I am a fan of George Gershwin’s music. In 1935, he and his brother Ira published a song that shocked those who read the Bible literally, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The song was written tongue in cheek, challenging many Christians’ belief in some of the biblical stories. The Discovery Channel’s documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” might have challenged the faith of some in this generation, despite the scholarly arguments against the documentary’s conclusions.
“De t-ings dat yo’ li’ble to read in de Bible, it ain’t necessarily so,” was the refrain line, and one of the song’s verses sang: “Jonah, he lived in a whale, Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale, fo’ he made his home in dat fish’s ab-domen, Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale,” followed by the refrain: “It ain’t necessarily so…”
Jesus references the story of Jonah and the whale in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 12: 38-42 to predict his coming death and resurrection:
Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights ….
So, as adult Christians, what are we to make of this popular story in the Old Testament? The fact that Jesus uses the story would seem to give it iron-clad authenticity.
Yet, there are few scripture scholars today who would hold to a literal interpretation of the Jonah story. Today, the story is seen as a parable, whose purpose was to teach a lesson — namely, that the Jews were not the only people God loved. Remember, Jesus, too, very often used the parable to teach. The fact that this parable made it into the Jewish canon, or list of divinely-inspired books, is a miracle in itself, considering the thinking of the Jews that they were the chosen people of Yahweh.
To be sure, many fundamentalist Christian preachers still today hold to the literal interpretation of the Bible, allowing for no deviation in interpretation than what the literal words in Scripture say. Yet, there are many instances of problems interpreting the Bible with that approach.
I have studied Latin six years in college, Greek for five, and Hebrew for two. The nuances of translation between the languages are many. Words in the same language have different meanings in different times. The original Hebrew found in the Old Testament was written down without vowels. Imagine trying to translate the following:
Don’t forget that Hebrew is written from right to left. (The solution is at the end of this blog.)
The Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts were written without vowels. Written vowels came into existence through the Massorites, beginning with the long vowels and concluding with the short vowels and cantillation marks around 620 AD.
Most scripture scholars find many historical inaccuracies in Scripture. I, as a Christian, believe that the writers of Scripture operated under the Holy Spirit’s influence, but they were not immune to the way in which the oral traditions were committed to writing. There were no video documents to consult, and what was written down prior to the use of animal skins or papyrus was etched in steles or clay tablets.
Several of the stories of Genesis doubtless had pagan origins such as the flood story, an obvious retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh a thousand years later.
There is currently no argument among Christian scholars that the Bible is the Word of God. However, the historical-critical method of interpretation of the Bible has gained almost universal acceptance among mainline Christian scholars. Condemned at first by virtually all Christian groups in the nineteenth century, the method actually had its beginnings with Sts. Jerome and Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries. Various aspects of this approach were popularized and developed by scholars like Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), and others. More recently, Raymond E. Brown, SS (1928-1998) has earned universal acclaim developing this approach to understanding the Bible.
The fundamental principles of the historical-critical method in its classic form are the following:
It is an historical method, not only because it is applied to ancient texts — in this case, those of the Bible — and studies their significance from an historical point of view, but also and above all because it seeks to shed light upon the historical processes which gave rise to biblical texts, diachronic processes that were often complex and involved a long period of time. At the different stages of their production, the texts of the Bible were addressed to various categories of hearers or readers living in different places and different times.
It is a critical method, because in each of its steps (from textual criticism to redaction criticism) it operates with the help of scientific criteria that seek to be as objective as possible. In this way it aims to make accessible to the modern reader the meaning of biblical texts, often very difficult to comprehend.
As an analytical method, it studies the biblical text in the same fashion as it would study any other ancient text and comments upon it as an expression of human discourse. However, above all in the area of redaction criticism, it does allow the exegete to gain a better grasp of the content of divine revelation.
Back to the two page Book of Jonah…
You remember the story: Jonah is called by Yahweh to preach repentance to the Ninevites. Instead of going north to the land of Assyria, of which Nineveh was its capital city, Jonah goes west. There was a reason for Jonah’s reluctance — Assyria was the most fearsome ancient power of his time. It was Assyria that conquered Israel’s northern kingdom in 722 BC, and it was King Sennacherib who threatened annihilation of the southern kingdom and nearly destroyed Jerusalem during the reign of Judah’s King Hezekiah some twenty years later. From Assyrian texts, Sennacherib traps the Jewish king Hezekiah: “Himself (Hezekiah) I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” The biblical account differs as to its spin: 2 Kings: 18, 19:
That night the angel of the Lord went forth and struck down 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. Early the next morning, there they were, all the corpses of the dead. So Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, broke camp and went back home to Nineveh.
The story line of the Book of Jonah follows:
Jonah boards a ship which runs into a severe storm. The sailors conclude that Jonah is to blame, so they throw him overboard… and you know what happens next. After three days in the belly of the “great fish,” he is spewed out on land. Convinced he must do the Lord’s bidding, he goes to Nineveh, where he fully expects to be killed for his preaching. Instead the King repents and so do the people. Jonah grumbles to the Lord about the turn of events and God describes his love for the Jews’ worst enemy, the Assyrians, in the final scene under the withered gourd plant.
There is no archaeological, corroborating evidence that Nineveh’s ruler or its people ever repented of their worship of their pagan gods, much less any tolerance of the Jews thereafter. Memorable as the Book of Jonah is, it is the opinion of most biblical scholars today that Jonah, a prophet named in 2 Kings 14:25 and estimated to have live in the 8th century BC, never was involved in the Book of Jonah.
The historical Jonah ben Amittai was selected by the book’s unknown author who wrote the book in the 5th century as a kind of anti-hero who had no connection with the Book of Jonah, nor did he get swallowed by a big fish, nor was Nineveh ever converted. How is the dating of language known? By studying comparable writings of the different times, certain words and phraseologies common to different eras, and translation differences. It is a science in itself, just as is archeology.
In the Old and New Testaments, as in other ancient writings, authorship of a book was often the work of an unknown writer who used a respected historical figure to gain a work’s credibility. Not that God was not the author of the work, but rather than the unknown author used a famous personage, such as a Solomon or a David, to further its acceptance. There was no need for Jesus, who referenced the story of Jonah, to get into a discussion of authorship or whether the story was a parable or history. He used the story for its parallelism to his upcoming Passion and death.
The Book of Jonah is a story of redemption to be sure, but of a different kind — a prefiguration of the redemption of all mankind by the true Jonah, Jesus Christ. As I have noted above, Jesus used many parables in his teaching. He used the familiar parable of Jonah to teach of his love for all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike, and to explain his upcoming redemptive act by his death and resurrection from the dead.
For more information on the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, I refer you to my book "Understanding the Bible: A Layman's Guide to the Historical-Critical Method," available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Borders. Amazon has a neat “Search Inside” feature, so you can read portions of most books before you purchase. You can also access more information on my book at www.hahnenberg.org.
Oh yes, the correct translation is “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God.” (From the beginning of John’s gospel.)