Pages 8-11: spring 1992
A VERY GREAT CITY
Jonah 3:3 informs us that the old Assyrian capital, Nineveh, was an
exceedingly great city, being three days' journey across! 'Twas a really,
really, really big city!
Assyria was the first world-class power to really collide with Israel, and
the size of its fabled capital may have slipped out of focus. At any rate, the
Bible gave it the diameter of a three-day journey. Scholars, using old travel-
er's accounts, usually reckon a day's journey in ancient times as 20 miles or
thereabouts. The fact that Jonah was probably on foot is irrelevant since
Jonah is not the standard of measurement. For an ancient walker, a day's
journey in a well paved city would have been a picnic.
That gives us a city 60 miles in diameter! Holy flying swordfish!
That's bigger than Los Angeles.
Archaeologists have actually dug up portions of Nineveh, and their find-
ings tell a far different story. It turns out that Nineveh scarcely exceeded
three miles at its greatest stretch. It extended over some 1,850 acres with a
circumference of about eight miles.
How do Bible believers reconcile these facts?
THE DENIAL THEORY
No intelligent writer could make such a dumb mistake, inerrancy defenders
say, so the Bible must have had something else in mind. Unfortunately, Jonah
wasn't the only one to assign a large dimension to Nineveh. The Anchor
Bible has this to say:
Brewer [J. A. Brewer, Jonah, 1912] gives ample citations
from classical sources, most of which accentuate its inordinate
size (Jonah, p. 230).
Ancient embellishments are not that rare. Aristotle himself is said to have
speculated that Babylon had been taken for three days before all of its citi-
zens became aware of the fact. Herodotus, the famous historian of the an-
cient world, held that Babylon was in the shape of a square whose sides were
14 miles long (cited by Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict,
Vol. One, p 304). Thus, Jonah's embarrassing account of Nineveh cannot be
dismissed on the grounds that no one could have taken it literally. Many
Bible scholars believe that Jonah was written several hundred years after
the fall of Nineveh, thus allowing ample time for the growth of legends.
THE PROVINCE "THEORIES"
A Few biblicists claim that in the case of Nineveh's size the Bible is really
talking about a region or a province instead of a city. What do the profes-
The translators of The New English Bible, The New Oxford Annotated
Bible, Today's English Version, The New Jerusalem Bible, and other top
rated Bibles say "city." That should settle it.
The Hebrew word here rendered as city (Œyr) was also applied to Jerusa-
lem, Jericho, and virtually every other city mentioned in the Bible! Thus, if
we are to take the Bible at its word, we are talking about a city. We are not
talking about some province that had the same name.
Nineveh is also mentioned in Genesis, 2 Kings, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah,
and Matthew. None of these passages referred to a region. In fact, most of
them unmistakably referred to a proper city. Indeed, Strong's Exhaustive
Concordance of the Bible gives only one meaning for Nineveh: the name of
the capital city of ancient Assyria.
Nor is the Bible talking about adjoining suburbs. Ancient Mideastern ci-
ties, even the important ones, were shockingly small by modern standards.
The larger ones surrounded themselves with walls to guard against bands
of robbers, passing armies, or what have you. Those walls marked the limits
of the city. There were no suburbs.
Nor can we count the farmland around Nineveh as a kind of "suburbs."
Farmlands attached to Nineveh would certainly lie closer than 30 miles! The
poor farmer was not going to spend a whole day walking to his field! If the
Ninevites had needed that much grain, they would have imported it from
Nor do we have any evidence that Jonah was using the capital of Assyria
as a symbol for an entire nation, as was sometimes done with Jerusalem or
Babylon in the Bible. A city spanning 60 miles is, indeed, exceedingly
great--but not so a 60-mile-wide nation. Furthermore, Jonah later removed
himself a short distance from the city, built a little hut for himself, and
waited to see what would happen to Nineveh. So Jonah was obviously refer-
ring to a city, something he could keep an eye on while sitting a short dis-
tance away. We don't read about Jonah traveling from town to town, as the
disciples of Jesus did, to prophesy to an entire region.
Perhaps our would-be revisionists will claim that Nineveh was surrounded
by many small towns and cities that, being closely tied to Nineveh, made up
"Greater Nineveh." If that is the claim, then let us have the evidence.
Surely, wild speculation is no grounds for overthrowing the face value of
Let our would-be revisionists begin by producing a map showing the vicin-
ity of ancient Nineveh. Let them show that towns and villages formed a well
defined cluster about Nineveh, one 60 miles in diameter. Let them show that
the Hebrews referred to such an arrangement as "the city" (Jonah 4:5).
Next, our would-be revisionists must turn to the Bible and show us why
we can't accept Jonah 3:3 at its face value. Is it because a certain number
is a wee bit inconvenient?
Whatever happened to biblical inerrancy? Perhaps biblical inerrancy is just
a matter of reinterpreting the Bible when it gets a little wild! Unless the
above steps are taken, however, our would-be revisionists are just whistling
in the dark. Speculation must not be confused with facts, and facts are
needed if we wish to override the face value of a passage.
Another variation of this last defense claims that the passage referred to
the circumference of the city, but a 19-mile-wide city, which would result
from this "explanation," is hardly an improvement.
Another approach views Jonah as walking "into" the city in a roundabout
way. Perhaps he spent his day checking out the bazaars!
Surely, this is not what the ancients meant by "a day's journey," an
expression that seems self-explanatory. That would be a very confusing way
to describe the size of a city, and the ruse is clearly shot down in many of
the better translations of Jonah 3:3-4:
Jonah obeyed at once and went to Nineveh. He began by
going a day's journey into the city, a vast city, three days'
journey across... (The New English Bible).
So Jonah arose and went to Nin'eveh, according to the word
of the LORD. Now Nin'eveh was an exceedingly great city, three
days' journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going
a day's journey (The New Oxford Annotated Bible).
Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word
of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare; to
cross it took three days. Jonah began by going a day's journey
into the city and then proclaimed, "Only forty days more and
Nineveh will be overthrown" (The New Jerusalem Bible).
There is one Bible (that I am aware of) that actually supports a variation of
this latest defense, and that is the NIV (New International Version, 1978).
We find in it that "Nineveh was a very important city--a visit required three
days." Since the NIV is likely to become a standard among conservatives, we
need to examine its treatment of Jonah 3:3.
Dr. Edward P. Blair (The Illustrated Bible Handbook, 1987) informs us
that all the translators of the NIV were expected to subscribe to the "high
value of Scripture" set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the
Belgic Confession, and the Statement of Faith of the National Association of
Evangelicals. When translators are hobbled with doctrine, doctrine will hobble
the translation. Indeed, Dr. Blair gives us 12 examples in the NIV where
translation has been so affected. Other examples, such as Isaiah 7:14 and
Genesis 2:19, may be added to that list. Even an honest conservative, such
as David O'Brien (Today's Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties, 1990) will
admit that doctrine has intruded in places in the NIV.
Take a few moments and look at the modern Bible translations in a large
library, if you will. You will find that the NIV is the odd man out in its
handling of Jonah 3:3. Its rendering of this verse appears to be based on
Stuart's translation, a rendition that has little scholastic support:
There is no merit to Stuart's translation, "requiring a three-
day visit," which depends on Wiseman's incongruous weaving of
Assyrian evidence regarding diplomatic visits to royal cities....
Jonah is hardly sent to Nineveh to negotiate treaties or the like
(The Anchor Bible, Jonah, 1990, p. 230).
Thus, this rendering of Jonah 3:3 may be dismissed. It is one of those
places in the NIV where doctrine has overridden good translation.
At this point, biblicists may wish to join hands with the liberals and deny
the historicity of Jonah. For once, the biblicists would be right--but at
great cost to the fundamentalist viewpoint! If the straightforward narrative
of Jonah can be dismissed, then what about Noah's flood? What about Jesus's
statement in Matthew 12:40-41? Where would the avalanche end?
If the Bible is authoritative in all matters, as fundamentalists claim, then
its passages must be taken at face value. (Of course, if a passage clearly
fits another genre, such as poetry or allegory, then it must be interpreted
accordingly.) Thus, if the Bible appears to be making a factual statement,
then the biblicist must accept it as such. To do otherwise is to strip the
Bible of its presumed authority and to acknowledge reason as the higher
That's the last thing the biblicists want to do! Their Bible is supposedly
above man-made standards.
We thus arrive at an important point. If a biblicist advances a claim--such
as hyperbolic usage--that denies the face value of a passage, then the
burden of proof is on his shoulders. Furthermore, he may not invoke such a
defense merely because the passage is doctrinally embarrassing. To do so,
once again, is to undercut the very pillars of biblical authority. If the Bible
doesn't mean what it says, then what does it mean? Who decides? Biblical
authority is reduced to a matter of human consensus.
The "hyperbolic" and "allegorical" defenses are attractive to the biblicist
precisely because they cover a multitude of sins. They fill in those odd gaps
not amenable to normal repair. Let's see if either applies to Jonah 3:3.
Is the evidence overwhelming? On that point alone rests every claim of
hyperbolic or allegorical usage.
Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties affirms the historicity of Jonah,
as do apologetic works in general. If Matthew 12:39-41 is accepted at face
value, then Jesus himself supported the same:
An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and
there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of Jonah the
prophet: for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the
belly of the whale;so shall the Son of man be three days and
three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall
stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn
it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold a
greater than Jonah is here.
By reason of what Jesus allegedly said in this passage, biblicists dare not
find evidence of allegorical or hyperbolic usage throughout the book of Jonah.
That leaves Jonah 3:3, the specific claim about Nineveh's size, for our
consideration. Clarke's commentary on the Bible treated the passage factual-
ly. Clarke even cited one or two ancient accounts attesting to the huge size
of Nineveh, although he cautioned his readers about their reliability.
Consider also, if you will, the various defenses of Jonah 3:3 that are
common to all apologetic works (defenses already noted). They all assume that
the passage is factual.
How, then, with such dissension among his ranks, can the biblicist claim
overwhelming evidence for a nonliteral interpretation of Jonah 3:3? Obvious-
ly, at least from a conservative viewpoint, there is nothing about this pas-
sage that demands a nonliteral interpretation. In fact, there is nothing wild
about this passage except the size of Nineveh. Thus, the biblicist is obliged
to take it at face value or else admit that reason has overridden the authority
of the Bible.
Therefore, at least here, allegorical or hyperbolic usage is of no help to
SUMMARY OF THE NONLITERAL OPTIONS
In judging the case of biblical inerrancy, we must accept the face value of
a passage unless another genre (poetry, allegory, etc.) obviously applies.
That is, we may not abandon the face value of the text unless the evidence
compels us to do so.
We are not compelled to abandon the plain meaning of a biblical passage
merely because it is morally, scientifically, or doctrinally embarrassing. (One
might reasonably expect an ancient work to contain such errors, a possibility
that cannot be ruled out a priori.) Therefore, the burden of proof is on
those who claim that a passage fits another genre. Poetic usage, allegorical
usage, hyperbolic usage, and other nonliteral usages must always be justified
by positive, compelling evidence. We are never at liberty to substitute mere
speculation for the plain meaning of a text.
Once the biblicist accepts Jonah as historical, he is stuck with an impos-
sibly big city called Nineveh.
If you accept biblical inerrancy on faith, then you will be blind to biblical
error. How can you recognize something that, to your mind, doesn't exist?
If that is your mentality, then biblical errors will appear as mere puzzles to
be explained away. Indeed, the true fanatic doesn't even worry about the
lack of good explanations. Jesus will simply hand out the answers once we get
The heart that rejects reason cannot be called upon to recognize the force
of evidence, be it piled ever so high! Let those minds slumber on. I speak
to the man or woman whose mind still functions.
There is no substitute for reason!
It won't do to claim that God wrote the Bible, thus conferring inerrancy
on it. We don't know a priori what God wrote--if anything. Indeed, in this
line of thought we must first establish God's existence, and, even if we could
do that, we would still have to prove that, in fact, God wrote the Bible. No
If the Bible is divinely inspired, then how might we know it? God (or his
agent) may choose to personally inform us, we may learn by mystical means,
or, after analyzing the evidence, we may conclude that such is the case.
Unfortunately, God is rather stingy on verbal communication and short on
personal appearances. Nor is he in the habit of giving his earthly messen-
gers special uniforms or badges. Thus, given a world full of liars and luna-
tics who are only too happy to pose as God's messengers, one is at risk
Of course, if you are one of those rare individuals who speak face to face
with God every morning before breakfast, then you may have some privileged
information. You might also be a nut with a malfunctioning brain!
The second approach is not much better. Mystics do not always agree with
one another--especially when it comes to heavenly messages. How do we
know, without appealing to evidence, who is right? How do we know that
feeling right is being right? Thus, if we seek sound answers to factual
questions, we cannot escape the need to analyze the evidence.
No matter how you slice it, we can't establish the inerrancy of the
Bible--or any book--before actually studying it. Such a study, of course,
cannot begin with the premise of biblical inerrancy. (You would be astound-
ed at how often biblical inerrancy is assumed in order to prove biblical iner-
rancy. Such "proofs" are as common as weeds after a spring rain!)
If the Bible is approached with an objective, open mind--and not with the
usual wishful thinking--then it becomes obvious that its pages contain many
errors. I have put before you just one sampling of the Bible's errors, drawn
from a vast ocean.
(Dave Matson's address is 330 South Hill Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106.)
GOD'S WORD WITHOUT COMMENT
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be
admitted to the assembly of Yahweh. Those born of an illicit union (bastard,
KJV) shall not be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh. Even to the tenth
generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of
Yahweh. No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of Yah-
weh. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admit-
ted to the assembly of Yahweh (Dt. 23:1-3).
Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say: No one of your
offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to
offer the food of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near,
one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long,
or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf,
or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed
testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come
near to offer Yahweh's offerings by fire (Lev. 21:16-21).
To have respect of persons is not good (Pro. 28:21). Of a truth I per-
ceive that God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).
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