Should Jonah Be Read as Historical Fiction? Part 2

In the last post I analyzed arguments against the historical nature of the book of Jonah posed by Brian Jones and found them wanting (see here). There is simply no good evidence that undermines the historicity of Jonah. In fact, there is evidence that points to its authenticity. In this article, then, I will discuss arguments for the historical authenticity of Jonah, i.e., why we should consider the book of Jonah to be an actual historical event. I will begin by looking at the most clear evidence: Jesus’ statements found in Matthew 12:40 and Luke 11:30-32 about Jonah. We will then move on to other considerations.

Jesus Affirms the Historical Nature of Jonah

The most clear evidence that the book of Jonah is historical comes from Jesus’ own words found in Luke 11:30-32 (also recorded in Matthew 12:39-41): “For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. . . . The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”

We see here that Jesus is affirming the historical nature of Jonah. Just as Jonah himself was a sign to the Ninevites, so shall be the Son of Man be a sign to Jesus’ generation. And Jesus affirms that the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah. In fact, the Ninevites will stand up and condemn the generation of Jesus’ contemporaries. The truth of the latter statement (that the Son of Man will be a sign) is based upon the truthfulness of the former (that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites). The straightforward and sound interpretation of this passage, therefore, indicates that Jesus and his hearers understood Jonah to be an actual historical event.

But this is where we find ourselves confronted with yet another objection from Brian Jones and other critics. Jones protests, “Jesus mentioning Jonah in two texts doesn’t prove or disprove anything. Jesus could have thought the Book of Jonah was historical because he mentioned it, or he could have just as easily NOT thought it was historical and used it as an analogy anyway. Jesus, as well as any person alive today, used/uses both historical and non-historical people and events all the time when drawing comparisons.”[1] For example, one could easily say something like, “I just about fell down and broke my crown like Jack who went up the hill with Jill.” In such a statement, we certainly would not take the reference to Jack and Jill as being an actual historical event. And so, argues Jones, “When Jesus cited Jonah in Matthew 12:40 and Luke 11:30-32 he was simply citing a commonly known and shared text that his hearers would easily recall and understand. That’s how analogies work. Anyone quoting these texts as ‘the final word’ and ‘end all argument’ are grasping for straws.”[2]

Is this really a “grasping for straws?” Let’s pause to consider Jones’ argument for a moment. If it is true that Jesus was merely appealing to Jonah—which everyone knew was false—in order to illustrate a future event that would occur, then why was Jesus not challenged on his false statement? This is to say, if Jesus and his hearers did not accept Jonah as historical, the crowd could have easily replied, “But just as Jonah was not really a sign to the Ninevites and did not really preach to them, so shall the Son of Man not be a sign to this generation.” But we see nothing of this sort in the text. Jesus’ hearers (as well as Jesus himself) appear to take what he is saying as factual history.

Interestingly, most biblical commentators—even the most critical ones—admit that Jesus’ hearers must have understood Jonah to have been an actual event. Ironically, Brian Jones even guesses “that most would have taken it literally.”[3] But if the crowd took the book of Jonah literally (i.e., historically), we must commit ourselves to the fact that Jesus was either (1) a deceiver or (2) was deceived. In the first case, Jesus would have been a deceiver because he would have known that the story of Jonah was not true but never corrected the erroneous thinking of his hearers and even continued to pretend it was real. In the latter case, Jesus himself would have been deceived along with his hearers because he would have thought Jonah was historical. These are the only two options once one commits to the idea that Jesus’ hearers understood the story of Jonah to be historical.

Neither of these conclusions, however, is acceptable. First, attributing deception to Jesus is unthinkable. If he deceived, then he is a sinner. And no orthodox Christian should accept this because it would undermine his atonement for sin and would be contrary to his divine nature. Second, if Jesus himself had been deceived, then we again bring into question the nature of Jesus himself: he took the book of Jonah to be true when it was not. A deceived Son of God is no Son of God. By implication, Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man would be a sign just as Jonah had been a sign would have been false. But another implication follows as well: if either Jesus deceived or was deceived, then the doctrine of inerrancy cannot be affirmed, precisely because it attributes error to Jesus’ words recorded in the biblical text. Therefore, contrary to Jones, the question of the historical nature of Jonah does have implications for inspiration and inerrancy. If we accept Jones’ view, we necessarily undermine the doctrine of Scripture as inerrant and the doctrine of the nature of Christ.

Before moving to our next point, we should consider Jones’ argument that Jesus’ use of Jonah is an analogy equivalent to statements like “I just about fell down and broke my crown like Jack who went up the hill with Jill,” or “You, my friend, are the Dwight Schrute of the CCV staff”[4]. This is false. This may be seen by the fact that most people understand that both Jack and Jill did not go up a hill to fetch a pail of water and that Dwight Schrute is not a real person. They are purely made up. Therefore, when such statements are made about these characters, it is known that they are fictional analogies that do not represent reality. But as we saw earlier, Jesus’ hearers understood Jonah to be an historical fact. Therefore, the analogy of Jonah that Jesus used is different from the ones posed by Brian Jones.

On the other hand, Jesus’ use of Jonah does have its equivalents in Scripture. But in each case they actually support the historical authenticity of Jonah. The nineteenth century biblical scholar J. W. McGarvey correctly notes that the phrase “just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be” is equivalent to “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Does the Apostle Paul here believe that all have in fact not died in Adam, that Adam and his fall was just a fictional story? And what about other statements like, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11), and “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14), or “And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man” (Luke 17:26)?  Are these all analogies based upon fictitious events and characters? To the contrary, the future predictions are based upon past facts. What we see, then, is that “the undoubted reality of the past fact is what gives force to the assertion respecting the future one” [5]. There is no instance in Scripture in which Jesus refers to some past event in which his hearers understood to be historical, but which Jesus did not, and compared it with some future fact. As McGarvey says, “Let them find, if they can, a single instance.”[6]

Other Evidence That Affirms the Historicity of Jonah

The best evidence for the historicity of Jonah is Jesus’ words, but there is other evidence that may be considered.  First, consider the fact that the title of the book bears the name of Jonah, a prophet mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. Although nothing else is said directly about Jonah elsewhere in the Old Testament, we can safely speculate about some of his work as a prophet. For example, from 2 Kings 14:25 we learn that Jonah lived during the reign of Jeroboam II and that Jeroboam was able to reestablish the border of Israel “according to the word of the Lord . . . which he spoke through His servant Jonah.” Evidently, Jonah served as the major prophet of that time, and thus he would have been well known, especially since it was through him that God reestablished the border of Israel that had been previously destroyed by the king of Syria years earlier.

Considering that Jonah was a real historical figure—a prophet—in Israel, surely it would be irreverent to ascribe such behavior to a prophet in a fictional story. Jonah is not exactly the exemplar prophet in the book of Jonah—he runs from God, rejects his commission, finally accepts it, and then pouts when the Gentile nation repents. This behavior of Jonah is not something one would make up just to teach a “moral” story. Rather, if such a story were made up, one would be more inclined to make the prophet more righteous.

Also, and more significantly, the prophet is said to be going to a Gentile nation to preach repentance. To have made up such a story for some kind of “moral” teaching would have been repugnant to the Israelites of the time. “No Israelite,” explains McGarvey, “inventing a story of God’s dealings with a great Gentile city like Nineveh, would have represented him as being so regardful of the welfare of its people, so quick to forgive their sins, and so tenderly mindful of the innocent within its walls.”[7] Jonah is even rebuked by God for his anger that God did not destroy the Gentile Ninevites! Such a made-up idea would never have passed muster with the Israelites. McGarvey’s summary is on target:

Such a book, if written as a fiction, would have so outraged the feeling of zealous priests and scribes that it would never have obtained a place in the sacred canon. How can we imagine that a people who attempted to slay Jesus because he showed them that a Gentile woman and a Gentile warrior, in the days of Elijah and Elisha, honored these two prophets as no man or woman in Israel did or would, have permitted a book so full of rebuke for their hatred of the heathen to be made a part of their own Bible? The thought is preposterous.[8]

If the Israelites would have allowed such a fictional story to be placed alongside the authoritative Torah and prophets, it would be the only one of its kind. There is no other fictional book in the entire Bible that depicts prophets in such a light. Again, McGarvey notes, “There is nothing of the kind to be found elsewhere in the Bible, and such aspersions upon the names of prophets or patriarchs is not to be found in the apocryphal literature of the Jews.”[9] In fact, whenever such fictional events are conjured up in the apocryphal writings, they often depict the prophets as tricking or triumphing over foolish Gentile nations, like the apocryphal additions to the book of Daniel.

For these reasons and for the reason that Jesus affirms the historicity of the book of Jonah, we should also accept Jonah to be historical. If Jesus’ hearers believed the story to be historical, then we too must accept it. Otherwise, the nature of Jesus and the nature of Scripture as inspired and inerrant are undermined. And it would be incredulous to believe that such a book as Jonah would have been incorporated into the OT cannon if it were fiction. Jones’ and others’ critical arguments regarding Jonah simply do not float—they drown under closer scrutiny.

Grace,

Peter Jay Rasor II

Notes:

[1] Brian Jones, “Does Matthew 12:40 and Luke 11:30-32 Prove Jesus Thought The Jonah Story Actually Happened?” http://brianjones.com/does-matthew-1240-and-luke-1130-32-prove-jesus-thought-the-jonah-story-actually-happened

[2] Ibid.

[3] see the “comments” section here http://brianjones.com/does-matthew-1240-and-luke-1130-32-prove-jesus-thought-the-jonah-story-actually-happened

[4] Jones, “Does Matthew 12:40 and Luke 11:30-32 Prove Jesus Thought The Jonah Story Actually Happened?”

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

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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

  1. Greg Steere says:

    Dr. Rasor,

    Thank you for your comments. One of my deepest concerns, having gone and read Brian Jones original blog, is that he simply assumes that Historical Fiction was a genre with which all Hebrews were familiar.

    It was a non-literary society. They did not have Amazon to pull up and browse genres. They had the Word of the Lord. I don’t see any where in their history that they saw the “category distinction” Jones imposes. It is an anachronism to speak such. To say something like, “They were familiar, or people like them were familiar with the Epic of Gilgamesh” would be complete speculation and actually deny the face value reading of the Word of the Lord that the chosen people are shown to have in their own chronicle.

    To say something like, “but what about their creation myths in Genesis – this surely is historical fiction,” again begs the question. This is a modern reading of the narrative and not the attitude of those who originally received the “Word of the Lord.”

    Sincerely, Greg Steere