What a Difference a Day Makes
by James Tabor
When the research on our robotic arm discoveries at the Talpiot “patio” tomb was published just last Tuesday, within two days six of my colleagues (Meyers, Magness, Rollston, Cargil, Fine, Jensen) had posted responses on the American Schools of Oriental Research blog. They denounced our interpretation of an iconic image on one of the ossuaries in the tomb as that of “Jonah and the great fish,” and questioned our evaluation of the Greek inscription found on a second. In fact, the executive director of ASOR, Andy Vaughn, who has been quoted widely as saying our thesis has “zero chance of being correct,” less than 24 hours after after he received the paper, asked two of these scholars (Meyers and Rollston) to moderate a series of posts on the ASOR blog throughout the month of March on these discoveries. The consensus was that the tomb contained nothing out of the ordinary and that my report was “much to do about nothing,” to quote Eric Meyers. What I found particularly interesting was that all six supported the position, some more adamantly than others, that the “Jonah” image was in fact a pillar/tower or funerary monument–called in Hebrew a nephesh. It is rare that one finds such a consensus among a group of my peers in this field. We had considered that option initially, but rejected it upon further study, as I explain in my own piece at the ASOR site posted yesterday. It is covered in our book, in the forthcoming film on Discovery TV, and on our web site. We concluded that there was simply no good case that one could make that this unique image had any resemblance to images of tomb monuments found on ossuaries. Frankly, I was rather amazed that all six of these scholars would support such an idea, first suggested by Steven Fine in academic consultations a half dozen of us had last May.
Just yesterday a “new” proposal began to surface on the “biblioblogosphere,” and Cargil and several others have now taken it up with some enthusiasm–namely that the image is an amphora or vase. I predict that in a matter of days a host of others will take up this idea. Our team considered this option as well and in the end rejected it for the reasons I mention in my ASOR post referenced above–in favor of the Jonah/fish interpretation. I think I was the first one to suggest we consider it and it is included in my research paper, with the same illustrations several bloggers have now posted on their web site. It is also up on our web site with comparative images side by side. Unlike the nephesh idea, it seemed to me initially that the amphora might offer at least a possible parallel. At least two of the scholars who worked with us on the project as consultants found the “amphora” possibility convincing. I mention all this just to say that we carefully considered all possible evidence in coming to our present position that the image is that of Jonah and fish. We have discussed the possibilities endlessly and we re-examined every ossuary image in the entire Israel State Collection, as well as those in the Israel museum and private collections. We are convinced there is nothing like the image we have identified as Jonah and the fish. If we are correct, and the debate has just begun, we do indeed have something truly unique in this tomb.
In addition to the Jonah image there are a number of other very fascinating features in the tomb, including the four-line Greek inscription. We have offered an extensive technical discussion of our own analysis in my paper, and also a more accessible non-specialist version on the web site. Once others begin to offer their own alternative proposals I look forward to discussing them here. So far we only have Chris Rollston, whose specialty is epigraphy, stating that he thinks we made serious mistakes in reading several of the letters but we are looking forward to his full critique as well as his own proposal as to its transcription and translation.