How Jonah Was Swallowed By The Celestial Sea Serpent Cetus

Jonah and the Whale  by Pieter Lastman, (1621) (Public Domain)

How Jonah Was Swallowed By The Celestial Sea Serpent Cetus

The Old Testament saga of Jonah and his dreadful, three day and night confinement within the “belly of a whale” and disgorgement onto the shore remains one of the Bible’s most enthralling mysteries. The delight this story’s iconic scenes engender in Sunday-school children yields to bewilderment in Christian theologians, serious New Testament scholars who know all too well that Jesus had referred to the ’Jonah’ narrative’s absurd chain of events as factual history in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels (Matt 12:38-42; Luke 11:29-32).

A critical piece of the enigma involves the creature that gulped Jonah. When first recorded around 400 BC, the Hebrew rendition of the story called it a dag gadol, ‘giant fish’. However, the 70 authors of the third-century BC Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint) state that Jonah was swallowed by none other than a ketus, or sea monster, a creature typically depicted as a sea serpent or sea dragon in Greek and Roman iconography. Even Jesus claims that Jonah was gobbled by a ketus (Matt 12:40).

Cetus, the canine-headed Sea Serpent constellation on the second-century Farnese astral globe. (Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0) and right: Sketch of Cetus on the Farnese star globe. (©Elizabeth Hardy)

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