The Science of the Bible: The Story of Jonah

(Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from When God Speaks for Himself: The Words of God You’ll NEVER Hear in Church or Sunday School, by Mark Tier and George Forrai (Inverse Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Mark Tier.

From Chapter 4: Reason, Science and the Church

The Science of the Bible:

The Bible and Medicine

The Bible was also a source of medical practice. Origen (c 185-c 254 CE), one of the early church fathers, advises that: “It is demons which produce famine, unfruitfulness, corruptions of the air, and pestilences; they hover concealed in clouds in the lower atmosphere, and are attracted by the blood and incense which the heathen offer to them as gods.”

Augustine agrees: “All diseases of Christians are to be ascribed to these demons; chiefly do they torment fresh-baptized Christians, yea, even the guileless, new-born infants!”[1] And Father St. Bernard warned his monks that “to seek relief from disease in medicine was in harmony neither with religion nor with the honor and purity of their order.” (This strain of thinking persists to this day in the misnamed sect of Christian Science.)

It could be argued that such misguided claims were merely a result of ignorance. If so, it was willful ignorance, as church and state combined to suppress all that was known before, and persecuted all “non-official” thought as “heresy.”

“Oh Jonah, he lived in de whale… Well, it ain’t necessarily so”

From It Ain’t Necessarily So, by George Gershwin (from Porgy & Bess)

The story of Jonah and the whale is a Sunday School favorite.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh “and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” [Jonah 1:2]. Instead (the Bible doesn’t say why) Jonah jumped on a ship heading “unto Tarshish,”[2] so God sent a great wind which whipped up “a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken” [Jonah 1:4].

When the sailors discovered that Jonah had aroused God’s anger by disobeying his command, they threw him overboard where he was swallowed by the whale. Jonah prayed fiercely for three days, so God relented and “spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land” [Jonah 2:10].

This story brings up rather obvious questions:

1. What kind of fish, if any, could swallow a man whole? and,
2. If there is such a fish, could a man live in its stomach for three days?

Whales are potentially large enough to be candidates (and, of course, whales aren’t fish; they’re mammals).

There are two main kinds of whales: baleen whales and horned-tooth whales. Baleen whales have enormous mouths and feed on krill, but their throats are only a few inches in diameter.

Horned-toothed whales (odontocetous) have slicing teeth and throats large enough to swallow chunks of fish and gigantic squid. Most, though, are too small to swallow a man whole, except for the sperm whale and the giant beaked whale.

As the giant beaked whale lives only in polar regions, the sperm whale, found anywhere in the seven seas including the eastern Mediterranean, is the primary candidate.

A sperm whale can be 20.5 meters (67 feet) long — 11 times the height of a tall man. Its jawbone is about 25% of its length — up to five meters (16½ feet), so its mouth is large enough to snap shut around Jonah without slicing off his feet or head; its throat is also large enough for Jonah to have slid down, so long as he’s slightly built.

The sperm whales’ favorite foods are the giant squid and the colossal squid, which live up to three kilometers (1.9 miles) below the ocean surface. These creatures can be up to 13 meters (42½ feet) long, but as most of their length is tentacles, their bodies are, at best, 4 meters (13 feet) long and 1½ meters (5 feet) in diameter. So it seems a sperm whale could swallow a man whole.

Other possibilities have been suggested, like the Great White Shark — but whale, shark, or something else there’s an insuperable problem: once swallowed, “Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” [Jonah 2:17], which raises the obvious question: how did he survive without oxygen which isn’t to be found in any fish’s or whale’s stomach.

What’s more, for those “three days and three nights” Jonah’s only protection against stomach acids and digestive processes was “the weeds…wrapped about my head” [Jonah 2:5]. They may have “protected” him just long enough for him to die of oxygen starvation. Or, more likely, drowning from gulping stomach acids (not a nice way to go).

But “the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah” [Jonah 1:17]: so it was a fish, not a mammal, especially prepared for Jonah so of no known species. A magical fish with a stomach full of oxygen and — who knows? — fresh water and a buffet banquet as well.

All in all, doesn’t it sound like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Red Riding Hood? Remember, the Big Bad Wolf swallowed Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother whole, and when the kind hunter shot the wolf and sliced open its stomach, her grandmother appeared alive and well, no worse for her experience. Another miracle!

Excerpted from When God Speaks for Himself by Mark Tier and George Forrai. Copyright © Mark Tier and Pronto Express, 2010. All rights reserved.

[1] Hmm. It was Augustine who codified the doctrine that humans were born with Original Sin — and that babies born unbaptized went to hell. Yet, they’re “guileless”??

[2] “Tarshish is either Tarsus, a village in Lebanon 1,400 meters above sea level, or simply means “somewhere far away.” Another possibility: “ships of Tarshish” may have been a term for “trading ships” in general.

Mark TierMark Tier, an Australian based in Hong Kong, started writing when he was 14 – and hasn’t stopped since. His first work, Understanding Inflation, was a bestseller in his native Australia in 1974. That was followed by The Nature of Market Cycles, How To Get A Second Passport, and The Winning Investment Habits of Warren Buffett & George Soros, which has been published in 3 English (New York, London, & Hong Kong) and 11 other-language editions. Once labelled “the Eclectic Investor” for his wide range of interests, he co-edited two science fiction anthologies which won a Prometheus Award in 2005, an analysis of Christianity, When God Speaks for Himself, and a political thriller, Trust Your Enemies. His website is

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  1. Hi,
    In relation to your Jonah posting, you should be aware that another explanation to the Jonah story does not involve the problem of the drowning in the whale's stomach and the corrosive digestive juices. Instead, it claims that a large whale, about the size of a 737 has lungs equivalent in size to a Volkswagon. It quotes scriptures in Proverbs and Job relating that the human spirit is the candle of the Lord searching the belly and numerous scriptures equate the spirit with the breath of life of the human respiratory system. When a whale breathes out, it does with considerable force and when it inhales also with force. Whales off of Baja, CA are very playful and often surface around boat to be scratched or petted. A large whale has a blowhole about the size of a city manhole. The explanation goes on to pose that Jonah would have oxygen and moisture in the lung for his three day journey.

    Would be interested in your evaluation of this scenario that is circulating in Christian circles. Do you think it is at least more plausible than the stomach acid route?


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