Why Skeptics Doubt Jonah: Miracles, History, and Behavior

Why Skeptics Doubt Jonah: Miracles, History, and Behavior

In my previous post, I introduced Julius Bewer’s objections to Jonah. Bewer skepticism of Jonah’s historicity is widely shared, but Bewer expressed this skepticism in a manner more eloquent than most. For this reason, his work will feature prominently in upcoming posts. The task at present is to organize the issues. In order to explore the veracity of Jonah’s history, we must first understand the arguments of those who doubt it. We have three categories to address: miracle claims, Assyrian history, and bizarre behavior.

Miracles in Jonah

The first category has to do with elements of nature behaving in ways they shouldn’t. In the book of Jonah, God sent a storm, quieted it instantly, caused a fish to swallow Jonah, arranged for the fish to transport Jonah, ordered the fish to launch Jonah onto dry land, caused a massive plant to grow in hours, and directed a creature to dismember the plant shortly thereafter. The text says God did this. It is not clear how God did it. Were there sea creatures capable of swallowing a man whole roaming the Mediterranean? Was it a species alive today? Was it a creature unknown to science? Was Jonah’s survival a miracle on the order of Jesus walking on water? Or was the miracle that God created a fish that was capable of protecting Jonah through natural processes?
These questions may not have a discernable answer. Certainly I do not have one. In any case, the Bible claims divine, miraculous intervention. That does not make Jonah remarkable, however. We either believe God does such things or He doesn’t. If we do believe God able and willing to supersede natural law, these claims are not problematic. If we do not, well Jonah is only one of many books advocating for miracles. Similar claims—no more fantastic—span the Scriptures. I submit, therefore, that the ridicule that Jonah has received from skeptics is not due to the fish story. I have nothing to add to the extensive writings already extant about the miraculous fish. We can accept the Bible’s claim that God did it—or we can deny it. But the book of Jonah has been singled out by skeptics as particularly outlandish and otherwise Bible-believing scholars have begun to question whether it really happened. Let me reiterate, it cannot be the miracle claims of the book that cause this difficulty.

Accurate Assyrian History?

The skeptic’s second and third categories of objection prove more problematic. It is these categories that will consume my digital ink in the coming months (and probably years). Many biblical scholars and historians claim the author of Jonah knew not Assyrian history. According to this theory, the book was composed long after Assyria ceased. The author chose the name of a known, but little documented prophet and concocted either a fraudulent tale or an intentional parable. Because of the time lapse between Nineveh’s demise and the author’s lifetime, the writer botched some facts. Specifically, the author blundered regarding the importance of Nineveh, the size of Nineveh, and the king of Nineveh.
The question of Nineveh’s importance colors the other two aspects I just mentioned, so we will address it first. It is widely known that Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. A lesser-known fact is that Nineveh first became the capital decades after Jonah’s time. While the biblical text never indicates that it was the capital, four times it calls Nineveh a “great city” (Jonah 1:2; 3:2, 3; 4:11). From what we know of Assyrian history, though, Nineveh lagged behind the cities of Ashur and Calah in importance in Jonah’s day. A distance measurement further complicates matters. According to Jonah 3:3, the city of Nineveh required a three-day journey. The Hebrew text could be interpreted a variety of ways, but the most natural reading is that it took three days to walk across Nineveh. This suggests a city with a diameter of roughly fifty miles. Even during Nineveh’s glory days, the city occupied a fraction of a percent of this square footage. Finally, in Jonah 3:6 the reader meets “the king of Nineveh.” This is unexpected. Nowhere else does the Bible use this phrase, though the term “king of Assyria” occurs eighty-five times. Neither do Assyrian records mention a “king of Nineveh.” Each of these three difficulties are suggested as marks of authorial incompetence or intentional parable-izing. These problems merit consideration and deserve an answer.

Strange Humans

The final collection of troublesome details comes from the bizarre behavior manifested by human characters. The book begins with God’s prophet fleeing in response to a direct command. Next, we find sailors quaking in fear based on a one sentence confession of faith. The life-threatening storm only made them “afraid” (Jonah 1:5). Jonah’s words undid them (Jonah 1:10). Then, instead of merely jettisoning this troublesome passenger, they did everything possible to save him. They prayed fervently before casting him overboard, fearful that this powerful God would be angry. As the seas calm, they break out in seemingly orthodox worship. Still, the reaction of the sailors pales to what Jonah’s words produced in Nineveh. The war-mongering Assyrians instantly fast and put on sackcloth. The king leaves his throne, disrobes, puts on sackcloth, and issues a decree. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the whole event is the demand that the animals fast from food and water while wearing sackcloth and calling out to God. For many biblical scholars, this is all too much to believe.

Ancient Voices

The above issues are legitimate. If we truly are confident in the Bible, it should not scare us to consider these objections. On the other hand, one more issue merits consideration. In the words of one scholar, “Jonah’s place in the canon is incontrovertible. Its canonicity is unquestioned, its place among the Twelve uncontested in the [ancient manuscripts] and in canonical lists. There is not the slightest hint that the inclusion of the book among the Twelve was, until modern times, considered at all problematic.” You see, if the book of Jonah was written by a forger, hundreds of years after the fact, how did the fraudulent book ever convince Jewish scribes? If an incompetent, author made blatant historical errors while creating characters who behaved ridiculously, why did those charged with collecting and transmitting sacred Scriptures adopt this book as holy? Those who deem Jonah fraudulent do not have a satisfactory answer.
Because it is difficult to reconcile modern skepticism with ancient reverence, many have chosen a compromise position. They say that the author never intended for the book to represent actual history. They say it is a religious document with a religious message that works regardless of historicity. They want us to be inspired by the teaching and not get hung up on the details. Bewer himself reached this conclusion: “Surely this is not the record of actual historical events nor was it ever intended as such. It is a sin against the author to treat as literal prose what he intended as poetry.” Those who defend this position have failed to answer why none of the ancients ever read Jonah this way. Until modern times the book has been treated as one of the prophets and the events as historical fact. Were these ancient scholars really so simple? Are we so wise? We should begin with humility. These were learned men with attention to detail superior to ours. Fortunately, their thoughts are not entirely lost to history—these ancient scholars left us some clues.

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Elmer Dyck, “Jonah among the Prophets: A Study in Canonical Context,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990): 63.
Julius A. Bewer, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jonah, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1912), 4.

A Blog for the Book of Jonah?

A Blog for the Book of Jonah?

Certainly, no book in the Minor Prophets is as well-known as Jonah. It is the only book among the twelve that translates well into Flannelgraph. A person may spend his or her life in church—twice on Sunday and midweek service—and never hear a Sunday school lesson or sermon on Obadiah, Nahum, or Zephaniah. It is doubtful, however, that the same person would graduate from preschool without hearing about Jonah and the whale.

Something has happened to Jonah, however. The book has been patronized. People love it—in a condescending way. They are grateful to have a book in the Old Testament that speaks so clearly of God’s love for the nations. The book has served as the theme for many conferences and launched countless missionaries. People see it as a wonderful counter-balance to the relentless messages of judgment in the other Minor Prophets. Yet, the story of Jonah is so fantastic, is it really believable?

As deference to Scripture has diminished, the voices ridiculing Jonah’s historicity have increased. “Why?” you may ask. I will let one particularly well-spoken skeptic answer:

At almost every step the reader who takes the story as a record of actual happenings must ask questions. How was it possible that a true prophet should disobey a direct divine command? Is it likely that God should send a storm simply in order to pursue a single person and thus cause many others to suffer too? Do such things happen in a world like ours? Is it not curious that the lot should fall upon Jonah at once, and evidently without manipulation on the part of the sailors, and that the sea should become calm directly after he had been thrown overboard? That the great fish was at once ready to swallow Jonah may be passed, but that Jonah should have remained in the fish for three days and three nights and should have prayed a beautiful psalm of thanksgiving inside, exceeds the limits of credibility, not to mention the point that the fish did not simply eject him but threw him up on the shore. What an exaggerated idea of the greatness of Nineveh the author had! What language did Jonah speak in Nineveh? How could the people understand him? And what a wonderful result followed his preaching! The greatest prophets in Israel had not been able to accomplish anything like it. It is so unprecedented that Jesus regarded it as the most astounding wonder of the story (Lk. 11:29). Is it not strange that absolutely no trace has been left of the universal, whole-hearted repentance of the Ninevites and that the later prophets who prophesied against Assyria knew nothing of it? And what shall we say of the extraordinarily speedy growth of the plant?

These words were written over a century ago by a man named Julius Bewer. Bewer’s perspective has only become more firmly established by those in the hallowed halls and moldy basements of academia. My concern, though, is not primarily what the academics say but what the people in churches believe. Unfortunately, academic skepticism inevitably influences those in the pew. Bewer’s barrage of questions lingers in basement, hall, and pew. Some have been addressed more successfully than others. This blog is my invitation to you to join me as I investigate the biblical and historical evidence that a real, flesh-and-blood prophet preached in the historical city of Nineveh sometime in the eighth century B.C. I hope, along the way, to give Dr. Bewer some posthumous answers.

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[1] Julius A. Bewer, Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Jonah, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1912), 3–4.