Last time we began our consideration of whether the Jonah story is fiction or non-fiction. We noted that the inspiration of Scripture doesn’t necessarily rule out the possibility that it’s fiction. And then we concluded, tentatively, that the evidence we’ve considered so far leans us toward non-fiction, but we have yet to consider a category of evidence that the story might be historical fiction, a fictional story made up about an actual historical character.
How do we know that historical fiction is, after, all, fiction?
Two possible ways: because the author tells us he’s fictionalized it, or because it contains things that we know didn’t happen.
The author of the book of Jonah gives us no hint that he’s fictionalizing.
Critics, then, note the unbelievable things in the story—as I listed them last time—as evidence that it’s fictionalized.
How about the repentance of Nineveh? Well, in fact, that’s not much of a stretch. The passage doesn’t say that they became monotheistic, only that they were afraid of a foreigner’s tribal god and tried to appease him. That sort of thing happened all the time in the ancient world, where syncretistic religion was common. Douglas Stuart notes, “From Assyrian omen texts, we know of four circumstances that could move a people, and its king, to fasting and mourning: invasion by an enemy; a total solar eclipse; famine and a major outbreak of disease; and a major flood. We know that enemy nations, such as Urartu, had beaten the Assyrians in a number of military encounters in the time of Ashurdan III and that a major earthquake occurred in the reign of one of the kings with the name Ashurdan—but not for certain Ashurdan III. Moreover, on June 15, 763 bc in the tenth year of Ashurdan III, there was a total solar eclipse over Assyria” (New Bible Commentary on Jonah).
And what about the plant? Some plants do grow rapidly—we Southerners know all about kudzu—and in a very hot, dry wind (Jon 4.8), shriveling could happen in a hurry. Not outside the realm of possibility, but not common either.
But experienced Christians know what’s going on under the surface here.
The real issue isn’t the fish or the plant or the worm or the wind.
The real issue is that some people just reject the supernatural out of hand. Ax heads don’t float. You can’t feed 5000 people with 5 buns and 2 small fish. And people don’t rise from the dead.
And, in their mind, that’s that.
So Jonah never happened.
Well, I’ll grant you that I’ve never seen a miracle and that I’m pretty suspicious when other people claim that they have. It’s safe to say that they’re exceedingly rare.
In fact, even in biblical times, and even if you take the miracle claims at face value, they’re still pretty rare. With just 2 or 3 exceptions, all the recorded biblical miracles occurred in just 3 relatively brief periods of time:
- The active careers of Moses and Joshua (80 years)
- The active careers of Elijah and Elisha (80 years)
- The earthly lifetime of Jesus and for a few years following (maybe 60 years)
That’s maybe 200 or 250 years out of 6000 years of earth’s history—assuming you’re a young-earth creationist, and a fan of Ussher’s dating at that. Right at 4.2% of history at the most, and if you hold to billions of years (I don’t), that 4.2% shrinks to practically zero.
I long ago decided that rationalism simply didn’t have a strong enough record to merit my faith. I see strong evidence that the Bible is not of ordinary human origin, and I’ve seen it vindicated any number of times, and so I freely confess that I’m inclined to believe it. So the events in Jonah aren’t an obstacle to me.
I think it happened.
Note: For a clear and concise discussion of the alleged fictional nature of Jonah, see Billy K. Smith and Frank S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, New American Commentary Series (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), pp. 209-19, “Genre and Purpose.”