Should Jonah Be Read as Historical Fiction? Part 1

Since the dawn of biblical criticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it has been a common practice to question the authenticity of the book of Jonah. When it initially came under the microscope of modern theologians, Jonah was criticized for its unbelievable tale of a great fish swallowing a prophet and then spitting him up onto the seashore. Aside from the criticism of Jonah being miraculous, some of the more prominent criticisms launched at the Jonah story included: (1) no historical evidence exists that the entire city of Nineveh ever converted to the God of Israel, (2) the book claims that it took Jonah three days to walk through the city of Nineveh when it covered only about three to four square miles, and (3) the book refers to the “king of Nineveh” and history shows us that there was no king of Nineveh, only a king of Assyria.

All these criticisms were effectively answered by Christian theologians during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who believed in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. It is somewhat puzzling, then, to find some still questioning the authenticity of Jonah by using the same old arguments from a century or two ago. But this is exactly what Brian Jones, pastor of Christ’s Church of the Valley, has done recently on his blog brianjones.com (see here), and evidently has taught his congregation. Is Jonah historical fiction as Pastor Jones argues and preaches at his church? As we will see, the arguments Jones puts forth are the same arguments from centuries ago that do not hold water. Jonah, in fact, is authentically historical.

Argument 1: “No Historical Evidence Exists that the Entire City of Nineveh Converted to God”

Brian Jones begins his argument against the historical authenticity of the book of Jonah by claiming that no historical evidence has ever been found to support the claim of Jonah 3, which asserts that the entire city of Nineveh converted to God. Jones comments, “We are told that everyone in Nineveh converted en masse in response to Jonah’s preaching. . . . This simply did not happen. . . . There is no historical record that 120,000 Ninevites converted to Yahwehism. Not in their archaeology, tablets, anything.”[1]

This argument against the historical nature of Jonah is fallacious on several levels. First, it is simply an argument from ignorance. Just because no historical evidence exists does not mean the event did not occur. For the longest time biblical critics accused the Old Testament of falsely claiming that the Hittite civilization existed because no evidence had been found. Such critics therefore concluded that the Hittites never existed. But these critics were proven incorrect in the late nineteenth century when evidence was found. The most one could conclude from a lack of historical evidence for the conversion of the Ninevites is that one ought to remain agnostic about the event, not that it did not occur. Biblical scholar James Smith aptly sums up this point well: “While to date no concrete evidence of even a temporary change of heart in Nineveh has been discovered, neither is there any data which would refute this claim of Jonah. In truth the history of Assyria during the period of Jonah is virtually a blank.”[2]

Second, it is interesting to note that Jonah 3 says nothing about the Ninevites converting—coming into a saving relationship—specifically to “Yahwehism,” or the God of the Israelites. Rather, the text indicates that they only repented and believed the message which Jonah preached. Jonah simply proclaimed, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). The exact sin of the Ninevites that Jonah preached against is not revealed (some commentators, however, believe it had something to do with their violent warfare, see Jonah 3:8). But whatever the message was, the Ninevites believed that message: “Then the people of Nineveh believed in God” (Jonah 3:5a). This evidently led to their repentance—“they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5b). Note there is nothing said here that demands we understand the Ninevites as converting to God in an eternal life-saving relationship.

For the sake of argument, however, let us say the Ninevites in fact converted to God. How long did they remain faithful to God? Are we required to believe that is was a permanent conversion? There is nothing in the text that would indicate this. It is feasible that if they converted it was only temporary. If Jonah visited Nineveh some years before the death of King Jeroboam (which there is good reason to believe), then anywhere from six to twelve years passed before Nineveh is mentioned again in Scripture.  It is not until Meneham became king of Israel that we find Nineveh mentioned again with Pul, king of Assyria (Nineveh), making an alliance with Israel. Anything could have occurred within those six to twelve years.

Brian Jones, however, discounts this idea that the conversion of the Ninevites could have been temporary. “And no,” he exclaims, “[conversion] wouldn’t be short-lived. Conversion is conversion.” Jones’ comment seems to imply either (1) that it is entirely impossible for the Ninevites to “fall from grace” (the doctrine of perseverance of the saints, or “once saved always saved,” often associated with Calvinism), or (2) it is entirely impossible for conversion to be short lived. But neither (1) nor (2) are true.  Let’s see why.

First, (1) is false because the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints denies that humans have truly free will. In addition it cannot make sense of all the warnings throughout Scripture to not fall away from Christ (e.g., see the entire book of Hebrews).

Second, (2) is false because conversion or repentance is not always long term, but short lived, as seen from examples throughout Scripture. Consider, for example, the repentance and conversions of Israel during the period of the Judges. Many of them were temporary. Even the conversion of Judah under King Hezekiah was extremely short lived. Judah immediately resorted to its idolatries with the rise of the next king, Manasseh. Even the Apostle Paul in the NT chided the Galatians for “so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6; emphasis mine).

Therefore, for Jones to argue that the conversion of the Ninevites could not have been temporary is false. Just making such a claim does not make it true. One must show it by good argument and evidence, and there is no evidence that shows it to be impossible that the Ninevite conversion was temporary. Given the numerous examples that conversion is often temporary makes it possible—not impossible—that the Ninevite conversion was temporary. As the nineteenth century scholar J. W. McGarvey poignantly observed, “Is an account of something ‘remarkable’ to be understood as indicating that the book containing it is not historical? If so, we must scout all history except that of the most commonplace character.”[3]

Argument 2: “The Text Claims It Took Jonah Three Days to Walk Through Nineveh; There Is No Way It Would Take This Long”

Jones’ second argument against the historical nature of the book of Jonah is that Nineveh was much too small for it to take Jonah three days to walk through. Brian Jones states, “Nineveh would cover an area of around three square miles. How long do you think it would take you to walk 3 miles? An hour? Less? But it took Jonah 3 days to walk through Nineveh? Really?”[4] According to Jones, then, only if one “had no legs” (his words) would it take someone three days to walk through Nineveh.

This argument lacks any depth whatsoever. It assumes that Jonah simply took a spring walk through Nineveh as one would through Central Park in New York City. Evidently, we are to assume Jonah had nothing to do, except maybe a little sight-seeing. But according to the biblical text, God told Jonah to preach a message of repentance to everyone in the city. So, the question is not how long it would take to simply take a stroll through a city that was only about three square miles, but how long would it take to walk through a city about three square miles preaching a message of repentance to every citizen, pleading with them to turn to God? The answer to this question is anyone’s guess. But evidently, the biblical text says it took Jonah three days. Therefore, to argue against the historical nature of the book of Jonah as Jones does is fallacious. It would be like arguing that since it took me four hours (when it only takes approximately two) to drive from Cincinnati to Louisville, then I obviously did not take the trip. But clearly such a conclusion would be presumptuous at best. Perhaps I did other things than drive straight to Louisville.

Argument 3: “Jonah Says There Was a ‘King of Nineveh,’ But There Was No ‘King of Nineveh!’”

Jones’ final argument against the historical nature of Jonah is that the text refers to the “king of Nineveh,” but there was no such king. Jones argues, “We are told in Jonah 3:6, ‘When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh…’ The only problem is there never was a ‘King of Ninevah.’ . . . Nowhere in all the anals of one of the most documented cross-verified cultures of the Mesopotamian world do we find a single shred of evidence that there was a ‘King of Ninevah.’”[5]

This objection is often dealt with and rebutted in freshman Bible college courses called “hermeneutics”—the study of the principles of interpretation. To claim that there were no kings of Nineveh is effectively eisegeting the biblical text. What this means is that the interpreter imposes his own biases and viewpoints upon the Bible to interpret it and thus ends up concluding something false. In this case, Jones has imposed upon the biblical text his western understanding of history and the way it speaks about history. Evidently, Jones believes that if ancient Israel refers to a “king of Nineveh” then it must be false because today we westerners would never refer to a king of the city of Nineveh, but to a king of the “Assyrian empire.”

The fact, however, is that one must interpret and understand Scripture according to the way those who wrote it understood history and in the way they spoke. In this case, the Israelites would at times refer to kings of an empire (as we would understand it today) as kings of the capital city. For example, 1 Kings 21:1 refers to King Ahab as “king of Samaria” and 2 Chronicles refers to Ben-hadad king of Syria as “king of Damascus.” To speak of the “king of Nineveh,” then, would be equivalent to our western reference to the “king of Assyria.” There is no problem here. We cannot impose our own biases upon the text when interpreting it; we must let the text speak for itself and be understood from its own historical frame of reference. So, yes, there is “a shred of evidence” of “a king of Nineveh,” contrary to Jones. It was the same as the king of Assyria. If we were to use Jones’ framework for interpreting Scripture, we would have to argue that 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles are also historical fiction. But certainly that would be incorrect. What needs to be thrown out is Jones’ hermeneutical approach, not the book of Jonah.

All three of Jones’ arguments against the historical nature of the book of Jonah, therefore, are poor and fail once scrutinized more closely. Unfortunately, the arguments are nothing new. Jones has simply repackaged them—no, rather he has simply pulled them from the dustbin of historical criticism from two hundred years ago. In the next post, I will give some arguments for the authenticity of the book of Jonah as historical.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

Notes:

[1] Brian Jones, “Why Jonah Should Be Read As Historical Fiction,” http://brianjones.com/why-jonah-should-be-read-as-historical-fiction.

[2] James Smith, The Minor Prophets (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1994), 42.

[3] J. W. McGarvey, Jesus and Jonah (Chillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing, 2008).

[4] Jones, “Why Jonah Should Be Read As Historical Fiction.”

[5] Ibid.

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2 Responses to Should Jonah Be Read as Historical Fiction? Part 1

  1. Jim Nichols, Portland, IN says:

    Two of the three reasons given are arguments from silence. Absence of mention may pose questions, but not proof against the concept of the preaching of Jonah and the order issued by “the king of Nineveh.”
    The major issue that was not addressed by Brian Jones was Jesus’ own appeal to the sign of Jonah as a type of His Resurrection. If Jonah is simply allegorical, then what is the Resurrection? If the Resurrection is the best attested miracle of all human history, then what’s so hard to believe about Jonah?

    • prasor says:

      Jim,

      You are correct to point out the importance of Jesus’ affirmation of the Jonah account. Brian Jones actually does talk about this (see his blog at brianjones.com). I will be addressing this issue in my next blog. Please visit my blog later this week for my part 2. As you probably could guess, Jones discounts Jesus’ words, too.