In the first century CE, both Jews and Christians believed that the events narrated in the book of Jonah occurred just as they had been recorded in the account. The aspects that many today regard as impossible developments posed no problem for them, for they recognized that God was not limited in what he could accomplish. Everything was under his control as the Creator, and he could use both plants and animals in extraordinary ways to accomplish his purpose.
In his Antiquities, the Jewish historian Josephus included a summary of what happened to Jonah and identified him, on the apparent basis of 2 Kings 14:23-25, as having prophesied during the reign of Israelite monarch Jeroboam II, the great-grandson of King Jehu. Josephus wrote: “Now one Jonah, a prophet, foretold to him [Jeroboam] that he should make war with the Syrians, and conquer their army, and enlarge the bounds of his kingdom on the northern parts, to the city Hamath, and on the southern to the lake Asphaltitis [the Dead Sea]; for the bounds of the Canaanites originally were these, as Joshua their general had determined them. So Jeroboam made an expedition against the Syrians, and overran all their country, as Jonah had foretold.” (Antiquities, IX, x, 1)
Depending on how it is reckoned, Jeroboam II’s 41-year reign could, in part, have overlapped that of Assyrian kings Adad-nirari III, Shalmaneser IV, Ashur-dan III, and Ashur-nirari V. Some have thought that Adad-nirari III was the monarch mentioned in the book of Jonah, but this is not a verifiable identification. Assyria experienced its most difficult time during the reign of Ashur-dan III. Two plagues and a revolt occurred during his rule, and the unfavorable circumstances would doubtless have made him and his subjects more responsive to a message of judgment. There is, however, no way to identify the king mentioned in the book of Jonah with any one of a number of known Assyrian monarchs.
Josephus considered it important to include the additional information about the experience of Jonah regarding his commission to go to Nineveh. He continued his account: “Now I cannot but think it necessary for me, who have promised to give an accurate account of our affairs, to describe the actions of this prophet, so far as I have found them written down in the Hebrew books. 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. But he went not, out of fear; nay, he ran away from God to the city of Joppa, and finding a ship there, he went into it, and sailed to Tarsus, to Cilicia, and upon the rise of a most terrible storm, which was so great that the ship was in danger of sinking, the mariners, the master, and the pilot himself made prayers and vows, in case they escaped the sea. But Jonah lay still and covered [in the ship], without imitating anything that the others did; but as the waves grew greater and the sea became more violent by the winds, they suspected, as is usual in such cases, that some one of the persons that sailed with them was the occasion of this storm, and agreed to discover by lot which of them it was. When they had cast lots, the lot fell upon the prophet; and when they asked him whence he came, and what he had done? he replied that he was an Hebrew by nation, and a prophet of Almighty God; and he persuaded them to cast him into the sea, if they would escape the danger they were in, for that he was the occasion of the storm which was upon them. Now at first they durst not do so, as esteeming it a wicked thing to cast a man, who was a stranger, and who had committed his life to them, into such manifest perdition; but at last, when their misfortunes overbore them, and the ship was just going to be drowned, and when they were animated to do it by the prophet himself, and by the fear concerning their own safety, they cast him into the sea; upon which the sea became calm. It is also related that Jonah was swallowed down by a whale [Whiston’s rendering of kétos, the Greek word found in the text of Josephus and also in the Septuagint and which noun designates a “sea monster” or a “huge fish”], and that when he had been there three days, and as many nights, he was vomited out upon the Euxine Sea [the Black Sea], and this alive, and without any hurt upon his body; and there, on his prayer to God, he obtained pardon for his sins, and went to the city Nineveh, where he stood so as to be heard; and preached, that in a very little time they should lose the dominion of Asia; and when he had published this, he returned. Now, I have given this account about him, as I found it written [in our books].” (Antiquities, IX, x, 2)
The book of Jonah is written in the third person, and some have regarded this as evidence that it is not a narration of historical events. Ancient historians, however, commonly wrote in the third person, as did Xenophon and Thucydides. Therefore, the use of the third person is not a valid basis for calling the account into question.
The manner in which Jesus Christ referred to Jonah indicates that he was not accommodating his words to what his contemporaries believed about the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge sea creature three days and three nights, so he would be in the “heart” of the earth three days and three nights. People of Nineveh would rise up in the judgment with the then-living generation of Jews and condemn it. This is because they repented upon hearing Jonah’s proclamation. Additionally, by implication, Jesus indicated that he was someone greater than Jonah. (Matthew 12:39-41; 16:4) Jonah’s being inside the sea creature and coming out alive after three days could only serve as a sign for Jesus’ resurrection on the third day if it actually had happened. If people of Nineveh had not heard the proclamation of Jonah, they could not be said to rise up in the judgment and condemn the generation of Jews that heard the teaching of Jesus but refused to respond to it favorably.