Is Jonah Historical? Jesus & Jonah (Part 5 of 5)

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?

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7 responses to “Is Jonah Historical? Jesus & Jonah (Part 5 of 5)

  1. But Aramaic has a documented unbroken history of being spoken in the Transjordan going back (if my memory serves me correctly) to Davidic times and earlier. Solomon could very well have known Aramaic, or anyone of that era who had trade contacts or traveled. The data is too sparse to be able to say ipso facto “Aramaism — ach! post-exilic!” Granted, the confrontation between Hezekiah and Sennacharib suggests Aramaic was not a major language of the people as it was in post-exilic times. But that was Jerusalem and Judea. The Aramaisms in Jonah are suggestive of the provenance of the author (whether it was Jonah, or a 1st millennium Tom Clancy). (Sorry; while doing my doctoral work at UCLA we had ferocious debates over the question of how to interpret Aramaisms, especially for dating. It is isn’t my fault. Just a knee-jerk reaction. 🙂

    • Busted. I learned that about Aramaisms in graduate school (perhaps even from you). But I am sure I read it somewhere and the argument stuck and I decided to include it anyway. Thanks for exposing my inclusion of an argument I knew was shaky!

      But part of the reason I added it was because it’s not my only reason to date it post-exilic. Some of the phrases in the book as well as the subject-matter seem to point to a post-exilic date. The Aramaisms were (or perhaps are not) the icing on the cake.

  2. So I’m not an OT scholar, so I don’t have any scholastic questions (just trying to soak it in), but I did have one practical question.

    If in fact Jonah is fictional, then how do we preach from it? Does preaching it as historical, if it is not-historical, screw up the sermon (I know ‘screw up’ is vague but didn’t know how to get the question pointed)? And one more, when we preach from Matthew 12 or 16, does it weaken the force of Jesus being the “greater Jonah”?

  3. I don’t know if you can really compare the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus with the story of Jonah. It’s clear from the outset that Jesus is speaking in parable, and what he says about Abraham is clearly about the after-life and there is no question of taking it as historical. It’s not so with Jonah. There are just as many theological points to get out of the story if you take it as literal history. My concern with the question of whether or not the story of Jonah is historical is about motive. Are we questioning because we’re embarrassed about a story that seems far fetched? Our God is certainly a God of miracles, he is supernatural, but miracles are also few and far between, so perhaps it’s not historical. My uneasiness comes with the idea of sterilizing supernatural happenings in the Bible and explaining them away because we are uncomfortable with them.

    Do you question the historicity of the man Jonah, or just the story? I take more issue with not believing the persons are literal than I do stories. I’m a theistic evolutionist (if that’s still the correct term for Christian-who-accepts-the-science-of-evolution) and while I see the creation story as telling us important theological things, I also believe Adam was a real person (he’s included in the genealogy of Christ. Perhaps he was the remotest ancestor the Hebrews knew of). But I digress. Oh by the way, I really enjoy your blog. I’ve only been reading for a few days and while I don’t agree on every single point I do think you are doing a good thing here and I like your perspective.

      • Thanks! I did read the post and I left a comment as well. I made two points in my comment, one about miracles being rare and another about events being attributed to God by the Bible. Hopefully you can make sense of it. I wrote it pretty early this morning and well, now I don’t know if it’s all that coherent. I agree with you that questioning what we read in the Bible is not questioning what God can or cannot do. I also agree that we shouldn’t cling to our own interpretation. If I’m wrong in interpreting something, that doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong. I personally do think the story of Jonah is likely historical. The only fantastic part of the story is where he is swallowed by a large fish and even then it’s not necessarily all that fantastic. We have no idea what the creature actually was, so there’s no way to really verify anything about it. Jesus did more fantastic things than that.

        I’ve never had the impression of a “my God is more miraculous than yours” competition between Christians, but that’s just me. It should just be obvious that God is miraculous, but the question of “more or less” is rather null, wouldn’t you say? If a person believes in the sovereignty of God then his hand is on everything, whether it can be explained fully by nature or not. Taking the side of whichever is least naturally explainable just because it requires more “faith” seems ridiculous (note: this type of “faith” is not really biblical faith).

        I still don’t think Jonah can be compared to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, simply because we know from the outset that Jesus is telling a parable, but we aren’t given that same information about Jonah. Whether or not a biblical story is to be taken as historical, when I read the Bible I’m looking for what it says about God (who he is, what he is like, etc). I still think our motive is a concern when we look at whether or not a story is history or metaphor (both history and metaphor are truthful). God is supernatural, and he does sometimes intervene. If we’re trying to say something is metaphorical simply because it’s not an everyday event in nature, we should examine our motives. The Virgin Birth isn’t an everyday event in nature either. C.S. Lewis’s book “Miracles” has shaped my view of this sort of thing quite a bit.

        Anyway, I’ve left comments here and there on some of your Jonah posts. I hope they aren’t irritating because I’m really not trying to annoy you.

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