Jonah: Fact or Fiction?

This is the first post in an on-going series examining the book of Jonah.  For the next couple of weeks we will release a blog post discussing a different element of truth found within the story of Jonah.  This will include looking at some of the historical context surrounding this time, the language used in the book, and what the implications of this book are for us today.  Enjoy!

When I was about five years old, my family did something that many Christian families across the world had done before.  We were not trailblazers of some evangelical movement, nor were we setting a trend to later be discovered by the masses.  We simply changed churches.  We stopped attending a large Baptist church in Fayetteville, NC and starting attending a much smaller non-denominational (aka undercover Southern-Baptist) church across town.

I remember as a young boy asking my parents why we were no longer going to the only church I had ever known.  My mom told me a number of reasons, which, to be honest, I have no memory of twenty-five years later.  One answer, though, I do remember: “The new pastor doesn’t believe the story of Jonah actually happened!”  I remember, thinking to myself, even as a little boy, “If someone calls themselves a ‘Christian,’  they would never discount a book in the Bible.  And to makes things worse, it was a PASTOR of all people!”  At the time, I knew switching churches was the right thing to do.

Fast forward twenty five years.

I continued going to that same small church until I graduated from high school.
I majored in Pastoral Ministry at Lee University.
I minored in Koine Greek.
I decided I never wanted to be a pastor.

I earned a Masters of Arts in Teaching in Secondary Education.
I wanted to be a Bible teacher.
I taught Math for 5 years.

With all the ups and downs of my life and the certainty, or lack thereof, which that has brought, I have realized something profoundly simple about my understanding of my understanding: “I know nothing.  God knows everything.”  This seems like a statement you hear being taught to children in Sunday School, but there is true freedom in knowing this.  I do not have to be the source of knowledge in my life.  There will be uncertainty, and that’s ok.  Because at the end of the day, I don’t have to be confident in my own answers.  I can take solace in the One who created all and is the answer for all.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “So….I thought this blog post was about Jonah?  Here this guy is, telling me all about his failed dreams and aspirations and I just want to read about a fish eating a guy and how the only appropriate Biblical response to such atrocities is to eat more sushi!”

Don’t worry, my thoughts of how I know nothing will all tie-in in a second!

Back to Jonah.


What is the source of disagreement surrounding this unusual narrative focused on an unwilling prophet?  To simplify a very complicated discussion, it all goes back to what my mother said: some people don’t believe the story of Jonah actually happened, while others believe it did.

Starting with those who believe the book of Jonah is a factual story, what reasons do they point to?  H.H. Halley summarizes beautifully the position held by many through this statement,

Jesus unmistakably regarded it as historical fact (Matthew 12:39-41).  It takes considerable straining to make anything else out of Jesus’ language.  He called it a ‘sign’ of His own resurrection.  He put the fish, the repentance of the Ninevites, His resurrection, and the Judgement Day in the same category.  He surely was talking of reality when He spoke of His resurrection and the Judgement Day.  Thus Jesus accepted the Jonah story, and for us that settles it (Halley’s Bible Handbook, 423).

If that settles the argument in favor OF the historical accuracy of Jonah, then how can someone possibly go against Jesus and call themselves a Christian?  It’s all about the language.  D.L. Peterson summarizes the argument by stating, due to the language the author uses, the book of Jonah likely postdates the destruction of Jerusalem (The Prophetic Literature, 191).

By claiming the book of Jonah was written AFTER the destruction of Jerusalem, Peterson is saying this particular story of Jonah, who is mentioned in II Kings 14:25 as a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel, could not have taken place when it is claiming to take place.

The Assyrians, whose capital city is Nineveh, were ultimately conquered by the Babylonians.  The Babylonians, who were responsible for destroying the city of Jerusalem, were conquered by the Persians.  The Persians, under Cyrus the Great, lets the Israelites return to Jerusalem to rebuild it.

If Jonah was written with a flair for the Persians, using words and phrases not seen until after the destruction of Jerusalem, but is claiming to have happened during the time of the Assyrians, it can’t be a historical narrative which means it has to be a fairy tale.  Right?  Or, better yet, could it be the book of Jonah is some other form of literature with a different purpose entirely?  In regards to this, L. C. Allen makes the following statement:

This…suggests strongly that the author is less concerned with a bare recital of historical facts than with his Jewish audience and their reception of an important truth, which would revolutionize both their understanding of the nature of God and their attitude toward pagans (The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah, 177).

This would mean the author is not trying to recite a historical narrative, but is trying to teach a lesson through the use of images the reader would be familiar with.  There’s another guy in the Bible who teaches in a very similar manner.  We identify His teachings as parables and His name as Jesus.

*It is important to note I am summarizing a lengthy discourse on both sides of the argument for the sake of brevity.

So here we are.  Both arguments have briefly been had and no matter where you stand on this position, you probably still stand there.  So why did I bring up a possibly incendiary topic?  Because my salvation is not contingent upon the historical accuracy of Jonah’s story.  The author of Jonah did not mistakenly write forty eight verses.  God did not fall asleep only to wake up to find His Word tarnished by a story He didn’t mean to include.  God MEANT for this story to be included in His Holy Scripture.  The fact that Jesus Himself refers to this book in terms of His own physical resurrection emphasizes the importance our Savior placed on this writing.  At the end of the day, your belief on the type of book this is does not change the importance of this book.

God allowed this book to be a part of His Word.  Paul explains to Timothy what use God’s Word has in the following terms,

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives.  It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.  God uses it to prepare and equip His people to do every good work (II Timothy 3:16-17, NLT).

Regardless of what argument you might have regarding the type of book Jonah is, you can not argue what use the book of Jonah has.  The book of Jonah is useful to teach us how to live and how not to live.  The book of Jonah corrects us and it helps us carry out God’s mission for our lives.

Remember that Sunday-school answer I came to realize?  This is where it applies.  God knows why the book of Jonah was written.  God knows if it was historical or parable.  God knows better than I do.  Therefore, I’m going to study the Bible He preserved and apply it to my life, regardless if one particular story is fact or fiction parable.

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