Is Jonah Historical?

Is Jonah Historical? December 15, 2011

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.]

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