In 1861 a ship, The Star of the East, was chasing down an enormous Sperm whale near the Falklands Islands. The crew managed to harpoon the whale, and after several minutes it surfaced, and they moved in for the kill. One boat moved too close, and the massive tail, wider than the longboats giving chase, rose out of the water and came down, smashing one of the longboats.

The harpooner on that boat, James Bartley, was thrown into the air and then plunged into the freezing ocean waters, harpoon still in hand. Disoriented, stunned, and numb from the freezing waters, Bartley struggled to return to the surface and it was several moments before he realized he was still gripping the heavy harpoon, which hindered his efforts. Ropes, debris, foam, and freezing swirling waters also hampered his struggles to reach the surface. Later he concluded he was swimming just a few meters underwater when he suddenly realized he was swimming toward the open and gaping mouth of the whale. Moments later, he was swallowed alive. 

Minutes later, everyone was retrieved out of the water and pulled into the remaining longboats. More harpoons sailed into the side and back of this massive beast sealing its fate, but the crew was unable to find their mate, James Bartley, and assumed he had drown.

The Star of the East moved alongside the whale and they began the process of striping the whale down to the bone. The crew worked quickly because sharks were always a concern, and silently, because they were mourning the loss of their friend. As they began gutting the corpse, they heard screaming from within the whale. Superstitious and suddenly fearful, the crew stopped working. The captain, a harsh man who was not prone to superstitions, demanded they continue working! Moments later, James Bartley, screaming and gasping like a newborn, clawed his way out of his grave. That was and has been the only known documented and witnessed, claim of a human being swallowed by a whale. 

Bartley was half-mad from the terror and bleached white by the stomach acids. The Star of the East returned to England with the full crew and a story to tell. Recovering, Bartley received fame as the second Jonah, but he never went whaling again. His case caused a sensation with the English medical community, not to mention the Christians who rallied around this event, which justified the story of Jonah and the whale. 

This account was published in the New York Times in 1896 and also in the Yarmouth Mercury that same year. Bartley was a living miracle. In a few years his experience, which most of the crew witnessed on The Star of the East, was shared on multiple continents. 1 Yet, this story, like so many others Christians want to believe, was wholly fabricated. There is no record of a ship named The Star of the East sailing in the late 19th century, and whaling did not begin near the Falkland Islands until the early 1900’s. Neither is there any medical documents recording any such accident in the whaling industry.1 Nevertheless, this tale was published in the New York Times, and the story spread from there. Questionable new reporting started a long time ago. 

So here is the problem. Christians throughout the centuries have sought to justify the story of Jonah and the whale as an actual occurrence. Could it be an actual event? Of course, but that is not the point. 

Not long ago I was talking about apologetics with Kelly, a friend of mine. She told me about a book titled, ‘How (NOT) to Read the Bible‘ by Dan Kimball. She heard about it because her church was doing a series based on the teachings in the book. I ended up listening to the series, which was excellent, attending a Q & A, and purchasing the book. Dan Kimball points out four broad ideas we need to consider when reading the Bible. 

  1. The Bible is a library, not a book.
  2. The Bible is written for us, but not to us.
  3. Never read a Bible verse
  4. All of the Bible points to Jesus

The Bible comprises 66 books written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, with roughly 40 authors spanning about 1500 years. In it, you will find history, poetry, songs, parables, letters, eyewitness accounts, prophetic literature, and law that were written on stone, parchment, and scrolls by shepherds, farmers, warriors, tent-makers, physicians, kings, teachers, and priests. 2

Many bible scholars over the years have recognized how Jonah’s actions parallel both the younger and older brother in the parable of the prodigal sons. If you have not read it, you should now. In the first part of the book, Jonah runs from God. Luke 15:11-24. Just as the younger of the two sons ran from his father, taking his inheritance. Then when Jonah finally obeys God’s directions and goes to Nineveh and the Ninevens repent, Jonah acts like the older brother. He is angry at God for forgiving the repentant sinners just as the older brother was angry at his father for forgiving the younger son.3 Luke 15:25-32 

Those who read scripture and interpret literally are missing out on so much more that was intended for the readers. For example, in John 10:7 Jesus refers to Himself as a gate or door. Is He really a gate or a door? Of course not. Psalm 91:4 talks about God covering us with His feathers. Does God actually have feathers? No. In John 6:35 Jesus said He was the bread of life. In Isaiah 64:8 we are called clay. In Deuteronomy 32:4 God is a rock. Metaphors and other literary devices are used throughout the Bible. When you read scripture, it is important to keep in mind who the author was, who he was writing to, and his intent in the lines. 

British evangelist G. Campbell Morgan once said, “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.”

Paul Copan writes about the hyperbolic language used and the claims of miracles in scripture in his book, When God Goes to Starbucks. “While we should certainly be careful about being gullible rather than believe just any sensational claim…plenty of well-informed believers today hold to the possibility of the miraculous. Yet even in Jesus’ day, his own disciples-especially Thomas-refused to believe initial reports that Jesus was raised.”4

Was there really a man named Jonah that was swallowed by a whale and three days later spit out? I don’t know and don’t really care. I don’t have a horse in that race. But what I will point out to someone who mocks the Bible because of Jonah’s account, and other stories like it, they are completely missing the intent and wisdom of the story that the author intended. 


A Whale of a Story by James W Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Sources:
  1. Veale, Graham. “Whales, Tall Tales, and Miracles.” New Atheism A Survival Guide, Christian Focus, 2013, pgs 76-77[][]
  2. Kimball, Dan. “The Bible was not Written to Us” How Not To Read The Bible, Zondervan, 2020, pgs 28-30[]
  3. Smethurst, Matt. “Tim Keller on a Fishy Story” The Gospel Coalition Oct. 3, 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/tim-keller-fishy-story/[]
  4. Copan, Paul. “Only Gullible People Believe in Miracles” When God Goes To Starbucks – A Guide to Everyday Apologetics. Baker Books 2008, pg 61[]
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