Is the Book of Jonah ‘Entirely Ahistorical’?

Gratuitous torture, dimensions, animals, plants and period-specific impotence—all a remarkably accurate depiction of the infamous ‘bloody city’ in the book of Jonah.
Nineveh during this period served as chief city of the Neo-Assyrian Empire— and archaeological evidence bears out its truly domineering presence.
From the January-February 2022 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

The book of Jonah is a short, four-chapter book best known for the “great fish” account, as well as the “taming” of the Assyrians—something that, to the surrounding nations at the time, might have seemed even more miraculous than surviving three days in the belly of a sea creature. It is also a story commonly derided by critics.

The Wikipedia page on Jonah about sums it up: “The consensus of mainstream biblical scholars holds that the contents of the book of Jonah are entirely ahistorical. … Many scholars regard the book of Jonah as an intentional work of parody or satire. If this is the case, then it was probably admitted into the canon of the Hebrew Bible by sages who misunderstood its satirical nature and mistakenly interpreted it as a serious prophetic work.”

It’s a brutal summary. But is it fair?

From an archaeological perspective, there is nothing to be said for the “great fish” part of Jonah’s story. But virtually everything else in this story is supported by the historical record. Let’s examine the book of Jonah and see how it compares to the evidence on the ground.

Meet Jonah

According to biblical chronology, the Prophet Jonah was on the scene during the first half of the eighth century b.c.e., during the prosperous reign of Israel’s King Jeroboam ii (2 Kings 14:25).

Jonah 1:1-2 state, “Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying: ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me.’” The prophet immediately fled, catching the next boat to Tarshish—precisely the opposite direction of Assyria (verse 3).

The book of Jonah doesn’t tell us exactly what Assyria’s wickedness was, nor does it state why Jonah was so fearful. But the end of the book suggests that God’s punishment was for the “evil way” of “every one,” for “the violence that is in their hands” (Jonah 3:8).

We get a truly vivid picture of Assyria’s violent early-eighth-century b.c.e. status, and thus Jonah’s trepidation, by considering various archaeological discoveries.

Meet the Assyrians

Ashurnasirpal ii (circa 883–859 b.c.e.) was one of Assyria’s most famous and notorious leaders. He lived about 100 years before Jonah. This king was known for hanging his enemies on posts, flaying them, and lining city walls with their skins. He also burned his enemies, or beheaded them if they were fortunate—those still alive had noses, ears, eyes, arms and other extremities removed.

His son Shalmaneser iii (858–824 b.c.e.) continued in his footsteps. His famous bronze Balawat gates depict Assyrian soldiers hacking apart the captured enemy alive, chopping off hands and feet. Heads were hung from walls during his reign, and impaled captives were lined up on display. “Pillars” of skewered human heads stood like totem poles.

As an example of later Assyrian brutality, King Esarhaddon (seventh century b.c.e.) recorded on one of his prisms his parading of conquered nobles through the streets—wearing “necklaces” of the decapitated heads of fellow nobles around their necks. Another records a defeated Arabian leader being taken to Nineveh and made to live in a kennel alongside the dogs that guarded the city gates. On King Sennacherib’s prism inscriptions (late eighth century b.c.e.), the ruler bragged about creating so much blood from death and disembowelment that his horses waded through it like a river. Sennacherib described ripping out men’s testicles “like the seeds of summer cucumbers.” As for the city of Nineveh itself, to which Jonah was directed, the Prophet Nahum aptly described it specifically as “the bloody city” (Nahum 3:1).

This was the kind of terror faced by enemies of the Assyrian Empire at the time of Jonah. No wonder the prophet was fearful of carrying God’s warning message—and no wonder God’s threat of divine destruction and retribution!

A ‘City of Three Days’ Journey’

Skip forward to Jonah 3 where Jonah submits to God’s will and sets out on his journey to Assyria. “… Now, Nineveh was an exceeding great city, of three days’ journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he proclaimed, and said: ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown’” (verses 3-4).

Here we start to see a description of a truly gargantuan city. Nineveh during this period served as chief city of the Neo-Assyrian Empire—and archaeological evidence bears out its truly domineering presence. (Historians consider Nineveh to be the largest city in the world during at least the seventh century b.c.e.) Jonah describes the city as “three days’ journey” in size. Is this an exaggeration?

Let the Stones Speak

The meaning of this passage is unclear, and there are a couple of ways it could be interpreted. One option is that it relates to the circumference of the city (ancient measures of cities typically noted their size by circumference). The city-mounds of Kouyunjik, Nimrud, Karamless and Khorsabad form a parallelogram edge around this Assyrian territory. Accounting for these as part of the wider Nineveh area gives the city a circumference of about 95 kilometers. Given that a “day’s walk” is just over 30 kilometers (as specified by fifth-century b.c.e. historian Herodotus), the circumference fits perfectly with Jonah’s account.

This agrees with other secular historians, such as first-century b.c.e. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who recorded that Nineveh was 480 stadia (89 kilometers) in circumference. The historian Strabo, of the same century, wrote that Nineveh was “much greater” than Babylon—and he stated that “the circuit of [Babylon’s] wall is 385 stadia” (71 kilometers). Fifth-century b.c.e. historian Xenophon recorded that Nineveh’s city walls were some 30 meters tall and 15 meters thick. And within that territory, excavations have revealed that the central city hub of Nineveh included an area of roughly 2,000 acres.

Jonah’s account also exhibits another certain geographical tidbit, which Craig Davis points out in his book Dating the Old Testament: “Jonah left Nineveh and watched it from the east. Nineveh was located on the east bank of the Tigris River, with hills east of the city. This would give Jonah a good vantage point to view the city.” This matches the Bible’s description (Jonah 4:5).

Mourning Horses

The destruction Jonah warned about never occurred or at least not immediately. Assyria’s king actually commanded his city to repent. Jonah 3:7-8 records the king’s decree: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing; let them not feed, nor drink water; but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and beast, and let them cry mightily unto God ….”

This is truly peculiar. The Bible records humans fasting on numerous occasions. But animals fasting and wearing sackcloth? This was no ordinary practice. There is, however, textual evidence of such extreme behavior being practiced in this part of the world and at roughly this time.

Herodotus described an act by the neighboring Persians (not the Assyrians, but still representing these Asiatic peoples and their customs): “When the cavalry returned to camp, Mardonius and the whole army mourned deeply for Masistius, cutting their own hair and the hair of their horses and beasts of burden, and lamenting loudly. … So the barbarians honored Masistius’ death in their customary way” (The Histories, Book 9, 24.1-25.1; emphasis added throughout).

Apparently for the people of this Mesopotamian or Eastern region, the mourning of animals was a “customary way.” First-century c.e. historian Plutarch recorded similar acts of contrition and mourning.

A Peculiar Political Situation

As the book of Jonah relates, Nineveh was spared destruction thanks to the repentance of the king and populace. This is where things get really interesting. Because something very peculiar happened in Assyria during this precise window in the eighth century: It stopped going to war.

Let’s first step back and look at the wider geopolitical picture. Pairing the book of Jonah with 2 Kings 14:25 (where Jonah is mentioned), we can roughly date the book to the latter part of the first half of the eighth century b.c.e., around 770–750 b.c.e. This fits into a very unusual period in Assyrian history, known as the “Period of Stagnation” (783–745 b.c.e.), which lasted through the reigns of three successive kings.

The first king during this period, Shalmaneser iv (circa 783–773 b.c.e.), maintained the normal, yearly military campaigns for most of his reign. Still, his rule was marked by an apparent decentralization of power and the rise of lesser officials (like General Shamsi-ilu) taking on greater-than-normal roles and responsibilities. There is a sense of this in the book of Jonah—after all, the book does not mention Assyria but rather Nineveh and the king specifically. Perhaps the two names were somewhat more synonymous during this time if Nineveh included the parallelogram territory of Kouyunjik, Nimrud, Karamless and Khorsabad at the heart of Assyria. Whatever the answer, little is known from the reigns of Assyria’s kings during this 40-year period.

What little is known is witnessed on the Limmu, or Eponym, Lists. These are official Assyrian lists that document, year by year, a short sentence about what occurred in the empire that year, alongside the name of a lottery-drawn governor. For example, the eponym from year 812 b.c.e. reads: “During the eponymy of Inurta-ashared, governor of Raqmat, campaign against Chaldaea.”

Notice: In addition to the governor’s name, there is a reference to the military campaign undertaken by the king of Assyria that year. (These invaluable year-by-year limmus span several centuries of the Assyrian Empire, right back into the Old Assyrian Empire. They are standardized lists, several of which have been discovered from different parts of the empire.)

Back to Shalmaneser iv, the first king of the eighth-century Period of Stagnation. A military campaign took place every single year throughout his reign and continued into the reign of the following king, Ashur-dan iii. His first three eponyms document foreign military engagements. But notice the recording for his fourth year of rule: “During the eponymy of Aplaya, governor of Mazamua, the king stayed in the land.”

This is remarkable. Every prior year, for 41 years without fail, Assyria’s leaders had engaged in a military campaign. But not this year!

No explanation is given for why the “king stayed in the land” (sometimes an explanation is given, despite the brevity of each line). This kind of behavior, without good reason, did not last long—it was not seen as befitting an Assyrian king. Either the king went to war or he was overthrown. The last time a king did “stay in the land,” 41 years earlier, was the same year the elderly king died.

In the two years after this, King Ashur-dan iii returned to the campaign trail. But then more trouble set in. The next two eponyms read: “During the eponymy of Inurta-mukin-niši, governor of Habruri, campaign against Hatarikka; plague”; “During the eponymy of Sidqi-ilu, governor of Tušhan, the king stayed in the land.”

At this point, everything begins to crumble for Assyria. The next five eponyms show that no campaigns occurred and that the empire was struck by “revolt,” “plague” and even an “eclipse of the sun” (a foreboding sign for the deeply superstitious Assyrians; and one that may be referenced in Amos 8:9).

In fact, from the very first year Ashur-dan iii “stayed in the land” to the end of the reign of the next and final “stagnant” king, Ashur-nirari v, campaigns took place during only eight years out of 23. Ashur-nirari v “stayed in the land” for his first five years and campaigned in only two out of the nine years he was on the throne. This was not normal for mighty Assyria. What happened?

The (Temporary) Downfall of an Empire

Given the lack of discoveries (besides these lists) relating to the reigns of Ashur-dan iii and Ashur-nirari v, historians cannot be sure. What is sure is how well the Period of Stagnation fits in with the account in the book of Jonah, as well as 2 Kings.

Perhaps Ashur-dan iii “stayed in the land” during the fourth year of his reign—the first time something like that happened in 41 years—because of Jonah’s warning message. The 760s b.c.e. date would certainly fit. And perhaps in the year following, the political pressure to return to the campaign trail became too much, so the king went back to war. But after only three campaigns, more domestic disasters (revolts, plagues and an eclipse) brought him home.

Was this series of unfortunate events somehow related to God’s threat to overthrow Nineveh unless it ceased hostilities? (Jonah 3:4). And could such a series of events, keeping Assyria at bay, be directly related to God “saving” Israel during the reign of Jeroboam ii? (see 2 Kings 14:27).

This was the message related by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. “Jonah had been commanded by God to go to the kingdom of Nineveh; and when he was there, to publish it in that city, how it should lose the dominion it had over the nations. [H]e stood so as to be heard, and preached that in a very little time they should lose the dominion of Asia” (Antiquities, 9.10.2).

The impotent Ashur-nirari v reigned nine years before he was overthrown around 745 b.c.e. He was replaced by Tiglath-Pileser iii, the infamous king who ended Assyria’s Period of Stagnation.

This isn’t all of the evidence supporting Jonah’s historical account. Other proofs include the fact that we know the shipping port Joppa (Jaffa) was functioning at the time (Jonah 1:3); the well-attested practice of casting lots (verse 7); and the large merchant vessel replete with hold, sail and rowing capability, befitting merchant travel of the time (verses 3, 5, 13).

Even the use of the Aramaic language in Jonah is noteworthy. Some have criticized the book of Jonah as a late imagination because it contains some Aramaic words. This might be the case if the entire book was in Aramaic (which the Jews adopted following the sixth-century b.c.e. Babylonian captivity), but there is only a small amount of Aramaic in the book. And it’s the section describing Jonah’s contact with the sailors, who would at the time most likely have been Aramaic-speaking Syro-Phoenician merchants.

And consider the “gourd” that grew up over Jonah to shade him as he encamped east of Nineveh (Jonah 4:6). This word is believed to refer to the castor oil plant Ricinius communis, which has broad leaves. This plant appears to be mentioned in an Assyrian medical text as a drug whose effects precisely match that known to Ricinius (A Dictionary of Assyrian Botany, R. Campbell Thompson). The Bible describes the plant quickly sprouting up by divine miracle. But even on its own, Ricinius is known for rapid growth and is an important plant throughout the arid East.

And what about the “worm” that killed the plant? (verse 7). This was no normal worm. The Hebrew word actually refers to a small insect known as a “crimson worm,” or Coccus ilicis. Red dye was created by crushing these insects. Aside from farming for their dye, the Coccus family is a major pest for crops, and the insects thrive in desert-type environments such as in Nineveh. These insects are known throughout the ancient Near East.

Why It Matters

Why does establishing the accuracy of Jonah’s account matter? It matters because the Bible as an ancient historical text is under fierce debate.

“Traditionalists” believe the biblical books were written as described; that is, Moses was the author of the Torah, Isaiah the author of his book, etc. Conversely, the largely secular “minimalist” camp deemphasizes the significance and power of ancient Israel as described in the Bible, ascribing the Hebrew texts to imagined accounts written centuries later—primarily in the post-exilic period after the Babylonian captivity.

Recall the Wikipedia summary of the book of Jonah: “The consensus of mainstream biblical scholars holds that the contents of the book of Jonah are entirely ahistorical.” This is how many scholars today view the entire biblical record. Some believe it is entirely fabricated; others think it is a mixture of truth and fiction.

Whatever you believe about the ultimate authorship of Jonah, certain facts cannot be avoided. The book of Jonah contains remarkably detailed knowledge of Nineveh, a city long since destroyed. And the events Jonah describes fit remarkably well into a brief window of time in Assyria’s history.

Given the facts, can the objective scientist or scholar truly believe the book of Jonah is “entirely ahistorical”?

Let the Stones Speak