The Authenticity of the Big-Fish Experience of Jonah
and the Supportive Science
Fish & whales: In recent times, scientists restricted application of the term fish to water dwellers with gills, fins and skeletons of bone or cartilage, but earlier it included all creatures living habitually in water, including lung-breathing whales. The inclusive meaning persists today in the language convention of scientists themselves, for their "jellyfish" & "starfish" are creatures with no skeleton or fins and their "lungfish" has both gills & lungs. Thus the KJV Mt.12:40 correctly refers to the fish as a whale, the specific large water-dweller, and the term in Jonah is the early inclusive one.
Jonah’s fish: Some say a man swallowed by a big fish has no air and can only become a meal, and others say Jonah died and was resurrected. The KJV says, When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord, so his soul nearly parted, but really didn't (modern versions are similar here). Some call the account symbolic, but Christ says it was literal, equating Jonah's 3-day hell-like experience in the fish with His own soul's 3-day sojourn in hell where He descended after the Cross to conquer this enemy (Mt.12:40).
The Greek for the KJV Mt.12:40 whale has various possible meanings, the right one being determined by context. Scientific contextual study shows that use of whale is the basis for Jonah's 3-day survival in the fish, and that the account is literal reality not requiring miracles. Context reveals the fish as a whale in saying it dives to great depth in the sea. Jonah's fish takes him to the bottoms of mountains (and thus the sea), and there are submerged mountain ranges in the Mediterranean Sea, west of the seaport Jonah sailed from. Whales are the only large sea creatures that dive to great depths in the sea. Sperm whales often exceed the average depth of the Mediterranean Sea, ~5000 ft, and have approached 10,000 ft. A sperm whale is the only one that dives to such depths, and is big enough to swallow a man, having swallowed giant squid and sharks larger than a man.
Regarding ingestion of Jonah by a sperm whale, the creature’s teeth are limited to the lower jaw, and are for seizing prey, not for chewing. It swallows its prey and "chews" by crushing contraction of the liner of the first of its multiple stomachs. It eats squid or fish, and a clothing-covered Jonah would have an alien taste, or no taste at all, and would not induce the contraction of the digestion process. The first stomach does not produce digestive juices, and the opening to the second is too small to admit Jonah for chemical digestion. Jonah would only give the whale an upset stomach, which is why he was later vomited up (at God’s command). To protect Jonah from the crushing of contraction in the first stomach, the whale had to fast for three days, and it often fasts in times of food scarcity, living off its own blubber.
While under extreme pressure at great depth in the sea, the body of a sperm whale resists crushing, and stomach functions are maintained since the whale swallows squid while at depth. The whale is protected from filling of its multiple stomachs by seawater while eating because that would prevent all chemical digestion in the second stomach. Actually, entry of seawater under extreme pressure would be lethal, firing through the stomachs at high velocity to destroy the digestive system and kill the whale. Evidently, just before the whale opens its mouth to swallow prey, the esophagus closes to prevent water entry to the stomachs, and after the mouth closes, it opens up to admit the prey. A function like that of the esophagus is the functioning of a topside blowhole that admits air into the respiratory system while the whale is on the surface of the sea, and must be closed off throughout a dive to prevent filling of the lungs with seawater under pressure, and must open up again upon resurfacing. Seawater entering the mouth with the prey would be the source of limited seawater normally present in the first stomach to supply whale body-fluid needs. The stomachs must be immune to the effects of extreme pressure under all conditions, as would clearly be the case when the whale wasn't eating. With Jonah in its stomach, it wouldn't eat due to the upset stomach, and Jonah would be protected from all effects of extreme pressure.
Breathing air under pressure at great depth results in much nitrogen dissolving in the blood of deep-sea divers, and in a rapid ascent from depth, nitrogen bubbles out in a circulatory system, causing bends sickness and threatening death by a coronary. This potential problem would not affect Jonah, for a sperm whale charges its blood and muscles with oxygen from the air for a dive, and nitrogen taken in is mostly absorbed in a foam in the sinuses for discharge in the spout upon resurfacing. This effect, and collapse of the lungs in a dive, greatly limit nitrogen access to a whale's blood stream. Although the whale ascends from depth rapidly, non-availability of nitrogen from air to the stomach, and minimal internal pressure there, would protect Jonah from the bends.
Jonah's biggest problem was getting oxygen to breathe. The whale breathes through the topside blowhole, and the stomach is isolated from the respiratory system, but the creature forces air into its multiple stomachs when breaching head-first out of the water, as it might do in swallowing Jonah, catching him in mid-air (nitrogen in this air should be absorbed by whale oils). This couldn't give Jonah enough oxygen to survive a deep dive, so isolation of the stomach from respiratory-system air somehow had to be bridged, as the KJV Jonah 1:17 indicates, saying that God prepared the fish (not provided or appointed of the NIV & NASV that don't address the needed irregularity in whale anatomy). Oxygen stored in blood hemoglobin & muscles of the whale during its preparation for a dive had to be tapped. This might involve a birth defect that admitted oxygen from the blood & muscles into the digestive tract when the whale wasn't eating (which would mean God knew all about the Jonah incident long before it occurred). A probable alternative would be some bleeding in the first stomach due to contraction in the presence of sharp debris collecting at times in whale stomachs. Carbon dioxide (CO2) increases in whale blood as oxygen is consumed in a dive, and causes release of oxygen from the hemoglobin, thus providing oxygen for Jonah. In the process, oxygen in the muscles might be tapped. CO2 is released too, and eventual build-up of this and that in Jonah’s breath could suffocate him, so time at depth had to be brief, and an early exposure to fresh air would be vital. When the whale is at depth, oxygen serves mainly to supply its brain, little being needed by muscles, and Jonah’s use of oxygen would deprive the brain to induce early ascent for air. And a sick whale, though habitually diving for food, wouldn't eat, or stay long at depth, as necessary to protect Jonah. He nearly died, but would recover as the whale resurfaced and swam to land, forcing in new air when periodically breaching due to the stomach ache. If oxygen reached the stomach due to a birth defect, all whale surface breathing would give Jonah a steady supply of oxygen.
The book of Jonah was written ~2800 years ago, yet it's written in full accord with whale technology known only in rather recent times, and in some aspects is written in accord with technology known only in modern times. How could the ancient author of Jonah write in agreement with matters such as unique whale digestion processes, prolonged fasting ability, isolation of a whale's respiratory system from its stomach, the need to prepare the whale for Jonah's survival and the deep diving ability of whales known only in later centuries, especially diving to extreme depths on the order of 5000 feet known unto men only by the 20th century with the invention of sonar. Jonah, the likely writer, wasn't even a whaler by trade. And how does Jonah inside the whale know he is on the bottom of the sea, at a locale near to undersea mountains? There is one who knew all about whale technology 2800 years ago, and knew exact details of Jonah's plight. God is the one who put Jonah through this experience, and is the only possible author of words describing Jonah's experience. It's as if God put His signature on this Bible book, imparting words to the human writer, Jonah or an associate (dictation inspiration). Now indicated knowledge of whale technology in Jonah relates crucially to the identification of Jonah's fish as a whale in Mt.12:40, but modern translators don’t apply the term whale here in Matthew, in effect, erasing God's signature from the text!