Stories of Men Swallowed by Whales

Men Swallowed by Whales

In the AIG article, “Materialist ‘Defence’ of Bible Fails” by Andrew Lamb, he wrote, “Fillon…mentions two examples from modern history of claims of men surviving such an ordeal [as Jonah underwent inside the belly of the great fish], and though these tales are intriguing, we agree with Fillon that they are not substantiated beyond doubt.”

“…not substantiated beyond doubt?” What does that mean? May I ask, have such stories been “substantiated” at all?

Might not AIG warn young-earthers more firmly against employing such claims instead of “agreeing” that they are “substantiated” (just not “beyond doubt”)? AIG warns against other dubious claims in the excellent AIG article, “Arguments We Think Creationists Should Not Use.” Why not add these claims to that article as well?

An Evangelical Christian scholar of Science and History has researched the most oft cited story of a man being swallowed by a whale and surviving for three days, and that scholar concluded that the story was unsubstantiated:

A Modern Jonah by Edward B. Davis

A Whale of a Tale: Fundamentalist Fish Stories by Edward B. Davis

According to Edward B. Davis, professor of science and history at Messiah College, Pennsylvania (and an evangelical Christian), “No one has given the [James Bartley] story the kind of careful investigation it warrants if it is to be used as evidence for the reliability of scripture.”

After thorough research into the storyʼs earliest version, Davis discovered, “Courbet did no more than cite an account in the English papers, and de Parville did no more than cite Courbet… [The wife of the captain of the ship that Bartley was said to be aboard, wrote], ‘There is not one word of truth in the whale story. I was with my husband all the years he was in the Star of the East. There was never a man lost overboard while my husband was in her. The sailor has told a great sea yarn.’

The crew agreement for the Star of the East [for its voyage near the Falklands] lists every member of the crew (including a few who signed on in Wellington and deserted just six days later in Lyttelton), and there is no James Bartley on the list, nor anyone of similar name, either for the entire voyage or any part thereof! Never mind that [the originator of the tale] chose a ship that was not a whaler, and that British whalers didnʼt fish off the Falklands in 1891.

[Never mind that the originator of the tale] changed his story after the denial [by the wife of the shipʼs captain]. This time the animal was a whale shark slain by a deck gun from a trawler in the English Channel, not a sperm whale harpooned by men from a whaling ship off the Falkland Islands. I realized then with finality that all of this was no more than a fish story. In the end, traced back to the source, each reported sighting turned out to be just another chimera, just another version of the original variants of the same original fish story inspired by the Gorleston whale.

In June 1891 a 30 foot rorqual whale came near the shore and ran up against a pier off the town of Gorleston, just south of Great Yarmouth. It was pursued, ran aground and was killed. The whale was placed on exhibit for two days, drawing 2200 folk curious enough to pay admission charge. Then the whale was dissected, stuffed, and put on display. Two clippings, one written within days of the event, mentioned that the Gorleston whale had inspired a number of exaggerated tales.”

[Edward B. Davis, “A Whale of Faith, Vol. 43, no. 4, December 1991, pp. 224-235.]

Even C. S. Lewis recognized the story of Jonah as “a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident.” [C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 154.] Lewis also wrote in a letter to Corbin Carnell (April 4, 1953), “The question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance. In what sense does the Bible ‘present’ the Jonah story ‘as historical?’ Of course, it doesnʼt say ‘This is fiction,” but then neither does our Lord say that the Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction. (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason).”

Another AIG author, Jonathan Sarfati, attempts in his AIG article “The Authority of Scripture,” to sidestep questions concerning the Book of Jonahʼs possible unhistoric nature by arguing, “Matthew 12:39 ff. shows that Christ took the account of Jonah and the whale literally, and even used it as a type of His resurrection.” But of course most first-century Jews probably “took the account of Jonah and the whale literally.” So Jesus may have certainly employed a literalistic understanding of Jonah that was probably common to his day and age, but that doesnʼt prove that the tale of Jonah must be taken literally. (Or as C. S. Lewis would be quick to point out, might not God have accommodated himself to faulty first-century preconceptions of the Book of Jonah, just as he accommodated himself by being born a human being with one native tongue and coming from one cultural background?)

In summation, AIGʼs “answers” concerning the Book of Jonah and the Authority of Scripture appear to sidestep relevant questions raised even by fellow Evangelicals. And of course, by telling readers that stories of men being swallowed by whales and surviving for days have been “substantiated” (just not “beyond a doubt”) does not add to AIGʼs credibility, especially when no such stories have been “substantiated” at all.

Best, Edward T. Babinski

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