On the Historicity of the Book of Jonah

jonahwhaleBecause of the grand scale miracles in the Book of Jonah, not least being kept alive in a big fish for three days and three nights, some skeptics and critics deny their historicity and have therefore concluded that the Book of Jonah is either meant to be interpreted as an allegory or a parable.

Whether we interpret it as an allegory (parable) or not, we know that Jonah was an actual historical person who had a prophetic ministry among the northern tribes during the reign of Jeroboam II (ca. 793-753 B.C.); and we know that Jesus referenced Jonah to rebuke the Pharisees and to point to his own death, burial, resurrection, and future judgment (Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32).

Those, like myself, who accept the historicity of the Book of Jonah,  views Jesus’ references to Jonah not as an allegory or a parable but as an actual historical account.

Moreover, the God who created ex nihilo, parted the Red Sea, shut the mouth of lions, turned water into wine, multiplied a lad’s box lunch of two fish and five loaves, to feed some five thousand and counting, Why couldn’t perform the same sort of miraculous feats we encounter in the Book of Jonah?

In the end, like I always tell a fellow theologue and sparring partner, as a biblical absolutist (a term I borrowed from Doug Wilson), to date, I’ve found no reason to doubt the historicity of Jonah.  Have you?

I have.

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17 Responses to On the Historicity of the Book of Jonah

  1. Jon Hughes says:

    Bit of a fishy tale! The clearest argument against its historicity is its obvious satire. The most emotional argument for its historicity is what Jesus had to say.

  2. Simon says:

    I just don’t know. I think whether one thinks this is story actually happened, or whether it was a legend or an allegory does not change its theology meaning for us. That is the most important thing. Do we believe that St George really slayed a dragon? I don’t know. Nevertheless it is a powerful story for how Christian identity. That is the most important thing.

    I don’t think that the fact the Jesus made reference to Jonah is a compelling reason to think of it as an actual real story. He made reference to the prodigal son. It makes no sense for us to ask “where did this person live?” or “what kinds of pigs did he feed?”.

    • Jon Hughes says:


      It’s certainly a literary masterpiece, and as you say contains profound theological truths regardless of whether or not Jonah was literally in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights.

      However, fundamentalists would see theological implications because of what Jesus said about Jonah, just as they would see theological implications in denying a literal Adam because of what the apostle Paul said about Adam.


      Good point about Jonah being a historical person based on 2 Kings 14:25. Regarding the book of Jonah itself, Craig Blomberg – in “Can We Still Believe The Bible?” – suggests, regarding whether or not to accept the historicity of chapter 2, that Jonah 1:17-2:10 is quite detachable and self-contained, and therefore it can be removed and you have the sailors throwing Jonah overboard and the sea growing calm. The narrative then picks up again in 3:1 with the word of the Lord coming to Jonah a second time. He’s not saying that this is what he believes, but makes the point nonetheless.

      Is it possible that some details have been embellished? Likewise perhaps with Samson’s exploits! Are we allowed to suggest a Jewish propensity for hyperbole in some of the biblical narratives? Can that be incorporated within a high view of Scripture? Is that the approach that best reflects the literary genre of certain books of the Bible? Or does it destroy everything?

      • TC Robinson says:

        Jon: there’s that tension for sure, historical or nonhistorical? The growing consensus among modern scholars is to view the book of Jonah nonhistorical, even with those references made by Jesus. You have made some good points. Yes, literary genre must be taken into account.

        Perhaps what we have is this nonfiction based off an actual historical figure (2 Kings 14:25). I can live with that. And even so, this approach doesn’t take away from its theological import, or cheapens Jesus’ references. Think the parables here.

        Simon: Correct. We cannot be dogmatic on this one. 😉

    • Give Jonah his due credit. Im from the tribe of Cain and seth .I know about being undermined in history.

  3. Colin says:

    I guess my inbuilt tenedency is to presume historicity unless there is a reasonable basis for concluding otherwise. With Jonah I am not dogmatic – for now. Is there/ was there a fish/whale which might have swallowed a man who then survives for 3 days? What state would he be in when “thrown up”?

    As for the Patron Saint of 75% of me (the other 25% falls under St Andrew, courtesy of a proud to be Scottish Grandmother) I have never gone for the fire eating dragon concept. what might he have slain, if he did? something akin to the Leviatjhan of Job? But then Pope Paul VI demoted him a long time ago, so perhaps he does not count.

    A slight reservation on Simon’s point. The Prodigal Son is clearly one of the parables, with no claim on being specific history. When quoting from Jonah and appllying it to himself Jesus was quoting sacred Scripture, on which he would have had the highest regard and understanding. Personally I could not draw such a comparison. Small point.

    • TC Robinson says:

      Colin: I too had to rethink what I originally wrote. I really didn’t do my homework, though I had been aware of the Jonah challenges for sometime.

      The Book of Jonah fits the satire genre, “the exposure of human vice or folly,” even though it has references to real historical people and places. I can live with that. 😉

    • Jon Hughes says:


      Regarding what state Jonah would have been in when “thrown up”, the ultra-literalist approach of Henry Morris includes a very bleached looking Jonah arriving in Ninevah (after the whale’s gastric juices had done their work) – so dramatic was his appearance that it added to the remarkable success of his preaching!

  4. David Beirne says:

    Is there another BOOK of OT revelation whose entirety is fiction (whether it be parable, etc)? To me, the impact of Jonah’s message is greatly reduced if it’s parable/fiction. Did Jonah go to Ninevah (reluctantly) and the fish narrative just make its way into the account through the epic-ness of Jonah’s success at Ninevah? I am definitely on the real fish side, but we can admit that in reading the book as a whole unit the message is not about the fish but about Jonah’s racism. It’s not that Jonah didn’t want to go, but he didn’t want to go because he knew God would save THOSE people.Admittedly, the fish is almost a sideline to that message and indeed is not central to it. Just as the literalness of Adam & Eve (I believe) is justified by Jesus, so also Jonah.

    • Jon Hughesj says:


      In answer to your first question, some would say the book of Job is another such example.

      At the present time, I incline toward the view that the entirety of the book of Jonah is fictional, even though Jonah himself was a historical person. Perhaps it was written much later than the lifetime of the prophet to instruct post-exilic Jews. Why is there no mention of the name of the king of Ninevah? Why no mention of the king of Israel at the time? (Compare with the historical details supplied in the opening verses of Hosea and Jeremiah, for example. There’s nothing in the narrative to root Jonah in a specific time period in Assyria’s or Israel’s history.)

      This, added to the comic value of the bumbling prophet and his astonishing success; plus the exaggeration factor (e.g. there’s no way that Ninevah was as big as described in the book); plus the fact that despite its huge size everyone repented so speedily – including even the animals – in sackcloth!; plus its numerous and obvious ironies all suggests to me that the original recipients of the book wouldn’t have asked the same sorts of questions that we modern Westerns do about it’s historicity, what type of fish it was, and the viability of Jonah surviving three days and three nights in its belly.

      It’s an exquisitely put together literary masterpiece, and is both very funny while at the same time making profound and liberating theological points – for both Israel and the nations. Just like the parables of Jesus, it draws its original recipients (as well as us) in, only to catch us off guard and finish unexpectedly and with a bite.

      In some ways, throwing off the shackles of seeking to determine its historicity frees us up all the more to appreciate its beauty.

    • TC Robinson says:

      David: We’re talking genre here. I don’t believe the message of Jonah has to be “greatly reduced” if it’s taken as a parable/fiction. Consider the Parable of the Good Samaritan: for example, we have Jericho and Jerusalem (historical places), etc.

      • Jon Hughes says:


        My biggest problem with rejecting the historicity of the book of Jonah is not so much Jesus’ words about Jonah being three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish (that’s not so problematic), but rather Jesus’ words about the men of Nineveh rising up at the judgment and condemning the generation of his day because they repented at the preaching of Jonah.

        How does one get around that? Doesn’t it require at the very least Jonah actually going to Nineveh to preach, and the Ninevites repenting in a manner that would shame the generation of Jesus’ day in the coming judgment?

        I’m betwixt and between on this one now!

      • David Beirne says:

        Jon Hughes wrote: “My biggest problem with rejecting the historicity of the book of Jonah is not so much Jesus’ words about Jonah being three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish (that’s not so problematic), but rather Jesus’ words about the men of Nineveh rising up at the judgment and condemning the generation of his day because they repented at the preaching of Jonah.”

        Excellent point Jon! That pretty much seals it to my mind.

  5. TC Robinson says:

    Jon, as David, says, excellent point. But was Jesus referring to the men of Nineveh as a literal rising up at the judgment? Perhaps he was. But I am not going to be dogmatic about it, since the import of the reference is a call to repentance.

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