Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
Associate Editor: Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D.  Not to be republished without permission.
Please address all correspondence    e-mail:
Living Tradition, Oblates of Wisdom, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, MO 63157, USA

No. 101 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 2002


by Thomas Crean

This article will argue that the opinion which denies the historicity of the events in the book
of Jonah, an opinion quite widespread even among Catholics, is a prejudice.

A New Fallacy

In our days, reflections upon the historicity of a Biblical book often advert to the notion of 'literary genres'. This notion is unexceptionable in itself, nor can it be doubted that Holy Scripture contains many such genres. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council explicitly uses the notion, teaching that "truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts".A fallacy is committed, however, when it is supposed that the identification of a genre, that is to say of a particular style of poetry or prose, allows one to decide upon the historicity or fabulousness of what is related in that genre. Since a true story and an invented story may both be related in the same variety of genres, one may not pass without further ado from the identification of a genre to a judgement on the historicity of what is said. Thus the life of a particular man or woman may be narrated in a variety of styles, as for example the life of St. Thomas Aquinas has actually been told both by careful scholarly biographies, as an edifying tale for children and as a romance for the general reader. It would obviously be a mistake if someone were to come across the last of these works and decide that because it fell into the literary genre of romance - a genre which often contains tales of imaginary people such as Don Quixote or Mr Pickwick – St. Thomas also had never existed. Conversely, one cannot conclude of a text belonging to a genre which often includes works of history that it, too, is historical: most diaries are historical, but the 'Hitler Diaries' were not.

Now, it is not hard to see that the book of Jonah does not fall into the genre of historical writing in quite the same way as, say, the book of Ezra. It contains no dates. None of the men mentioned is named, save the protagonist, not even the king of Nineveh. It is not part of a wider description of relations between the kingdoms of Israel and Assyria. It gives little topological detail. Its concern is not the typical patterns of human life, but marvels of nature and grace. Whilst ignoring matters of great interest to the historian, it relates certain little details which engage the imagination, as might the author of a work of fiction written to give pleasure, for example the sailors' drawing lots to find the cause of the storm, or the worm's eating the castor-oil plant. Such considerations as these allow one to say that the work - with the exception of the prayer in chapter two, an example of religious poetry - belongs to what one might call the genre of popular narrative and not that of learned history.

Does it follow that the events related are invented rather than real? Not at all. To reason thus would be to commit the fallacy of judging of historicity by genre, the fallacy which was criticised a moment ago. It would be to confuse a work in which the artistic imagination has served to create the style with a work in which it has provided the substance. It would also be to forget that the same life may be presented in many different genres - thus the life of blessed Jonah which is recounted in the Scriptures after the manner of a popular narrative, might in theory have been told in other ways, for example as detailed biography or poetic epic. We must therefore look elsewhere to investigate the historicity of this book, and in the absence of an express definition by the Church, our chief witnesses must be Scripture itself and tradition.

Scriptural Evidence

How does the Old Testament speak of Jonah? First of all, the author of the book of Jonah identifies the prophet as the son of Amittai. In so doing, he would seem clearly to identify him as the prophet called Jonah, son of Amittai, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 14, as having prophesied in the northern kingdom around the time of Jeroboam II. So the protagonist of the book of Jonah is presented as a real person. It does not follow from this alone that the story related of him happened in reality, since it is possible to invent stories about real people, as happens in the apocryphal gospels. Nevertheless, this fact may serve as a warning against simply assuming that this book, because it is written in the style of a popular narrative or ‘cautionary tale’, is not, therefore, also a narrative presenting historical events and happenings that really did take place.

The only other reference to the prophet Jonah in the Old Testament is to be found at the end of the book of Tobit, where Tobit warns his son to leave Nineveh "because what the prophet Jonah said will surely happen" (Tob.14, 8). For one who accepts the historicity of the book of Tobit, this would be a sufficient confirmation at least of the historicity of Jonah's preaching as related in the book of Jonah, if not of the other events narrated therein; but since many of those who hesitate to admit the reality of the events described in the book of Jonah would have similar reservations about the book of Tobit, the investigation of the Scriptural evidence must be continued.

If we turn, then, to the Gospels, it is evident that the prophet Jonah holds an important place in the Dominical preaching. It would seem that, on at least three separate occasions, the Lord compares the prophet Jonah to Himself. There is first of all the passage in Matt. 12:38-41. Some of the scribes and Pharisees, having asked for a sign, receive the reply that "as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth". It is added that the men of Nineveh will arise at the judgement to condemn those who did not repent at the preaching of the Gospel, and then, by way of climax, that the Queen of the South will do likewise. Next comes a passage further on in the same Gospel (Matt. 16:4), where the Pharisees again request a sign, but this time with the Sadducees; the Lord replies that no sign will be given them save that of Jonah, without specifying on this occasion in what this sign consists. Finally, there is found a passage in St. Luke's Gospel, 11:29-32, addressed it would seem to the multitude, that "as Jonah became a sign to the men of Nineveh, so will the Son of man be to this generation". It is added that the Queen of the South will arise at the judgement in condemnation, and then it is the men of Nineveh who this time are introduced by way of climax as also destined to arise on the last day.

Obviously, much could be drawn from these few words, but our purpose is to consider their bearing only upon the historicity of the book of Jonah. How might they be interpreted by one who denies that this book is, or was intended to be, historical in content? Such a one would perhaps reply that the Lord had used ‘the ideas of His time’ in preaching the Gospel. This, without further explicitation, is ambiguous. It could mean, in the first place, that one of the ideas used was the false one that the book of Jonah narrates real events. In that case, in using this false idea, Christ would either have known of its falsity or not. If not, one would have to say that He was either ignorant of the meaning of the Scriptures (more ignorant than some modern exegetes, and on a point as fundamental as the historicity or fabulousness of an entire book) and also in error in supposing that certain men had repented at Jonah's preaching and would rise again - but neither of these things can be said. If, on the other hand, He was aware of the falsity of the idea used and the multitude was not, then in saying that the men of Nineveh who had repented at Jonah's preaching would indeed rise again when they could not because they had never existed, He would have been confirming them in their wrong opinion and teaching them something false, which again is entirely impossible.

On the other hand, it could be argued that one of the ideas of the time was that the book of Jonah was not an account of real events; that it was universally recognised to be not only a popular narrative but also a fictional one, imaginative not only in style or genre, but also in content. Although the witness of Josephus tells against this view (Antiquities, IX, 10,2), one can at least consider how well it fits with the passages of the Gospels just quoted. Here one may want to distinguish the references to the sign of Jonah from the references to the resurrection of the Ninevites. In the first case, whilst the several analogies between Jonah and our Lord would in a sense hold good whether or not Jonah had done or suffered in reality that which is related of him, yet it can easily be seen how much the solemnity of the Lord's words would be prejudiced if he had not. To take an analogy, of which the absurdity will be unavoidable: imagine that a great popular preacher of repentance, a Savanarola or a St. Vincent Ferrer, had been asked for a sign to justify the apparent novelty of their declarations, and had replied that just as Robin Hood had been persecuted by the wealthy for defending the poor, so would he be. It would seem frivolous, futile and odd. Yet, if Jonah is to be placed on the same level as Robin Hood, the fictional hero of picturesque adventures, it is with such an answer that one would apparently have to place the answers given to the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees according to which the sign validating the Lord's mission is the similarity to it of the life of Jonah.

In the second case, however, that of the resurrection of the Ninevites, Christ's words would be simply impossible on the hypothesis that no one supposed the story of Jonah to be true. For here there is not simply a comparison of two items, but a statement that two groups of people will exist together, the men of Nineveh who repented at the preaching of Jonah and ‘this generation’, which cannot be true if the men of Nineveh had never existed. Nor is it possible to say that this is a literary allusion, as a preacher to-day might make an allusion in his homily to, say, Lady Macbeth. It would be quite possible for a preacher to use Lady Macbeth as an example of how sin may lead to despair. What would be wholly morally impossible would be for him to say, for example: "It is not only active crimes that are punished but inner ones as well. On Judgement Day you will see Judas Iscariot punished not only for treason but also for despair. You will see Lady Macbeth punished not only for killing King Duncan but also for despair".Yet, if this sounds ridiculous, it is how the passage quoted from St. Luke would have sounded, where, after the Queen of the South's resurrection, the resurrection of the men of Nineveh is foretold by way of climax, if the story of Jonah had been generally believed in the 1st century A.D. to be fiction.

Patristic Witness

Since it is the Fathers who are par excellence the exegetes of Holy Scripture, and since it does not seem that those doctors who succeeded them differed from them in regard to our question, I should like, in considering the witness of tradition, to limit myself to some patristic evidence concerning the historicity of the book of Jonah.

Perhaps the first patristic commentary on the book of Jonah was Origen's. This commentary, known to St. Jerome, is to-day entirely lost. Yet, before Origen we have a text of St. Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses III, 20, 1) which discusses the prophet's life and adventures. St. Irenaeus does not raise the question of the historicity of the events of the book, which he no doubt takes for granted. He notes rather that the story of Jonah is an example of the divine longanimity, and that the prophet's being swallowed up by the monster represents the original swallowing up of mankind by the ancient serpent.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem refers to the story of Jonah in his 14th Catechetical Instruction, about 347 A.D.. He is defending the doctrine of the Resurrection of Christ, and with Jewish objections particularly in mind, also makes allusion to this most famous of incidents, the ingorging of the prophet by the ‘great fish’. St. Cyril says:

"To me both alike are worthy of credence. I believe that Jonah was preserved, for all things are possible to God; I believe that Christ also was raised from the dead".

It is to St. Jerome that we owe the earliest full and extant commentary on the book of Jonah. The saint composed it towards the end of the 4th century, in Bethlehem. He has no doubt but that Jonah, a type of Christ, is also a real person: indeed, in his preface, he asks that the prophet may bestow on him a renewed fervour, so that he may write as he ought. In several passages of the book, he notes certain characteristics of the historical Jonah, for example, his magnanimity in wanting to die, so that the crew of the ship should be saved. He distinguishes clearly what belongs to historia, the life and adventures of the prophet, from what belongs to tropologia, this same life as a prefigurement of the Saviour. In commenting on chapter two, he says:

"I am aware that some will be incredulous that a man should be preserved three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, to which the shipwreck had led him; these people are either believers or non-believers: if they are believers, they are obliged to believe much greater things."

Among these 'much greater things', the saint lists the preservation of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Dan.3), and Daniel's being preserved among the lions (Dan.14; Heb.11). One might also include any of the miracles of resurrection in either the Old or the New Testament.

St. Augustine argues similarly. In Epistle 102, written around 409 A.D., he is replying to a priest who had reported some objections to the Christian faith made by a mutual acquaintance of theirs, a pagan. Some of these objections, says St. Augustine, seem to stem from Porphyry, but the last, concerning the story of Jonah, and in particular his survival in the whale and the plant which miraculously sprang up over him, is presented as being a general matter of mockery among the pagans. In replying, the Bishop of Hippo says:

"Either all the divine miracles are to be disbelieved, or else there is no reason why this should not be believed. We should not believe in Christ Himself, and that He rose on the third day, if the faith of Christians feared the laughter of the pagans."

He wishes his readers to understand the symbolic significance of the narrative, which he expounds very beautifully in the course of the epistle, but he does not see that as a reason to evacuate the literal. On the contrary, it is the historical sense which grounds the mystical. The story did not happen without a purpose, but it did happen. "Non enim frustra factum est, sed tamen factum est".

With St. Augustine, there is the suggestion that it is not only the miraculous element in the book which prompts the mockery of the pagans, but also its 'lowliness', or, as we might say, its naivety of style or literary genre. They mock for example the picturesque detail of the worm which eats the castor-oil plant and so destroys the comforting shadow of one who was angry at the conversion of the pagans. It is not the first time, says St. Augustine, that this worm has been laughed at, for it is a type of Him Who was mocked on the Cross and said "I am a worm and no man". "Let the pagans go on laughing at this worm, Christ, and let them mock with proud phrases this interpretation of the prophetic mystery; yet, little by little and imperceptibly, it will consume them".

Finally, St. Augustine explains why miracles are not only possible for divine omnipotence, but also fitting for divine eloquence. For divine power is wont to express itself in deeds, as men express themselves by words, "and just as new or rare words, if used sparingly and with restraint, add splendour to human language, so divine eloquence becomes in a sense more beautiful by miraculous deeds of fit signification."

The second oration of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (362 A.D.) is sometimes cited as if it were a patristic forerunner of modern denials of the historicity of the book of Jonah. In truth, this does not appear to be the purport of the text (Orat. 2, 104-10). St. Gregory does not say, contrary to what has been suggested, that the story is absurd, but that it would be absurd or improbable if one supposed a prophet such as Jonah to have really thought that he could escape from the presence of God by going to Tarshish, or not to have desired the salvation of the Ninevites. In reality, he says - as St. Jerome was also to say-, the prophet knew by his prophetic vision that salvation for the pagans would mean the fall of Israel; this, and not literally escaping the divine presence, was the motive behind his flight:

"He saw the fall of Israel, and understood that the grace of prophecy would pass to the nations. This is what leads him to withdraw from preaching and delay the execution of his mission. He abandons the contemplation of joy (which is the meaning of the word Joppe in Hebrew), that is, the high position and dignity which he had possessed formerly, and he throws himself into the sea of sadness. This is what makes him weather the storm, fall asleep, be shipwrecked, ... be thrown into the sea and be swallowed by the whale without dying: there he invokes God, and by a wonder, he rises on the third day with Christ... . I willingly admit that he perhaps had some right, for the motive I have expounded, to be forgiven his hesitation in carrying out the office of a prophet."

It seems clear that the saint takes the prophet Jonah to be a real person, whose exploits, whilst carrying a symbolic meaning, form also a coherent history when one knows the true motive of Jonah's flight.

What is striking in these texts is how each author, though intent on highlighting the symbolical meaning of the Old Testament Scripture, is not thereby inclined in the least degree to lessen or doubt its historicity. In St. Jerome and St. Augustine in particular, awareness of the spiritual sense is in fact the great motive for the defence of the literal. St. Gregory the Great gives the reason for this in the preface to his commentary on the Book of Job: "Let us first fix the root of history, so that we may be able after to satisfy the mind with the fruit of allegories". The historical sense is thus the root which must be sunk all the deeper, as the spiritual sense grows higher. "This we ask with insistence", St. Gregory says in the first book of the commentary, "that he who would raise his mind to spiritual understanding should not withdraw from the veneration of the history."

The objections to the historicity of the story of Jonah which the Fathers answer are thus most commonly based upon the miracles it relates, and as such, do not stand up to faith in the divine omnipotence. The Fathers seem not to have considered the possibility that the book of Jonah might be a work of fiction intended not, indeed, to deceive, but to edify and instruct. I should venture to suggest that this is because they believed that only real and historical persons were fit to symbolise the Incarnate Word, from Whose disciples, their minds having been opened to an understanding of the Scriptures, the Fathers themselves drew their learning.

Concluding Reflections

The Second Vatican Council teaches that "the words of God,expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on the flesh of human weakness, became like men". Thus it is that, as Christ performed many kinds of human activity whilst on earth, Sacred Scripture contains many types of human writing. Thus also, as He was in every way like others, yet without sin, so the Holy Scriptures are in every way like other writings, yet without error. Yet, between action and words there is this difference, that whilst every human act is good or bad, speech and writing may, because of their dependence upon convention, be true, false, or fictitious. If the Fathers of the Church, of whose work we have seen a brief but, I think one may fairly say, representative sample, refuse to allow that a Scriptural book could be a work of fiction (bearing in mind no doubt the dignity of Scripture and the veneration in which the Church had always held the heroes of the Old Testament), that in itself is a very grave dissuasion for a Catholic from doing otherwise. With the book of Jonah, as we have seen, there are even more compelling reasons from the New Testament to accept its narrative as true. In modern times, misapplying the notion of a 'literary genre', and moved perhaps by a wish to escape that irrisio infidelium which troubled the Fathers so little, have some authors been deceived by appearances into judging that whatever displayed the vividness of fiction might not also enjoy the dignity of fact?

Go to: Roman Theological Forum | Living Tradition Index | Previous Issue | Next Issue