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Is the story of Jonah and the whale a myth?

Full Question

Is the story of Jonah and the whale a myth?


Catholics are free to understand the story of Jonah and the whale as literal history or as didactic fiction. In Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Karl Keating writes:

“The Catholic Church is silent on the proper interpretation of many biblical passages, readers being allowed to accept one of several understandings. Take, as an example, Jonah’s escapade at sea, which readers often find disturbing. Ronald Knox said that ‘no defender of the sense of Scripture ever pretended, surely, that this was a natural event. If it happened, it was certainly a miracle; and not to my mind a more startling miracle than the raising of Lazarus, in which I take it Catholics are certainly bound to believe. Surely what puts one off the story of Jonah is the element of the grotesque that is present in it’ (Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn, Difficulties, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 109).

“The most common interpretation nowadays, and one that is held by indubitably orthodox exegetes, is that the story of the prophet being swallowed and then disgorged by a ‘great fish’ is merely didactic fiction, a grand tale told to establish a religious point. Catholics are perfectly free to take this or a more literal view. . . .

“Strictly literal interpretations of what happened to Jonah actually come in two forms. One relies on the fact that people apparently have been swallowed by whales and lived to talk about it. In 1891 a seaman, James Bartley, from a ship named the Star of the East, was found missing after an eighty-foot sperm whale had been caught. He was presumed drowned. The next day, when the crew cut up the whale, Bartley was discovered alive inside. If Jonah’s three days in the whale were counted like Christ’s three days in the tomb, after the Semitic fashion—that is, parts of three distinct days, but perhaps only slightly more than twenty-four hours total—then it is possible that Jonah could have been coughed up by that great fish just as his story says. This would be a purely natural explanation of the episode.

“The other literal interpretation is that Jonah indeed underwent what the story, read as straight history, says he did but survived only because of a positive miracle, and several different sorts of miracles have been suggested, such as suspended animation on Jonah’s part or a fish with a remarkably large air supply and decidedly mild gastric juices” (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Ignatius Press, 129–30).


  1. lorderico Reply

    it is certainly true…The Lord Jesus Christ also mention that happening in the Gospel…

  2. virgilio e del rosario Reply

    the old testament is compose of books written by man inspired by GOD THE FATHER. the new testament is compose of books written by man inspired by JESUS CHRIST,GOD THE SON. why interpret it to many possibilities. why don’t just believe. especially the new testament. is there something we don’t know? tha’s why so many additional rituals you created aside from holly bible? i’m a catholic. why don’t we just believe purely on what the holly bible says. especially the new testament

  3. Dianet Veale Reply

    I believe that happened. When I was little, there was a man who came out of the sea in to our town, in the Phil. He said, he was from a ship that sunk. He hung on a wood that he saw floating. Not very long, he saw these whales incircling him. He saw sharks, but cannot go near him, because of the whales. He was in the sea for more than a week.He tore his t-shirt to eat. He was just floating all that days while the whales were there incircling him, then he saw an island, he was very weak, he just prayed and waited until he was close to the shore.

  4. Dianet Veale Reply

    Sorry about my English.

  5. Solomon Musa Ochidi Reply

    If you read the Holy Bible with a critical mind there are many unanswered questions. The one that has held down for so long is the story of Cane and Abel. If Adam and Eve were the first human beings created, who was Cane afraid of when he was asked to roam the earth as punishment for killing Abel? Where did he get the wife to marry, and even went ahead to establish a city (Village, town or whatever), as the story went. Are we descendants of Cane, or did Adam and Eve have other children after Abel? If so, did the marry themselves, or how did they multiply? To me this story is more disturbing than whether the story of Jonah is real or fiction. I am a Catholic and I have asked this questions on several occasions without getting any satisfactory answer.

  6. Eva Reply

    It is true because my family is from Ninevah and we still practice the three day fast which usually falls just before the Easter fast. The fast is called Baoutha, and it’s practiced more commonly in the church of the east. Look up the Chaldean Catholic Church for more info.

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