Is Jonah Historical? The Overview (Part 1 of 5)

I have finally caved. In the following posts I am showing my cards for why I don’t think we have to read Jonah as a historical account and that doing so might actually be going against the author’s intention.

And in case you’re wondering, no, not one of my reasons includes a lack of faith or anti-supernatural bias. In fact, that accusation is how this conversation started (see here and here). So, to those of you who don’t care (which if experience tells me anything, is about 90% of you), I am sorry. I will try to post a few other things this week as well so that you don’t completely check out.

I avoid putting on my nerdy biblical studies hat when possible, but this week will be an exception. I will try to keep it simple but thorough. And given people’s atrocious attention span online, I will split it up into five, yes 5, parts (some of you have just decided it’s not worth it) that will be posted throughout the week.

This first post will simply give you my 3 broad reasons and each subsequent post will look at these reasons with more detail. The last will then deal with the two biggest objections: the historical Jonah mentioned in Kings and Jesus’ mention of the “sign of Jonah” in the New Testament.

The Way It’s Written (Textual Style): the first reason I don’t think Jonah is meant to be historical is the highly stylized way it is written. There are various rhetorical devices that are used to make nice, neat, points. None of these exclude historical writing, of course, but when you put them all together the book begins to look a lot less like non-fiction and a lot more like stylized fiction with a specific purpose.

The Way It Borrows (Intertextual Cues): Another reason I am suspicious of reading Jonah historically is because it borrows from and mirrors other books of the Bible in several interesting ways. Again, this doesn’t exclude historicity since most of the biblical writings are shaped according to certain purposes and often borrow from one another. But, along with the other evidence, this does play a role for why I do not read Jonah historically.

The Point It Wants to Make (Textual Shape): In all other prophetic books, the prophet is speaking the Word of the Lord in a time of crisis, either political or theological (mostly both). But this is a book about a prophet not speaking the Word of the Lord at first and then being upset by the outcomes of that word later. In Jonah, the prophet looks like a foil for the author to make a bigger point. Jonah looks symbolic, or technically speaking, like a metonymy. And as such, the point of the book looks theological, not historical.

Of course, I could be wrong on all three accounts. But aside from the evidence of whether or not it is historical, in these posts I also want to challenge the deeper question: why are we so insistent that it is? What assumptions are we bringing to the Bible that keeps us from even entertaining the question? What keeps us from the “perhaps”?

In the next post, we will delve into the way it’s written (textual style).

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