The question that’s been asked about Jonah more than any other is a simple and straightforward one—
Did any of this ever happen, or not?
Is it fiction, or is it non-fiction?
Critics point out all kinds of allegedly laughable events in the story—
- A man survived inside a fish for 72 hours (Jon 1.17).
- The entire city of Nineveh, under the urging of its king, repented of their notorious and culturally ingrained cruelty and worshipped the true God of Israel (Jon 3.5-9).
- A plant grew large and shriveled up on 2 consecutive days (Jon 4.6-8).
What nonsense, they say.
Let’s back waaaaay up and consider the question as carefully as we can in a blog post or two.
For starters, we should consider whether or not the question is important. Does it matter whether the story ever actually happened?
We know that the Bible contains fiction, from a fable recounted by an Israelite king (2K 14.9) to a story about a prodigal son told by Jesus himself (Lk 15.11-32). Supporters of historicity note that Jesus referred to the “fish story” (Mt 12.39-41), but we also know that literary allusion is a perfectly legitimate rhetorical device—so in theory Jesus could refer to the story of Jonah as a metaphor for his own death and resurrection without necessarily viewing it as a historical event. But I note that Jesus spoke of the men of Nineveh, who repented, condemning Jesus’ hearers because they (the men of Nineveh) had repented at the preaching of Jonah (Mt 12.41)—and that really wouldn’t make any sense if the Jonah event wasn’t actually historical.
We also know that there’s a genre we call “historical fiction,” in which stories are made up about real historical characters (e.g. Barabbas or Daniel) that are fictionalized. So the fact that Jonah is described elsewhere in the Bible as a historical figure (2K 14.25) doesn’t render it impossible in theory that the book of Jonah is a fictionalized account. As I’ve noted in my thoughts on the story of Job, sometimes you can’t answer this kind of question with absolute confidence.
Having said that, I note that Jonah is independently verified in the biblical text as a historical character, and Jesus does use his experience with the fish as a figure of his own death and resurrection, and (for what it’s worth) the rabbinical traditions never seem to have entertained the idea that the story was fiction, so barring substantive evidence that it’s fiction, we ought to assume that it really happened.
What kind of evidence would that be? I think there are two kinds that we could consider.
The first is evidence that it conforms to some common fictional genre that was used at the time it might have been written—sometime between, say, around 789 BC, when Jereboam II began to reign (2K 14.25), and around 200 BC, when we know the book of Jonah was in the Septuagint. (That’s being very generous.)
Critics have suggested that it might be an allegory—but this document doesn’t seem to have the characteristics of an allegory. Whom do the various characters represent? Where are the multiple levels of meaning? Where is the object personification?
Another possibility is that it’s fable. But again, it doesn’t read like fable. For starters, it’s too long and complex. And the whale doesn’t talk, nor does the gourd or the worm.
Well, then, maybe it’s a parable. The moral lesson is there, all right. But it’s still too complicated, and the levels of meaning don’t seem to be there.
You know what it sounds like? It sounds like a narrative about an actual historical character. Our inclination to this point is to consider it non-fiction.
But I noted above that there are two kinds of evidence that a historical narrative is fictionalized. We need to consider the other type. We’ll get into that next time.