It is one of the earliest stories I remember learning. While running from God, Jonah was swallowed by a whale, or was it a fish? Either way, it was dark and slimy. As a 50 some odd adult male, do I still believe in Jonah and his encounter inside a giant fish? Surely I don’t believe in something so outrageous as that? Before proceeding, there’s something you need to know about me. I believe in something even crazier. I believe a man died for my sin, was buried, and on the third day, He was raised to life. That’s not all; I also believe He is coming back, now get this, riding a white flying horse (See Revelation 19:11-16). If I believe in the works of Jesus, it’s not hard for me to believe a man was swallowed by a fish. Is the story of Jonah real and historical? For me, this is at the heart of inspiration. Jonah is historical and authentic. Despite what I believe, there are some who believe Jonah is a myth or an allegory about a prophet swallowed by a fish. Is Jonah a real and historical character? Does it even matter? As you read, you will find the historical reference in scripture confirms it’s historicity, the inspiration of Scripture demands Jonah’s authenticity and the “Sign of Jonah” in Matthew 12 seals the deal.
First, Scripture treats Jonah as a historical figure. In 2 Kings 14:25, we find this phrase, “in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through the servant Jonah, son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.” As you can see, the Jonah we find in the book bearing his name, is the same Jonah, son of Amittai, we see in 2 Kings. Scripture treats Jonah as a real historical prophet just as it does with Elijah and Elisha. The historicity of Jonah is not in question.
Secondly, this is a matter of biblical inspiration. Can I trust the Bible? Did God inspire men to write the Bible or was it simply words put down in writing? When Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed …”(2 Timothy 3:16) “All” means all. If Scripture talks about a man named Noah who built an ark, it means a man named Noah built an ark. If a crowd of over 5000 men was fed with five loaves and two fish, a large crowd was filled to the brim with fives loaves and two fish. If Jonah is simply a legendary tale like King Arthur or Robin Hood, what other parts of scripture might be legendary or fictitious? If all of scripture is trustworthy and accurate, then I can read believing every word as it is, the inspired and infallible word of God.
Finally, in Matthew 12 Jesus clearly and convincingly confirms the historicity of Jonah. In verses 39-42, Jesus used the men of Nineveh has a group of changed men who would one day stand in judgment of the generation of Jesus’ day. Consider J Silow Baxter’s words, “Will anyone dare to maintain that the Son of God was here teaching 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, that the fictitious characters of a parable shall be arraigned at the same bar with the living men of that generation?’” (Explore the Bible Vol 4 page 150). The words of Christ confirm the story of Jonah is both true and historical.
If Jonah is historical and factual, there is woven through the story of the Bible a beautiful thread of God’s wonderful grace expressed toward humanity. If it is true, God’s grace can reach even me; there is no one beyond the reach of our relentless God. If it is a mere fable, it is a nice story too fanciful to believe and having about as much significance in my life as Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Furthermore, if the book is fiction, the very integrity of inspired Scripture is compromised. However, the true answer to the authenticity and historicity of the Book of Jonah is both clear and convincing to the thinking mind. Jonah was a true historical figure who was miraculously swallowed by a giant fish and preached the good news to a difficult and dangerous people to the glory of God. So, is it important that Jonah is a real historical figure? Yes, it is! In fact, it is imperative to my faith.