Is Jonah History?

Pieter Lastman: Jonah and the Whale (Google Art Project)
Pieter Lastman: Jonah and the Whale (Google Art Project)

Doug Stuart thinks so. In his article “Jonah, Book of” in IVP’s Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets (455-466), the author of the Word Biblical Commentary on Jonah argues:

  1. For an early date, reflecting fully historical events in the life of the mid eighth-century historical Jonah named in 2 Kings 14:25;
  2. That the genre of the book is “sensational, didactic, prophetic narrative.” That is, it is not to be understood in terms of parable, allegory, midrash or fiction. Rather it is historical narrative written in a sensationalist way in order to engage and excite the imagination and the emotions of the readers/hearers;
  3. For the plausibility of a mid-eighth century account, especially considering Assyria’s natural, economic and leadership “troubles” at that time. Stuart argues that it is tenable and possible that Jonah is a historical account;
  4. That the theme of the book concerns the gracious God: God is “concerned” for Assyria’s troubles and so sends Jonah to preach grace to them. Jonah is thus the foil in the story, his hatred of Assyria is contrasted with God’s love of Assyria, and this contrast forms the central message of the book.

I do not have sufficient knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern history to comment on Assyria’s so-called “troubles.” I find, however, that I am not convinced by Stuart’s argument that chapter 1:2 should be translated “their trouble is of concern to me.” He does not consider the implausibility of Ninevah’s repentance, nor its lack of corroboration elsewhere, and most especially in Nahum. Surely if Ninevah’s repentance was as thorough-going as Jonah suggests, Nahum would have had cause to mention it.

Some people worry that if Jonah is not absolutely historical then the Bible is somehow “wrong” or “not true.” This is too simplistic an understanding of the nature of Scripture which regularly uses all kinds of metaphor, imagery, and even fiction to convey truth (Jesus’ parables spring immediately to mind, as does the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation).

Some people also worry that if Jonah is not absolutely historical then Jesus’ comparison of his own death, burial and resurrection with Jonah’s experience is somehow undermined (Matthew 12:40-41). Again, this does not follow. The point Jesus is making stands whether Jonah is understood as historical or not. Jesus appeals to a story commonly known and embedded in the cultural memory of his audience. To argue further that if Jesus thought Jonah was historical when in fact it was not, is to render Jesus “wrong,” or even worse, untruthful. But this argument borders on being docetic – of undermining the true humanity of Jesus as a man of his time.

For another look at this topic see the article by RJS at Jesus Creed.

How do you understand the story of Jonah?

2 thoughts on “Is Jonah History?

  1. It’s funny that while I’d allowed myself to consider the “belly of a whale” as hyperbole or even fiction, I guess I’d always assumed that the overall narative (prophet sent to preach repentence to a people he’d rather see suffer, and then they repent, much to his displeasure) was true, even if the details may have been a little dramatized over time.

    The comparison of Ninevah in Nuham vs Jonah certainly is interesting. I don’t know if my google-skills are reliable, but it looks like at least the story (if not the writing) of Jonah is set a few generations before Nahum, so even if one generation was repentent, there is plenty of time for the culture to return or even worsen – though you would think the dramatic history would spark at least a mention.

    Thanks for the reminder that there’s sometimes more to these stories than very literal interpretations 🙂

    1. Thanks Jason! Yes, there is more than 100 years between the two prophets, if you take the mid-eighth century approach to the historical Jonah. But it is not just these two prophets. Assyria was attacking Judah for much of this time and are always presented as vicious and ruthless – as Nahum portrays them. During this time they also took out the Northern Kingdom of Israel. There is never any mention elsewhere of their dramatic conversion during this period.

      However, there are various possible approaches to the letter, and Doug Stuart argues a case for a very historical approach. For me, though, treating the story as a kind of fictional narrative mitigates some of the problems in the letter, without, in my view, compromising ideas of the inspiration or authority of Scripture. And its message is perhaps even stronger in a post-exilic context as Jonah calls the nation to be a priestly, prayerful, proclaiming people amongst the nations – that is, the kingdom of priests God originally called them to be.

      How did you get your photo in the post? I haven’t been able to work that one out!

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