Patron: I was on the Catholic Answers Blog the other day and found the following blurb from Tim Staples, a Catholic Answers apologist. As you can see below, he essentially says that the story of Jonah is not historically accurate, even though it teaches certain truths for our salvation. Mr. Staples writes:
“Fiction” is not a good word to use in this context (in my opinion) in modern Western culture because folks often think of “Fiction” as equivalent to “not true.” The Church holds to the possibility that books like Jonah and Judith may well be extended parables or stories written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in order to relate certain truths for our salvation. This does not mean that these books are “not true” any more than we would say Jesus’ parables are “not true” because they are… parables. In other words, the parables of Jesus are not intended to tell of, for example, an actual “householder who planted a vineyard” (Matt. 21:33). They are intended to relate certain essential truths of the Faith. The same can be said of Jonah and Judith. We should note here that Catholics are free to hold a more historical view of these books as well. The Church has not definitively declared the matter in either direction. So opinions in either direction should be respected. As St. Augustine said… “in matters non-essential, liberty…” Of course, we would also do well to remember the axiom of St. Augustine that says we should avoid an interpretation of Scripture that would render the Scriptures a laughingtock. We should be careful to heed GOOD biblical scholarship. Moreover, we should be careful not to fall into the trap of the defenders of a Fundamentalist approach to Scripture who say, “Jesus believed Jonah was literal history because he said ‘as Jonah was in the belly of the whale…'” (cf. Matt. 12:40) I may speak of a character in a play or movie as: “Then the Count of Monte Christo said…” This does not mean I believe the character to have actually existed. The final point I would make here is that we should be careful to admit freedom of inquiry and opinion in this matter until the Church declares one way or the other.
J. Salza: It is true that the stories of the Bible contain a variety of literary techniques that intend to relate certain truths of our salvation that go beyond the literal words. However, Mr. Staples’ comparison of Jesus’ parables with the story of Jonah is misleading. It suggests that the story of Jonah is not historical (just like there wasn’t an actual householder with a vineyard), even though the words that make up the story are true (because they are God-breathed). If I am understanding Mr. Staples correctly, he is saying that words or message of Jonah is true, even though the story of Jonah may not have actually happened (that is, Jonah may not have really been swallowed by a large fish). There are problems with this approach.
Unlike the story of the householder, where Jesus makes it clear that He is speaking a parable, there is nothing in the story of Jonah that suggests it is not real history. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that Jonah is real history. In condemning the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and lack of faith, Jesus first refers to the story of Jonah to demonstrate how the men of Nineveh repented and how they will judge the unjust at the resurrection. Jesus then follows His reference to Jonah with a reference to the Queen of the South who came to hear the wisdom of Solomon and who will also judge the wicked at the final judgment (see Matt. 12:40-42). If the story of the Queen of Sheba is true (which is how Jesus treats it), then the story of Jonah is true. Exegetical equilibrium demands the same. This is how Jesus could say that “just as Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights,” so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth before His resurrection. Either both Jonah and Christ were buried literally (Jonah in the fish, and Christ in the cave), or they were not.
Mr. Staples says that the Church has not issued a definitive teaching on the story of Jonah (which is true as she rarely issues definitive teachings on particular Scripture passages). However, the Church has declared that Scripture narrates historical events properly and objectively, and we are not to hold a contrary opinion unless “it is proved with strong arguments that the sacred writer did not wish to put down true history, and history properly so-called, but to set forth, under the appearance and form of history a parable, an allegory, or some meaning removed from the properly literal or historical significance of the words.” (Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1905, with the approval of Pope St. Pius X). The sainted Pope reiterated this approach to Scripture in his great encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907).
Unless one can prove with “strong arguments” that the story of Jonah is not true history, then Catholics read the events as historical – just like Augustine, Jerome, Cyril of Jerusalem and Chrysostom did. That approach is not “fundamentalist” and does not make Scripture a “laughingstock” as Mr. Staples suggests. It is the Catholic approach to exegeting Sacred Scripture. If Mr. Staples is aware of any strong arguments against the historicity of the events in Jonah, let him bring them forth. I am not aware of any.