It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane, It’s . . . It’s Anything but a Fish
by James Tabor
Since the publication of The Jesus Discovery a month ago there has been quite a bit of discussion among academic colleagues who inhabit the “blogging” world as to how to interpret the ossuary image in the Talpiot “patio” tomb that we have identified as “Jonah and the big fish.” Suggestions have ranged from it’s a funerary moment or pillar (nephesh in Hebrew), to a perfume flask, to an amphora or some kind of vase, and opinions seems to have shifted among those expressing them just over the course of these weeks. I haven’t heard anyone support the “tower” idea in several weeks now although the first six academics who commented publicly on our book the day it came out all took the “tower” position and four of them have been completely silent since–so I have no idea if they have changed their minds or not. One got the distinct impression that whatever this image might be it had to be anything but a fish, and certainly not a Jonah image, even if one was not sure what it was.
Frankly, I have found these minimalizing reactions and suggestions to be quite surprising. It seemed to me to be a strange kind of resistance to the obvious for reasons not entirely clear to me. I consider the image of the fish spitting out a human stick-like figure to be self-evident. This was the unequivocal reaction of Rami Arav, our archaeologist with decades of experience, and me, as well as the rest of our team. Momentarily, we did indeed consider the possibilities that it might be the prow of a boat, a funerary monument or even an amphora, but we quickly dismissed those as the full image came into view. The two images above are untouched stills of what we first saw and full resolution versions can be downloaded at our main web site: thejesusdiscovery.org.
The discovery itself is captured live on film and the sequence with our initial reactions is unedited, as will be evident in the Discovery TV documentary that will air April 12 in the US and on Vision TV in Canada. When we brought in James Charlesworth the next day, without prompting him in any way, he also immediately identified the image as that of Jonah and the big fish. That was also the view of the majority of our academic consultants, including the three art historians we approached over the next few months. At the Israel Antiquities Authority, when we presented our finds, there was general agreement among the several highly experienced individuals that we consulted that whatever the image was it was unprecedented, very possibly a fish/Jonah image, and that it was surely unlike anything seen on any other ossuary. That, everyone seems to now agree upon, even those proposing some kind of vase or amphora. No one has proposed that anything on any ossuary so far that resembles even remotely our image–over all or in detail–particularly the “fins” and “tail” of the fish and the very well executed stick-figure with the mouth and eye of the fish showing clearly as I have discussed in previous posts. Those arguing for either a pillar or vase have simply ignored those deliberate markings as if they are some kind of stray scratches.
One thing that might help put things into perspective is to take any image of a pillar/monument or an amphora/vase, on any ornamented ossuary we know of and imagine if we had claimed one of these was a fish–but not just a fish, but an image of Jonah, with all its powerful early Christian symbolism and implications. For example, in my preliminary academic report on our findings I published these two very clear examples of a funerary pillar and an amphora image respectively:
The very idea is ludicrous as all of such images, even in all their variety, are immediately self-evidently not fish–much less Jonah images or any other animate creature. They are “objects” pure and simple. What we have in this tomb, and on this ossuary, is truly unique and unparalleled and none of the suggestions put forth, as I have covered in detail in previous blog posts, match in any detail our image. Most recently it has been suggested by those arguing the image is some kind of vase, that it actually has handles attached to what we identify as the fish’s tail. A closeup view of this area makes it clear that there is certainly no handle remotely resembling that of a vase or amphora but just a couple of stray lines, unconnected to the image, that the engraver might have even made by mistake:
It is also the case that the “handles” imagined on our other image that we take to be a deliberate half-fish, diving into the water, that others are argued is just a “half-vase” simple are not there. The “handle” that is supposedly on the left is at a right angle and not even attached, clearly a random mark, and the “handle” identified on the right looks curved and it is also unclear as to whether it is actually a part of the image or a random scratch. In addition there is supposed to be a third “handle” on the upper left lip of the “jar,” but it does not look at all like any kind of handle and there is nothing corresponding to it on the right side. But more important, who would draw half a vase on the end of an ossuary? There is plenty of room below the image and yet it is simply and strangely cut off.
When our academic consultants met in Washington, D.C. last May I happened to snap this photo of a local restaurant that I thought was quite apropos to how expressive a “half-fish” image might be. I only wished that the place had been named “Jonah and the Whale,” but the point nonetheless is clear: