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In Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees, he declares: “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matthew 12:41).

It seems to me that the judgment of T. T. Perowne, written over 100 years ago, still stands up:

Is it possible to understand a reference like this on the non-historic theory of the book of Jonah?

The future Judge is speaking words of solemn warning to those who shall hereafter stand convicted at his bar.

Intensely real he would make the scene in anticipation to them, as it was real, as if then present, to himself.

And yet we are to suppose him to say that imaginary persons who at the imaginary preaching of an imaginary prophet repented in imagination, shall rise up in that day and condemn the actual impenitence of those his actual hearers.

—T. T. Perowne, Obadiah and Jonah (Cambridge, 1894), p. 51. My emphasis.

A very important book looking at Jesus’ view of the Old Testament is John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible.

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16 thoughts on “Did Jesus Think the Book of Jonah Was Historical?”

  1. Michael says:

    Good post. I actually have always had the same question about the book of Job. Is it wrong to believe the book of Job could possibly be a inspired parable? Any articles on this?


  2. Jordan S. says:

    Is the rising up of the Ninevites to condemn the first-century Jews an actual future occurence that we can expect? Is there a place in each Christian’s eschatology that must accomodate this occurence? I am not asking in jest, since there is nothing implausible about this being literally true. But there is also nothing implausible about it being merely a way of saying that the Ninevites are in a position to condemn the Jews, themselves being repentant and the Jews unrepentant.

    I raise this because C. S. Lewis accepted the veracity of the Gospels and the diety of Christ but explicitly denied the historicity of the Book of Jonah. I suspect, based on his statements about what Jesus knew and when, that he would have had no trouble affirming that Jesus (wrongly) believed Jonah to be historical. His statement could still be true in a way similar to how it is true on the second interpretation above, i.e. it is not referring to a future actual event but rather to the standing of the (in this case fictional) Ninevites vis-à-vis the Jews.

    The real trouble to me is not that the Ninevites might be imaginary, since I suspect that the future rising up and condemning might not be actual but hypothetical in any case. Rather, the real problem is the kind of error Jesus must be making if the Jonah story were fictional. It is not plausible to me that the Lord incarnate would have a false belief of this sort, a false belief, it seems, about what God did in the past and perhaps even about who he himself was in relation to Jonah.

  3. bethyada says:

    Agree with Perowne. Note also that Jesus quotes the Queen of the South and Solomon along with Jonah, and the former are written of historically, and Jesus considered them historical.

    I add my recommendation for Wenham. His book is excellent and undervalued, I have suggested it several times.

  4. Glenn says:

    Of course it is true. Jesus did not make mistakes.

    Jonah is true history, the Tower of Babel is true history, the flood is true history; just as the Virgin birth is true history, water into wine is true history, walking on the water is true history, Jesus rising from the dead is true history.

  5. It is the fear of being caught short by some findings and understandings of the world’s scholars that produces a timidity about trusting in the Scriptures on the part of believers today. However, the problem is compounded by the fact that we are often unaware of the intellectual and scientific problems that make up the arrogant perspective from which unbelievers often speak. Consider how the present scientific method suffers from the problem of paralysis by analysis, how that it lacks a more synthetical approach which is needed in order to cope with a situation where the null hypothesis as well as the original hypothesis are both true, that is, an apparently self-contradicting proposition. O well, we can hope that Christians will wake up to the rather ominous and evident intellectual depths in the scripture inspired by omniscience.

  6. SLIMJIM says:

    That was gold insight!

  7. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Can someone deny the historicity of Jonah and still claim they are an honest inerrantist?

    1. Glenn says:

      They could and some do, but lets be honest, it wouldn’t be true.

  8. Over the weekend I visited a Goodwill store where I picked up a book for .75. The book had a quote in it that I had known, when the statement was published (’73): “Historical biblical criticism is bankrupt.” I was attending the most liberal seminary in our denomination at that time where they taught the higher critical approach to Scripture. The rationalistic skepticism of that perspective was not pushed to the limits, but it was pushed enough to upset Bible believing students who were ill-prepared to hear the Book subjected to the acid baths of solipsistic cynicism which in that environment left some of the supernaturalism intact (e.g., the Resurrection, but not the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, but not the dependability of Scripture. That there were and are problems with Scripture, problems for which we often lack the tools with which to reconcile, harmonize, or explain to everyone’s satisfaction cannot be denied. However, there is a history of tools being provided by later discoveries which often enable us to come to grips with difficulties and find that they actually contribute to a better understanding of God’s revelation. After 54 years as a professing Christian, having been converted from Atheism, I can say that I have often found such to be the case. I have also found that there are problems that I cannot answer, that probably will not be answered in my lifetime, some that might not be answered until we are in eternity. The professors at the seminary I attended probably found my rejection of much of what they presented to be a bother, a distraction, a reason for pity, but they had problems with the fact that I was coming at them from a background of former skepticism of atheism and then I was treating skepticism to its own acid bath of doubt. Besides I had already set out to find answers, and my perspective was the Intellectual, that of ideas and how they affect human behavior. It was and is my contention that the Book, inspired as it is stated by the Omniscient God, reflects a profundity of wisdom commensurate with that inspiration, that even its very clarity conceals a depth that defies the human comprehension at its best. Just consider, for example, the matter of paradoxical intervention/therapeutic paradoxes, or consider how two-sided, apparently contradictory ideas can make a believer balanced, flexible, creative, constant, and magnetic by the desirable tension such disparate ideas produce in thinking. Well, I will leave it at that and simply say, the greatest future lies before us, the challenge to thinking through the ideas of God’s revelation and how they influence our nature, conduct, and thinking so that we become attractive, subliminal representatives of Gospel Redemption and Salvation. People want what the Christians have. Selah!

  9. Line two of the above comment, should read, “had I known,” and not “I had known.”

  10. I fail to see why it really matters. Those who battled historical criticism thought it mattered because they were fighting a battle in a context where all parties had a narrow view that said something can only communicate truth if it is historical fact. They also wanted to uphold the possibility of miracle and supernatural intervention. However, in doing so, they built upon the same false assumptions as the modernists they were debating. We have learned so much about the literary nature of the Bible and narrative theology in the past few generations that makes most of these questions moot. If I reference a historical character and say that he persevered in faith as the tortoise did when he outlasted the hare by making slow and steady progress, the fact that I referenced a moral tale as an illustration does not deny the historicity of the character I’m talking about. I fail to see that there is anything at stake by saying Jonah is a satiric folk tale about the prophets (in my view probably using a historical prophet as its main character) that teaches particular lessons to which Jesus made reference to the people in his day. As to what this says about the nature of the Bible, are we saying a high view of Scripture means that God cannot tell stories? He must just report historical incidents? That seems to me to make God less of a communicator.

  11. It matters, when the critics come home to roost, saying, “well, if Jesus thought Jonah was historic and was wrong, then it follows that He was wrong about most everything else.” Which was the kind of point I would have been glad to make in my Atheistic days..and which our new Atheists are happy to make. I can hear one now: “It is so pathetic!” Can’t separate the Gospel from its being based in a historic event. As Paul pointed out, re: the resurrection and its witnesses, “No resurrection (in time and actuality), no salvation.” Narrative and symbolic language have their place, but not at the expense of a reality based happening, when it comes to people and events of significance.

  12. Dan says:

    In accepting the possibility of the historicity of Jonah or not it seems one is forced to address how we look at the miraculous. This is not the only thing to look at but certainly a central concern.

    What sort of things is God described as doing in the book? He communicates to Jonah, He sends a storm, He stills the storm, He sends a sea creature to swallow Jonah, He preserves Jonah, He threatens and withholds judgement, He makes a plant grow, He sends a worm to kill the plant.

    God is described as doing similar things elsewhere in Scripture. Does not the storm and the stilling of the storm sound like what happened in Joshua’s time and in Jesus’ time? The same could be said of the growing and killing of plants, etc.

    It seems the biggest problem people have with Jonah is that he is described as being swallowed by a sea creature and surviving. A commenter to this story on another blog asked which supernatural stories ought we accept and which ones are we to reject in Scripture. It is worth wrestling through these issues and examining our worldviews whether or not we conclude the book is a moralistic tale or actually describing a historical event.

  13. Glenn says:

    If it is presented by the Bible as historical fact then we should except it as historical fact. Without exception.

    As such there is nothing to wrestle with except whether we believe God or not.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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