Was it a Whale or a Fish?


Was it a Whale or a Fish?

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“Ketos” in Greek means “Sea-Monster, Giant Fish”. In Latin, “Cetos” means “whale”. There are several different versions of the Bible, and in each of these versions there is a difference of opinion on Matthew’s meaning when he recounted Jesus’ telling of Jonah’s story(1). In several Catholic Bibles, St. Matthew quotes

Jesus as saying, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea-monster,”(2) while the New American Catholic Bible and the King James Version (along with the 21st Century King James Version) refer to it as a “whale.” The New International Version says it was a “great fish.” And the New Living Translation Bible and the New King James Version says it was a “huge fish.” Though all of these versions vary on their translation of “ketos”, all of them still use the term “fish” in their Book of Jonah.

This variation of translation may have been intended by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the very purpose of allowing us free will in choosing what we believe. For in this account of God’s word, the non-believer is granted the opportunity to diminish the Glory of God by saying it is reasonable to believe that it was a whale that swallowed Jonah, for only a whale would be big enough to do such a thing. But men of reason would continue to diminish the Glory of God in every way possible. For how could a virgin give birth? How could a man be resurrected? And really, how could we believe that we, all 6 billion of us, descended from two people? These arguments fan the flames of our intellectual pride and give us cause to doubt the Glory of God.

Before we further the debate on whether it was a whale or a fish, let us examine faith and hope. For it is clearly written that “the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah.”(3) When we approach the holy altar, we prepare ourselves to receive the Lord’s body into our own, by cleansing our thoughts and minds. And we prepare our bodies through fasting as well. Thus God prepared a fish to receive Jonah, to care for him under water that Jonah would not die from his own actions. Thus we see the presence of faith and hope. That even in times of trouble, caused by our own stubborn stupidity, God does not abandon us. That he prepares a place for our safety that we may not perish. From this perspective can we see that not only can we accept that it is a fish, it was fish that had never been seen before and will never be seen again – for it was prepared for the sole purpose of saving Jonah.

Another way we may know that God intended this difference of translation is in the account itself. For Jesus, in recounting the story of Jonah (in Matthew 12:38-42), is responding to the Pharisees request for a sign. In other words, men of reason will demand that we show them this fish, that they too may believe it was a fish and not a whale. That Jesus’ whole point about referencing Jonah in responding to their request for a sign speaks directly to their own pride-filled intellectual minds having already reasoned away God’s mercy, God’s Love, and God’s Glory. Those who seek “after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah .”(4) Meaning, if you believe that God did send a fish to save Jonah, then you will believe that God descended down to defeat death on the cross through Jesus Christ. For the historical accuracy of Jonah from both our stand-point of faith and hope, is important as it foreshadows Christ’s own death and resurrection. Christ would not have associated the single most important event in our history (his holy resurrection) to a mere fable or fairy tale. If we are to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ, as given to us from the accounts in the Gospels – then we must accept that Jonah, being swallowed by a fish, is historical fact.

To quote Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”(5) Do we serve the Lord by reasoning away His majesty? Do we serve the Lord by diminishing the importance of knowing that the Lord God makes the impossible possible? We need not see the fish to know that our faith in God’s love for us gives us hope.

Glory Be to God – Amen
by Ted Gillebaard

1. Matthew 12:38-42
2. Matthew 12:40 New American Standard Bible and www.catholic.org
3. Jonah 1:17
4. Matthew 12:39
5. Joshua 24:15