Jonah- the Insufficiency of the New Testament Argument

Other than tradition that Jonah is historical, there is the New Testament argument. This argument is fairly common and made by non-LDS as well as LDS, but on examination, I think it’s insufficient to prove what its proponents claim. This also applies, by the way, to Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt (Luke 17:32), and Job (D&C 121:10).

What’s really at stake here? Not much, I think, but perhaps an opportunity to break down a wall. Most often, I’ve seen the New Testament argument used in such a way to accuse those in the non-historical camp of lack of faith, either in God’s power, Jesus, or the scriptures. I fully believe in all three of those , but I’m also of the opinion that Jonah was meant as a didactic Israelite parable. I also affirm that Jonah is true (see my Jonah podcast) I’ll take the Institute manual (and secondarily then-Elder Joseph Fielding Smith) as my example. “That Jonah’s story is a true one, and not an allegory as some scholars maintain, is evidenced by 2 Kings 14:25 and three New Testament references.”

First, I take issue with the falsely dichotomous usage of “true… and not an allegory.” Apparently by “true” the manual means “both historical in nature and accurate.” I’ve seen this uncritical equation of “true” with “historical” among LDS more than I’d like. But truth need not be historical. What if we substituted one of Jesus’ parables into that sentence in the manual? How many LDS would be comfortable with the sentence “That the Samaritan’s story is true, and not a parable as some maintain…” Are parables, allegories, and similar things “false” by their very nature? I don’t think so. It appears fairly self-evident that parables can be both true and non-historical in nature, but this line of thinking isn’t evident in the Institute manual. Certainly it means we need to think clearly about what we mean by “true.”

Second, the manual cites Joseph Fielding Smith, who said, “My chief reason for so believing [that Jonah is historical] is not in the fact that it is recorded in the Bible, or that the incident has been duplicated in our day, but in the fact that Jesus Christ, our Lord, believed it. The Jews sought him for a sign of his divinity. He gave them one, but not what they expected. The scoffers of his day, notwithstanding his mighty works, were incapable, because of sin, of believing.” ( Doctrines of Salvation, 2:314–15.)” Smith then quotes Matthew 12:39-40 as prima facie evidence that Jesus believed Jonah was historical.

I’m no lawyer, but I see too many assumptions that must all be true for this to actually prove what it is claimed to prove.  Let’s assume for sake of argument that Jesus actually said this. (This brackets the major issues of textual criticism, translation/transmission from Aramaic>Greek>English, as well as the fact that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death and may well represent more of traditions/views about Jesus than verbatim documentary accounts.)

We must then make two assumptions.

1) Jesus’ knowledge of Jonah was divine or revealed, and not just based on received Jewish tradition.
2) Jesus would not make a comparison to a non-real or allegorical person or event, because such comparisons are  inherently invalid.

We can’t say anything for certain about #1, but it’s clear that there were some things Jesus did not know (Matt 24:36/Mark 13:32).  It also seems logical that Jesus learned through human means as well as by revelation as he grew “from grace to grace.” It’s also clear that Jesus tended to work within then-current worldview of first-century Jews, and even use it against them from time to time. (Similar things happen today. I can even think of examples where two parties have different views of the reality of something, and one uses it against another. For a stupid example, take small children and the boogeyman. Adults know there’s no such thing, but children may believe it, and we sometimes use their own belief in it against them for play or to get them to go to bed. I see no reason why Jesus could not have done so with the Jews.)
Tradition has left no record that Jesus taught anything about basic life-saving personal hygiene or that he tried to get rid of slavery; he didn’t try to undermine the worldview but used it to teach his gospel. To what extent or at what point his own worldview and knowledge transcended that of his mortal companions and cultural into which he was born we can’t really say.

But, again, let’s grant assumption #1.

Assumption #2 is the real kicker, that Jesus would not make any comparison or analogy to Jonah unless Jonah were actually real and had been in a fish for 3 days.  But this, on examination, is simply false. This is done all the time. People compare real-world events to those they’ve seen in movies or read in books that they know to be fictional.

I’ve seen comparisons of boyfriends or crushes to Edward the Vampire (who may be Mormon). I’ve seen The Onion compare the events of September 11th to a Jerry Bruckheimer film, as well as many comparing those events with Tom Clancy’s book in which a Japanese airliner is flown into Congress as a terrorist act. Those are the examples I was able to come up with in a short sitting. I’m sure there are many more. We make comparisons of actions, events, appearances and other things, to those we know from fictional accounts, but those comparisons, in and of themselves, have no bearing on the nature of the object of comparison. Jesus can refer to Jonah and the fish and Jonah can still be allegorical.

In short, the New Testament argument, that Jesus believed Jonah was historical, is founded on multiple assumptions that are easily contradicted and undermined, and are insufficient to establish that Jonah was historical. Ultimately, as the First Presidency thought, the historicity of Jonah is irrelevant; what matters is the doctrine and principles taught in Jonah, which have nothing to do with the fish.  (See my podcast.)

  • BHodges

    Excellent post, thanks!

  • Ardis E. Parshall

    Thank you, Ben. I’m only feeling my way through this as a believing, rational Latter-day Saint, without the academic training you bring to the matter, and it’s reassuring that I’m reaching and teaching the same conclusions. I only wish you were writing and podcasting a week or two BEFORE I’m scheduled to teach a lesson, instead of giving me confirmation after the fact.

  • Steve

    But, Ben, if a general authority has ever given an opinion on this issue, it must be binding and you can’t engage in your own analysis.

    So, stop it. Stop it now.


  • Tevya

    There are recorded incidences of people being swallowed whole, and surviving for some time inside of whales. So the story could in fact be true. However, one point you make is perhaps the most important here: whether it happened or not, the allegory is the way we’re supposed to read this story. There are powerful lessons in the Jonah story, when we get past the sensational and look toward the allegorical.

    If you believe it’s real, or believe it isn’t, the key is to not spend too much time and energy on that argument, but to move past it and see what it was the author of Jonah intended us (with the Spirit’s guidance) to understand. Its often amazing to me just how stuck on the literal reading of the Old Testament (and other books of scripture) many Latter-day Saints are. This in spite of the fact that you don’t have to look very far to find plenty of quotes that show that much of Adam and Eve’s story is very allegorical. Did some of it happen? Yes. Did all of it happen, exactly as stated? The Brethren have told us the answer is “no.”

  • Jacob J

    It should be obvious to anyone reading Jonah that it is not historical. He converted the whole city of Ninevah with a single prediction of their destruction. Ninevah. That’s about a billion times less likely than surviving consumption by a great fish.

    The argument that it must be historical because Jesus referred to Jonah is no argument at all.

  • Greg

    Thanks for posting this Ben and providing reference to your podcast on this subject. I appreciate the reasoning provided in the post.

  • Noel

    I did a small paper on Jonah just recently for a Biblical Intreptation class. I was interested how Smith made changes in his IV where he seems to have thought the term God repented of the evil as a mistake, rather than as modern translators argue should be “changed his mind” or “relented” Jonah is what I love about OT prophets, they are so normal. Jonah does not want to do what God wants him to do. Would any of the LDS “prophets” be so normal?

  • Ben S

    Noel, I’m a little confused by your comment. First, Smith was clearly working from and with the English, not the underlying languages.
    Second, are you suggesting Jonah is normative as an Old Testament prophet, but LDS prophets don’t measure up to that norm? The usual objection to LDS prophets from Joseph Smith to today is that they *don’t* meet some kind of infallible inhuman standard, not that they’re *too little* like Jonah.

    Pick up Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, and you’ll see.