For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)

Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:17)

Many modern translations of the Bible botch Matthew 12:40 by mistranslating the word ketos, which should be translated as “whale” by “great fish”, “huge fish”, or the like.

NIV: “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish…”

Some might think that this could be seen as an effort to eliminate what they see as a contradiction between the book of Jonah, where the translation is “great fish” (from dag gadol), and the Matthew verse. This is, after all, a verse that is often attacked by atheists and evolutionists for this alleged discrepancy. What the modern versions have really done is that they have implied that the Bible is in error here, and that they are needed to fix it. What these incompetent and reprobate pretend translators do not understand is that God does not need them to fix his book. Ketos, the word from which we derive cetology, the study of whales, does mean whale, and there is no contradiction between the two passages. Unlike the more scientifically minded Greeks, who were fond of detailed categorization, the ancient Hebrew speakers had no separate work for big fish and whale. This is, of course, because whales were perceived as being big fish. As Herman Melville pointed out so well in Moby Dick, Linnaeus did not distinguish whales from fish until 1776.

“First: The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnaeus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnaeus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan. The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: “On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their moveable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,” and finally, “exlege naturae jure meritoque.” ” [Moby Dick: Cetology Chapter]

I do not disagree with Linnaeus’s division, but I do not take it as the final word either. One might just as easily classify fish according to other criteria that do not include the manner by which they obtain oxygen. Of course, the ancient Hebrews were not bound by our 18th century-based classification. Ask any child that has not been told to think otherwise whether or not a whale is a fish. He will, at once, tell you that it is a fish. Furthermore, we might ask if a whale is more like a fish than a seahorse, or starfish. The latter two are classified as fish, but are far less like fish in appearance than are whales. Melville himself, assumedly expressing a sentiment shared by others of his time, did not accept the classification of Linnaeus.

“I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug. Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me. This fundamental thing settled, the next point is, in what internal respect does the whale differ from other fish. Above, Linnaeus has given you those items. But in brief they are these: lungs and warm blood; whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded.” [ibid]

I should add that Melville was, by no stretch of the imagination, a fundamentalist Christian. Elsewhere in this large novel, he attacks Christianity for being too critical of other religions, and promotes a universalist outlook that is contrary to the Bible. He did not have an axe to grind. Melville puts forth another fact that is relevant here, and that is the fact that the concept of exactly how a whale is to be defined was not uniform or certain in the ancient world.

“But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. And, not to speak of the highly presumable difference of contour between a young suckling whale and a full-grown Platonian Leviathan; yet, even in the case of one of those young sucking whales hoisted to a ship’s deck, such is then the outlandish, eel-like, limbered, varying shape of him, that his precise expression the devil himself could not catch. ” [Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales]

I also noted when I read Moby Dick that the captains in the book frequently refer to whales as fish, as is seen in the following example.

“With one intent all the combined rival boats were pointed for this one fish, because not only was he the largest, and therefore the most valuable whale, but he was nearest to them, and the other whales were going with such great velocity, moreover, as almost to defy pursuit for the time…” [The Pequod Meets The Virgin]

Considering Melville’s intimate acquaintance with the whaling industry of his time, and his meticulous detail, there can be little doubt that his description is an accurate one. Whales were still seen as a type of fish well into the 19th century by at least some. In the end, what we see is that the KJV once again, as always, has presented an accurate translation of both passages, while the modern perverters have shown both a poor knowledge of Greek, and a poorly developed ability to reason.


1 Tannin has been translated as “whale”, but the word may include other great sea creatures as well. This may be dealt with in a future article.

John Hinton, Ph.D.
Bible Restoration Ministry
A ministry seeking the translating and reprinting of KJV equivalent
Bibles in all the languages of the world.