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A Very Great City
by Dave Matson

1992 / March-April

Jonah 3:3 informs us that the old Assyrian capital, Nineveh, was an exceedingly great city, being three days' journey across! 'Twas a really, really, really big city!

Assyria was the first world-class power to really collide with Israel, and the size of its fabled capital may have slipped out of focus. At any rate, the Bible gave it the diameter of a three-day journey. Scholars, using old traveler's accounts, usually reckon a day's journey in ancient times as 20 miles or thereabouts. The fact that Jonah was probably on foot is irrelevant since Jonah is not the standard of measurement. For an ancient walker, a day's journey in a well paved city would have been a picnic.

That gives us a city 60 miles in diameter! Holy flying swordfish! That's bigger than Los Angeles.

Archaeologists have actually dug up portions of Nineveh, and their findings tell a far different story. It turns out that Nineveh scarcely exceeded three miles at its greatest stretch. It extended over some 1,850 acres with a circumference of about eight miles.

How do Bible believers reconcile these facts?


No intelligent writer could make such a dumb mistake, inerrancy defenders say, so the Bible must have had something else in mind. Unfortunately, Jonah wasn't the only one to assign a large dimension to Nineveh. The Anchor Bible has this to say:

Brewer [J. A. Brewer, Jonah, 1912] gives ample citations from classical sources, most of which accentuate its inordinate size (Jonah, p. 230).
Ancient embellishments are not that rare. Aristotle himself is said to have speculated that Babylon had been taken for three days before all of its citizens became aware of the fact. Herodotus, the famous historian of the ancient world, held that Babylon was in the shape of a square whose sides were 14 miles long (cited by Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Vol. One, p 304). Thus, Jonah's embarrassing account of Nineveh cannot be dismissed on the grounds that no one could have taken it literally. Many Bible scholars believe that Jonah was written several hundred years after the fall of Nineveh, thus allowing ample time for the growth of legends.


A Few biblicists claim that in the case of Nineveh's size the Bible is really talking about a region or a province instead of a city. What do the professionals say?

The translators of The New English Bible, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Today's English Version, The New Jerusalem Bible, and other top rated Bibles say "city." That should settle it.

The Hebrew word here rendered as city (Œyr) was also applied to Jeruslem, Jericho, and virtually every other city mentioned in the Bible! Thus, if we are to take the Bible at its word, we are talking about a city. We are not talking about some province that had the same name.

Nineveh is also mentioned in Genesis, 2 Kings, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Matthew. None of these passages referred to a region. In fact, most of them unmistakably referred to a proper city. Indeed, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible gives only one meaning for Nineveh: the name of the capital city of ancient Assyria.

Nor is the Bible talking about adjoining suburbs. Ancient Mideastern cities, even the important ones, were shockingly small by modern standards. The larger ones surrounded themselves with walls to guard against bands of robbers, passing armies, or what have you. Those walls marked the limits of the city. There were no suburbs.

Nor can we count the farmland around Nineveh as a kind of "suburbs." Farmlands attached to Nineveh would certainly lie closer than 30 miles! The poor farmer was not going to spend a whole day walking to his field! If the Ninevites had needed that much grain, they would have imported it from nearby regions.

Nor do we have any evidence that Jonah was using the capital of Assyria as a symbol for an entire nation, as was sometimes done with Jerusalem or Babylon in the Bible. A city spanning 60 miles is, indeed, exceedingly great--but not so a 60-mile-wide nation. Furthermore, Jonah later removed himself a short distance from the city, built a little hut for himself, and waited to see what would happen to Nineveh. So Jonah was obviously referring to a city, something he could keep an eye on while sitting a short distance away. We don't read about Jonah traveling from town to town, as the disciples of Jesus did, to prophesy to an entire region.

Perhaps our would-be revisionists will claim that Nineveh was surrounded by many small towns and cities that, being closely tied to Nineveh, made up "Greater Nineveh." If that is the claim, then let us have the evidence. Surely, wild speculation is no grounds for overthrowing the face value of scripture!

Let our would-be revisionists begin by producing a map showing the vicinity of ancient Nineveh. Let them show that towns and villages formed a well defined cluster about Nineveh, one 60 miles in diameter. Let them show that the Hebrews referred to such an arrangement as "the city" (Jonah 4:5).

Next, our would-be revisionists must turn to the Bible and show us why we can't accept Jonah 3:3 at its face value. Is it because a certain number is a wee bit inconvenient?

Whatever happened to biblical inerrancy? Perhaps biblical inerrancy is just a matter of reinterpreting the Bible when it gets a little wild! Unless the above steps are taken, however, our would-be revisionists are just whistling in the dark. Speculation must not be confused with facts, and facts are needed if we wish to override the face value of a passage.


Another variation of this last defense claims that the passage referred to the circumference of the city, but a 19-mile-wide city, which would result from this "explanation," is hardly an improvement.

Another approach views Jonah as walking "into" the city in a roundabout way. Perhaps he spent his day checking out the bazaars!

Surely, this is not what the ancients meant by "a day's journey," an expression that seems self-explanatory. That would be a very confusing way to describe the size of a city, and the ruse is clearly shot down in many of the better translations of Jonah 3:3-4:

Jonah obeyed at once and went to Nineveh. He began by going a day's journey into the city, a vast city, three days' journey across... (The New English Bible).

So Jonah arose and went to Nin'eveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nin'eveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's journey (The New Oxford Annotated Bible).

Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare; to cross it took three days. Jonah began by going a day's journey into the city and then proclaimed, "Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown" (The New Jerusalem Bible).

There is one Bible (that I am aware of) that actually supports a variation of this latest defense, and that is the NIV (New International Version, 1978). We find in it that "Nineveh was a very important city--a visit required three days." Since the NIV is likely to become a standard among conservatives, we need to examine its treatment of Jonah 3:3.

Dr. Edward P. Blair (The Illustrated Bible Handbook, 1987) informs us that all the translators of the NIV were expected to subscribe to the "high value of Scripture" set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession, and the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. When translators are hobbled with doctrine, doctrine will hobble the translation. Indeed, Dr. Blair gives us 12 examples in the NIV where translation has been so affected. Other examples, such as Isaiah 7:14 and Genesis 2:19, may be added to that list. Even an honest conservative, such as David O'Brien (Today's Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties, 1990) will admit that doctrine has intruded in places in the NIV.

Take a few moments and look at the modern Bible translations in a large library, if you will. You will find that the NIV is the odd man out in its handling of Jonah 3:3. Its rendering of this verse appears to be based on Stuart's translation, a rendition that has little scholastic support:

There is no merit to Stuart's translation, "requiring a three-day visit," which depends on Wiseman's incongruous weaving of Assyrian evidence regarding diplomatic visits to royal cities.... Jonah is hardly sent to Nineveh to negotiate treaties or the like (The Anchor Bible, Jonah, 1990, p. 230).
Thus, this rendering of Jonah 3:3 may be dismissed. It is one of those places in the NIV where doctrine has overridden good translation.


At this point, biblicists may wish to join hands with the liberals and deny the historicity of Jonah. For once, the biblicists would be right--but at great cost to the fundamentalist viewpoint! If the straightforward narrative of Jonah can be dismissed, then what about Noah's flood? What about Jesus's statement in Matthew 12:40-41? Where would the avalanche end?

If the Bible is authoritative in all matters, as fundamentalists claim, then its passages must be taken at face value. (Of course, if a passage clearly fits another genre, such as poetry or allegory, then it must be interpreted accordingly.) Thus, if the Bible appears to be making a factual statement, then the biblicist must accept it as such. To do otherwise is to strip the Bible of its presumed authority and to acknowledge reason as the higher standard.

That's the last thing the biblicists want to do! Their Bible is supposedly above man-made standards.

We thus arrive at an important point. If a biblicist advances a claim--such as hyperbolic usage--that denies the face value of a passage, then the burden of proof is on his shoulders. Furthermore, he may not invoke such a defense merely because the passage is doctrinally embarrassing. To do so, once again, is to undercut the very pillars of biblical authority. If the Bible doesn't mean what it says, then what does it mean? Who decides? Biblical authority is reduced to a matter of human consensus.

The "hyperbolic" and "allegorical" defenses are attractive to the biblicist precisely because they cover a multitude of sins. They fill in those odd gaps not amenable to normal repair. Let's see if either applies to Jonah 3:3.

Is the evidence overwhelming? On that point alone rests every claim of hyperbolic or allegorical usage.

Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties affirms the historicity of Jonah, as do apologetic works in general. If Matthew 12:39-41 is accepted at face value, then Jesus himself supported the same:

An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet: for as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale;so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh shall stand up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold a greater than Jonah is here.
By reason of what Jesus allegedly said in this passage, biblicists dare not find evidence of allegorical or hyperbolic usage throughout the book of Jonah.

That leaves Jonah 3:3, the specific claim about Nineveh's size, for our consideration. Clarke's commentary on the Bible treated the passage factually. Clarke even cited one or two ancient accounts attesting to the huge size of Nineveh, although he cautioned his readers about their reliability.

Consider also, if you will, the various defenses of Jonah 3:3 that are common to all apologetic works (defenses already noted). They all assume that the passage is factual.

How, then, with such dissension among his ranks, can the biblicist claim overwhelming evidence for a nonliteral interpretation of Jonah 3:3? Obviously, at least from a conservative viewpoint, there is nothing about this passage that demands a nonliteral interpretation. In fact, there is nothing wild about this passage except the size of Nineveh. Thus, the biblicist is obliged to take it at face value or else admit that reason has overridden the authority of the Bible.

Therefore, at least here, allegorical or hyperbolic usage is of no help to the biblicist.


In judging the case of biblical inerrancy, we must accept the face value of a passage unless another genre (poetry, allegory, etc.) obviously applies. That is, we may not abandon the face value of the text unless the evidence compels us to do so.

We are not compelled to abandon the plain meaning of a biblical passage merely because it is morally, scientifically, or doctrinally embarrassing. (One might reasonably expect an ancient work to contain such errors, a possibility that cannot be ruled out a priori.) Therefore, the burden of proof is on those who claim that a passage fits another genre. Poetic usage, allegorical usage, hyperbolic usage, and other nonliteral usages must always be justified by positive, compelling evidence. We are never at liberty to substitute mere speculation for the plain meaning of a text.

Once the biblicist accepts Jonah as historical, he is stuck with an impossibly big city called Nineveh.


If you accept biblical inerrancy on faith, then you will be blind to biblical error. How can you recognize something that, to your mind, doesn't exist? If that is your mentality, then biblical errors will appear as mere puzzles to be explained away. Indeed, the true fanatic doesn't even worry about the lack of good explanations. Jesus will simply hand out the answers once we get to heaven!

The heart that rejects reason cannot be called upon to recognize the force of evidence, be it piled ever so high! Let those minds slumber on. I speak to the man or woman whose mind still functions.

There is no substitute for reason!

It won't do to claim that God wrote the Bible, thus conferring inerrancy on it. We don't know a priori what God wrote--if anything. Indeed, in this line of thought we must first establish God's existence, and, even if we could do that, we would still have to prove that, in fact, God wrote the Bible. No shortcuts here!

If the Bible is divinely inspired, then how might we know it? God (or his agent) may choose to personally inform us, we may learn by mystical means, or, after analyzing the evidence, we may conclude that such is the case. Unfortunately, God is rather stingy on verbal communication and short on personal appearances. Nor is he in the habit of giving his earthly messengers special uniforms or badges. Thus, given a world full of liars and lunatics who are only too happy to pose as God's messengers, one is at risk here.

Of course, if you are one of those rare individuals who speak face to face with God every morning before breakfast, then you may have some privileged information. You might also be a nut with a malfunctioning brain!

The second approach is not much better. Mystics do not always agree with one another--especially when it comes to heavenly messages. How do we know, without appealing to evidence, who is right? How do we know that feeling right is being right? Thus, if we seek sound answers to factual questions, we cannot escape the need to analyze the evidence.

No matter how you slice it, we can't establish the inerrancy of the Bible--or any book--before actually studying it. Such a study, of course, cannot begin with the premise of biblical inerrancy. (You would be astounded at how often biblical inerrancy is assumed in order to prove biblical inerrancy. Such "proofs" are as common as weeds after a spring rain!)

If the Bible is approached with an objective, open mind--and not with the usual wishful thinking--then it becomes obvious that its pages contain many errors. I have put before you just one sampling of the Bible's errors, drawn from a vast ocean.

(Dave Matson's address is 330 South Hill Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91106.)

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