I think–I’m not certain, but I think–it was C.S. Lewis who coined the term “chronological snobbery.” It refers to our curious modern tendency to assume that, because our ancestors were less technologically, politically, and economically sophisticated than we are, they were necessarily quite stupid. I should add that we tend to apply similar reasoning, albeit unconsciously, to people in poor countries, and most of all to tribal peoples. Of course, there’s nothing logical about this assumption; if anything, it is substantially more difficult to survive in a low-tech, unstable society than in modern times, and so one would expect successful members of those societies to be more intelligent than our own elites, at least in terms of raw capacity.
Now, I’ve been talking about Chronological Snobbery (allow me to say CS) a great deal, albeit not by that name, in my Just So Stories posts. But its influence on religious discourse does not end there. Not too long ago, I had a (really very intelligent and open-minded) atheist tell me that, because Christianity was born in such very primitive times, it has no authority to speak to us today. Sadly, I was too choked up with indignation to compose my present retort: Christianity, like most religions, is concerned primarily with the deep flaws in human nature. Until such time as that changes, all technological, social or other change is irrelevant.
But, as I said, he was actually a fairly thoughtful person. More often, CS is simply a blunt tool used to dismiss without thought, and if examined falls apart quite quickly. Consider Jonah and the Whale. That one’s real popular with the unbelieving crowd, as an example of how people long ago (or religious people today) are so stupid and gullible that they thought a man could survive in a fish’s (or whale’s) stomach for three days. If they’re feeling magnanimous, they end with a pitying note, that the poor ignorant people would’ve been harder to trick if they’d had Science like we do.
Let’s think about this: Israel was, and is, a coastal country, bounded on one side by the Mediterranean and on another by a long river and a large lake (actually two, but the second is too salt to be useful). The quality of its farmland varies from good to atrocious, depending on the region, and without modern technology would be as vulnerable to crop failure as any other hunk of dirt in the world. Also, a substantially larger portion of the population had to be directly involved in ancient food production than today’s. Finally, in Old Testament times there was no Red Lobster, no fish sticks. When you got a fish, even if you didn’t catch it yourself, you likely got it whole, scales and all, because filets of fish don’t last long in a Mediterranean climate. Or it was preserved in salt, or dried–in both cases, whole.
Add this all together, and you have a population that was deeply and intimately familiar with what a fish’s guts looked like. It’s safe to say that essentially nobody outside of the highest and lowest classes (or extremely isolated inland regions) reached adulthood without exposure to fish innards in one form or another; if you weren’t a fisherman, you were likely a fisherman’s customer, and you cleaned it yourself.
So why didn’t they object to the obvious implausibility of Jonah’s story, then? I can think of two reasons. The first is that it’s not necessarily all that implausible within the context of the story; if God can create Heaven and Earth, He probably won’t have much difficulty keeping a guy alive inside a fish for a while. In the story of Jonah alone He causes storms and makes plants grow out of nothing at super-speed. Oxygenated fish tummy? Pssshhht, no sweat.
The second reason is that the fish is not really the point of the story anyway. While most of us remember Jonah’s story as “the one with the fish,” the actual fish part takes up a very small portion, just a couple of lines. Basically, the fish is a plot device to give Jonah time to repent; if you replaced it with Jonah being held hostage by pirates for three days, or shipwrecked on a desert island, the story would be essentially unchanged. If anybody back then had bothered to fuss over such a trivial detail, I imagine he would be greeted much the same way we react to people who complain about obscure plot holes in the movies today. “Hey, how’d he manage to pray inside a fish’s stomach any–” “Seriously, Binyamin?”