Illustrated Jonah from the 15th-century Kennicott Bible

The Book of Jonah is one of the twelve minor prophets of the Nevi'im ("Prophets") in the Hebrew Bible, and an individual book in the Christian Old Testament. The book tells of a Hebrew prophet named Jonah, son of Amittai, who is sent by God to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, but attempts to escape his divine mission.

The story has a long interpretive history and has become well known through popular children's stories. In Judaism, it is the Haftarah portion read during the afternoon of Yom Kippur to instill reflection on God's willingness to forgive those who repent,[1] and it remains a popular story among Christians. The story is also retold in the Quran.

Mainstream Bible scholars generally regard the story of the Book of Jonah as fictional,[2][3][4] and often at least partially satirical.[5][6]


The prophet Jonah (Hebrew: יוֹנָה, Yonā) is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, which places Jonah's life during the reign of Jeroboam II (786–746 BC), but the book of Jonah itself does not name a king or give any other details that would give the story a firm date. The majority of scholars date the book much later, to the post-exilic period sometime between the late 5th to early 4th century BC;[7] perhaps (along with Book of Ruth) as a counter to the emphasis on racial purity in the time of Ezra.[8] An even later date is sometimes proposed, with Katherine Dell arguing for the Hellenistic period (332–167 BC).[9]

Assyriologist Donald Wiseman takes issue with the idea that the story is late (or a parable). Among other arguments he mentions that the "Legends of Agade" (see Sargon of Akkad and Rabisu) date to the time of the Old Babylonian Empire, though later versions "usually taken as a late composition, propagandistic fairy tale or historical romance can now, on the basis of new discoveries of earlier sources, be shown to be based on a serious and reliable historical record".[10]


Unlike the other Minor Prophets, the book of Jonah is almost entirely narrative (with the exception of the poem in the second chapter). The actual prophetic word against Nineveh is given only in passing through the narrative. The story of Jonah has a setting, characters, a plot, and themes; it also relies heavily on such literary devices as irony.

Chapter and verse divisions

The original text was written in Hebrew language. Chapters 1 and 2 are divided differently in the Hebrew vs. English versions:[11]

Verse numbering for Jonah 1 and 2
English Hebrew
1:1-16 1:1-16
1:17 2:1
2:1-10 2:2-11


An outline of the book of Jonah:[12]

  1. Jonah flees his mission (chapters 1–2)
    1. Jonah's Disobedience and its Consequences (1:1–17)
    2. Jonah's Deliverance and Thanksgiving (2:2–9)
  2. Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission (chapters 3–4)
    1. Jonah's Obedience and Nineveh's Repentance (3:1–10)
    2. Jonah's Displeasure at the Lord's Salvation[13]


Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites (1866) by Gustave Doré
Jonah in four scenes: bottom left Jonah thrown into the sea by the crew of the boat which was to take him to Tarsis, bottom right, Jonah praying in the mouth of the whale, top left, Jonah preaching to the people of Nineveh outside the city gates, and top right, Jonah praying to God on a rock. Paris Psalter, f. 431v.

Jonah is the central character in the Book of Jonah, in which Yahweh commands him to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against it for their great wickedness against him.[14] However, Jonah instead attempts to run from Yahweh by going to Jaffa and sailing to Tarshish.[15] A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing that it is no ordinary storm, cast lots and discover that Jonah is to blame.[16] Jonah admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard, the storm will cease.[17] The sailors refuse to do this and continue rowing, but all their efforts fail and they are eventually forced to throw Jonah overboard.[18] As a result, the storm calms and the sailors then offer sacrifices to Yahweh.[19] Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a large fish, in whose belly he spends three days and three nights.[20] While in the great fish, Jonah prays to God in his affliction and commits to thanksgiving and to paying what he has vowed.[21] God then commands the fish to vomit Jonah out.[22]

God then once again commands Jonah to travel to Nineveh and prophesy to its inhabitants.[23] This time he reluctantly goes into the city, crying, "In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown."[24] After Jonah has walked across Nineveh, the people of Nineveh begin to believe his word and proclaim a fast.[25] The king of Nineveh then puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes, making a proclamation which decrees fasting, the wearing of sackcloth, prayer, and repentance.[26] God sees their repentant hearts and spares the city at that time.[27] The entire city is humbled and broken with the people (and even the animals)[28][29] in sackcloth and ashes.[30]

Displeased by this, Jonah refers to his earlier flight to Tarshish while asserting that, since God is merciful, it was inevitable that God would turn from the threatened calamities.[31] He then leaves the city and makes himself a shelter, waiting to see whether or not the city will be destroyed.[32] God causes a plant (in Hebrew a kikayon) to grow over Jonah's shelter to give him some shade from the sun.[33] Later, God causes a worm to bite the plant's root and it withers.[34] Jonah, now being exposed to the full force of the sun, becomes faint and pleads for God to kill him.[35] In response, God offers Jonah one final rebuke:

God said to Jonah, "Does your anger over the kikayon do any good?" And he said, "My anger does good, even to death!"
The LORD said, "You had pity over the kikayon, for which you had not labored, nor made grow, which was in a night, and was lost in a night;
and I should not have pity over the great city of Nineveh, within which are more than twelve myriads of man, whom do not know between their right and their left, and much livestock?"

— Book of Jonah, chapter 4, verses 9–11

Interpretive history

Early Jewish interpretation

Fragments of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, most of which follows the Masoretic Text closely and with Mur XII reproducing a large portion of the text.[36] As for the non-canonical writings, the majority of references to biblical texts were made as appeals to authority. The Book of Jonah appears to have served less purpose in the Qumran community than other texts, as the writings make no references to it.[37]

Late Jewish interpretation

The 18th century Lithuanian master scholar and kabbalist, Elijah of Vilna, known as the Vilna Gaon, authored a commentary on the biblical Book of Jonah as an allegory of reincarnation.

Early Christian interpretation

New Testament

Christ rises from the tomb, alongside Jonah spit onto the beach, a typological allegory. From a 15th century Biblia pauperum.

The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in the Gospel of Matthew[38] and the Gospel of Luke.[39] Both Matthew and Luke record a tradition of Jesus' interpretation of the Book of Jonah (notably, Matthew includes two very similar traditions in chapters 12 and 16).

As with most Old Testament interpretations found in the New Testament, the interpretation ascribed to Jesus is primarily typological. Jonah becomes a "type" for Jesus. Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish; Jesus will spend three days in the tomb. Here, Jesus plays on the imagery of Sheol found in Jonah's prayer. While Jonah metaphorically declared, "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried," Jesus will literally be in the belly of Sheol. Finally, Jesus compares his generation to the people of Nineveh. Jesus fulfills his role as a type of Jonah, however his generation fails to fulfill its role as a type of Nineveh. Nineveh repented, but Jesus' generation, which has seen and heard one even greater than Jonah, fails to repent. Through his typological interpretation of the Book of Jonah, Jesus has weighed his generation and found it wanting.[40]: 174–175, 180 

Augustine of Hippo

The debate over the credibility of the miracle of Jonah is not simply a modern one. The credibility of a human being surviving in the belly of a great fish has long been questioned. In c. 409 AD, Augustine of Hippo wrote to Deogratias concerning the challenge of some to the miracle recorded in the Book of Jonah. He writes:

The last question proposed is concerning Jonah, and it is put as if it were not from Porphyry, but as being a standing subject of ridicule among the Pagans; for his words are: "In the next place, what are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale's belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd's growth?" Questions such as these I have seen discussed by Pagans amidst loud laughter, and with great scorn.

— (Letter CII, Section 30)

Augustine responds that if one is to question one miracle, then one should question all miracles as well (section 31). Nevertheless, despite his apologetic, Augustine views the story of Jonah as a figure for Christ. For example, he writes: "As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulchre, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world." Augustine credits his allegorical interpretation to the interpretation of Christ himself (Matthew 12:39–40), and he allows for other interpretations as long as they are in line with Christ's.

Medieval commentary tradition

"Jonah outside the city of Nineveh" (1678), from an Armenian hymnal

The Ordinary Gloss, or Glossa Ordinaria, was the most important Christian commentary on the Bible in the later Middle Ages. Ryan McDermott comments that "The Gloss on Jonah relies almost exclusively on Jerome's commentary on Jonah (c. 396), so its Latin often has a tone of urbane classicism. But the Gloss also chops up, compresses, and rearranges Jerome with a carnivalesque glee and scholastic directness that renders the Latin authentically medieval."[41] "The Ordinary Gloss on Jonah" has been translated into English and printed in a format that emulates the first printing of the Gloss.[42]

The relationship between Jonah and his fellow Jews is ambivalent, and complicated by the Gloss's tendency to read Jonah as an allegorical prefiguration of Jesus Christ. While some glosses in isolation seem crudely supersessionist ("The foreskin believes while the circumcision remains unfaithful"), the prevailing allegorical tendency is to attribute Jonah's recalcitrance to his abiding love for his own people and his insistence that God's promises to Israel not be overridden by a lenient policy toward the Ninevites. For the glossator, Jonah's pro-Israel motivations correspond to Christ's demurral in the Garden of Gethsemane ("My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me")[43] and the Gospel of Matthew's and Paul's insistence that "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22). While in the Gloss the plot of Jonah prefigures how God will extend salvation to the nations, it also makes abundantly clear—as some medieval commentaries on the Gospel of John do not—that Jonah and Jesus are Jews, and that they make decisions of salvation-historical consequence as Jews.[opinion]


In Jungian analysis, the belly of the whale can be seen as a symbolic death and rebirth,[44] which is also an important stage in comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey".[45]

NCSY Director of Education David Bashevkin sees Jonah as a thoughtful prophet who comes to religion out of a search for theological truth and is constantly disappointed by those who come to religion to provide mere comfort in the face of adversity inherent to the human condition. "If religion is only a blanket to provide warmth from the cold, harsh realities of life," Bashevkin imagines Jonah asking, "did concerns of theological truth and creed even matter?"[46] The lesson taught by the episode of the tree at the end of the book is that comfort is a deep human need that religion provides, but that this need not obscure the role of God.

Jonah and the "big fish"

Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman

The Hebrew text of Jonah[47] reads dag gadol (Hebrew: דג גדול, dāḡ gāḏōl), literally meaning "great fish". The Septuagint translated this into Greek as kētos megas (κῆτος μέγας), "huge whale/sea monster"; and in Greek mythology the term was closely associated with sea monsters.[48] Saint Jerome later translated the Greek phrase as piscis grandis in his Latin Vulgate, and as cētus in Matthew.[49] At some point, cētus became synonymous with whale (cf. cetyl alcohol, which is alcohol derived from whales). In his 1534 translation, William Tyndale translated the phrase in Jonah 2:1 as "greate fyshe", and he translated the word kētos (Greek) or cētus (Latin) in Matthew as "whale".[49] Tyndale's translation was later followed by the translators of the King James Version of 1611 and has enjoyed general acceptance in English translations.

In the book of Jonah chapter 1 verse 17, the Hebrew bible refers to the fish as dag gadol, "great fish", in the masculine. However, in chapter 2 verse 1, the word which refers to fish is written as dagah, meaning female fish. The verses therefore read: "And the lord provided a great fish (dag gadol, דָּג גּדוֹל, masculine) for Jonah, and it swallowed him, and Jonah sat in the belly of the fish (still male) for three days and nights; then, from the belly of the (dagah, דָּגָה, female) fish, Jonah began to pray."

The peculiarity of this change of gender led later rabbis to conclude that Jonah was comfortable enough in the roomy male fish to not pray, and because of this God transferred him to a smaller, female fish, in which Jonah was uncomfortable, to which he prayed.[50]

Jonah and the gourd vine

The Book of Jonah closes abruptly with an epistolary warning[51] based on the emblematic trope of a fast-growing vine present in Persian narratives, and popularized in fables such as The Gourd and the Palm-tree during the Renaissance, for example by Andrea Alciato.

St. Jerome differed[52] with St. Augustine in his Latin translation of the plant known in Hebrew as קיקיון (qīqayōn), using hedera (from the Greek, meaning "ivy") over the more common Latin cucurbita, "gourd," from which the English word gourd (Old French coorde, couhourde) is derived. The Renaissance humanist artist Albrecht Dürer memorialized Jerome's decision to use an analogical type of Christ's "I am the Vine, you are the branches" in his woodcut Saint Jerome in His Study.

Surviving ancient manuscripts

The whole Book of Jonah in Latin as a part of Codex Gigas, made around 13th century.

Some early manuscripts containing the text of this book in Hebrew are of the Masoretic Text tradition, which includes the Codex Cairensis (895), the Petersburg Codex of the Prophets (916), and Codex Leningradensis (1008).[53][a]

Fragments of this book in Hebrew were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (cumulatively covering the whole book), including 4Q82 (4QXIIg; 25 BCE) with extant verses 1:1‑9, 2:3‑11, 3:1, 3:3, and 4:5‑11;[55][56][57] and Wadi Murabba'at Minor Prophets (Mur88; MurXIIProph; 75–100 CE) with extant verses 1:14‑16, 2:1‑7; 3:2‑5, 3:7‑10; 4:1‑2, and 4:5.[56][58]

The oldest known complete version of the book is the Crosby-Schøyen Codex, part of the Bodmer Papyri, which dates to the 3rd century, and is written in Coptic.[59]

There is also a translation into Koine Greek known as the Septuagint, made in the last few centuries BC. Extant ancient manuscripts of the Septuagint version include Codex Vaticanus (B; B; 4th century), Codex Sinaiticus (S; BHK: S; 4th century), Codex Alexandrinus (A; A; 5th century) and Codex Marchalianus (Q; Q; 6th century).[60]

Fragments containing parts of this book in Greek were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, including 4Q76 (4QXIIa; 150–125 BCE) with extant verses 1:1–5, 1:7–10, 1:15–17 (1:17 = 2:1 in Hebrew Bible), 2:6 (verses 2:1,7 in Masoretic Text), and 3:2;[61][56][62] 4Q81 (4QXIIf; 175–50 BCE) with extant verses 1:6–8, 1:10–16;[56][57][63] 4Q82 (4QXIIg; 25 BCE) with extant verses 1:1–9, 2:2–10 (verses 2:3–11 in Masoretic Text), 3:1–3, and 4:5–11;[56][57][64] and Wadi Murabba'at Minor Prophets (Mur88; MurXIIProph; 75–100 CE) with extant verses 1:1–17 (1:1–16, 2:1 in Hebrew Bible), 2:1–10 (verses 2:1–11 in Masoretic Text), 3:1–10, and 4:1–11.,[56][58] and Naḥal Ḥever (8ḤevXIIgr; 1st century CE) with extant verses 2:1–6 (verses 2:1–7 in Masoretic Text), 3:2–5, 3:7–10, 4:1–2, and 4:5.[56][65]

See also


  1. ^ Since 1947, the whole book is missing from Aleppo Codex.[54]


  1. ^ "Jonah's Path and the Message of Yom Kippur". Archived from the original on 2008-11-18. Retrieved 2009-08-18. United Jewish Communities (UJC), "Jonah's Path and the Message of Yom Kippur."
  2. ^ Kripke 1980, p. 67.
  3. ^ Jenson 2009, p. 30.
  4. ^ Chisholm 2009, p. unpaginated: "Despite the modern scholarly consensus that the book is fictional, [...]"
  5. ^ Band 2003, pp. 105–107.
  6. ^ Ben Zvi 2003, pp. 18–19.
  7. ^ Mills, Watson E; Bullard, Roger Aubrey (1990). Mercer Dictionary of the Bible. Mercer University Press. ISBN 9780865543737.
  8. ^ An Introduction to the Bible, John Drane, Lion publishing, 1990, p.182-183
  9. ^ Dell, Katherine J (1996). "Reinventing the Wheel: the Shaping of the Book of Jonah". In Barton, John; Reimer, David James (eds.). After the exile: essays in honour of Rex Mason. Mercer University Press. pp. 86–89. ISBN 978-0-86554524-3.
  10. ^ Lecture "Archaeology and the Book of Jonah", delivered in January, 1978, published as Donald Wiseman (1979). "Jonah's Nineveh" (PDF). Tyndale Bulletin. 30: 29–52. Archived from the original on 2012-01-12. Retrieved 2023-09-20.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  11. ^ Book of Jonah chapter 1 Archived 2023-10-02 at the Wayback Machine and chapter 2 Archived 2023-10-02 at the Wayback Machine of The Hebrew Bible in Hebrew and English according to the JPS 1917 Edition
  12. ^ Hindson, Ed; Towns, Elemer (2013). Illustrated Bible Survey, An Introduction. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group. p. 293. ISBN 978-1-4336-8221-6.
  13. ^ Hindson, Ed; Towns, Elmer (2013). Illustrated Bible Study, An Introduction. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group. p. 293. ISBN 978-1-4336-8221-6.
  14. ^ Jonah 1:2
  15. ^ Jonah 1:3
  16. ^ Jonah 1:4–7
  17. ^ Jonah 1:8–12
  18. ^ Jonah 1:13–15
  19. ^ Jonah 1:15–16
  20. ^ Jonah 1:17
  21. ^ Jonah 2:1–9
  22. ^ Jonah 2:10
  23. ^ Jonah 3:1–2
  24. ^ Jonah 3:2–4
  25. ^ Jonah 3:5
  26. ^ Jonah 3:6–9
  27. ^ Jonah 3:10
  28. ^ Jonah 3:8
  29. ^ Gaines 2003, p. 25.
  30. ^ Jonah 3:
  31. ^ Jonah 4:1–4
  32. ^ Jonah 4:5
  33. ^ Jonah 4:6
  34. ^ Jonah 4:7
  35. ^ Jonah 4:8
  36. ^ David L. Washburn, A Catalog of Biblical Passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls (Brill, 2003), 146.
  37. ^ James C. Vanderkam, The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1994), 151
  38. ^ Matthew 12:38–42 and Matthew 16:1–4
  39. ^ Luke 11:29–32
  40. ^ Anderson, Joel Edmund. "Jonah in Mark and Matthew: Creation, Covenant, Christ, and the Kingdom of God." Biblical theology bulletin 42.4 (2012): 172-186.
  41. ^ Ryan McDermott, trans., "The Ordinary Gloss on Jonah," PMLA 128.2 (2013): 424–38.
  42. ^ McDermott, R. (March 2013). "The Ordinary Gloss on Jonah". PMLA. 128 (2): 424–438.
  43. ^ Matthew 26:39
  44. ^ Betts, John (19 January 2013). "The Belly of the Whale | Jungian Analysis". Jungian Psychoanalysis. Retrieved 25 October 2019.
  45. ^ Campbell, Joseph (2008) [1949]. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library. p. 74. ISBN 9781577315933.
  46. ^ Bashevkin, Dovid. "Jonah and the Varieties of Religious Motivation." Archived 2016-10-12 at the Wayback Machine Lehrhaus. 9 October 2016. 2 October 2017.
  47. ^ Jonah 2:1
  48. ^ See for more information regarding Greek mythology and the Ketos
  49. ^ a b Matthew 12:40
  50. ^ Bruckner 2004, p. 78.
  52. ^ citing Peter W. Parshall, "Albrecht Dürer's Saint Jerome in his Study: A Philological Reference," from The Art Bulletin 53 (September 1971), pp. 303–5 at
  53. ^ Würthwein 1995, pp. 35–37.
  54. ^ P. W. Skehan (2003), "BIBLE (TEXTS)", New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (2nd ed.), Gale, pp. 355–362
  55. ^ Ulrich 2010, p. 614.
  56. ^ a b c d e f g Dead sea scrolls - Jonah
  57. ^ a b c Fitzmyer 2008, p. 39.
  58. ^ a b Fitzmyer 2008, pp. 140–141.
  59. ^ "MS 193 - The Schoyen Collection". Retrieved 2024-04-15.
  60. ^ Würthwein 1995, pp. 73–74.
  61. ^ Ulrich 2010, pp. 611–612.
  62. ^ Fitzmyer 2008, p. 38.
  63. ^ Ulrich 2010, pp. 612–613.
  64. ^ Ulrich 2010, pp. 610–611.
  65. ^ Fitzmyer 2008, p. 127.


Book of Jonah Minor prophets Preceded byObadiah Hebrew Bible Succeeded byMicah ChristianOld Testament