar screen in his first century Jewish context. The illocution assumes a context common to Jesus and his hearers, the perlocutionary effect to be invoked in us — repentance, not taking our relationship with God for granted, not thinking ourselves as better than “outsiders” — transcends that context.

  • TJJ

    John Mc #83 – I would tend to agree. Why even flee to Tarshish, just not going to Nineveh would seem just as effective. The flight to sea in a ship seems to be more effective as a story element. But there are also elements in the text that cause me to be cautious, so I continue to study and consider, but have no firm opinion.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    I find myself humbled in the presence of those so knowledgeable about genre, biblical genre in particular, possibly, it would seem people more informed and skilled interpreters than Jesus.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    John Thomson#88, anti-intellectualism at its finest.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    ohn Thomson#88, hopefully this comment will be a bit more productive than my last.

    John, your comment indicates that you believe that your interpretation is equivalent to the thoughts of Jesus since you are saying that these people are going against the thoughts of Jesus. Remember, we do not know what Jesus is thinking, all we know is what we think he is thinking. Therefore, these folks are saying what they think, but you are saying you actually understand what Jesus was thinking.

    Not a good thing.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    Thinking about allegory — I find an example of prophetic allegory in Isaiah 5:1-7, where the Lord speaks of Israel as a vineyard.

    If the book of Jonah is an allegory, what exactly is it supposed to allegorize? What does Jonah represent? What does the plant represent? And the worm? And the east wind?

  • John W Frye

    We all agree that Jesus was a 1st century, 2nd Temple Judaism Jewish teacher. We all know that Jesus communicated divine truth in well-spun stories. Why could not an Old Testament author spin out a story/parable about God and his compassion using Jonah as the dramatic and comedic foil? Jonah does *not* read like the other 11 minor prophets. Fact. There is no historical evidence of an Assyrian, nation-wide conversion to YHWH and Torah. Fact. That Jesus used the *story* of Jonah to address contemporary issues of repentance fits squarely within his culture’s use of literature (sacred or not) to elicit a response.

  • TJJ

    Jeff #91 – if Jonah is not “historical”, I don’t see Jonah as an allegory, but more like a “prophetic Story” akin to what Nathan told David in 2 Samuel 12. At least that is one way of approaching Jonah.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    I don’t think anyone has suggested that God cannot say something through fictional stories. Indeed, there are examples of parables/allegories and even of fables (which treats plants and animals as if they were human characters).
    John #92

    Jonah does not begin like an allegory. It begins begin like other prophets, and the opening sentence, “The word of the Lord came to …” is a formula commonly used of a number of other prophets who actually existed in history.

    But if the book of Jonah is supposed to be an allegory or parable, what are the different elements suppose to mean? What are the comparisons being made?

    TJJ #93,

    The story Nathan told David is a good example of an OT parable. And notice how it begins: “There were two men in one city …” (2 Samuel 12:1). Knowing what David had done in 2 Samuel 11, we can see what the elements in Nathan’s parable are supposed to represent.

    The book of Jonah does not begin like a parable but with the formula commonly used when God had a message to deliver through a living, breathing human being. I don’t think we find it used of any fictional characters elsewhere in the OT.

    If I am to believe that the book of Jonah describes things that are not meant to be understood as having actually happened — if it is not a historical prophetic narrative, then exactly what genre of Hebrew literature is it? I don’t think it presents as an allegory or parable. It is not a fable — it does not treat plants or animals as having a human-like personality. It is not poetry, although Jonah’s prayer is case in poetic form.

  • Mick Porter

    Why is all this an issue?

    I say Scot’s point on needing to be flexible is really, really important. Justin’s view is fine if that’s what he believes, but when the definitely-not-figurative position is pushed too hard it becomes dangerous to hold another viewpoint.

    In the church communities I’ve experienced who would be influenced by TGC, it’s not at all safe to question the “literal” interpretation, nor question the raft of other issues such as gender complementarianism, the soterian gospel, the dating of parts of Isaiah, or whatever. This is a crying shame.

  • TJJ

    Jeff – Well, I dont really have an agenda of this issue because I dont really have a strong defined position on it one way or another, I am still on the journey of trying to better understand Jonah. If you are convinced it is literal history that is fine by me. I have no problem with anyone honestly holding that position.

    However, as a matter of clarity only, I dont agree that what Nathan proclaimed to David was a parable, it was a prophetic proclaimation to David, from God, in the form of a story, and it was very effective. There is more than one way for prophetic revelation to be powerful, profound, and eternally true. And sometimes that form is story. I am not saying that is what Jonah is, but if it is, for me, Jonah would be no less a Powerful Prophetic Word and Revelation from God.

  • Tim Seitz-Brown

    There is a group called the “Network of Biblical Storytellers.” They have taught me how to internalize, get into my heart, and into my mind the words and images of a biblical text and to tell Bible stories– close to word per word. One gets a lot from these tellings. Jonah is a particularly good story to tell. With voice and body movements and blocking, one can tell this as a really good sermon/comedy. I recommend it. A powerful message comes through.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    If we are going to suggest that the book of Jonah be read as some sort of non-historical genre, it seems to me that we ought to be able to clearly identify just what that genre would be and be able to demonstrate it by other examples of it in ancient Hebrew literature. If we are going to suggest that it is allegory, we ought to be ready to identify what the main elements are supposed to represent. Otherwise, I think such suggestions comes off as just so much hand waving.

  • Fish

    The only purpose of Jonah is the lessons within it. The type of literature is irrelevant. I don’t read my bible for facts, I read it for faith. I don’t need it to be literal and so I don’t care if it is or isn’t. To turn Jonah into a historical/non-historical litmus strip is to miss the point of Jonah.

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    From some of the comments I wonder:

    Is there a problem to be of one opinion, even if we are pefectly convinced that Jesus would have been of a different one?

    Once again, the anacronism thing. If I had a time machine and could travel back (and could speak Arameaeic and would be able to localize Jesus) I am sure there would be a lot of points where we would either hold different opinions or where he would not even be able to grasp what I am talking about (and I am not just refering to physical things like “is the Earth flat or a globe” or wheter slavery is a good thing).
    It seems like we keep forgetting that many things we take for granted (like our knowledge of atoms, evolution or higher criticism) are of recent origin. They simply havn’t been around back then. So why should Jesus have thought in our categories, imagined in our worldview or argued in our (post/modern) concepts???? Can’t we simply accept that we live in a VERY different world today?

  • Paul W

    @ 100 Moruti Lutz

    Is there a problem to be of one opinion, even if we are pefectly convinced that Jesus would have been of a different one?

    I don’t feel any tension on that front. Perhaps you are onto something though.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    @90DRT

    Actually my comment that we may possibly know better than Jesus was based on the fact that a few commentators had stated just that.

    Having said this, a little more humility re what is fable may not go wrong. I see little in Jonah that urges non-historical ‘parable’. The case seems much harder to make and requires a level of sophistication in reading skills that I think is beyond the average reader and some seem convinced was even beyond Jesus himself.

    Note, I am not saying the story is not parabolic, I believe it is; Jonah is a cypher of the nation. This however is no reason of itself to assume Jonah is not a real person in fact the narrative style (as some have shown above) strongly indicates historical particularity.

    My question is: why so much doubt? I cannot but feel the root issue is not one of genre but of belief, a baulking at the miraculous.

  • http://johngreenview.wordpress.com John Thomson

    @83John Mc

    the multi-thousand mile three-day journey from Tarshish to Nineveh, the three day journey across the city, the conversion of the entire enemy city by Jonah in a language he didn’t speak, and in just three days, including the King and the animals’

    John, you are a bit loose on the facts here are you not. Tarshish to Nineveh is less than 500 miles, hardly a ‘multi-thousand mile… journey’. How do you know Jonah did not speak ancient assyrian? Where does the narrative say the animals were converted? If this is an example of careful analysis of genre little wonder there is such confusion.

  • Norman

    It was stated in scripture that Christ spoke extensively through parables yet He pointed out to his disciples that the reticent Jews refused to hear.

    Mat 13:10-11 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
    Mat 13:34 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.
    Mat 13:51-52 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

    Even his own disciples had difficulty following Christ allusions and veiled meanings at times still expecting a physical manifestation of His messianic coming.

    Paul even puts fort the idea that even Moses veiled his writings to the Jews to reveal the eschatological end and the time of Messiah. Paul’s inference is that when one turns to Christ they are able to discern the veiled message that the literal reading apostate Jews were missing.

    2Co 3:12-18 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites MIGHT NOT GAZE AT THE OUTCOME OF WHAT WAS BEING BROUGHT TO AN END. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, WHEN THEY READ THE OLD COVENANT, THAT SAME VEIL REMAINS UNLIFTED, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. (16) But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. … And WE ALL, WITH UNVEILED FACE, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

    The point is that IMO it starts to become clear that Jonah falls into the literature of a veiled presentation. In fact the adventure of Jonah being sent to the Gentiles against his will with the possibility of shipwreck parallels in various ways the adventure of Paul whom was also sent to the Gentiles and saved from shipwreck. This veiled presentation can definitely be included with literature like Ezekiel which points Israel toward her eschatological end. Some of you have pointed out the “ridiculous” illustrations that the Ninevites repented in sackcloth and ashes along with their “animals”.
    Well this is not so silly when you realize that the “animal” metaphor is used to denote pagans or gentile peoples in Jewish eschatological literature. Look at Ezkiel 47 and notice again that the water flowing from the eschatological Temple will bring healing to the animals there as well. This illustration alone depicts that Jonah is continuing in this similar mode of literature. In this case it uses Jonah to illustrate the resistance that the Jews would have in sharing the story of God with the Gentiles. This is indeed the very situation that we see in the NT when Christ came where the Jews were Jealous of the younger brother who came back to the Lord whom had been lost but was now found yet the older Brother was jealous. The Jews simply had many various ways and means of telling story vividly and emphatically. But you have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

    Also just in passing the “Fish” symbol indicates gentiles and the “sea” illustrates the vast world of the gentile peoples in eschatological literature. Being cast into the sea and swallowed by the fish is metaphorical about exilic Israel being cast into the world and not wanting to do her part toward the Gentiles as God’s priestly people. Thus when Christ invokes Jonah there is much more there from a Jewish metaphorical understanding than meets the eye. Christ is referencing Jonah to remind His audience of Jonah’s theological implications during their time of exile. Christ rising from the belly of the monster has deep implications toward taking this resurrection message to the world again.

    The story is told in many different fashion in ancient biblical times.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    With parables/allegories, the meaning of the particulars is usually explained or indicated by the surrounding context. I don’t see that happening in the book of Jonah. Any passage can be allegorized, but that does not mean that such passages are actually intended as allegory.

    Regarding metaphorical language, what in the book of Jonah indicates that the fish and the sea are merely metaphors for Gentiles and the world of the Gentiles? How are we to know that this was not instead a narrative describing that actually took place? Is it because living in the belly of a great fish is considered miraculous and therefore there must be merely a metaphor? Then I am reminded of how, when it came time to pay the temple tax, Peter did as Jesus instructed, opened the mouth of the first fish he caught and extracted the coin that would pay the tax for him and Jesus. Certainly that was a miraculous event — are we, therefore, supposed to think it was merely a metaphor, that Peter was to go and get the money from the Gentiles? I don’t think so.

    If the “great fish” God prepared to swallow Jonah is merely a metaphor for the Gentiles, what are the plant, the worm and the vehement east wind supposed to be metaphors for. I ask because all of these, including the great fish, are presented with the same basic formula: “The LORD prepared,” “The LORD God prepared,” or “God prepared.” Also, scanning the database in my mind, I cannot think of a parable where God is spoken of directly as a character in the play, such as we have in the words, “The LORD prepared.”

    Certainly, any event can be used as a metaphor for something else, but that does not therefore mean that such those events are therefore not to be thought of as having actually occurred in history. And the metaphorical reading of Jonah seems to me to be a very subjective reading, overlaying theological ideas we have developed from other places on top of the book of Jonah so that the book of Jonah looks like a metaphor for what we’ve gotten somewhere else.

  • AHH

    John T @103,

    The point about the journey to Ninevah is that it is portrayed as being by sea (inside a fish). And that is indeed many thousands of miles, as the route from the Mediterranean would be around the horn of Africa.

    And, while it doesn’t come across in most English translations, I’ve been told that the Hebrew has the animals of the city participating in sackcloth & ashes repentence. Any OT scholars reading who can comment on that?

    I would repeat somebody else’s comment that those of us who see the story as parabolic are not “balking at the miraculous” (at least not most of us). It is a matter of genre classification — deciding that it looks more like a parable/story form of communicating God’s truth than a literal history.

    A final thought is that some comments seem to view a parable as an option that would be disappointing — that literal history would be much better. I think this reflects the Enlightenment mindset that devalues story and privileges science-style communication. Given that Jesus taught that way often, we should not consider it a disappointment and second-class communication if we decide that God has communicated his truth elsewhere in Scripture (be it Jonah or Job or Genesis 2) in the form of a non-historical parable or story.

  • Norman

    Jeff,

    There have been numerous postings in this thread indicating the embedded contextual issues that point toward Jonah as being highly metaphorical. It is not expected of Jewish literature to perform commentary or to always notify the reader when it is metaphorical; this literature requires skill and discernment to recognize and frankly very few people today avail themselves of the skills to do so.

    However occasionally metaphorical literature will define the metaphor for the reader.
    Rev 17:15 Then the angel said to me, “THE WATERS you saw, where the prostitute sits, ARE PEOPLES, MULTITUDES, NATIONS AND LANGUAGES.

    The question also must be asked; where are the indicators that one should read this literature as literal. If we take our cue from an intense study and analysis of the ancient biblical literature and second temple literature there are plenty of indications within Jonah that indicate it falls into that genre. To ignore the ancient cultural climate for this type of revelation and default to a literal intent that was not historically validated begs the question of whether one is paying attention to the historical context and is reading an external presupposition into it.

    I think the burden is just as much on the literalist adherent to demonstrate that Jonah is a literal representation of events. A literal approach appears from a contextual study of Jewish literary genres would be even more difficult to justify. I’ll go with the preponderance of the biblical and extra biblical evidence that says Jonah should not be taken literally.

    It is actually just as dangerous for discernment of the scriptures to ignore the symbolism involved in just about any form of Hebrew literature as its part of the understood fabric of their telling story. If one reads it as literal and it’s intended to portray theological intents through standard Jewish symbolism then one is possibly degrading the original purpose and spirit of a particular piece.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    AHH #106,

    The journey to Nineveh involved sea travel only because, when Jonah repented, he was out in the middle of the sea. When the great fish spit Jonah up on dry land, the text does not say it spit him up at Nineveh (2:10). Jonah still had to arise and go to Nineveh (3:2).

    In chapter 3, it is not the animals who repent but the men. The king at Nineveh decreed, “Let every one [Hebrew, ish, man] turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands” (v. 8). The animals were covered with sackcloth, as were the men, but it was only the men who repented. Animals are not said, in Scripture, to repent or even to be able to repent. Nor does this instance describe them as repenting. Covering the animals with sackcloth was an act of repentance by the men, not the animals.

    I am glad that you do not balk at the miraculous, and I agree that we should consider the book of Jonah according to its genre. Is it a parable? It does not present itself as a parable but as other prophetic narratives where the formula is “Now the word of the LORD came to … [in this case, Jonah].” Parables do not begin like that elsewhere in the Bible, not in the Old Testament or the New.

    Elsewhere in the Bible, parables do not comprise the whole book but are given within the larger context of a book, and the larger context either explains or indicates the meaning. We do not find this in the book of Jonah.

    Elsewhere in the Bible, as I pointed out in #105, parables do not speak directly of God as one of the characters in the play. But in Jonah, it says that God prepared the great fish, the plant, the worm, the great east wind. God is an actor in history, not in parables.

    We can certainly derive some parabolic and allegorical meanings from Jonah. That is parablizing and allegoring, laying parable and allegory on top of the text. I’m not against that and many good insights might be found like that. But any text can be parablized or allegorized. However, that does not mean that the text itself, in this case the book of Jonah, was written as parable or allegory.

    It is never a disappointment to come across a parable in the Bible. God can teach through them as well as through history and poetry and other genres. But what we should do, as you suggested above, is discover what kind of genre a text is. If it is parabolic or allegorical in form, then great, let’s take it as parable or allegory. However, the book of Jonah does not present like any other parable or allegory in Scripture. It does contain some miraculous elements, which I don’t think the parables in Scripture usually do (but, of course, nobody here is balking at miracles).

  • phil_style

    @Jeff, “Elsewhere in the Bible, parables do not comprise the whole book but are given within the larger context of a book, and the larger context either explains or indicates the meaning. We do not find this in the book of Jonah.”

    I don’t see Jonah as “parable” either. I do see it as literature, probably a piece of theatre, just as Job is a play. Jonah is most likely satire.

    The literary similarities between Job and Jonah are many, and one particular element stands out as indicative that the piece is not historically located – and that is that the author does NOT employ the typical ANE methods of historical location – which is to identify under which monarch the activities took place.

    Jonah is the “dove”, the son of “amittai” (my truth). The literary connection here in the naming of Jonah and his flight away, and return to truth are also clues as tot he nature of this piece.

    2 Kings 14:45 actually indicates there was a historical prophet Jonah, who’s ministry was in fact to the coastal areas of Israel, during the reign of Jeroboam. No mention of Jonah’s supposed exploits in Nineveh are recorded in Kings, and interesting “omission”….

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    phil_style #109,

    Jonah is indeed literature, something that can be said of every book in the Bible. A piece of theatre, a play? I think that is purely a speculation.

    The absence of the identification of a monarch is not an indication that Jonah is not historical. Of the twelve minor prophets, six of them identify a monarch, the other six don’t. So the absence on monarch identity is hardly indicative of non-historicity.

    Every name in the Bible has a meaning, and we can often find significance between the meaning of an individual’s name and the narrative regarding him. So the fact that names of Jonah and Amittai have meanings and we can somehow associate those meanings with the text is not indicative of non-historicity or of theatre.

    Second Kings 14:25 names Jonah and his father Amittai, in a text that is clearly a chronicle by genre. And this, even though their names mean the same thing here as in the book of Jonah. Now, 2 Kings 14:25 is about Jereboam. Jonah figures into it only tangentially, so we should not expect that it will list all of Jonah’s prophetic itinerary (nor should be expect that Nineveh was Jonah’s only assignment). So the “omission” which seems so suspicious to you is not at all significant; the author 2 Kings is simply sticking to the chronicle of Jereboam and not suddenly, for no particular reason, the chronicle of Jonah.

    So, what we have left, then, is merely an idle speculation that Jonah is theatre. Well, the story of Jonah does make for a great tale, as do so many other narratives in the Bible, about Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, the book of Acts, the miracles of Jesus, the cross. But that does not mean that any of them were given as theatre and not as events that actually happened.

  • phil_style

    “Of the twelve minor prophets, six of them identify a monarch, the other six don’t. So the absence on monarch identity is hardly indicative of non-historical”
    On the contrary. Apply the criteria of in-text historical location to all twelve.

    My assertion that this piece is theatre is not based on the fact that it is a good story, but on the fact that it lacks the elements typical of historical narrative. I think it more speculative to assert that it is historical. I would politely suggest that asserting giant human-swallowing fish and sudden entire-city conversions that are completely absent in the archaeological record to be “real” is just as “speculative” as any of my suggestions.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    phil_style, whether one believes what the author says is a different question from what he intended to say and how he intended to say it. As I have noted above, the book of Jonah contains elements that are found in other Scripture passages that have historical intent. I have noted such items that are out of place in parable or allegory. I have noted the opening element which is quite in line with prophetic narrative. So, I don’t think I have just been speculating, I’ve been observing the features of the text.

    If there are no giant human-swallowing fish in the fossil or archaeological record, that is not a telling thing. There are a lot of gaps in the fossil record, and I don’t think an argument from silence is strong enough to overcome that. If there is no record of a city-wide conversion in Nineveh, that is not really a telling thing, either. It was not a conversion to Judaism, as someone here has suggested, but a repenting from evil. It appears to have been a relatively short-lived repentance, and before long fell under the judgment of God as Nahum and Zephaniah had prophesied. If, after Jonah, they were soon back to their old ways after ways, I don’t expect that extant records would likely show much concerning their repentance.

    You speculation that Jonah is theatre is based on argument from silence and observations that do not at all demonstrate Jonah to be non-historical (see #110). You are certainly welcome to your speculations. You made them, they belong to you, and I would certainly not try to take them away from you. But they are only speculation.

  • phil_style

    Jeff, thanks, yes you’re right, my opinion is speculation. But I suppose that hen a text is so far removed from our time and place, in many respects that is all we are left with.

    Despite disagreeing with you, I think your arguments are clear and cogent, and you have been gracious.

    thanks,

  • AT

    I keep reflecting on this post. I personally think it open up a bigger can of worms. I would really love a response to these wrestling questions.
    Stick with me:
    Jesus was fully human (he made ‘mistakes’ like hitting his thumb with a hammer, felt tired,tempted etc.) and fully divine (sinless, fully God). If Jesus was the ‘final expression’ of God and he was perfect spiritually – these are some of the logical implications: all of his moral teaching was perfect, all of his spiritual teaching was perfect (even if we acknowledge that his spiritual knowledge increased as he grew older – he was not in spiritual error) – So the next question is :
    Did Jesus have a dodgy hermeneutic -surely this veers into spiritual error territory e.g. belieiving things that weren’t true about scripture. This is more than just incomplete. What if I got up and preached a sermon implying that the good samaritan was a real man. Also – Is it dangerous to say – I understand scripture better than Jesus? If we take this route – doesn’t the entire morality that Jesus revealed need to be completely reevaluated in light of his cultural limitations? How do we draw the clear line between physical error (accomodation) and moral/spiritual error. Is drawing the line in this way totally ‘gnostic’? but I feel there needs to be some kind of clear line here or everything can crumble.

  • John Mc

    John Thompson @103,

    Tarshish was not Tarsus in Asia Minor. The location of Tarshish is aparently disputed and believed to be in Spain or even in India. Typically the literary point of referring to Tarshish was to suggest a place as far away as men had ever travelled, the end of the earth. Thus Jonah went to the End of the World to evade the will of God. And God, who some might have perceived as just the God of Israel, was in fact the God of the whole world, including places like Tarshish and Niniveh, and so God was there to capture him and return him to Nineveh.

    Interesting, that your response to my critique is to de-mystify the miraculous, while implicitly suggesting that I need to have more faith in miracles.

    On that score I do have faith in miracles. I just don’t think God throws them around as dramatic setups for teaching moral lessons. And i think God uses tem sparingly. Could the same lessons could have been taught Jonah and to us today through this story without the whale, or the wholesale conversion of the king and city?

  • John Mc

    AT,

    Serious questions. Personally I don’t believe that Jesus the man had perfect knowledge. If he had perfect knowledge he would not have been human in any meaningful snese. I believe that he knew what he needed to know, and that the Father guided his thinking and words so that his moral and spiritual instruction was as desired. I think Jesus the man filled in the blanks as best he could.

    I understand the concern resulting in the desire for a bright line to keep things from crumbling. However, a human line is just that, a human invention to keep us from looking at and digesting a truth about God. “Ignore the man behind the curtain.” instead we need to explore Jesus’ limits if for no other reason than to understand the truths he taught, and to distinguish those truths from superstition and false imputations.

    I don’t mean to de-mystify the Incarnation at all – but if we are going to follow Jesus then we take him at his word when he says ” I am the truth…”. We are taught that he emptied himself and that he was fully human. We cannot give our assent and follow it with “except”. Part of being perfectly human is to have imperfect knowledge, and to have fear.

    Personally, I think an earlier post hit the nail on the head in interpreting Jesus’ mention of the ‘men of Nineveh’ as but one more example in Scriptures of Gentiles being better able to perceive and receive of and from God than the Jews of Jesus’ day. It was not Intended as an affirmation that there was a big fish….

    Finally, I was caught by your suggestion about teaching that the Good Samaritan was a true story – wouldn’t that make it even more impactful than teaching it as a mere parable – perhaps those who suggest that Jonah’s story loses meaning if it is reduced to mere allegory should consider this?

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    “Did Jesus have a dodgy hermeneutic ” (#114)
    another case, I think, of wrong alternatives or categories. “DIFFERENT” would be the word to use – and very different indeed from present day hermeneutics. But do we have to make the one “dodgy” the make the other “ok” or vice versa?
    Why can’t we just leave it at that: it was a very dfferent world with different ideas. But surely, looking at the speed of change and innovation, no-one in their right mind would think that we, in 2011 have “arrived” in some final sense. We know perfectly well that people in 5, 50, 500, 5000 years will have slightly/moderately/strongly/totaly diffrernt ideas, models, paradigms, modes of thinking and what have you than we do. (This is also the reason why I, as a scientist, don’t quite get it:all the fuss some people make about bible and science”, impying that he allmighty God could have made the bible to have no contradicion to science. Which science, I an tepted to ask: the one of 2011??? (which may in part be outdated by the end of 2012, if “Higgs” really makes its appearance)

  • http://www.TilledSoil.org Steve Wilkinson

    @ dopderbeck #85 -

    I’d be careful on the archeology. First, do they have the time-frame correct, or are they using ‘liberal’ dating? I mention this because a number of more recent archeological finds have overturned long-held assumptions common in liberal scholarship for decades. Some examples are the work going on with a potential site for Sodom or finding the ‘Pilot Stone’ or domestication dates for camels, etc. I tend to take the kind of stuff you mentioned with a grain of salt, as well as the stuff from the more fundamentalist side (ie: finding the ark, etc). But I admit that I haven’t looked into it in detail for Jonah.

    The big thing for me, is that the rest of the Biblical witness (including Jesus) treat Jonah as historical. There would have to be some pretty incredible evidence to the contrary for me to take such an idea seriously, and then try to do (if it would still be worthwhile) the literary gymnastics to work out the other passages to suit.


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