Many Christians are inclined to interpret the story of Jonah in the Old Testament as an allegory that was never meant to be understood as actual history. However, allegories or parables in the Bible are always either said to be so, or made evident in the context. The Book of Jonah, however, is written as a historical tale with a historical prophet mentioned in II Kings 14:25 and confirmed to have existed by Jesus Christ in Matthew 12:40-41. Christ here compares the experience of Jonah to His own approaching death and resurrection.
Do You Believe in Miracles?
If you believe in miracles, such as the universe coming into existence by God and Jesus Christ rising from the dead, then this leaves little room for doubt that God can have a whale swallow a man and have the man emerge from the belly of the whale three days later, even if this cannot happen in a natural way. This was done for a specific purpose in a specific time that had significance for a certain people, and when properly read in its context it can be understood why such a miracle would prove a certain point to these people. We will explain this further below.
What About the "Whale"?
Both the Hebrew and the Greek versions of the Book of Jonah do not specifically say Jonah was swallowed by a whale, but that he was swallowed by a ketos, which in Greek means "great or large aquatic animal." This could mean either a whale, a shark, a sea monster, or even some sea creature specifically created by God to serve His purpose. Whole animals as large or larger than a man have been found in the stomachs of the sperm whale, the whale shark and the white shark. St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite explains in his Synaxaristes the possibilities of what the ketos described in the Book of Jonah could be:
For the sake of those who love learning and are curious, we present here some things on the ketos. The ketos was bigger than a prison ship, according to Theocles. It was five times bigger than an elephant, according to Aelianus. It was fifty cubits in length, according to Eratosthenes. It was twenty-five fathoms, or a hundred cubits, according to Nearchus. And according to Onesikratos, it was six hundred feet. Orthagoras says it was four plethrons, or a thousand feet in length and fifty in width.
Accordingly the divine Fathers who followed these men of old, gave extreme stature to the ketos. Basil the Great said that the ketos was like a large mountain in the magnitude of its body, and they look like islands (Hexaemeron, Hom. 7). When Ambrose says that the ketos swims on the waves, he thinks of it as an island and high mountain that reaches to the sky with the edge of its navel. Eustathios of Antioch, in his Hexaemeron, says that one ketos, called a aspidochelone, is so big that it appears to seamen as if it is an island.
Even the moderns say that in Santonia, a city in France found in the British Ocean, a ketos was caught with one hundred and twenty legs, according to Scaliger. And in the Baltic Sea there was another caught, being a hundred cubits in length, according to Ziegler. These are among the many ketoses that we are told have been caught, which are otherwise called whales.
We see therefore that ancient and modern writers with scientific minds, some who had much experience at sea, described the ketos as something much larger than a contemporary sea creature or whale. This leaves the possibility that an aquatic creature may have existed that was much larger in the past few thousand and even few hundred years that is greater in size than something like a whale shark today, which can reach up to fifty feet or fifteen meters (see photo below).
How Did Jonah Survive?
There are three possible answers to the question of how Jonah could have survived three days in the belly of the large fish.
1. Natural—It has been well established that the ancient Hebrew usage of "three days and three nights" was an idiomatic expression that meant simply "three days", allowing the first and last day to be partial days, thus forming a period of time as little as 38 hours (as in the case of the Resurrection of Christ). If something alive is swallowed by a whale, there is always some air for survival, and digestive activity will not begin as long as it is alive. Thus, Jonah's experience could possibly have taken place within the framework of natural law.
2. Miracle—Though this could have taken place naturally, it is more likely that it was a miracle, as Scripture strongly implies. The Book of Jonah says the "large fish" was prepared and sent by God, along with the intense storm that threatened the ship on which Jonah was traveling. God's intention in all this was to have Jonah go to Nineveh and preach to the inhabitants there the message of repentance. Therefore, no doubt God would have preserved Jonah in the belly of the large fish, and did so purposefully for three days as a type of the future resurrection of Christ.
3. Resurrection—A third possibility is that Jonah actually suffocated and died in the large fish, and after three days in Hades or Sheol (the place of departed spirits) God brought him back from the dead, similar to the other eight resurrections that are recorded in Scripture, and in this way Jonah's experience was the prophetic sign mentioned by Jesus. It is also implied in the prayer of Jonah: Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice (Jonah 2:2). That Jonah actually resurrected from the dead may have had a significant impact on the inhabitants of Nineveh repenting with such enthusiasm. Some scholars have speculated that Jonah’s appearance, no doubt bleached white from the action of the fish’s digestive acids, would have been of great help to his cause. If such were the case, the Ninevites would have been greeted by a man whose skin, hair and clothes were bleached ghostly white—a man accompanied by a crowd of frenetic followers, many of whom claimed to have witnessed him having been vomited upon the shore by a great fish (plus any colorful exaggerations they might have added).
Did the Ninevites Really Repent?
Critics also find Nineveh’s repentance (Jonah 3:4-9) hard to believe, though it isn’t technically a miracle. In actual fact, Nineveh’s repentance makes perfect sense given Jonah’s extraordinary arrival upon the shores of the Mediterranean and the prominence of Dagon worship in that particular area of the ancient world. Dagon was a fish-god who enjoyed popularity among the pantheons of Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean coast. He is mentioned several times in the Bible in relation to the Philistines (Judges 16:23-24; 1 Samuel 5:1-7; 1 Chronicles 10:8-12). Images of Dagon have been found in palaces and temples in Nineveh and throughout the region. In some cases he was represented as a man wearing a fish. In others he was part man, part fish—a merman, of sorts.
As for Jonah’s success in Nineveh, Orientalist Henry Clay Trumbull made a valid point when he wrote, “What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god was a favorite object of worship? Such an incident would have inevitably aroused the mercurial nature of Oriental observers, so that a multitude would be ready to follow the seemingly new avatar of the fish-god, proclaiming the story of his uprising from the sea, as he went on his mission to the city where the fish-god had its very centre of worship” (H. Clay Trumbull, “Jonah in Nineveh.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 2, No.1, 1892, p. 56).
Is There Any Historical Corroboration for the Tale of Jonah?
While there is no conclusive historical proof that Jonah was ever swallowed by a fish and lived to tell about it, there is some provocative corroboratory evidence. In the 3rd century B.C., a Babylonian priest/historian named Berosus wrote of a mythical creature named Oannes who, according to Berosus, emerged from the sea to give divine wisdom to men. Scholars generally identify this mysterious fish-man as an avatar of the Babylonian water-god Ea (also known as Enki). The curious thing about Berosus’ account is the name that he used: Oannes (Ωάννη or Οάννες).
Berosus wrote in Greek during the Hellenistic Period. Oannes is just a single letter removed from the Greek name Ioannes. Ioannes happens to be one of the two Greek names used interchangeably throughout the Greek New Testament to represent the Hebrew name Yonah (Jonah), which in turn appears to be a moniker for Yohanan (from which we get the English name John). (See John 1:42; 21:15; and Matthew 16:17.) Conversely, both Ioannes and Ionas (the other Greek word for Jonah used in the New Testament) are used interchangeably to represent the Hebrew name Yohanan in the Greek Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Compare 2 Kings 25:23 and 1 Chronicles 3:24 in the Septuagint with the same passages from the Hebrew Old Testament.
As for the missing “I” in Ioannes, according to Professor Trumbull who claims to have confirmed his information with renowned Assyriologist Dr. Herman V. Hilprecht before writing his own article on the subject, “In the Assyrian inscriptions the J of foreign words becomes I, or disappears altogether; hence Joannes, as the Greek representative of Jona, would appear in Assyrian either as Ioannes or as Oannes” (Trumbull, ibid., p. 58).
Nineveh was Assyrian. What this essentially means is that Berosus wrote of a fish-man named Jonah who emerged from the sea to give divine wisdom to man – a remarkable corroboration of the Hebrew account.
Berosus claimed to have relied upon official Babylonian sources for his information. Nineveh was conquered by the Babylonians under King Nabopolassar in 612 B.C., more than 300 years before Berosus. It is quite conceivable, though speculative, that record of Jonah’s success in Nineveh was preserved in the writings available to Berosus. If so, it appears that Jonah was deified and mythologized over a period of three centuries, first by the Assyrians, who no doubt associated him with their fish-god Dagon, and then by the Babylonians, who appear to have hybridized him with their own water-god, Ea.
As for the city of Nineveh, from the word "Nineweh" which means "place of the fish", it was rediscovered in the 19th century after more than 2,500 years of obscurity. It is now believed to have been the largest city in the world at the time of its demise (see Tertius Chandler's Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census). According to Sir Austen Henry Layard, who chronicled the rediscovery of Nineveh in his classic Discoveries at Nineveh, the circumference of Greater Nineveh was “exactly three days' journey,” as recorded in Jonah 3:3 (Austen Henry Layard, A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh, J. C. Derby: New York, 1854, p. 314). Prior to its rediscovery, skeptics scoffed at the possibility that so large a city could have existed in the ancient world. In fact, skeptics denied the existence of Nineveh altogether. Its rediscovery in the mid-1800s proved to be a remarkable vindication for the Bible, which mentions Nineveh by name 18 times and dedicates two entire books (Jonah and Nahum) to its fate.
It is interesting to note where the lost city of Nineveh was rediscovered. It was found buried beneath a pair of tells in the vicinity of Mosul in modern-day Iraq. These mounds are known by their local names, Kuyunjik and Nabi Yunus. Nabi Yunus happens to be Arabic for “the Prophet Jonah.” The lost city of Nineveh was found buried beneath an ancient tell named after the Prophet Jonah.