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Jonah and the Big Fish Historical Narrative or Tallest Fish Tale Ever Told?

Written: May 2022, Published: August 2022

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Many fishermen have been known to tell a tall tale or two that tends to get bigger and taller each time it is told.  Yet most of us can also recall many incredible tales that happen to be true; however improbable or unbelievable they may seem.  The Bible is full of true stories that would appear unlikely or unthinkable if not for the existence of an all-powerful sovereign God.  One involves the account of Jonah and the Giant Fish, found in the book of Jonah located in the Minor Prophets section of the Old Testament.

This article is a spinoff of our Introduction to the Book of Jonah.  In the “Interpretation Hints and Challenges” section of the original article, we gave a very brief defense of the historicity of Jonah.  Some Bible scholars interpret the story of Jonah as an allegory or parable meant to convey a spiritual message.  Others interpret it as a historical narrative.  Of course, the latter position is not mutually exclusive.  A historical narrative may also symbolically illustrate spiritual truths.  For example, the historical narrative of the marriage between Gomer and the prophet Hosea, as found in the first three chapters of the Book of Hosea, also symbolically illustrates Israel’s adulterous relationship with God.

The question thus becomes, “Is the Book of Jonah meant to be fact or fiction?” Note that fictional stories in the Bible do not constitute a Biblical error.  Jesus commonly used short fictional tales, known as “parables”, to illustrate spiritual truths.  That said, we believe the Biblical evidence strongly points to the position that Jonah is a historical narrative.  First, the Bible itself established Jonah as a real historic person (2Kg 14:23-28).  Next, the literary type of narrative in Jonah doesn’t appear to smoothly conform to any of the proposed categories other than a historical narrative.

Finally, the ultimate proof of the Historicity of Jonah is that Jesus Christ Himself interpreted it as historical (Mt 12:38-42; Lk 11:29-32) in comparing it with His death and resurrection.  Thus the answer to our question of whether the book should be considered a historical narrative or the tallest fish tale ever can be “yes” or “both”.  It is an incredible-but-true historical narrative tale.  We’ll further elaborate on the evidence within this article.

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Objection to the Supernatural - What is a Miracle?

The primary reason that many interpreters question the historicity of Jonah is that they object to the miracles that are depicted in the narrative.  For most skeptics, this is a typical objection to the presence of miracles found elsewhere in the Bible as well.  Other well-meaning interpreters often attempt to explain away miracles by attempting to show an alternative non-supernatural explanation in order to make the biblical account more acceptable to a general audience.  Although this is often done with good intentions, it often robs the interpretation of the narrative of its truthfulness.  With that in mind, we begin by explaining what we mean by a “miracle”.

The Webster’s 1913 Unabridged English Dictionary defines a miracle as “a Supernatural occurrence that can’t be explained by a natural cause”, or more specifically for our purpose as “An event or effect contrary to the established constitution and course of things, or a deviation from the known laws of nature; a supernatural event, or one transcending the ordinary laws by which the universe is governed”.  Likewise, defines a miracle as “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause”.  On the other hand, the 18th century atheist and philosopher David Hume described a miracle in his naturalist view as merely “a violation of natural law”.  The Random House Dictionary more specifically describes a miracle as “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause”. Finally we note that Princeton University’s 2006 WordNet 3.0 actually names this “supernatural cause” while depicting a miracle as “a marvelous event manifesting a supernatural act of God”.

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Miracles in the Bible

We can divide biblical miracles into two separate (but sometimes related) categories.  In this article (for lack of creativity), we’ll just refer to the categories as “Type A” and “Type B”.  God created all things, along with the laws of nature and their related processes, and continues to sustain the same by his sovereignty.  We’ll designate Type A miracles as those in which God exceeds, supersedes or violates these laws.  God is above His creation and not subject to its laws.

The best examples of a Type A miracle would be the original Creation from nothing (creation ex nihilo), and the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead.  We’ll then designate Type B miracles as those in which God works within the laws of His creation to accomplish a specific task of His special will, usually involving miraculous and providential timing.  As a possible example, it is thought that God may have caused an upstream mudslide to cut off the flow of water in the Jordan River to allow the Israelites to cross into the Promised Land (Joshua 3).  Of course, this could have also been a Type A in that God could have chosen to simply hold back the water via His sovereign control.

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Has Science Invalidated Miracles?

Many people, especially in our modern times, claim that science disproves the need for miracles, yet miracles are woven throughout the biblical accounts (eg: Gen 1:1; Josh 10:12-14; Ps 77:14; Lk 10:32; Ac 2:22-23; 4:13-22, 19:11; Heb 2:4-5; among many others).  The word “miracle” appears over 200 times, not counting synonyms.  Indeed, the very foundation of the Christian faith is based upon the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Mt 28:1-10, Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:12, Jn 20:1-9).

We often hear claims in the media that “Science says this” or “Science says that”.  The truth is that Science doesn’t say anything.  Science is merely data that must be interpreted by observation or experimentation, and interpreters have varying worldviews that may skew their analysis of the data.  This is particularly prevalent within the political and religious realms, where two groups with the same data often come to exact polar opposite conclusions as to its meaning.  With respect to miracles, some worldviews, including a biblical worldview, recognize the possibility of miracles, while others such as a naturalist or materialistic worldview specifically rule out the possibility of anything supernatural in advance, thus preventing their subscribers from following wherever the data may lead.

An additional challenge for the latter position is that miracles are beyond the scope of the scientific method of re-creating and observing most miracles within a required controlled environment.  Science can often be used to rule out previously known causes of some phenomenal events, but is too limited since the supernatural cannot be disproved using natural means.

Thus, since miracles are beyond the method of science for determining their validity, we can only accept or reject their possibility.  For those with a Christian/Biblical worldview, the acceptance of miracles is not a problem.  For those who reject miracles, they must do so without any provable alternate explanations, and so they must also reject vast portions of Scripture.

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Miracles in Jonah

Rather than turning this article into a full-blown apologetic (defense) of Biblical miracles, we’ll briefly deal with those within the Book of Jonah.  In chapter 1, after Jonah had set sail to avoid following God’s command to preach to Nineveh, we witness a storm so violent that even the pagan sailors on the ship realized that it was sent by God.  Jonah convinced the sailors to throw him overboard, and the Lord immediately calmed the sea and sent a “great fish” to swallow Jonah.  God then kept Jonah alive in the fish for three days and three nights, after which the fish spits or vomits Jonah out onto the Assyrian shore (chapter 2).  An alternate interpretation is that Jonah actually died in the fish and was resurrected after three days and nights.  All of the preceding could probably be considered Type A or Type B miracles, except for the case of a resurrection, which would require a Type A.

In chapter 3, God repeats His initial command to Jonah to proclaim that Nineveh (capital city of Assyria) would be destroyed in forty days.  The King and all his subjects believed the message, repented and Nineveh was spared.  In chapter 4, when Jonah became angry with God for sparing Nineveh (the Assyrians were Israel’s most hated enemies at the time), God used a few miracles of nature (a rapid growing shady plant, a worm, and a scorching wind) to illustrate His love for people of all nations. Most of these miracles would probably be considered as Type A, although Type B elements could also be involved with some.  We’ll further examine many of these miracles in related article (see below).

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Scientific / Biological Considerations of the Great Fish

With regard to the Natural vs Supernatural elements of Jonah, the most popular question by far is likely, “Is it scientifically possible for a man to be swallowed by a large fish”?  With our previous statements and observations of miracles in mind, we contend that it really doesn’t matter whether these events happened semi-natural (Type B miracle of timing) or by special creation (Type A).  The question is only relevant if we deny the authority of Scripture.  For our readers with inquisitive minds however, we’ll provide some basic comments and references for further research on the possibility of the events occurring naturally without divine intervention.  There are already countless articles on the internet addressing these questions, so we’ll reference and comment on a few that we believe fairly cover the issues.

We first note that, although many folks believe the fish that swallowed Jonah to be a whale, the bible refers to the creature as a “great fish” prepared by God (Jonah 1:17).  The Hebrew, gadowl dag, literally means “great fish”, and the Greek in Matthew 12:40, ketous, simply means “great sea creature”.

The most famous and best known account involves a sailor named James Bartley who reported fell overboard while whaling on the ship Star of the East in the early 1890s and was swallowed whole by a whale.  A primary resource for this account is from the book The Harmony of Science and Scripture, written by Harry Rimmer (1890-1952), an American evangelist, creationist and president of Science Research Bureau in California.  Mr Rimmer is said to have met and interviewed James Bartley.  According to Rimmer, about 48-hours after the incident, the fish was killed and towed to shore.  The crew was understandably amazed to find Bartley unconscious and suffering from shock, but still alive.  He was rushed to the hospital, but reportedly was released after only a few hours.  Rimmer also reported that the sailor’s skin had taken on a bleached ghostly white appearance with various patches of yellow-brown spots due to the gastric juice in the whale’s stomach.  The same incident was also reported in Sir Francis Fox’s book, Sixty-Three Years of Engineering: Scientific and Social Work, originally published in 1924 and reprinted in 2018.

For those who would like to dig for even more info on the internet, we suggest doing a search for “Whale swallows man Harry Rimmer James Bartley” or similar (without quotes).  You will likely find many articles, both in support of, and in opposition to the Rimmer account.  Some are from a Biblical perspective, but many are written from a naturalistic approach.

One interesting article is written by Larry E Marshall on his Intelligent Design blog post from 2013.  It is primarily biblical, but takes a naturalistic evidential approach in this apologetic (defense) of the Jonah account.  We must mention a few quotes however from the latter article with which we would disagree.  First, the author writes, “So we have to determine if it is really possible for someone to survive in the belly of a great fish in order to prove the Bible is a historical text”.  The author appears to believe that the presence of a miracle would somehow void the text of its historicity.  A historical text however, simply means that the text contains an accurate recording of the events as they actually happened, so if these events included a miracle, so be it.  The author doubles down shortly afterwards by writing “First we need to determine if there are any other credible reports of people surviving inside a large fish. If so, then the Biblical account would be possible”.  This statement would only be true if we deny the possibility of miracles.  After giving examples of naturally occurring survival stories, he writes “So there we have it!  Two separate and well documented instances of a human surviving in the ‘belly of a great fish.’  Therefore the Biblical account of Jonah is possible, other similar events have occurred since.”  Again, this appears to be written from a strictly naturalist view.  Finally, he writes “Jonah is probable because it is written about and verified from different points of view in the scriptures.”  We would contend however, that Jonah is “absolutely certain” when verified by Scripture, period.

Before we move on to other resources, we should point out that we do not personally know the author of the Intelligent Design blog, but based on other statements within the article, it appears that he generally upholds the authority of Scripture.  Many Intelligent Design proponents practice a form of evidential apologetics (defense of the Christian Faith) by taking a “neutral” (naturalistic) position on the Bible in an attempt to persuade an unbeliever of the Scripture’s truth by meeting the unbeliever on “the unbeliever’s own turf”.

Perhaps the best balanced and most researched and documented account comes from an article published in the Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation that promotes discussions on faith and science issues.  It was written in 1991 by Edward B Davis, Associate Professor of Science and History at Messiah College in Grantham, PA.  Prof Davis spent years researching and chasing leads related to the Rimmer/Bartley story.  In Prof Davis’ own words, “According to a persistent story, exactly one hundred years ago a sailor named James Bartley was swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falkland Islands.  About thirty-six hours later his fellow sailors found him, unconscious but alive, inside the belly of the animal.  What follows is the result of my attempt to uncover the real story, as well as the story of the story--how this whale of a tale found its way into the fundamentalist apologetic tradition, as well as a sizeable number of conservative biblical commentaries.”  The remainder of the article contains a detailed account of the professor’s research into the subject.

We recommend our readers read the professor’s published article for themselves, but long story short (spoiler alert), although Prof Davis found good evidence to support Rimmer’s account, he also found other evidence that appears to cast some doubt on its historicity.

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The following year (1992), a relatively short response was submitted and also published in the same journal as Letters to the Editor - on Davis’ “A Whale of A Tale”.  It was written by Jerry Bergman PHD, a Professor at Northwest State Community College in Archbold, Ohio. Professor Bergman writes in part,

The example that Davis discusses is probably not fraud or deception, but in his words, a story which no one has likely given “the kind of careful investigation it warrants if it were to be used as evidence for the reliability of Scripture” (Davis, p. 231).  Although sloppiness often blends into deceit, I think that the major problem is the tendency for most people to uncritically accept information which fits their belief structure, plus the simple fact that most of us lack time to do the research necessary to directly verify every story, study, or idea that we come to believe.  This problem is well illustrated in the enormous and commendable amount of effort that Davis had to expend in order to track down what seems to be the conclusion of the story.  (Actually, I could think of at least two other solutions aside from that which Davis hypothesizes).

Professor Bergmann then offers an interesting conclusion that ties into our previous observations regarding miracles.

My own concern relative to the whale account is that if an event is categorized as a miracle, it must be an event which would not normally be possible--and demonstrating that such a feat is easily possible removes it from the miracle category and into the “God wanted events to turn out that way” category, somewhat like meeting the right person at the right time on the street.  If I found a way to “convert” water to wine, Jesus becomes not a miracle worker but merely a smart man…  Davis gave us our miracle back.

We’d like to close with two observations regarding the professor’s conclusion.  The first involves Jesus “converting” water to wine.  In this instance, Jesus did not simply add sugars, alcohol, nitrogen, potassium and other required complex ingredients to the water in exact proportions to provide the taste, texture and smell of the “best wine”.  Jesus did a Creatio ex nihilo (Creation from nothing) on a molecular level.

Second, to his “Davis gave us our miracle back” conclusion, we applaud his sentiment, but contend that, even if it was positively proven that Rimmer’s account was true, showing that a person could be swallowed whole and survive within a great fish, we would still have a Type B (timing) miracle at the very least in Jonah’s case.

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Related Articles

In a follow-up article, Jonah and the Big Fish, Part 2, we further elaborate on some of the evidence presented throughout this article, as well as examining additional questions related to Jonah and the “Great Fish”.  Is this scientifically possible?  What kind of fish would be capable of swallowing a man?  How could Jonah survive, or did he die in the fish?  Why were the people of Nineveh so quick to believe his message?  In addition, since we originally wrote this shortly after Easter, we’ll discuss the “Sign of Jonah” that has a remarkable tie-in with the aforementioned death and resurrection of the Christ.

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