Jonah in early Christian art.


The book of Jonah contains one of the Old Testamentís oddest stories. Letís start with a synopsis of the events described in those four chapters.

Jonah is commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh to tell them that the city will soon be destroyed because of their great wickedness. Jonah, is not keen, as Nineveh is the avowed enemy of his own country, Israel, so he sets of for Tarshish via Jaffa. A great storm starts, and the crew realise that Jonah is to blame. Jonah accepts responsibility, and tells the crew to throw him overboard. The crew are unwilling, but the storm continues and they are forced to do it. The storm calms. Jonah is swallowed by a huge fish (usually described as a whale in more recent retelling.)
  Jonah spends three days and nights in the fish, praying to God for forgiveness and agreeing to take on the task. He is vomited up. He sets off for Ninevah and prophesises the cities destruction. Perhaps surprisingly, they believe him, and fast and wear sackcloth and ashes. God forgives the city to the annoyance of Jonah, who really wanted it to be destroyed according to his prophecy. He flees the city in case he is seen as a false prophet, setting up a shelter overlooking the city in the hope that it will be destroyed. It isnít, and Jonah wishes for death.
  The sun is hot: God makes a plant, a gourd, grow to provide shelter from the sun, then causes the plant to die. Jonah pleads with God to let him die.
  Letís conclude with the words of the King James Bible:

ĎAnd God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?í

Jonahís response is not recorded.

A story with much ambiguity, perhaps more like a tale from Greek mythology than a realistic event. A small number of people have insisted that the fish swallowing could happen, and that the tale could be literally true, though this seems very unlikely. Others have suggested that the story was originally intended as an allegory: the final verses about the plant support this.
  A strange story, yet, what is quite remarkable is itís importance in very early Christianity; scenes from the story are among of the most frequent images in early art.
  I will start to explore why this is so on the next page: meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here is a fine example of late third century art, known as the Jonah sarcophagus. We will be looking in detail at this.


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