The story of Jonah is a fantastical story about a rebellious prophet who runs away from his calling, then tries to kill himself and gets swallowed by a giant fish who transports him back to where he started and barfs him up on the beach. Then he walks into a large city, preaches the worst sermon ever, and the whole city repents – much to Jonah’s dismay.
The key literary device used in the Book of Jonah is: satire, defined as: the exposure of human vice of folly through the use of humor and irony. In other words, the story of Jonah is intended to make you laugh…and then cry – as you realize that you are actually a lot like Jonah yourself.
Is Jonah an Allegory?
For these reasons, many people have questioned whether Jonah should be understood as an allegory instead of an historical account. As an allegory, Jonah represents Israel: a nation who has not shared the heart of God for lost people and has run away from their calling to be God’s light to the nations. The fish would represent Israel’s (at that present time: current) captivity, which would mean that the calling to go to Nineveh represents the implied proper behavior or response that Israel should have once their captivity is over.
Aside from the miraculous (fish) and fantastical (all of Nineveh repenting) nature of the story, another reason people have argued that Jonah is meant to be understood as an allegory or parable is because there is no historical record outside of the Bible that corroborates the repentance of Nineveh at the preaching of Jonah.
Why Most Bible Scholars Believe Jonah is a Historical Account
1. Jonah is a historical figure
2 Kings 14:25 speaks of a prophet named Jonah who lived in the 8th Century BC. This lines up with the timeline of the events of the Book of Jonah, and it would line up with the Assyrian Empire being powerful at this time.
2. The story presents itself as a historical narrative
The book is presented as a historical, not a fictional narrative. Specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, allegorical stories which are given no historical or geographical anchoring). See: Jonah 1:1-3; 3:2-10; 4:11.
Furthermore, the story of Jonah has all the marks of a prophetic narrative, such as those about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings, which also set out to report actual historical events.
Therefore a simple reading of the text would lead us to believe that this is a historical narrative.
3. There is no strong evidence against it being historical
For those who would argue that the miraculous element of the story is not possible, that would lead to bigger questions about the ability of God and the nature of the world. This assumption, of course, would have implications for how one reads most of the Bible, not just the Book of Jonah. If, on the other hand, God is capable of doing miracles, this should not be considered a major issue.
The lack of historical account from Nineveh about Jonah’s coming and the subsequent repentance of the entire city is not considered strong evidence against Jonah’s historicity either, since 1) records were not kept in ancient society as they are now, and 2) whatever records did exist were regularly and intentionally destroyed by each successive ruling party or civiliazation. Historians would not consider the lack of corroborating historical accounts from Assyria to be evidence against the historicity of the Book of Jonah – whether they believe the story to be true or not.
The question of whether an entire city would repent is not really a problem either considering the communal nature of ancient and Eastern societies. A look at the history of the spread of different religions shows that entire nations have often converted after the command of their king or ruler. Such a response, therefore, would not be unprecedented or even unusual.
4. Jesus spoke of the story as having historical and future relevance
In Matthew 12:40-41, Jesus declared that “the men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah.”
Therefore, my conclusion is with the majority of scholars who believe Jonah to be a historical account. Certainly we should acknowledge though, that it is not history for history’s sake, but that there is a particular didactic (teaching) intention in the way the story is told. May we learn from it!
For more on Jonah, check out this study I did at White Fields Community Church: Jonah: God’s Mission in the World