Now, despite all of my previous reasons for not reading Jonah historically, many have two more questions: but isn’t Jonah mentioned as a prophet in 2 Kings 14:25? And since Jesus compares Jonah to himself (Matthew 12:38–45/Luke 11:29–32), doesn’t that mean it really happened? Let’s look at these one at a time.
Jonah the Prophet: Here is everything we know about Jonah outside the Book of Jonah: “Jeroboam was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Dead Sea, in accordance with the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.”
That’s it. This leads me to three thoughts. First, the language, Aramaisms, and the strong post-exilic feel of the book lead the majority of biblical scholars to date the book after the exile while Jonah is said to live pre-exile in 2 Kings. Of course, scholars could just be wrong about the date of Jonah. But secondly, I find it curious that there is nothing significant said about Jonah in 2 Kings, much less any mention of the fish incident. Again, not a great argument, just another piece to the puzzle.
Thirdly, it is not uncommon in post-exilic literature (and later) for stories to be attributed to major biblical characters for either didactic or other purposes. We see this, for example, in the Apocalypse of Abraham (written about the time of Jesus), the Book of Jubilees (written a few hundred years before Jesus), the Chronicles of Jerahmeel (written in the Middle Ages), and dozens others written around the time of Jesus.
This leads me to my most important point, one that applies to both objections. That is, if our Bible would not say something about a historical figure in a non-historical way and if Jesus cannot refer to a biblical figure unless he is referring to a biblical event, then what do we do with Jesus’ parable of the rich man & Lazarus?
In Luke 16 Jesus tells a parable (that is, a story that is not meant to be historical) that includes a major cameo by Abraham, an historical figure from the past.
So, if Jesus can put words in Abraham’s mouth in a non-historical story to make a didactic point, why can’t the author of Jonah?
Jesus & Jonah: But this parable is even more helpful because it helps us with the question of whether Jesus’ reference to Jonah means we must read it historically. In the parable of Lazarus, Jesus mixes a historical figure and a non-historical figure and then uses that historical figure in a non-historical way that makes a point about his resurrection (“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”). This is exactly what we have in Jesus’ reference to Jonah in Matthew 12/Luke 11.
I am not sure why we assume that Jesus would never use a non-historical parable to help people understand his own life, mission, and experience. That’s exactly what he does in all his parables. He even, as we saw in the parable of Lazarus, includes some historical characters. So people who insist on reading Jonah historically because Jesus mentions him are basically saying it’s okay for Jesus to make up parables out of thin air to help explain what he is about, but it’s not okay for him to use a well-known story from his tradition to do so. I am not sure that’s a valid argument.
By the way, we ourselves do this all the time. Just a few weeks ago I watched an old episode of 30 Rock where Liz & Jack pull a “Mamma Mia” in real life. Some people delight in calling their boss “a real Michael Scott” or, a few favorites from when I was a kid, that fast people are “like Speedy Gonzales” and that I need to eat my spinach so I can “be strong like Pop-eye.” That’s using a fictional story to relate to real life. If the point of the story helps connect my story to my audience, it’s not important whether it was historical or not.
I have a hard time finding out what is illegitimate about that or why that connection is cheapened if it “didn’t really happen.” It seems to me that once we see the nuances of Jonah 2—a pastiche of psalms put together in a poetic descent out of creation, rejected by God, followed by a “resurrection” and God bringing “Jonah’s life up from the pit”—it would make perfect sense why Jesus would apply it to himself, regardless of its historicity.
Conclusion: The point of all these posts is not to persuade you that you must read Jonah as non-historical. The point of these posts are twofold: to help allow space for that possibility, to open up the idea that if someone does take it non-historically, they aren’t necessarily doing it because they don’t believe in the supernatural or because they don’t take the Bible seriously. And secondly, to show those who cannot find space that it is not as simple as they first imagined. To sum it up, my point is always in the perhaps. Is Jonah non-historical? Are we okay with answering, perhaps?