Many people feel that the account given in the Bible of Jonah is legendary, since even if there were a fish big enough to swallow a man, certainly no man would be able to survive three days in its digestive tract and then escape to the outside world.
However, again and again, Jesus referred to this as a historical event, and even pointed to it as a foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection.
There are, however, several documented accounts of people who have been swallowed by whales and large fish, and have lived to tell about it, even after several days. One species of fish, the "Sea Dog" (Carcharodon carcharias), is found in all warm seas, and can reach a length of 40 feet. In the year 1758, a sailor fell overboard from a boat in the Mediterranean and was swallowed by a sea dog. The captain of the vessel ordered a cannon on the deck to be fired at the fish, which vomited up the sailor alive and unharmed after it was struck.1
Sperm whales can swallow lumps of food eight feet in diameter. Entire skeletons of sharks up to sixteen feet in length have been found in them. In February of 1891, James Bartley, a sailor aboard the whaling ship "Star of the East," was swallowed by a whale in the vicinity of the Falkland Islands. He was within the whale for more than forty-eight hours, and after he was found inside the whale, which had been harpooned and brought aboard the whaling ship, it took him two weeks to recover from the ordeal. Sir Francis Fox wrote as follows about this:
Bartley affirms that he would probably have lived inside his house of flesh until he starved, for he lost his senses through fright and not from lack of air. He remembers the sensation of being thrown out of the boat into the sea. . . . He was then encompassed by a great darkness and he felt he was slipping along a smooth passage of some sort that seemed to move and carry him forward. The sensation lasted but a short time and then he realized he had more room. He felt about him and his hands came in contact with a yielding slimy substance that seemed to shrink from his touch. It finally dawned upon him that he had been swallowed by the whale . . . he could easily breathe; but the heat was terrible. It was not of a scorching, stifling nature, but it seemed to open the pores of his skin and draw out his vitality. . . . His skin where it was exposed to the action of the gastric juice . . . face, neck and hands were bleached to a deadly whiteness and took on the appearance of parchment . . . (and) never recovered its natural appearance . . . (though otherwise) his health did not seem affected by his terrible experience.2
Another individual, Marshall Jenkins, was swallowed by a Sperm Whale in the South Seas. The Boston Post Boy, October 14, 1771, reported that an Edgartown (U.S.A.) whaling vessel struck a whale, and that after the whale had bitten one of the boats in two, it took Jenkins in its mouth and went under the water with him. After returning to the surface, the whale vomited him on to the wreckage of the broken boat, "much bruised but not seriously injured."3
There is, of course, a great deal of historical and archaeological evidence for the ministry of Jonah in Nineveh. Prominent among the divinities of ancient Assyria was Dagan, a creature part man and part fish. This was sometimes represented as an upright figure, with the head of a fish above the head of a man, the open mouth of the fish forming a miter as the man's sacred head-dress, and the feet of a man extending below the tail of the fish. In other cases, the body of a man was at right angles to the conjoined body of a fish. Images of this fish-god were found guarding the entrance to the palace and temple in the ruins of Nineveh, and they appear on ancient Babylonian seals, in a variety of forms.
Berosus, a Babylonian historian, writing in the fourth century B.C., recorded the early traditions concerning the origin of the worship of this fish-man. According to the earliest tradition, the very beginning of civilization in Chaldea and Babylonia was under the direction of a person, part man and part fish, who came up out of the sea. During Jonah's time, the people of Nineveh believed in a divinity who sent messages to them by a person who rose out of the sea, as part fish and part man, and they would undoubtedly have been very receptive to Jonah's ministry if he had been vomited out of a fish. H. Clay Trumbull wrote of this as follows:
What better heralding, as a divinely sent messenger to Nineveh, could Jonah have had, than to be thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish, in the presence of witnesses, say, on the coast of Phoenicia, where the fish-god was a favorite object of worship?
. . . The recorded sudden and profound alarm of the people of an entire city at his warning was most natural, as a result of the coincidence of this miracle with their religious beliefs and expectations.4
Berosis gives the name of the Assyrian fish-god as "Oannes," while he mentions the name "Odacon" as that of one of the avatars of Oannes. Since the name Dagan appears frequently in the Assyrian records from earlier dates, and no trace has been found in them of the name "Oannes," it is possible that this name is a reference to Jonah, as the supposed manifestation of the fish-god himself. The name Oannes for Jonah appears in the Septuagint and in the New Testament with the addition of I before it (Ioannes). However, according to Dr. Herman V. Hilprecht, the eminent Assyriologist, in the Assyrian inscriptions the J of foreign words becomes I, or disappears altogether. Hence Joannes, as the Greek representation of Jonah would appear in Assyrian either as Ioannes or as Oannes. Therefore, in his opinion, Oannes would be a regular Greco-Babylonian writing for Jonah.5
The preservation of the name "Yunas" or "Jonah" at the ruins of Nineveh also confirms the historicity of the Jonah story. As soon as modern discoverers unearthed the mound that had been known for centuries by the name of "Neby Yunas," they found beneath it the ruined palaces of the kings of Nineveh.6
1 Ambrose John Wilson, "The Sign of the Prophet Jonah and Its Modern Confirmations," The Princeton Theological Review 25 (1927): 638. footnote 20.
2 Quoted in Ibid., p. 636.
3 Ibid., pp. 636-637.
4 H. Clay Trumbull, "Jonah In Nineveh," Journal of Biblical Literature 11 (1892): 10-12.
5 Ibid., p. 14.
6 Ibid., pp. 17, 18.