Apologetics, Archaeology, Bible, Main, z103, z95
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Did an ancient Babylonian priest refer to Jonah?

Gibraltar Crossing near the city of Tarshis Credit: Cubanito, Wikipedia

Gibraltar Crossing near the city of Tarshis Credit: Cubanito, Wikipedia

Though known primarily for his confrontation with a whale, Jonah was a well-known prophet in Israel and is referenced several times (Judges 16:23-24; 1 Samuel 5:1-7; 1 Chronicles 10:8-12; 2 Kings 14:25).

But of course it’s his story of calling the city of Nineveh to repentance that he is most known for.

When Jonah refused to obey God’s call and took passage on a ship heading towards Tarshish near the Strait of Gibraltar on the coast of Spain, God stirred up a storm to get Jonah’s attention. After the sailors threw Jonah overboard, he was swallowed by a Grey whale (my vote but far from certain) and after a three days was coughed up on a beach undoubtedly along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

From there Jonah headed far inland to Nineveh that was then part of the nation of Assyria and delivered a message of repentance. Led by the king, the city responded and repented. Some have suggested, the king may have been impacted by Jonah’s whale story, because one of the major deities in Nineveh was dagon, pictured as half fish and half man. This was a popular god in the region and the Bible mentions it several times (1 Chronicles 10:8-12).

Though there is no archaeological confirmation that this story took place other than the discovery of Nineveh in the mid-1800s, which up to then many skeptics did not believe existed despite it being mentioned nearly 20 times in the Bible.

And the story of Jonah probably written between 793 and 758 B.C reveals some familiarity with Nineveh.

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. (Jonah 3:3 NASV)

Writing on the discovery of Nineveh, Sir Austen Layard states it was one of the largest cities in the ancient world of the time and it would have taken several days to walk around it. The work on the city also uncovered several dagon idols.

Then in 612 BC, Babylon conquered Nineveh.

About three centuries later, in 300 BC, a Babylonian priest by the name of Berosus wrote about the story of “Oannes” – a sea creature that brought wisdom to the people. Secular writers believe this was a story about the Babylonian water god Ea.

Others are not so sure.

One of those was Professor Henry Clay Trumbull who says that there is a strange coincidence with the name “Oannes” that he discusses in his article “Jonah in Nineveh” written for the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1892.

A Hellenist, Berosus wrote in Greek and the word “Oannes” that he gave this man from the sea was only one letter off “Ioannes” a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name for Jonah.

The Septuagint which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament written between 300 BC and 200 BC uses “Ioannes” as one of the Greek names for Jonah and the New Testament does as well.

In his article, Trumbull says after consulting with Assyrian specialist Dr. Herman Hilprecht, he was told the Assyrian vocabulary had no letter for “J” and would have either dropped it or perhaps replaced it with another letter “I.”  When the Greeks translated the word they would have used either “Ioannes” or “Oannes.”

Berosus was a prolific writer and published three books called the History of Babylon. He got the information for his three volumes from the official records of Babylon that have since disappeared.

Berosus’s works have also been lost as well. However excerpts of his books were referenced and quoted in other ancient historical documents including Christian historian Eusebius (260 AD – 339 AD) and Jewish historian Josephus (37 AD to 100 AD). Josephus claimed to have copies of Berosus’s books.

It is from these writings and others that we have the Babylonian story of “Oannes.”

Though all this is speculative, the coincidence is intriguing. Some suggest the ancient story of Jonah’s prophetic encounter with Nineveh was actually captured in the story of Oannes and passed down.


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