The prophet Jonah is a recognized saint in the Catholic Church and venerated as a saint among other denominations, too. In scripture, when Old Testament figures sin mortally and then repent and are later blessed, we get a very clear picture of the repentance in the text itself. For instance, Jude repents of his affair with his daughter in law and later receives his father's blessing. He was fourth in line. He receives his father's blessing because his three elder brothers committed sins for which they did not repent (at least, they do not repent in scripture, and presumably not before Israel passes on his blessing). David's repentance in his story is also evident in the text.

Jonah is a different case. Jonah does repent of one sin. After he refuses God's call and faces a chastisement from God for that, he repents and does what God is calling him to. But, after he sees Nineveh repent, he lashes out at God and goes off to sulk in his hatred for the Ninevites. God tries to teach him another lesson with a plant, but this one seems to go unlearned. Jonah responds to this lesson by telling God that his own (Jonah's) anger is justified, and indeed that he is angry enough to die. God explains the point of the lesson to Jonah, and the text ends there.

So Jonah has very clearly committed two grave sins that he hasn't repented of by the end of the text: he has hated his neighbor (he wants to see Ninevites face the wrath of God, even though they repented) and he has willed his own death out of anger, even if he doesn't take his own life. Alternatively, he has been prideful with God, if you read him as exaggerating to make a "point" to God and not actually wanting to die.

In light of this, I want to know if there is any tradition that would support the idea that Jonah repented (besides merely his veneration as a Saint). Apocryphal texts, pre-christian Jewish traditions, anything that would hint at his re-conversion.

  • From whence comes the notion that one must repent of each and every individual sin in order to be saved or to retain salvation? Dec 21, 2021 at 0:40

1 Answer 1


Arguments Supporting the Beatitude of Jonah?

The best arguments that you are going to find are fourfold:

  • Silence
  • He is recognized as God’s Prophet
  • He wrote the Book of Jonah himself
  • Tradition

The Book of Jonah is more concerned about the repentance of Nineveh than the repentance of the Prophet Jonah himself.

Beside the information given in the Book of Jonah itself, there is only one other biographical reference to Jonah in the Bible. According to 2 Kings 14:25, Jonah had prophesied that "the boundaries of Israel (would stretch) from the entrance of Hamath to the Sea of the plain" (that is the Dead Sea). The passage rather grudgingly admits that this prophecy was fulfilled by Jeroboam II, one of Israel's "evil" kings. This would date Jonah's ministry either to that of Jeroboam or earlier. Some commentators see him as the last of the northern prophets who started with Elijah. The next prophet, Amos, marks the first of the literary prophets active in the north, and he, possibly like Jonah, lived during Jeroboam's time.

Since there is no formal written evidence of Jonah’s repentance, it must be understood that if he is the actual author of the Book of Jonah, he left us a legacy that he was a Prophet of God that tried to not do God’s will. Yet in the end left a legacy of God’s mercy towards the City of Nineveh and in the end towards the Prophet himself. After all God wanted the salvation of his Prophet Jonah too!

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 … - Matthew 12:38–41 (ESV)

If Jesus Christ himself recognized Jonah as a true Prophet, then as such this implies he would be saved.


Catholics have always looked upon the Book of Jonah as a fact-narrative. In the works of some recent Catholic writers there is a leaning to regard the book as fiction. Only Simon and Jahn, among prominent Catholic scholars, have clearly denied the historicity of Jonah; and the orthodoxy of these two critics may no longer be defended: "Providentissimus Deus" implicitly condemned the ideas of both in the matter of inspiration, and the Congregation of the Index expressly condemned the "Introduction" of the latter.

Reasons for the traditional acceptance of the historicity of Jonah:

Jewish tradition

According to the Septuagint text of the Book of Tobias (xiv, 4), the words of Jonah in regard to the destruction of Ninive are accepted as facts; the same reading is found in the Aramaic text and one Hebrew manuscript. The apocryphal III Mach., vi, 8, lists the saving of Jonah in the belly of the fish along with the other wonders of Old Testament history. Josephus (Ant. Jud., IX, 2) clearly deems the story of Jonah to be historical.

The authority of Our Lord

This reason is deemed by Catholics to remove all doubt as to the fact of the story of Jonah. The Jews asked a "sign" — a miracle to prove the Messiahship of Jesus. He made answer that no "sign" would be given them other than the "sign of Jonah the Prophet. For as the Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Ninive shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: because they did penance at the preaching of Jonah. And behold a greater than Jonah here" (Matthew 12:40-1; 16:4; Luke 11:29-32). The Jews asked for a real miracle; Christ would have deceived them had He presented a mere fancy. He argues clearly that just as Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights even so He will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. If, then, the stay of Jonah in the belly of the fish be only a fiction, the stay of Christ's body in the heart of the earth is only a fiction. If the men of Ninive will really not rise in judgment, neither will the Jews really rise. Christ contrasts fact with fact, not fancy with fancy, nor fancy with fact. It would be very strange, indeed, were He to say that He was greater than a fancy-formed man. It would be little less strange were he to berate the Jews for their real lack of penance by rating this lack in contrast with the penance of Ninive which never existed at all. The whole force of these striking contrasts is lost, if we admit that the story of Jonah is not fact-narrative. Finally, Christ makes no distinction between the story of the Queen of Sheba and that of Jonah (see Matthew 12:42). He sets the very same historical value upon the Book of Jonah as upon the Third Book of Kings. Such is the very strongest argument that Catholics offer for the firm stand they take upon the ground of the fact-narrative of the story of Jonah.

The authority of the Fathers

Not a single Father has ever been cited in favor of the opinion that Jonah is a fancy-tale and no fact-narrative at all. To the Fathers Jonah was a fact and a type of the Messias, just such a one as Christ presented to the Jews. Saints Jerome, Cyril, and Theophilus explain in detail the type-meaning of the facts of the Book of Jonah. St. Cyril even forestalls the objections of the Rationalists of today: Jonah flees his ministry, bewails God's mercy to the Ninivites, and in other ways shows a spirit that ill becomes a Prophet and an historical type of Christ. Cyril admits that in all this Jonah failed and is not a type of Christ, but does not admit that these failures of Jonah prove the story of his doings to have been a mere fiction.

To the Rationalist and to the advanced Protestant Biblical scholar these arguments are of no worth whatsoever. They find error not only in Jewish and Christian tradition but in Christ Himself. They admit that Christ took the story of Jonah as a fact-narrative, and make answer that Christ erred; He was a child of His time and represents to us the ideas and errors of His time. The arguments of those who accept the inerrancy of Christ and deny the historicity of Jonah are not conclusive.

  • Christ spoke according to the ideas of the people, and had no purpose in telling them that Jonah was really not swallowed by the fish. We ask: Did Christ speak of the Queen of Sheba as a fact? If so, then He spoke of Jonah as a fact — unless there be some proof to the contrary.

  • Were the book historical in its narrative, certain details would not be omitted, for instance, the place where the Prophet was vomited forth by the sea-monster, the particular sins of which the Ninivites were guilty, the particular kind of calamity by which the city was to be destroyed, the name of the Assyrian king under whom these events took place and who turned to the true God with such marvellous humility and repentance.

We answer, these objections prove that the book is not an historical account done according to later canons of historical criticism; they do not prove that the book is no history at all. The facts narrated are such as suited the purpose of the sacred writer. He told a story of glory unto the God of Israel and of downfall to the gods of Ninive. It is likely that the incidents took place during the period of Assyrian decadence, i.e., the reign of either Asurdanil or Asurnirar (770-745 B.C.). A pest had ravaged the land from 765 till 759 B.C. Internal strife added to the dismay caused by the deadly disease. The king's power was set at naught. Such a king might seem too little known to be mentioned. The Pharaoh of Mosaic times is not deemed to have been a fiction merely because his name is not given.

Jewish tradition assumed that the Prophet Jonah was the author of the book bearing his name, and the same has been generally maintained by the Christian writers who defend the historical character of the narrative. But it may be remarked that nowhere does the book itself claim to have been written by the Prophet (who is supposed to have lived in the eighth century B.C.), and most modern scholars, for various reasons, assign the date of the composition to a much later epoch, probably the fifth century B.C. As in the case of other Old Testament personages, many legends, mostly fantastic and devoid of critical value, grew up around the name Jonah. They may be found in the "Jewish Encyclopedia". - Jonah (Catholic Encyclopaedia)

Although Jonah is mentioned in extra-biblical works, none speak explicitly of his conversion or repentance; thus it seems to be only implied indirectly as he retained the title of God’s Prophet.

Jonah's biography

Rabbinical tradition usually considers Jonah to have been of the tribe of Asher, although some claim he was of Zebulum. One tradition holds that Jonah's mother was the "woman of Zarephath" that offered hospitality to Elijah and that Jonah was her son, whom Elijah revived (Pirke R. El. 33). Another legend says that it was Jonah whom the prophet Elisha dispatched to anoint the usurper Jehu as Israel's future king. The reason Jonah tried to avoid prophesying in Nineveh is that he had gained a reputation for his words always coming true, and he feared he would be considered a false prophet when Nineveh repented. The monstrous fish that swallowed Jonah was none other than the legendary Leviathan (Pirke R. El. 10).

The little-known apocryphal Lives of the Prophets, a second century work, identifies Jonah as coming from the district of Kariathmos near the Greek sea-side city of Azotus. After his ministry in Nineveh, Jonah reportedly traveled with his mother to another Gentile land known as Sour. He is quoted as lamenting, "I spoke falsely in prophesying against the great city of Nineveh," apparently because his prediction of its destruction did not come to pass. Later, Jonah went into the land of Judah. When his mother died along the way, he buried her near Deborah’s Oak, named for the nurse of the matriarch Rebekah, in Bethel (Gen. 38:5). Jonah's own grave is reported as being in the cave of a man called Kenaz, identified as a judge, possibly a reference to Kenaz the father or ancestor of the judge Othniel. This source also preserves an interesting purported prophecy of Jonah:

He gave a portent concerning Jerusalem and the whole land, that whenever they should see a stone crying out piteously, the end was at hand. And whenever they should see all the gentiles in Jerusalem, the entire city would be razed to the ground.

Christian interpretation

The earliest Christian interpretations of Jonah are found in Matthew (12:38-42 and 16:1-4) and Luke 11:29-32). In these passages, Jonah becomes a “type” for Jesus. Jesus compares his generation to the people of Nineveh, saying that no sign will be given except "the sign of Jonah." Jonah spent three days in the belly of the fish; Jesus will spend three days in the tomb.

Contrary to popular belief, the debate over the credibility of the miracle of Jonah and the "whale" is not a modern one. In c. 409 C.E., Augustine of Hippo quoted Porphyry, the noted opponent of Christianity, as arguing:

What are we to believe concerning Jonah, who is said to have been three days in a whale’s belly? The thing is utterly improbable and incredible, that a man swallowed with his clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish. If, however, the story is figurative, be pleased to explain it. Again, what is meant by the story that a gourd sprang up above the head of Jonah after he was vomited by the fish? What was the cause of this gourd’s growth?” (Letter CII, Section 30).

Augustine responds that if one is to question one miracle, then one should question all miracles as well (section 31). Nevertheless, Augustine actually sees the primary meaning of the story of Jonah as an allegory of Christ. For example, he writes:

As, therefore, Jonah passed from the ship to the belly of the whale, so Christ passed from the cross to the sepulcher, or into the abyss of death. And as Jonah suffered this for the sake of those who were endangered by the storm, so Christ suffered for the sake of those who are tossed on the waves of this world. - Book of Jonah

Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites (1866) by Gustave Doré

Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites (1866) by Gustave Doré

In the New Testament, Jonah is mentioned in Matthew and in Luke. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes a reference to Jonah when he is asked for a sign by some of the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus says that the sign will be the sign of Jonah: Jonah's restoration after three days inside the great fish prefigures His own resurrection.

39He answered, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here." — Gospel of Matthew, 12:39-41

Nowhere in Scriptures is the Prophet Jonah referred to a evil or a false prophet, although he may have feared being called a false prophet. Tradition holds that he was a genuine prophet of the Most High. Thus his final turning back to God can be implied!

  • +1 Do we have any information on why the church promoted Jonah to sainthood? At least, do we know when Jonah was canonized and under which pope? Dec 23, 2021 at 22:08
  • @GratefulDisciple If any source does, it would be in the Bollandists. He has probably been recognized as a saint since time immemorial.
    – Ken Graham
    Dec 24, 2021 at 3:05
  • Thanks, being raised Protestant I am still very new to the saints. It's a great resource to know (the massive 72 volume work, scanned PDF here), although requiring us to read Latin. Dec 24, 2021 at 19:11
  • Sorry, this should have been tagged accepted a long time ago.
    – jaredad7
    Aug 2, 2023 at 20:37

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