Bible Q&A: Daniel and Jonah – history or story?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

A few of us here at Bible Society have decided to share our thoughts and views.

Question:

If we look at stories such as Daniel and Jonah, how sure are we that they are actually based upon historical events, rather than stories or parables to help us understand how God [acted] and hence how we should react today?​

Answer:

The Bible is full of different types or genres of literature, like history, law and poetry. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees on these, although there are often clues in the Bible itself. One way or another, it’s important to allow the books in the Bible to speak on their own terms rather than impose our categories on them. So, there are stories in the Old Testament that some people think look as though they might be 'parables' in the sense that they're told to make a point or communicate something true rather than to be taken literally. One of these might be the story of Jonah, who's swallowed by a 'great fish' and spat up unharmed on dry ground. Another might be the story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who survived the fiery furnace – or even Daniel in the lions' den.

There are two issues here. One is whether God works miracles, and most Christians believe that he does. Another is what kind of story we are meant to be reading – is it history, or something else?

The problem comes when these issues get tangled up together. So if someone says they don't think Jonah is historical fact, they might be accused of thinking God doesn't work miracles, or that the Bible isn't true. In fact they're just making a judgement about what sort of story it is, while still believing it's inspired Scripture.

People will come to different conclusions about some stories, and it's not always possible to be certain one way or another. Perhaps a good question to bear in mind, though, is, 'What difference would it make to how I read the story if I think it's not historically true?' Sometimes the answer is, 'Quite a lot'; at other times it's, 'None at all.'


Have you got a question about the Bible? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer it!

Mark Woods is Bible Society's Editor.​

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