This is an age-old question that critics of the Bible have used to teach that the Bible contradicts itself. This is a serious accusation and they go so far as to say that Jesus must not have ever read the book of Jonah. This is blasphemy, for Jesus is God (see John 1:1, 14; 20:26-28; Romans 9:5; Philippians 2:6-8) and thus He is OMNISCIENT, which means “He knows all things.” As God He is also the Author of the scriptures, including the Book of Jonah. 2nd Timothy 3:16 declares, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God.”

In nearly every translation of the Bible Jonah 1:17 reads, “Now the LORD had prepared a GREAT FISH to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the BELLY OF THE FISH three days and three nights.” Yet in Matthew 12:40 the rendering depends upon the translation you use. The King James Version says, “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the WHALE’S BELLY; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The New King James Version says, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the GREAT FISH…”  The DARBY Version says, “For even as Jonas was in the BELLY OF THE GREAT FISH…” So, there are translations which say the same thing in the book of Jonah and the book of Matthew; that Jonah was “in the belly of the GREAT FISH.” And then there are translations that give us a different rendering. The New American Standard Bible states, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER….”

We see then that it is only the King James Version (and a couple of others, such as the American Standard Version) that use the word WHALE, which in turn causes some to see a contradiction between Jonah and Matthew. I believe the real answer to this question is found in the Greek word that is translated “whale” in the KJV. The Greek word is KETOS and it has the same meaning as the Hebrew word DAHG that is translated FISH in the book of Jonah. Hebrew and Greek scholars have concluded that both DAHG and KETOS “designate SEA CREATURES of undefined species.” This means it was a GREAT SEA CREATURE that swallowed Jonah; it may have been a GREAT FISH, or it may have been a WATER-LIVING MAMMAL like a WHALE. It could even have been a WATER-LIVING REPTILE of some kind. We can’t be sure what kind it was, but we can be sure that God had “prepared IT to swallow up Jonah.”

It should also be noted that God didn’t classify animals according to our modern classification system. As one has said, “God divided animals into very basic, natural groups. He made aquatic and aerial creatures on day five and terrestrial animals on day six (Genesis 1:20-25). Just as God sensibly classified bats with ‘birds,’ since they both fly (Leviticus 11:13-19), He could classify whales as ‘fish,’ since they both maneuver by swimming. To accuse Jesus or the Bible writers of incorrectly categorizing an animal based upon modern classification of animals is both illogical and unjust” (Eric Lyons).

Again, what is important to believe and understand, is that God prepared this special SEA CREATURE to swallow up Jonah and keep him in his belly for three days and three nights, in order to give us a PICTURE of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. That is what our focus should be instead of concentrating on exactly WHAT KIND OF SEA CREATURE it was.  (412.3)  (DO)