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Fifth of the Minor Old Testament Prophets

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Jonas, the fifth of the Minor Prophets. The name is usually taken to mean “dove” (Heb. YVNH), but in view of the complaining words of the Prophet (Jonas, iv), 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 Jonas, iv, 1). Apart from the book traditionally ascribed to him, Jonas is mentioned only once in the Old Testament; IV Kings, xiv, 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 fulfilment of the “word of the Lord the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonas 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 Jonas in Matt., xii, 39 sqq., and in xvi, 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), Jonas was the son of the widow of Sarephta whose resuscitation by the Prophet Elias is narrated in III Kings, xvii, but this legend seems to have no other foundation than the phonetic resemblance between the proper name Amathi (AMCHY), father of the Prophet, and the Hebrew word Emeth (AMCH), “truth”, applied to the word of God through Elias by the widow of Sarephta (III Kings, xvii, 24).

The chief interest in the Prophet Jonas centers 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 Jonas 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 over-takes 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 days’ 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 “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. Jonas, 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 Jonas (II, 2-11) the contents of the book are in prose.

HISTORICITY.—Catholics have always looked upon the Book of Jonas 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 Jonas; 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 Jonas:—

I. Jewish Tradition.—According to the Septuagint text of the Book of Tobias (xiv, 4), the words of Jonas in regard to the destruction of Ninive are accepted as facts; the same reading is found in the Aramaic text and one Hebrew MS. (see Kaulen, “Einleitung in die Heilige Schrift”, Freiburg im Br., 1890, p. 352). The apocryphal III Mach., vi, 8, lists the saving of Jonas in the belly of the fish along with the other wonders of Old Testament history. Josephus (Ant. Jud., IX, x, 2) clearly deems the story of Jonas to be historical.

II. The Authority of Our Lord.—This reason is deemed by Catholics to remove all doubt as to the fact of the story of Jonas (see Knabenbauer, “Comm. in Prophetas Minores”, II, 361). 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 Jonas the prophet. For as Jonas 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 Jonas. And behold a greater than Jonas here” (Matt., xii, 40-1; xvi, 4; Luke, xi, 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 Jonas 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 Jonas 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 mere 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 Jonas is not fact-narrative. Finally, Christ makes no distinction between the story of the Queen of Sheba and that of Jonas (see Matt., xii, 42). He sets the very same historical value upon the Book of Jonas 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 Jonas.

III. The Authority of the Fathers.—Not a single Father has ever been cited in favor of the opinion that Jonas is a fancy-tale and no fact-narrative at all. To the Fathers Jonas 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 Jonas. St. Cyril even forestalls the objections of the Rationalists of today: Jonas 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 Jonas failed and is not a type of Christ, but does not admit that these failures of Jonas 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 Jonas 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 Jonas are not conclusive. 1°. Christ spoke according to the ideas of the people, and had no purpose in telling them that Jonas 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 Jonas as a fact—unless there be some proof to the contrary. 2°. 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. We answer, these objections prove that the book is not an historical account done according to later canons of historical criticism; they do not prove that the book is no history at all. The facts narrated are such as suited the purpose of the sacred writer. He told a story of glory unto the God of Israel and of downfall to the gods of Ninive. It is likely that the incidents took place during the period of Assyrian decadence e. the reign of either Asurdanil or Asurnirar (770-745 B.C.). A pest had ravaged the land from 765 till 759 B.C. Internal strife added to the dismay caused by the deadly disease. The king’s power was set at naught. Such a king might seem too little known to be mentioned. The Pharaoh of Mosaic times is not deemed to have been a fiction merely because his name is not given.

Jewish tradition assumed that the Prophet Jonas was the author of the book bearing his name, and the same has been generally maintained by 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 in 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 of Jonas. They may be found in the “Jewish Encyclopedia“.


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