Jonah in the Whale

What happened to Jonah?  Commonly people believe he was swallowed by a giant fish, in which he survived for three days.  A historical “example” is often used to buttress this reading.  However there is a compelling argument for Jonah actually having died in the fish and being resurrected.

Historical parallels?

For many years it has been argued that Jonah’s experience has a historical parallel in the case of a nineteenth century English sailor, who was allegedly swallowed by a whale and recovered a day and a half later.

“According to a persistent story, exactly one hundred years ago a sailor named James Bartley was swallowed by a sperm whale off the Falkland Islands. About thirty-six hours later his fellow sailors found him, unconscious but alive, inside the belly of the animal.”[1]

The original story was printed in the Yarmouth Mercury, a local English newspaper,[2] cited twice in The New York Times five years later,[3] and gradually disseminated (in various forms, with various alterations and embellishments), via personal correspondence, newspapers, news digests, apologetic tracts (citing the story as evidence for the historicity of Jonah’s experience), and even an article in an influential early Bible dictionary.[4] The story became a staple item of Christian apologists, in which context it has survived to the present day.

Remarkably, far less well known is an article in a local newspaper in Missouri, which referred to the story with the disparaging line “Greatest Religious Hoax of Modern Times Exposed at Last”, and debunked the story as a fraud.

“ANOTHER hoax has now been exploded and gone to join the Cardiff giant, the sacred white elephant and the Caleveras skull.”[5]

With considerable prescience, the writer of this article observed that the story of Bartley and the whale “although now proven untrue, may live for years, or even centuries”,[6] and so it proved to be; the story of James Bartley in the whale has been preserved in Christian apologetic literature up to the present, despite having been publicly debunked over 100 years ago.

An exhaustively detailed account of the Bartley article written in 1991,[7] explains that although the ship in the story was a historical vessel, it was certainly not whaling off the coast of Argentina in 1891,[8] the written documentation of her crew proves no “James Bartley” was serving on the ship during its voyage from 1890-1891,[9] and the captain’s wife completely denied the Bartley story, insisting no man had been lost overboard while the vessel was under her husband’s charge.[10]

Could a whale have swallowed Jonah?

Some critics of the historicity of the record claim that whales cannot swallow humans. Despite the massive size of whales, and the huge span of their mouths, it is a surprising fact that there are almost no whales actually capable of swallowing a human. The whale’s oesophagus is typically far too narrow; even whale sharks and the mighty blue whale have an oesophagus which would choke on a basketball, and is nowhere near wide enough to accommodate the human body.

However, the sperm whale does have a large enough oesophagus to swallow people; they have been known to swallow giant squids, which have heads and bodies far larger than an adult human. A sperm whale could have swallowed Jonah, and their natural habitat is extensive (they can be found everywhere but the polar waters), so it would not have been unusual to find one in the Mediterranean.

Was Jonah preserved alive in the whale?

Nevertheless, once he was swallowed Jonah would have needed a constant miracle to survive, given the lack of oxygen and the stomach acid. Given the details of Jonah’s own prayer it is more likely that he died and was raised, especially since no passage of Scripture uses him as an example of miraculous preservation; the only mention of him is in connection with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

Jonah’s prayer, with language indicative of death (“I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever”, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord”), and given Christ’s use of the passage, and given the fact that no one in the rest of the Bible provides any indication that Jonah survived, this is not an unnatural reading.

The interpretation that Jonah died and was raised dates to at least the nineteenth century scholar Bullinger.[11] There are a host of references to this interpretation in popular and more scholarly works.[12]

Some have argued from the fact that Jonah is used as a type of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, which would be inappropriate if Jonah did not actually die.

“It has been proposed that Jonah actually died during the three days of his imprisonment, in order to be a true type of Christ.”[13]

Others have pointed to the description of Jonah being in the belly of sheol, the place of the dead, arguing this demonstrates that Jonah really died.

“The mention of the belly of Sheol in verse 2 has led some to believe that Jonah actually died in the fish and was resurrected.”[14]

The conclusion that Jonah actually died in the whale and was raised to life, is also found in Christadelphian commentary.

“Jonah went down into the abyss, but was resurrected by God from his watery grave (Jonah 2.), and became the great “sign” of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” [15]

“The resurrected prophet came back to the Land of Israel and “prophesied again.” The resurrected Jesus came back to Jerusalem and prophesied again, and will yet “sit upon the throne of his glory” there (Matt. 25:31: 19:28).”[16]

“For three days and three nights Jesus, like Jonah, was dead. Both were brought to life and witnessed to the power of the God of Israel.”[17]

Jonah’s own description of his life fading away and of having gone down into the grave (sheol), not only uses the language of death and resurrection (“you brought me up from the Pit), but is also in the past tense, suggesting it was spoken after he had been restored to life and was commenting on his salvation.

Jonah 2: 6 I went down to the very bottoms of the mountains; the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever; but you brought me up from the Pit, O LORD, my God. 7 When my life was ebbing away, I called out to the LORD, and my prayer came to your holy temple.


  1. Edward B. Davies, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991): 224.
  2. “Man in a Whale’s Stomach / Rescue of a Modern Jonah”, Yarmouth Mercury (Great Yarmouth: Jarrold & Sons, 22 August, 1891), 8.
  3. “Personal”, The New York Times (17 November 1896); “Topics of the Times”, The New York Times (25 November 1896).
  4. “The representatives of the external-historical interpretation appeal, further, to narratives according to which the gigantic shark carcharias has been known to swallow a man or even a horse whole — nay, to have vomited up a tunny fish and the body of a sailor undecomposed (Kaulen, Einleit. § 414). In an occurrence of this kind, which is most correctly related by Eichhorn (Einleit* iv. 340f.), a ‘”Seehund,” after taking a sailor in its jaws, immediately of its own accord threw him out again, and he was picked up alive and only slightly injured.’ Here we miss the ‘three days and three nights.’ Or we read in the Neue Luth. Kirchenzeitung (1895, p. 303 f.), that the whale-hunter, James Bartley, was in February 1891 swallowed by a whale, and that on the following day, when the animal was killed, he was taken alive out of its stomach. ‘He lay in a swoon in the belly of the whale. The sailors had much difficulty in restoring him to consciousness. It was not till after three months’ nursing that James Bartley recovered his reason.’”, E. König, “Jonah”, in James Hastings, A Dictionary Of The Bible, Dealing With Its Language, Literature, And Contents, Including The Biblical Theology, Volume 2: Feign – Kinsman (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons; , 1898-1904), 750.
  5. “The Truth About the Modern Jonah”, St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri (24 March, 1907), 85.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Edward B. Davies, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991): 224-237.
  8. “Never mind that the ship he chose wasn’t a whaler, and that British whalers didn’t fish off the Falklands in 1891.”, Edward B. Davies, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991): 224-237.
  9. “The agreement lists every member of the crew (including a few who signed on in Wellington and deserted just six days later in Lyttelton), and there is no James Bartley on the list, nor anyone of similar name, either for the entire voyage or any part thereof!”, Edward B. Davies, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991): 224-237.
  10. “In her letter, however, Mrs. Kellam stated flatly that “[t]here is not one word of truth in the whale story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.””, Edward B. Davies, “A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories”, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (1991): 224-237.
  11. E. W. Bullinger, Companion Bible (1909-1922).
  12. “Concerning the first question, whether Jonah actually died, scholars are predictably divided into two camps: those that say that he did die and those who say that he did not.”, Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll, eds., KJV Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 1727; “Some have thought that Jonah actually died and experienced a resurrection here, but the text is not clear about that.”, Marni Shideler McKenzie, Prophets of Israel (vol. 1; Dickson, TN: Explorer’s Bible Study, 2004), 7; “Some Bible scholars believe that Jonah remained alive in the fish while others believe that he died. The author of this commentary takes the latter view.”, Roy E. Gingrich, The Books of Amos, Obadiah and Jonah (Memphis, TN: Riverside Printing, 2004), 37; “Some use the logic that Jonah died inside the sea monster and God raised him back to life.”, James E. Rosscup, An Exposition on Prayer in the Bible: Igniting the Fuel to Flame Our Communication with God (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2008), 1355.
  13. Gerald B. Stanton, “The Prophet Jonah and His Message,” Bibliotheca Sacra 108 (1951): 364.
  14. William MacDonald, Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments (ed. Arthur Farstad; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1128.
  15. Charles Curwen Walker, “Noah’s Ark and Baptism “A True Likeness”, The Christadelphian 44, no. 520 (Birmingham: Christadelphian Magazine & Publishing Association, 1907), 453.
  16. Charles Curwen Walker, “Ezekiel’s Temple”, The Christadelphian 65, no. 763 (Birmingham: Christadelphian Magazine & Publishing Association, 1928), 28.
  17. John Warr, “The Third Day He Rose Again”, The Christadelphian 109, no. 1294 (Birmingham: Christadelphian Magazine & Publishing Association, 1972), 169.

Author: Jon Burke

One comment

Comments are closed.