Did James Bartley Live To Tell Being Swallowed By A Sperm Whale?

Neal Pollard

On his tombstone in Gloucester, England, James Bartley had written “A Modern Jonah.”  Bartley was allegedly swallowed by a sperm whale while helping to hunt and kill the giant in 1891.  The whale, as the tale goes, was ultimately subdued and conquered, and when its stomach was hoisted on deck two days later, an unconscious and crazed Bartley was found inside. He was a member of a party sent out to harpoon the beast, and in the melee that ensued Bartley was said to be accidentally ingested.  By the mid-1890s, the story was published and circulated as fact on both sides of the Atlantic.  For over 100 years, the Bartley story has been told by eager apologists to defend the veracity of the biblical account of Jonah.  It has served as a theological pingpong ball vollied back and forth between believers and unbelievers.  Research, particularly by a Bible-believing professor named Edward Davis (http://asa.calvin.edu:80/asa/pscf.html | 19:53:53 Mar 16, 2003), ultimately shows beyond a reasonable doubt that the story is a hoax.  Too many aspects of the story do not stand up to scrutiny.  The alleged ship, “Star of the East,” was not a whaler. There was no fishing off the Falkland Islands in 1891. Bartley’s name never appeared on a manifest of the aforementioned ship. The captain’s wife said that her husband never lost anyone overboard in all their years of marriage, and they were married in 1891.  Atheists and skeptics have rejoiced in such findings, using them to discredit the Bible’s account of the Jonah incident.  Apparently, some less than scrupulous (or, at best, sloppy researching) “Christian Apologists” have taken the Bartley story and run with it in an effort to substantiate that ancient account.  Yet, opponents of Scripture have been as out of bounds in their response, making the nonsensical jump from the fraudulent Bartley story to try to discredit the validity of the book of Jonah.  Because modern man fabricated a story about a man being swallowed by a whale does not mean that the account in Scripture should be rejected.

The account of Jonah is believable for at least these reasons.  First, the Bible does not call Jonah’s captor a whale.  It was a fish (Jonah 1:17). The NAS has “sea monster” in Matthew 12:40, but it is better translated “big fish, huge fish” (Louw-Nida, np). Second, this fish was “prepared” (appointed, NAS) by God for the occasion. We have no record of this “species” prior to or after this special occasion meant by God to persuade His pekid prophet.  Finally, Jesus validates the historicity of the Jonah incident. In the aforementioned gospel account, Jesus refers to Jonah as fact rather than fable. If it was a fairy tale, Christ gives no hint of it.  In fact, He says, “…just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of…” this creature (emph., NP).

Have creationists and “fundamentalists” ever overreached to try and prove their point? Undoubtedly!  Have skeptics and atheists ever overreacted to try and protect their non-theistic bubble? Absolutely!  When such battles as these are being waged, I find my confidence in going back and reading the text.  Seeing what the Bible actually says is powerful in keeping us away from either extreme.

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