Man, sometimes this book is just fun to read.
There are many chapters that are a slog, a real downright trudge through sentences chock-a-block with antiquated vocabulary, but others? A real joy to sit down and digest after a long week in this, the longest year of my life. Let’s get into it!
Ishmael follows up a stray reference to Jonah of biblical fame from the last chapter with a look at the historical reality of his tale. A friend of Ishmael’s from Sag Harbor, with the nickname “Sag Harbor”, doubted the veracity of this story. First, because the type of whale described can’t swallow anything larger than a tiny plankton, and secondly because of the enormous distance the whale must have traveled in a short time frame in order to deliver Jonah to the city of Nineveh.
Ishmael offers explanations from well-known explainers of these kinds of things. First, the whale probably only held Jonah in its mouth rather than swallowing him, and everyone knows a right whale’s mouth is big enough to fit several dozen people. Or, the whale in question may actually be the corpse of a whale, or a life raft, or just another boat that had a whale for its figurehead. Secondly, we don’t know how fast whales can really move! It easily could have made that journey all the way around the Cape of Good Hope and up the Tigris river in just three days. Or it may have used some unknown subterranean passage.
Whatever the explanation, it was supposed to be miraculous, so quibbling over the details. People believe in this story, there’s even a mosque in Turkey at the spot where Jonah was spat up, with a miraculous lamp that burns without oil.
There are a lot of fun little ideas brought up here that still feel relevant today.
Often, the Bible is held as a sort of unimpeachable document, something perfect that must be read exactly as it stands. Or, if it is interpreted, that is the work of experts in the field who hand down pronouncements about the correct way to read it.
But in truth, quibbling over the details of religious texts is something that goes back to the beginning of religion. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone about the canon of one fictional universe or another, you should know that this same thing has happened over every story in the bible, and twice as much over the stories in the old testament, like Jonah.
An Exegesis of Exegesis
The word that Ishmael uses for the person explaining away these factual problems with canon is “exegetist”, which I’d certainly never heard or read before. It turns out, it just means a person who engages in “exegesis“, which a fancy old-fashioned term for explaining things.
This is famously something that a lot of Jesuit priests engage in, trying to rationalize and lock down the interpretation of the bible as historical truth. This comes out of the old Jewish tradition of midrash, where there are centuries of commentary on various stories, trying to explain seeming inconsistencies or impossibilities in the text of the Torah.
The phenomenon continues into the current day, of course. Marvel Comics used to give a famous “no-prize” to people who wrote in offering explanations for canonical inconsistency with their stories and characters. Even now, people make sport of coming up with convoluted explanations for things that were not really though through in the first place, or where explaining in such a complex way kind of misses the point.
The Purpose of Narrative
When you’re thinking about the story of Jonah, in what are you conceiving of it? As a historical record of something that actually happened, or as a story that is meant to teach a lesson? Or both?
Ishmael clearly wants to have it both ways, in keeping with his ongoing project to increase the prestige of the whaling profession. If Jonah is just some made-up bullshit, then there is one less significant whale-related story in the holy bible! And he can’t have that, thus the sophistry.
But really, if you’re reading the bible, and that’s the place where you get held up on the realism of things, you don’t actually need an explanation, you’re just looking to pick nits. To find as many holes as possible in the tapestry, and thus cause the whole thing to fall apart.
These are easy enough to dismiss if you have any faith at all in the actual central premise of the bible, as Ishmael points out late in the chapter:
For by a Portuguese Catholic priest, this very idea of Jonah’s going to Nineveh via the Cape of Good Hope was advanced as a signal magnification of the general miracle.
Which is, frankly, my go-to when these kinds of arguments rear their ugly heads in other contexts: Look, it’s just a story, it was magic or something, you’re missing the point. You can pick holes in literally anything if you sit with it long enough and regard it with proper scrutiny and doubt. If you’re not bought in, then explaining away plot holes isn’t going to get you in; there is some larger problem that you are avoiding.
Piercing the Veil
Even given all that, some skeptical fool may say, if we can agree that these stories are in some ways fantastical, why bother caring about them now? In this modern age where we know better, none of this fictional stuff even really matters to real life.
Which is of course an absurd strawman argument I just came up with, but it is to make a more general point I’ve hit at many times, and which comes up in this chapter: what matters is what people believe. And fiction plays a huge part in that.
Besides, to this day, the highly enlightened Turks devoutly believe in the historical story of Jonah. And some three centuries ago, an English traveller in old Harris’s Voyages, speaks of a Turkish Mosque built in honor of Jonah, in which Mosque was a miraculous lamp that burnt without any oil.
This mosque still exists, in Mosul, Iraq. Even if Jonah never rode in the belly of a whale, there is still a monument to it. People travel there and believe in it. It materially affects the world that we live in. There are plenty of monuments to entirely fictional things in real life places, and they affect the real-life actions of people all the time.
What it comes down to, for me, is that the historical reality of these things is kind of fun to talk about, but doesn’t really matter in the end.
On the Apocrypals podcast, the hosts have created a distinction between levels of historicity: Is a person Caesar-real or Robin Hood-real? Augustus Caesar is an entirely real historical person about whom there is tons of physical evidence. Robin Hood is a fictional person who nonetheless has had a huge impact on people’s lives throughout history.
So, in a way, the distinction is actually a slight one. Someone doesn’t have to be real in order for them to have a legacy that resonates through the ages. In some ways, it eases the process along if they’re entirely fake, and people get to just make up whatever bullshit they need for the given moment.
This is, again, something that happens all the time now with superhero comics and anime and all sorts of different media. They even imported the language of the church! What is treated as “canonical” or true by the “word of God” and whatnot.
Ah, such a fun chapter. It always warms my heart to see the same sorts of arguments over believability repeated a hundred and fifty years ago. Like all those funny headlines and blind items in hundred-year-old newspapers from Yesterday’s Print, it shows that people have always been the same.\
Nerds will continue arguing over pointless minutia long after we are all dead. Some things never change.
Until next time, shipmates!