Uncovering the Truth: Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Whale?

Was Jonah really swallowed by a whale

Myth to Reality: the Incredible Story of James Bartley, Swallowed by a Whale and Survived

Was Jonah Really Swallowed By a Whale? Was it the Truth or a fable? Some have suggested that it is impossible for a man to be swallowed by a whale. Even more impossible, to live and then to tell about it? Jonah didn’t think so. Neither did James Bartley. The story dates back to the late 19th century and involves a whaling ship named the ‘Star of the East,’ operating off the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

  According to most accounts, a whale was sighted, the harpoon boats were launched, and the whale was successfully speared. In the violence that followed, however, one of the smaller boats capsized, throwing two crew members into the sea. 

   One of them drowned and the other, said to be a man named James Bartley, disappeared. The whale was eventually subdued and its carcass hoisted onto the ship where the crew started carving it up for blubber.

   After a couple of days of work, they got down to the stomach, where some workers noticed something large inside, ‘doubled up,’ and showing signs of life. They cut the stomach open and there lay James Bartley, unconscious and somewhat digested, but alive. They doused him with seawater, put him in the captain’s cabin, and after a couple of weeks of recovery, he was back on the job.

  Most accounts of the story also include a detailed description of what Bartley experienced and felt during his whale of a journey. He is quoted as saying that he remembered flying through the air when the whale struck the boat with its tail – and then suddenly being in darkness and slipping along a smooth passage of some sort. He then came into a larger area marked by a slimy substance that seemed to shrink from his touch. He finally realized that he was in the whale. 

  He said that he could breathe, but that it was very hot in there. At some point, he lost consciousness, and the next thing he remembered was being cared for by the crew. Some versions of the story say his skin was permanently affected by the gastric juices in the whale, and that he had a bleached white appearance for the remainder of his life. Other versions describe his skin as having been left with a bluish color.

  There have been a few other, similar stories, but researchers suspect that they all have the same origin. 
The story of James Bartley is therefore of greatest interest since there are so many accounts of it and they include enough information to allow some good digging to be done.

  To be fair, others have disputed this story, just as they have the story of Jonah. Whether this is true or not, this is certain; Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.”  But nowhere is the Hebrew or the Greek does it say that he was swallowed by a whale.

The Biblical account of Jonah being swallowed by a whale is well known to Christians, Jewish worshipers, and school children the world over. In the Biblical account of Jonah, he was thrown overboard by the sailors on the ship he had hired on to (after much debate and dread) during a ferocious storm at sea. In the Book of Jonah, we read that “The LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17, King James Version).

In the New Testament, we read Christ’s words that He, (Jesus Christ) will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, just as Jonah was “three days and three nights in the whale’s belly.” (Matthew 12:40.)


Now a whale is not a fish; it is a mammal. So, in the Old Testament we are told Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish,” and in the New Testament, we are told it was a “whale.” Is this a contradiction? No.

   The Bible was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, not in English. And both “whale” and “great fish” are English translations of the original words. If we look in a Greek Interlinear or a Bible Dictionary, we find the explanation.

   The Greek word translated “whale” is  κτοςketos (pronounced kay-tou), and it means “a huge fish (as gaping for prey).” Other scholars say it can mean a huge aquatic creature, which could be a fish, a whale, or some other giant sea animal. In any case, the Bible says God prepared the creature to swallow Jonah, whatever type of fish that was.

   When the King James Version of the Bible was released in 1611, our modern taxonomic distinctions between fishes and mammals had not yet been decided on, so the translators were justified in choosing a whale as the giant “fish.” It was the greatest sea creature known to them.

So a note on my writing of Jonah—In the Time of the Kings. What kind of fish did I choose and why?

   I choose a whale. Besides that, I chose a particular type of whale. The Book of Jonah is only 48 verses, so one must allow for some creative license if you are going to write a complete novel.

   I chose the sperm whale, and here is why. The sperm whale is one of the very largest of the great whales. They dive deeper than any of the great whales, sometimes over a mile into the abyss of darkness to find their favorite meal. That meal is the giant squid, which just happens to sometimes grow to the height and weight of a man. Also, here is a little fun bit. At that depth, it’s pitch black and the only light produced is by bioluminescent fish, such as Jellyfish, and other creepy, big-toothed predators. So if my sperm whale digests small glowing fish on his way to the bottom, do you suppose that one or two might be able to give off a small amount of light in the belly?

  To conclude let me suggest this. The debate is not what type of fish the Lord chose; the story is really about God’s love for all.


Anthony Barbera


Share this post with a friend