The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Jonah and the Jewish Problem

The book of Jonah has a prominent position in Jewish, Christian and Muslim popular culture. Every school child knows that Jonah spent three days in the whale`s belly after he was thrown from a ship, when he tried to escape God. Of course, the biblical text actually refers to a fish (dag/daga) and not a whale. The transformation from a fish to a whale may be simply an attempt to explain the miracle story as a natural event; and indeed, already in the early Christian era commentators discussed the plausibility of the tale, some (such as the Roman author Celsus) from a position of scorn and rejection and some entirely accepting the truth of the book and God`s miracles. Others have pointed to similar stories, such as the tale of Arion, who was saved by dolphins after walking the plank, or to similar sailors` yarns. We will propose here that the fish became a whale not out of plausibility, but as a result of cultural and theological-exegetical tendencies that are particularly striking in the works of Christian, in comparison to Jewish and Muslim, artists.