In Jonah 4:9 we read a dialog between God and Jonah:

But God said to Jonah, Do you have a right to be angry about the vine? I do, he said. I am angry enough to die. But the LORD said, You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?

How did the author of this passage know the exact conversation?

  • 4
    I think it might be more apt to ask, "How does the author of the bible passage know the conversation at all?"
    – Chelonian
    Mar 12, 2012 at 0:26
  • On my Bible, it states Jonah himself to be the author of the book of Jonah. Apr 23, 2012 at 19:02
  • I have often wondered this with respect to Jesus and Satan's exchange in the desert.
    – kurosch
    Nov 1, 2012 at 15:46

5 Answers 5


I don't mean to be snarky, but you could ask the same question of how anybody recorded the dialog of George Washington. During the Whiskey Rebellion, when he put on his spectacles, and simply told his men that he had grown old in the service of his country, people remembered it.

Likewise, there are five versions of the Gettysburg address, depending on which transcription of Abraham Lincoln's own writing you use. Of those five versions, there are a few prepositional phrases that are modified, but to call them anything other than the same speech would be to stretch the grounds of credulity. Still, the variation is sufficiently minor to where you'd have to be really, really picky to ask, "How can we be sure of what Lincoln really said.

Before modern recording devices, there was no expectation that these direct quotations would have been the same as a court reporter. People would simply do their best to record, as closely as possible what they heard. To be honest to the text is to say that people pretty well agreed what was said, consistent with a pre-technological understanding of what a quote meant.

Sorry, now I get the point of the question - how does a narrator know exactly what God said to Jonah. Ultimately, there are several valid hypotheses, depending on your understanding of the work

  1. Especially considering how abruptly Jonah ends*, we have no extant information. That said, there is nothing that would preclude the answer from being something as simple as "Jonah saw he was wrong, repented again, and told people how God changed his mind."

    Somehow, the narrator would have had to know the events of the story. No eyewitness was with Jonah in Israel, on the boat to Tarsus, and in Nineveh, other than Jonah himself. As a preaching prophet, it is not unreasonable to assume that Jonah could have given a testimony to an emaneusis who would then have recorded it.

    *Commentators have often noted that Jonah ends before we even know if Jonah himself repented. The Veggie Tales movie really does get it right - Jonah doesn't have an ending! So, they call out the point - that God is the god of second chances, and that it is up to the reader to decide.

  2. Alternatively, one could call it historical fiction, in which the author, knowing the events of the story, could interpolate the lesson God was giving through Jonah.

    This being a book of prophecy, it may not be intended to be taken as history. The Jews did not place the Prophets with the historical accounts. They placed the Nevi'im (the Prophets) after the Ketu'vim (the Writings). Prophets never claim to be historians - they claim to speak the truth that God gave them.

    Pastors are exercising the role of prophet, not when they claim to know what is occurring in the future, but rather when they make clear God's understanding of the present. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, is rightly called a Prophet of the Civil Rights movement, and famously drew from Amos - another of the prophets - when saying that justice will rain down like mighty waters.

In the same that [martin Luther King] "had a dream," so too this may have been Jonah's perception. I would ask, for example, whether the detail of MLK actually being asleep and having subconscious thoughts of children of all races playing together on Stone Mountain is as important as the vision that this gives us all. How, after all, did MLK record that "dream?" I odoubt that it arrived completely unformed and then entered his speech improvisationally. So too, it may have been, whether Jonah directly wrote what he learned or another prophet extrapolated the message from the events of his life.

When a prophet uses an illustration, he has a different purpose than an historian. An illustration should not be demonstrably false, but if details are glossed over (such as whether this was an actual, audible voice or just an epiphany had) that are irrelevant, than it is held to that standard.

When Medger Evers is hailed as a martyr for the cause of Civil Rights, that is a fully valid illustration, even if he was more likely just an unfortunate victim. The truth is that his death bore witness (marturion!) regardless of whether or not he held discourse with his assailants as docu-dramas have been known to include.

Note also, even if Medger Evers' exploits took on an air of outsized glory, it does not detract at all from the historicity of what he did.

Just as a pastor might create a dialogue within an illustration to set up the historical point, so too the author of Jonah was interested in the theological point, and could thus back into the dialogue that God had with Jonah. The creeping vine, in particular, was a Persian motif, and would thus have been accessible to the hearer.

tl;dr: You don't have to take a position on the historicity of the events to get the idea that God's truth is being conveyed in the whole story.

  • 4
    I might be misunderstanding the question/answer, but: there's a big difference between a public address vs a private conversation. Asking "how do we know what was heard at a public address" is very different to asking "how do we know what was said in a private conversation, or even that the conversation ever happened". So: who exactly recorded "as closely as possible what they heard" in this event? Mar 11, 2012 at 20:30
  • thank you for taking the time to explain this. I think I am looking at the Bible as a manual that is a history book. I need to make a shift in that...I see why there is so much debate as to interpretation, meaning and purpose. Mar 12, 2012 at 18:06
  • @Affable Geek: If this guestion deals with oral tradition or not I don't know, but do you know if they teach "this" in department of theology and if yes what would be the name of the course. I ask this because I know that in my field of study( math ) they teach for example about functions in Calculus - courses and eq. differential equations in Differential equations - course.
    – alvoutila
    Dec 7, 2014 at 20:07
  • The science of interpretation is called hermeneutics. The details of Jonah would be taught in a course on the minor prophets. Dec 7, 2014 at 20:18

The answer is simpler than you think. No author intended to write down any conversation verbatim. Not even the words of Jesus are treated that way in the Gospels. In John 20:30-31 it is made clear that we are dealing with excerpts. This is also evidenced by the fact that the same quote can be slightly different between two narratives.

The biblical authors did not intend to record events like they were some kind of surveillance camera, neither did they intend to record dialogue as if they were a tape recorder. They wrote for an audience and chose what parts to include or exclude based on the need of that audience.

The point of a quote like the one in Jonah 4:9 is not that we have a recorded history of the exact words God spoke. We are not even told how God spoke: An audible voice, an internal impression, through an angel...?

The purpose of the text is to convey a message, the purpose of biblical inspiration was to make sure that the message is true.

  • 3
    There are many many people who treat the Bible as literal / verbatim text, interpreting every nuance and analysing every precise phrasing of what is said (and indeed, what is not said) in volumes that vastly outweigh the source material ... I've even seen it here on C.SE... Mar 11, 2012 at 20:44
  • 1
    When I do exegesis I will study every syllable carefully, but what I study is the text of the author, the result of the process I described. E.g. Jesus spoke aramaic, not Koine Greek, thus his exact words are by definition not available to us.
    – itpastorn
    Mar 12, 2012 at 1:55
  • 2
    @itpastorn - Jesus would have spoken Greek commonly as well, as it was the lingua franca of the empire at the time (and He did not speak exclusively to those who knew only Aramaic)
    – warren
    Mar 12, 2012 at 14:14
  • Well, Jesus probably could make himself understood in Greek, just as I, a Swede, can make myself understood in English. I'd guess that his mastery of Greek was somewhere between Paul (complicated, long sentences) and John (simple sentences, semitic idioms). However, it is quite a stretch to think that he preached and had dialogue with the Jewish, Samaritan or Syro-phoenician people he met in any other language than Aramaic. I suppose his conversation with Pilate was in Greek as well as when talking to the Roman Centurion + perhaps a few others.
    – itpastorn
    Mar 12, 2012 at 23:03

Sometimes the author was the person involved e.g. Moses is often considered the author of the first five books of the Old Testament, and John the author of his gospel.

Sometimes the conversation was passed on e.g. the Apostle Peter is thought to have inspired the gospel of Mark.

However, regarding the exact dialogue, that's a miracle of The Holy Spirit, as Jesus said:

But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 14:26

  • 1
    I think this is really the most direct answer
    – SSumner
    Apr 9, 2013 at 22:03

Is your question, (a) "How did the writer know the exact words?" Or, (b) "How did the writer know what was said at all?"

If (b), I would think the answer is pretty simple: The same way that the writer of any history book knows what was said in a private conversation: Either the book was written by someone who was present and knows what was said, or the person who wrote it was in contact with someone who was present and knows what was said. (Or there may have been some additional intermediates: A was an eye-witness, he tells B, B tells C, and C writes the book. Or of course someone might use an earlier book, etc.)

I might note that in many cases, there might have been people present at a conversation besides those actually named in the history books. If, for example, a book describes a conversation between the leaders of two countries, it is quite possible that besides the two leaders, there might also have been aides, servants, and/or translators present who might later tell the story.

In the case of the book of Jonah, there are parts of the story where many people were present, so there are many possible sources. When he was on board the ship during the storm, any member of the crew or any of the other passengers could have related the story. When he preached in Ninevah, the whole population of the city could have told the story. For some of Jonah's conversations with God it seems like only Jonah was present (besides God, of course), though it's possible that he had some unmentioned friend or assistant. But the simplest explanation is surely that Jonah either wrote the book himself or that the person who wrote it got the story from Jonah.

Note that it is not at all necessary for the writer to have been an eyewitness to the entire story or to get the story from an eyewitness to it all. Lots of history books are written by piecing together accounts from many different people. For example, it would be unrealistic to insist that the author of a book about World War 2 must have personally witnessed the fighting in France, and also personally witnessed the fighting in Russia, and in China, and in the Phillipines, plus also been party to conversations in the White House, and in the Kremlin, and in the Reichstag, etc etc. Rather, we expect that he will collect information from many different stories and piece it all together.

If (a): Ancient Hebrew and Greek writers did not distinguish between an exact quote and a paraphrase like we do today. The distinction today is expressed through certain common literary conventions, primarily the use of quotation marks. If a book today reported, "Abraham Lincoln said, '87 years ago our ancestors ...'" etc, many would object that that is not an accurate quote, because those were not his exact words. But that's just because you have used quotation marks. If instead the book reported, "Abraham Lincoln said that 87 years ago our ancestors ..." etc, no one would object, because it is not presented as an exact quote, and the meaning is the same. To the best of my knowledge there is no clear convention in ancient Hebrew and Greek to distinguish the two. There are no quote marks in the original Bible manuscripts. So any given quote may or may not be the exact words.

If you believe that the Bible is inspired and infallible, then you will believe that such quotes accurately reflect the speaker's meaning. But there is no need to insist that they be the speaker's exact words. Just like if I read a modern book that says, "Abraham Lincoln said that 87 years ago our ancestors ..." etc, I would not say that the book is false because it is not the exact words. As long as it accurately conveys Lincoln's meaning, the book is 100% accurate.


You must believe 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness

In other translations, God-breathed is replaced with "inspired", but both come from the greek word "theopneustos". This directly translates to God-breathed. However, this is still slightly vague.

However, note that the root of pneustos is pneuma, meaning breath, wind, or spirit. All of these are words concern the Holy Spirit, so it is not unreasonable to think that these men were "inspired" by the Holy Spirit.

Basically, we must believe that scripture was actually given to these men via God himself. That it was really God writing the Bible THROUGH the men. Not the men writing it themselves.

On another note, some of these dialogs may have been recorded or made a very significant impact on people. These men who heard such amazing things would not forget it. However, really it comes down to believing all scripture is "inspired" by God.

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