“Estimates regarding the duration of the virtually universal acceptance of the historical character of the Book of Jonah range from 1800 years to “at least twenty-one centuries”.”
There is indisputably a long enduring Jewish-Christian tradition according to which the story of Jonah was a genuine historical account. According to D. Hart-Davies, writing in 1925 (Jonah: Prophet and Patriot): “Jewish tradition, in one unbroken line, testifies to a belief in the historical character of the book …”.
And: “… the Christian Church, with remarkable unanimity has confirmed the Jewish tradition …”.
By way of contrast, Hart-Davies would then give the modern opinion:
Such, however, is not the view which is generally held by modern theologians. The allegorical interpretation is widely accepted. Many treat the narrative as a fiction, with or without a very slight framework of history to rest upon. By many the non-historical character of the book is regarded as indisputable. A writer who ventures to maintain the opposite runs the risk of meeting, in certain quarters, with ridicule or invective. Sir George Adam Smith thus declaims: “How long, O Lord, must Thy poetry suffer from those who can only treat it as prose? On whatever side they stand, sceptical or orthodox, they are equally pedants, quenchers of the spiritual, creators of unbelief” ….
But, responded Hart-Davies, a fervent believer in the book’s historicity:
A strong case, surely, does not require to be buttressed by the immoderate terms of such an apostrophe. For it must not be forgotten that the great majority of Hebraists and theologians of the Church Universal, from Jerome and Augustine to Pusey and Perowne, are included in the compass of the distinguished professor’s denunciation.
Estimates regarding the duration of the virtually universal acceptance of the historical character of the Book of Jonah range from 1800 years to “at least twenty-one centuries”, wrote Hart-Davies. The matter really depends upon a determination of its date of authorship, its terminus a quo.
We know the approximate terminus ante quem, when what Hart-Davies called the “unbroken” tradition, was broken.
It is, as I (Damien Mackey) said at the start of this section, an extremely long tradition. The antiquity of the tradition, and the force of ancient Christians’ enthusiasm for the story of Jonah, is borne out in this statement by Hart-Davies:
The Catacombs in Rome bear striking evidence of the belief of the early Christians. No Biblical subject was more popular for mural and sarcophagi representation, in those underground cemeteries of the disciples of Jesus, than that of Jonah’s submergence and deliverance as a symbol of faith and hope in the resurrection.
“The history of Jonas [Jonah] having been put forward so emphatically by our Lord Himself, as a type both of His own and of the general resurrection, it is not to be wondered at that it should have held the first place among all the subjects from the Old Testament represented in the Catacombs. It was continually repeated in every kind of monument connected with the ancient Christian cemeteries; in the frescoes on the walls, on the bas-reliefs of the sarcophagi, on lamps and medals, and glasses, and even on the ordinary gravestones. Christian artists, however, by no means confined themselves to that one scene in the life of the prophet in which he foreshadowed the resurrection, viz., his three days’ burial in the belly of the fish, and his deliverance from it, as it were from the jaws of the grave. The other incident of his life was painted quite as commonly, viz., his lying ‘under the shadow of the booth covered with ivy on the east side of the city’ for refreshment and rest; or again, his misery and discontent, as he lay in the same place, when the sun was beating upon his head and the ivy had withered away”.
…. Jerome … wrote a commentary on it; and the sermons and writings of Irenaeus, Augustine, Chrysostom, and other Fathers, abound in references which show conclusively that their belief in the historicity of Jonah was unquestioned. A long and bitter controversy was waged between Jerome and Augustine as to the nature of the plant which overshadowed the prophet; but, as to the historical character of the narrative itself, they were absolutely agreed. ….
Hart-Davies appended an interesting footnote to this section; one which demonstrates how well instructed in Scripture were at least the early African Christians.
When the bishop who read the lesson changed the word cucurbita (a gourd) into hedera (ivy), “the whole congregation”, he wrote, “protested, and would not allow the lection to proceed till the word to which they were accustomed was adopted”.
Now, imagine what might have been the reaction of these ancient Christians had they heard from the pulpit, as I did have quite recently, that Jonah was a “didactic fiction”, written in “C5th BC post-exilic times”, and that it is only according to an appreciation of such a genre that one might be able to formulate an answer to a schoolchild’s simple question: “Was Jonah really in the belly of the whale?” It is all a matter of genre, we are told.