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The Catholic Encyclopedia
The fifth of the Minor Prophets. The name is usually taken to mean "dove", but in view of the complaining words of the Prophet (Jonah 4), it is not unlikely that the name is derived from the root Yanah = to mourn, with the signification dolens or "complaining". This interpretation goes back to St. Jerome (Comm. on Jonah, iv, 1). Apart from the book traditionally ascribed to him, Jonah is mentioned only once in the Old Testament, 2 Kings 14:25, where it is stated that the restoration by Jeroboam II (see Jeroboam) of the borders of Israel against the incursions of foreign invaders was a fulfillment of the "word of the Lord the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amathi, the prophet, who was of Geth, which is in Opher". This last is but a paraphrastic rendering of the name Gath-Hepher, a town in the territory of Zabulon (Josephus, "Antiq.", XIX, xiii), which was probably the birthplace of the Prophet, and where his grave was still pointed out in the time of St. Jerome. Mention is made of Jonah in Matthew 12:39 ff., and in 16:4, and likewise in the parallel passages of Luke (xi, 29, 30, 32), but these references add nothing to the information contained in the Old Testament data. According to an ancient tradition mentioned by St. Jerome (Comm., in Jonas, Prol., P.L., XXV, 118), and which is found in Pseudo-Epiphanius (De Vitis Prophetarum, xvi, P.L., XLIII, 407), Jonah was the son of the widow of Sarephta whose resuscitation by the Prophet Elias is narrated in 1 Kings 17, but this legend seems to have no other foundation than the phonetic resemblance between the proper name Amathi, father of the Prophet, and the Hebrew Emeth, "truth", applied to the word of God through Elias by the widow of Sarephta (1 Kings 17:24).
The chief interest in the Prophet Jonah centres around two remarkable incidents narrated in the book which bears his name. In the opening verse it is stated that "the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amathi, saying: Arise and go to Ninive, the great city, and preach in it: for the wickedness thereof is come up before me." But the Prophet, instead of obeying the Divine command, "rose up to flee into Tharsis from the face of the Lord" that he might escape the task assigned to him. He boards a ship bound for that port, but a violent storm overtakes him, and on his admission that he is the cause of it, he is cast overboard. He is swallowed by a great fish providentially prepared for the purpose, and after a three day's sojourn in the belly of the monster, during which time he composes a hymn of thanksgiving, he is cast upon dry land. After this episode he again receives the command to preach in Ninive, and the account of his second journey is scarcely less marvellous than that of the first. He proceeds to Ninive and enters "after a day's journey" into it, foretelling its destruction in forty days. A general repentance is immediately commanded by the authorities, in view of which God relents and spares the wicked city. Jonah, angry and disappointed, wishes for death. He expostulates with the Lord, and declares that it was in anticipation of this result that on the former occasion he had wished to flee to Tharsis. He withdraws from Ninive and, under a booth which he has erected, he awaits the destiny of the city. In this abode he enjoys for a time the refreshing shade of a gourd which the Lord prepares for him. Shortly, however, the gourd is stricken by a worm and the Prophet is exposed to the burning rays of the sun, whereupon he again murmurs and wishes to die. Then the Lord rebukes him for his selfish grief over the withering of a gourd, while still desiring that God should not be touched by the repentance of a city in which "there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons that know not how to distinguish between their right hand and their left, and many beasts." Apart from the hymn ascribed to Jonah (ii, 2-11) the contents of the book are prose.
Catholics have always looked upon the Book of Jonah as a fact-narrative. In the works of some recent Catholic writers there is a leaning to regard the book as fiction. Only Simon and Jahn, among prominent Catholic scholars, have clearly denied the historicity of Jonah; and the orthodoxy of these two critics may no longer be defended: "Providentissimus Deus" implicitly condemned the ideas of both in the matter of inspiration, and the Congregation of the Index expressly condemned the "Introduction" of the latter.
Reasons for the traditional acceptance of the historicity of Jonah:
According to the Septuagint text of the Book of Tobias (xiv, 4), the words of Jonah in regard to the destruction of Ninive are accepted as facts; the same reading is found in the Aramaic text and one Hebrew manuscript. The apocryphal III Mach., vi, 8, lists the saving of Jonah in the belly of the fish along with the other wonders of Old Testament history. Josephus (Ant. Jud., IX, 2) clearly deems the story of Jonah to be historical.
The authority of Our Lord
This reason is deemed by Catholics to remove all doubt as to the fact of the story of Jonah. The Jews asked a "sign" a miracle to prove the Messiahship of Jesus. He made answer that no "sign" would be given them other than the "sign of Jonah the Prophet. For as the Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: because they did penance at the preaching of Jonah. And behold a greater than Jonah here" (Matthew 12:40-1; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32). The Jews asked for a real miracle; Christ would have deceived them had He presented a mere fancy. He argues clearly that just as Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights even so He will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. If, then, the stay of Jonah in the belly of the fish be only a fiction, the stay of Christ's body in the heart of the earth is only a fiction. If the men of Ninive will really not rise in judgment, neither will the Jews really rise. Christ contrasts fact with fact, not fancy with fancy, nor fancy with fact. It would be very strange, indeed, were He to say that He was greater than a fancy-formed man. It would be little less strange were he to berate the Jews for their real lack of penance by rating this lack in contrast with the penance of Ninive which never existed at all. The whole force of these striking contrasts is lost, if we admit that the story of Jonah is not fact-narrative. Finally, Christ makes no distinction between the story of the Queen of Sheba and that of Jonah (see Matthew 12:42). He sets the very same historical value upon the Book of Jonah as upon the Third Book of Kings. Such is the very strongest argument that Catholics offer for the firm stand they take upon the ground of the fact-narrative of the story of Jonah.
The authority of the Fathers
Not a single Father has ever been cited in favor of the opinion that Jonah is a fancy-tale and no fact-narrative at all. To the Fathers Jonah was a fact and a type of the Messias, just such a one as Christ presented to the Jews. Saints Jerome, Cyril, and Theophilus explain in detail the type-meaning of the facts of the Book of Jonah. St. Cyril even forestalls the objections of the Rationalists of today: Jonah flees his ministry, bewails God's mercy to the Ninivites, and in other ways shows a spirit that ill becomes a Prophet and an historical type of Christ. Cyril admits that in all this Jonah failed and is not a type of Christ, but does not admit that these failures of Jonah prove the story of his doings to have been a mere fiction.
To the Rationalist and to the advanced Protestant Biblical scholar these arguments are of no worth whatsoever. They find error not only in Jewish and Christian tradition but in Christ Himself. They admit that Christ took the story of Jonah as a fact-narrative, and make answer that Christ erred; He was a child of His time and represents to us the ideas and errors of His time. The arguments of those who accept the inerrancy of Christ and deny the historicity of Jonah are not conclusive.
- Christ spoke according to the ideas of the people, and had no purpose in telling them that Jonah was really not swallowed by the fish. We ask: Did Christ speak of the Queen of Sheba as a fact? If so, then He spoke of Jonah as a fact unless there be some proof to the contrary.
- Were the book historical in its narrative, certain details would not be omitted, for instance, the place where the Prophet was vomited forth by the sea-monster, the particular sins of which the Ninivites were guilty, the particular kind of calamity by which the city was to be destroyed, the name of the Assyrian king under whom these events took place and who turned to the true God with such marvellous humility and repentance.
Jewish tradition assumed that the Prophet Jonah was the author of the book bearing his name, and the same has been generally maintained by the Christian writers who defend the historical character of the narrative. But it may be remarked that nowhere does the book itself claim to have been written by the Prophet (who is supposed to have lived in the eighth century B.C.), and most modern scholars, for various reasons, assign the date of the composition to a much later epoch, probably the fifth century B.C. As in the case of other Old Testament personages, many legends, mostly fantastic and devoid of critical value, grew up around the name Jonah. They may be found in the "Jewish Encyclopedia".
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Jonah'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/j/jonah.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.