Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Dear Catholic.com visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Dear Catholic.com visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Background Image

Did Jonah Die in the Whale?

It's a relatively recent theory . . . and it seems hard to believe.

Jimmy Akin

Recently, a number of individuals have advocated the idea that the prophet Jonah died and was resurrected while in the belly of the whale (or big fish).

This is a striking claim that is at odds with the historical interpretation of the book of Jonah, which is that he remained alive during his experience.

I have not been able to find any historic interpreters—Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish—who held that Jonah literally died. There may be some that I just haven’t found, but if so, they seem to have been quite small in number.

It’s possible that startling new insights can be discovered in familiar biblical passages with established interpretations, but the odds of this happening are not high, and there would need to be compelling arguments to overturn the way a passage has been historically understood.

So let’s look at some arguments that have been or might be proposed for the Jonah Died Hypothesis.

1) The Sign of Jonah: In Matthew 12, some scribes and Pharisees request a sign from Jesus, but he tells them,

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Matt. 12:39-41—see also 16:4, Luke 11:30).

Taken by itself, this does not provide evidence that Jonah died and rose from the dead. Jesus does not say that he did.

However, one might suppose that we should understand Jonah that way on the grounds that it would provide a stronger parallel between Jonah and Jesus if they both died and rose from the dead.

A problem with this approach is that it reads a later, New Testament situation onto a text written centuries earlier, that was composed in a different situation, and that differs in numerous ways (e.g., Jesus wasn’t fleeing God the way Jonah was).

All that can be confidently concluded from what Jesus says is that there is an analogy between him and Jonah that involves Jonah being in the whale for three days and Jesus being in the earth for three days. What happened to Jonah thus serves as a sign of what will happen with Jesus.

But every analogy has its limits. When Jesus called Herod Antipas “that fox” (Luke 13:32), he meant that Herod and foxes have certain characteristics in common (e.g., being cunning), but we cannot infer from this that Herod was a red-furred quadruped of the canine family. We must distinguish between what the two elements of an analogy have in common and what they don’t.

In the sign of Jonah, Jesus has already told us what he and the prophet have in common: They both spend three days in something. We can’t infer from this that they both literally died and resurrected.

In fact, Jesus has warned us that there are things that he and Jonah don’t have in common, for he said, “Behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” Literally dying and rising is one of the ways in which Jesus has historically been understood to be greater than Jonah.

Therefore, if we are to establish that Jonah died and rose again, we will have to do it from the text of the book of Jonah and not from the Gospels.

2) An Argument from Silence: Advocates of the Jonah Death Hypothesis have noted that the author of Jonah never says that the prophet was alive for three days and nights in the fish.

That’s true, but the narrator also doesn’t tell us that Jonah died and rose from the dead.

Fundamentally, this is an argument from silence, and arguments from silence are notoriously weak. They are especially weak when an author is narrating events in someone’s life and fails to mention something as important as the person dying and rising.

Consider a parallel: The book of Ruth narrates events of the matriarch Ruth’s life, and the author never says that Ruth was alive for the entire course of the book. It’s thus hypothetically possible that she died and was raised back to life—say, just before she and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19).

However, it would be a mistake to infer from the fact that the author never says Ruth was alive throughout the story that she must have died and been raised back to life at some point.

Death and resurrection are big things, and there is a compact between the author and the reader that the text will contain the important events of the story being told. If something as important as a death and resurrection took place, the author will tell us.

But that doesn’t happen—either in Ruth or in Jonah. Given that silence, we should presume that both figures were alive throughout the course of their own stories.

3) Sheol and the Pit: In chapter 2 of Jonah—after he has been swallowed by the whale—he prays to God, and in the course of that prayer, Jonah (as opposed to the narrator) says things like this:

I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice (2:2)

I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
O Lord my God (2:6).

When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple (2:7).

Advocates of the Jonah Death Hypothesis have pointed out that “Sheol” and “the Pit” are references to the realm of the dead, and this is true.

It has also been claimed that “my soul fainted” is a reference to Jonah’s death. This is not true, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post. However, we’ll let that pass for the moment.

The fundamental problem with interpreting the above as indicating that Jonah literally died is that Jonah’s prayer is a poem, as you can see even in English since it is composed of couplets in parallel with each other.

Specifically, it’s what’s known as a psalm of thanksgiving, and biblical poems and psalms regularly use non-literal expressions. Often, these take the form of hyperbole, which is deliberate exaggeration used to heighten the emotional impact of the text or to make a point.

For example, when the Psalmist says, “Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn!” (Ps. 108:2), it doesn’t mean that harps, lyres, or the dawn are conscious beings that fall asleep and can then be woken up. This is a poetic way of saying that the psalmist is so excited about God that he’s going to stay up all night praising him with harp and lyre (and even that length of time may be hyperbole).

In the same way, referring to the realm of the dead in a poetic context does not mean that the person literally died. All it need mean is that the person was in danger of death or almost died.

Nor do descriptions in poetry of being rescued from Sheol mean that the person literally died and was resurrected. In Psalm 30, we read,

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.

O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.

O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit (Ps. 30:1-3).

This is a psalm for the dedication of the Temple, and it is attributed to David. “You have brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” does not mean that David literally died and was resurrected. These are hyperbolic, poetic expressions used to give thanksgiving for deliverance from a serious illness (“you have healed me”), with the result that God has not “let my foes rejoice over me.”

In light of the non-literal language used in poetry, we can’t use the references in Jonah’s psalm of thanksgiving as proof he literally died—only that he was in danger of dying and God rescued him.

4) “Arise”: Advocates of the Jonah Died Hypothesis have noted that once the prophet is coughed up on the beach, we read,

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:1-2).

They note that the term “arise” in Hebrew is qum, and that this is “the same” Semitic word that Jesus uses when he raises Jairus’s daughter, saying, “‘Talitha cumi’; which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (Mark 5:41).

This is actually not true. Qum is a Hebrew word, and cumi (alternate spelling: qumi) is Aramaic. Hebrew is not the same language as Aramaic, but the words come from the same root, and they both mean “stand up” or “arise.”

But here’s the problem: The basic and usual meaning of these terms is “stand up”—not “rise from the dead.” It may have the latter sense in Mark 5:41, but that is not its usual meaning. Normally, it refers to the physical act of standing.

And that’s what it means here. Advocates of the Jonah Died Hypothesis seem to overlook the context in which the command to stand up occurs. Notice that in 3:1-2 it says, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time.”

So when was the first time? It was at the beginning of the book, where we read:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:1-2).

There, Jonah is alive and well, and when the word of the Lord comes to him, “arise” has its normal meaning of “get on your feet.” The reason Jonah is to get on his feet is so that he can go to Nineveh and prophesy. Instead, the prophet goes AWOL, and God has to reel him back in.

Thus, after Jonah has repented, appealed to God for deliverance, been rescued, and been coughed up on the beach, God’s word comes to him “the second time,” and the message is the same: Stand up and go to Nineveh.

Here—like the first time the word of God came to Jonah—“arise” means the physical act of getting to one’s feet. It does not mean “rise from the dead.”

5) The Conversion of the Ninevites: Some have also noted that, just as the Ninevites repented after Jonah was spit out by the fish, so the Gentiles repented after Jesus rose from the dead.

This is true. However, it does not give us reason to suppose that Jonah literally died and rose from the dead.

Jesus tells us what occasioned the Ninevites repenting: “They repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Matt. 12:41). And that’s what’s indicated in the book of Jonah:

He cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them (Jonah 3:4-5).

There is nothing in either text about the Ninevites being impressed by how Jonah died and rose from the dead. They were impressed by his announcement of doom, and they hoped God would relent. Thus, the king of Nineveh said, “Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not” (Jonah 3:9).

One can draw a parallel between the conversion of the Ninevites and the later conversion of the Gentiles in general, but the texts do not indicate that the former was because of Jonah dying and rising.

The arguments favoring the Jonah Death Hypothesis, thus, are weak and unconvincing. However, there is more to say. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the Jonah Death Hypothesis fundamentally misunderstands what’s happening in the book of Jonah.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!Donatewww.catholic.com/support-us

Copyright © 1996-2024 Catholic Answers