First, the text of Jonah doesn’t actually say that Jonah was swallowed by a sperm whale. It simply says he was swallowed by a big fish (1:17). We tend to imagine a whale when we read the story because that is the biggest sea creature of which we know, but the text never actually says what sort of fish it was. So, while Shattuck’s guided tour of the sperm whale’s gastrointestinal tract is interesting, it is also irrelevant.
Second, do we really need history, biology, and anatomy to tell us that people don’t typically get swallowed by whales only to be spat up three days later?
Third, the fact that something is historically atypical and scientifically implausible doesn’t actually mean that it didn’t happen. And this is really my key point. When it comes to unusual and miraculous events in the Bible, historical criticism falls short of providing the necessary tools for analysis. In fact, historical criticism of the Bible developed in part in order to undermine and rule out accounts of miracles and the supernatural in scripture. But if God is able to create the galaxies out of nothing, then creating a fish that could swallow a person whole doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. If Christ really sustains all things and holds them together, then preserving a man in the belly of a fish (even when scientifically impossible) doesn’t strike me as that tall of an order. If the creator God is the God who raised Jesus from the dead, then bringing Jonah back out that big fish’s belly is not all that far-fetched.
Now we’ve not yet considered the question as to whether the story of Jonah is indeed historical. Neither have looked at the different, though related, question as to whether the account of Jonah must be historical in order for it to be meaningful and true. Jonah is at least about the broad scope of God’s loving invitation to repentance and the importance of God’s own character being reproduced in God’s people. Is it possible to imagine a scenario in which a Hebrew scribe sat down and recorded the story (or oral tradition, perhaps) of Jonah as a parable to illustrate those very points? Sure, it is. Even if the story is a parable, it’s meaning remains the same. And if it was intended by the author as a parable, the demand that it be read as history amounts to not taking the text seriously, not to mention the authorial intent.
Matthew 12:41 is commonly said to demonstrate the historicity of Jonah. Jesus there compares his three day burial in the earth to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish. The argument says that if Jesus believed Jonah was historical, then it must be, and to say otherwise is to have a deficient Christology. But there is no reason in the gospels to suppose that Jesus did believe Jonah was historical. If I were to tell you a true story about a man who defended his home and family from an intruder and described the event saying that he battled for his family as Odysseus battled the suitors of Penelope, then my appeal to ancient Greek mythology would in no way undermine the historicity of the main story I was telling. Likewise, Jesus commonly illustrated the truths of the kingdom with parables. There is no conclusive reason that Matthew 12:41 (and parallels) should be read differently. While we cannot know for sure, it might be the case that Jesus knew full well that Jonah was a parable and still chose it to illustrate the historical event of his burial. And if that is the case, to suggest that Jonah must be history is to take Jesus less than seriously.
Be careful to hear what I’m actually saying here. I’m not saying that the account of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish is not historical. I am saying, first, that the truthfulness of the book of Jonah does not necessarily depend on it being historical. And I am saying, second, that the historical implausibility of a man being swallowed by a big fish only to be regurgitated three days later does not necessarily make the story of Jonah unhistorical.
A truly high view of scripture endeavors to read the text as it was intended. Is it possible that Jonah is a parable? Yes. Is it possible for God to keep a man alive in the belly of a big fish for three days? Yes. I’m entirely comfortable with either scenario. Can we know with certainty which is the case and whether such a thing actually happened to a man named Jonah? Probably not. Fortunately, the Christian faith does not stand or fall on this matter.