My daughter was told in her religion class that the story of Jonah and the whale was not a true story but a parable. I have always told them it was true because the Bible doesn't indicate to us that it is a parable like the Prodigal Son parable. Can you explain what we are to take literally? It makes our children then question the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Peace in Christ!
The Church has not made any definitive pronouncement on the literal meaning of the book. Thus, there has not been any clear, official affirmation that Jonah was indeed a historical figure, or that, if he was, the events described in the Book of Jonah actually happened as described. As our Faith Fact Taking God at His Word: A Catholic Understanding of Biblical Inerrancy explains, if the literal meaning of a text is historical — that is, if the inspired author intended to write a historical account — then, because the Holy Spirit protected the sacred authors from error in all that they wrote, we must believe that the historical events happened as described. However, if the sacred author intended the literal meaning of the text to not be a historical account, but rather an allegory or a morality lesson, then we need not believe that the text is describing an actual historical event. The crucial issue at hand in determining whether Jonah is a historical figure and whether the events described truly happened is determining whether the inspired author of the Book of Jonah intended to write a historical account. (Even the term “historical” itself can be misleading, since people in ancient times had a different conception of what constituted history and accurate historical records.) Since the Church has not definitively pronounced on this matter, Catholics are not bound to a particular understanding of the literal meaning of the text. (See our Faith Fact, Making Sense Out of Scripture: the Four Best Kept Secrets in Biblical Studies Today, on the senses of Scripture for information beyond the literal meaning/sense.)
While the Church has not made an official pronouncement on the matter, it is very likely that Jonah himself was a real historical figure. The Second Book of Kings makes mention of a prophet by the name of Jonah: “[T]he word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). This appears to be the same prophet described in the Book of Jonah: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (Jon. 1:1-2).
We must also note that many Church Fathers did believe that the Book of Jonah presents a person who really existed and describes events that really happened (Pope St. Clement, Letter to the Corinthians; St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho; St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies; Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians; St. Methodius, Fragments; and Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh). In affirming the historicity of Jonah, the Fathers seem to be following the example of Jesus Himself, who said:
“An evil and adulterous generation looks for a sign; but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the Prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise 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” (Mt. 12:39-41).
Here Jesus implicitly affirms the actual existence of Jonah. In other words, Jesus’ description of Jonah’s stay in the belly of the whale as a “sign” (pointing to Jesus’ stay in the tomb) implicitly suggests that the event did actually occur. Furthermore, Jesus appears to be affirming (v. 41) the existence of the Ninevites as real people who repented upon hearing the preaching of Jonah, and who will arise at the last judgment with Jesus’ generation and condemn it. The very force of Jesus’ saying seems to assume that the event has at least some basis in history.
Now it must be admitted that the vast majority of interpreters today do not believe the story to be historical. Indeed, it is very likely that the author of Jonah wrote the book not primarily to convey historical fact but as a biting allegory and satire about Israel and the historical situation she found herself in. She (like Jonah) had been sent by God to be a light to the nations but had in effect run away from this responsibility by becoming much like the other nations. Just as Israel “died” during the Babylonian exile and was promised by God an eventual restoration and new mission to the nations, so too Jonah nearly or actually died in the belly of the fish only to be spit back on land and given a second chance to fulfill his mission. Just as Jonah was angry that the Ninevites, the enemies of Israel, repented and were saved, so also many Jews would be jealous of the mercy shown by God upon the Gentiles. Jonah really foreshadows perfectly the problem of Israel in the New Testament — how could the God who chose Israel over the hated Gentiles really have in mind that Israel was meant to be the channel of God’s love to those same hated Gentiles? This dilemma of Israel’s rejection of her own messiah — who went on to show God’s mercy to Israel’s enemies, who then claimed an equal share in Israel’s birthright is the central historical background to the drama of the New Testament.
Thus in light of the allegory and the fact that Jesus points to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish as a foreshadowing of His own resurrection, interpreting “the fish” to represent death seems highly reasonable. In fact, in several places in Biblical literature, death or the devil who has power over death is portrayed as a great sea monster (see Ps. 74, Job 41 and Rev. 13 as a few examples). This imagery may well lie in the background to the story.
In conclusion, we need not make a hard and fast choice between Jonah’s basis in history and the story’s clear use of literary devices to convey its theological message. It is possible to draw upon the insight of modern scholars who have focused on the literary message. The tale may well be history that has been shaped into a carefully constructed theological allegory, in which Matthew in the New Testament sees a parallel to his own historical situation.
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