Monday, 12 August 2013

A Whale of a Tale

What do we do with the Old Testament book of Jonah? Even the mighty Luther was perplexed, saying that it was stranger than any poet's fable. "If it were not in the Bible," quoth he, "I would take it for a lie." Whales, it seems, are not famous for swallowing persons whole and then regurgitating them intact, and what could survive three days and nights in any cetacean's gullet?

But Wot ho! as Bertie Wooster was famous for saying, there has to be a faith-enhancing explanation, and to the rescue came none other than the world's most astute Bible interpreter, the inimitable Ferrar Fenton. In his turn of the last century translation, which has the distinction of being the first in modern English, he set his formidable mind to the problem and lo, came forth with the obvious solution (obvious to him anyway). Here's his footnote to Jonah 2:1.
"Great Fish" was the name of the ship mistranslated "Whale" in the version of the Greek translators whose blunder has been repeated by all subsequent translators, in all languages, to the perplexity of their readers, until I decided to go back to the original statement of the prophet in his own Hebrew.
So it seems - and which of us could doubt Mr Fenton's judgment - that Jonah was rescued by a nearby wooden tub splendidly christened The Great Fish.

As you might have guessed, Fenton was not exactly under-endowed with a belief in his own abilities, despite being an amateur in the field (he was a wealthy businessman and Bible hobbyist). I warmly recommend perusing his less than humble introduction and explanatory note to the work. Truly, a more competent scholar never walked the earth!

This is also a great example of trying to rationalise away a problem. The Jonah story is a tall tale with a message and a moral, told in an age when the open sea was a perilous but necessary method of travel, filled with little-understood dangers of the unknown. Dear old F.F. was however tin-eared when it came to subtleties of genre, so it seemed clear to him that a handy-dandy bit of clarification was needed. Didn't he do well!

These days the Fenton translation is prized by a few mad collectors of obscure English bibles (such as myself), and by the deeply racist Christian Identity movement in the US which has appropriated his jingoistic British-Israelite textual preferences to serve their own vile intents. It's a sad postscript to a pioneering version of the scriptures.


  1. Luther had it right. It's a lie.

  2. I must admit, the Fenton Bible is a favourite of mine too, just for being so downright loopy. I've always loved how convinced he was of the "original" order of the books, right down to having an Old Testament that ends "let him go up". And all those hurrahs in the Psalms...