Top Ten Objections to the Conclusions of “The Jesus Discovery”

Mark Goodacre, my good colleague down the road at Duke University, who appeared on our ABC Nightline segment this week, has provided his readers with a most convenient list of what he calls the “Top Ten” problems with our research related to the new Talpiot tomb discoveries in particular and our book, The Jesus Discovery more generally. Mark has said quite clearly that he does not see a shred of evidence that connects either of the two Talpiot tombs to Jesus and his earliest followers, so, to put it mildly, we disagree–but I think always respectively so, which seems rare in our business.

I love Top Ten lists and I thank Mark for compiling this summary. I know he has many more objections than these ten but this is a start and I appreciate the fact that unlike so many of our critics, Prof. Goodacre has actually read and studied the material carefully! Prof. Goodacre does not include his views on the new claim from Prof. James Charlesworth that the name YONAH (Jonah) is encrypted in Hebrew letters on the nose of the fish image, using the “stick figure” as its letters. I look forward to hearing from him on that once he has a chance to access this new evidence that was only revealed last night.

I had intended to write an overview blog post today anyway, prior to the Discovery film’s broadcast tonight, so this gives me a convenient entré. Here are his objections with my responses:

(1) Weak circumstantial evidence alone. There is nothing in this tomb that offers a clear and explicit link to the early Christian movement.  The case is based on circumstantial evidence alone, and weak circumstantial evidence at that.

This objection should really be #10 since it begs the question of the whole. If in fact we have a Jonah image, and a Greek inscription that echoes precisely the language of Jonah 2: 7-8, then surely there is a high probability of a link to Jesus’ earliest followers–but more on that below, since Goodacre’s #10 is also related hereto.

(2) Handles on a fish?  The claim that one of the ossuaries depicts the tale of Jonah and the fish is weak.  The image is of some kind of vase or vessel.  The vessel features matching handles at the top and in the middle of the image.  And when is a fish not a fish?  When it has handles.

This claim sounds very catchy and cute (When is a fish not a fish?). It has been made repeatedly by Goodacre and Robert Cargill, and a chorus of “biblioblog” critics–now picked up by the media. The problem is that it has no basis whatsoever. In addition, Cargill at least, though not Goodacre so far as I know, has added the charge that we purposely have withheld photos that show his imagined “handles” on the Jonah image, even though we provided him with the very photos he tauts and have posted clear photos at our web site: thejesusdiscovery.org for anyone to download and study. The simple fact is that there are no handles as anyone examining the series of photos can easily see.

Detail of Tail of Fish with Unconnected Stray Line to Left

When Cargill first identified his handles he actually posted his marked up photos with his red arrows and lines showing the imagined handles including the clear vertical border of the ossuary design–the vertical line running down the side next to the fish. I think he has given that up but he still insists that there is some kind of “blurb” he highlights in his version of the photos, plus the little stray line, clearly unconnected and out of proportion to the huge tail, that he, and I assume Goodacre, think is some kind of a strange loop handle. He also charges that we leave that off our museum replica which is untrue–it is clearly represented. And he thinks he sees the same kind of “handle” on the right side of the tail as well, as illustrated here, in the photo that he says repeatedly we don’t want anyone to see:

There does seem to be some kind of curved mark to the right of the fish tail but it is unclear what it is. It does not match the stray mark to the left, and it appears to be unconnected to the fish tail itself. Unfortunately this is the best we can do because the other ossuary, the one with the Greek inscription, being butted up against the image with only a few centimeters between.

When one looks at the images here themselves, without Cargill’s distracting red arrows and highlights, there simply are no handles, neither at the top or on the sides, where the clear “fins” of the fish, drawn quite nicely and a bit different on each side, are visible.

As for the image itself, and especially the tail, Goodacre says it is “some kind of a “vase or vessel,” so I assume he is not sure what kind. So far an amphora, a perfume flask, and an ancient painted Greek krater-vase have been suggested–and none of these resemble one another, so it is clear those proposing alternatives, who assert their views are so clear, are floundering (to use a bad pun!). Cargill seems to favor the krater-vase but his examples are far removed from this time and place and look little like this image.  Despite his points about “perspective” regarding the head of the stick figure, the vessels he posts simply do not match this image–handles, body, flared top, or ball-bottom.The perfume flask proposal seems to have been abandoned by most, though initially there was a rush for that one until someone pointed out that the flasks that had been pictured were nothing like the unguentaria we know from Jerusalem in this period–plus what about the ball at the bottom, which Joan Taylor suggested was congealed myrrh dripping out of a broken end! What no one has done is provide any parallel image on any ossuary of the period, or for that matter any parallel vessel that resembles this one. The extremely flared tail, thin and with wide wings, as seen in the photo above, is unlike the mouth of any vessel of the period, as is the balled bottom with its design and orientation–and this is not to mention the stick figure–and yes, the name YONAH now identified as well.

It is worth nothing that the only two art historians (Cargill and Goodacre are trained in New Testament texts, as I am) who have disputed our interpretation of the fish have suggested the image is a nephesh or funerary tower–not a vessel, and Eric Meyers, who wrote the “book” on ossuaries of this period, agreed. So all the assertions about how the image is clearly not a fish, but a vessel, seem to be not so clear after all to these expert eyes who have spent their career studying ancient Jewish and early Christian art.

This underlines my point in a previous blog post–anything but a fish. It really seems to me, after reading all the proposals for this image, that it does not matter what one suggests, so long as one does not agree with me and Jacobovici about the Jonah image. In fact, of the four art historians we consulted in 2011, after this was discovered, three agreed it was a fish, and two thought it was a Jonah image.

The best explanation for the entire ossuary and its decorations is the narrative of Jonah 2:1-7. There you find all the key elements represented on the ossuary: entering the bars or gates of death (left end), being taken under by the fish (right end), the Jonah figure, with head matted with seaweed, being spat out of the great fish (front left panel), and the Temple (left front panel). This also parallels precisely the Greek inscription which affirms that God Yehovah has raised up/lifted up from death, with ascent to heaven implied:

(5) The waters closed in over me to take my life;
        the deep surrounded me;
     weeds were wrapped about my head
(6) at the roots of the mountains.
     I went down to the land
        whose bars closed upon me forever;
     yet you brought up my life from the pit,
        O YHVH my God.
    (7) When my life was fainting away,
        I remembered the LORD,
     and my prayer came to you,
        into your holy temple. (Jonah 2:5-7)

The artist is depicting the ossuary itself as a kind of tomb/womb, from which “Jonah” (we argue as a type of Jesus, see below) is lifted up to the heavenly temple–all connected to the myth of the three days–Jonah, Jesus’s body, and the Temple itself (Mark 15:29). What is unfortunate about this entire discussion is colleagues are missing the most important aspect of this discovery which is not the “Jesus tomb” nearby, but this early affirmation of a “high Christology” in which Jesus, as Jonah, is exalted to the right hand of God–sitting in the heavnely Temple, predating any of our literary Gospels.

(3) Layered patterns of geometric shapes.  The vessel also features layered patterns of geometric shapes.  These decorations are not bizarre attempts to draw the scales of a fish — they are decorations that match the border decorations of the ossuary in question. (See Scales of a Fish on the Talpiot Ossuary?).

I am not sure how a artist of this time, with the texts of Jonah and Job in mind, would picture the “Leviathan” sea monster,  representing death and chaos, as we have no other examples but the notion of plates of armor is in the texts and might well be mimicked here. Since the righteous eat the fish in the last days, it would accordingly be “kosher.” The notion behind the idea is that “death is swallowed up,” and thus chaos and corruption is overcome–so that the one “swallowing” is “swallowed.” We find this notion in Isaiah’s “Little Apocalypse” and Paul picks up on it in 1 Corinthians 15.

(4) The Composite Computer-Generated Image. The project works with a computer-enhanced, composite, re-oriented CGI image of the vessel in all of its publicity materials.  The clever use of this image, which differs in important ways from the actual photographs, achieves a kind of “cognitive priming”.  (See If the Evidence Doesn’t Fit, Photoshop It).

When one has hundreds of images taken from moving cameras at all angles of an image but no single photo that shows the complete image then generating such a CGI prepresentation, a composite of the whole offers one a chance to imagine it all. It is not true that in our promotional materials we suppress the actual photos. They are in our book, in my academic article, and on our web site for all to see. If someone wants to take those photos and generate a more accurate image, and we have continually improved our initial one, as seen in the latest ossuary reproduction done in Jerusalem, we welcome their input. Show us an image, “handles” and all, and if it seems accurate we can all make use of it. Again, the implication that we are trying to spin things, suppress the reality, and falsify things for a pet theory is insulting and untrue. We have offered our interpretation, let others provide theirs.

(5) The original excavators did not see a fish.  The tomb was first excavated in 1981. In a write-up in DAVAR in May that year, Zvi Ilan reported that the excavators, who actually saw the ossuary, interpreted the image in question as an amphora (a vessel).  (See “Jonah” Ossuary Discussed in Print in 1981).

I should point out that the tomb was never excavated. If you read my latest comments at the ASOR post where I provide a proper translation of the Hebrew article, it is not even clear that Ilan is talking about the Jonah image. It is also unclear as to whether Ilan was in the tomb or is reporting second hard what he was told by Kloner. What is really strange here is that anyone would consider this some kind of major revelation.

First of all, even if Kloner was talking about the Jonah/fish image and he thought it was an amphora–that does not make it an amphora. It only tells us his opinion after what he claims was 15 minutes inside the tomb in the dark. Also, it is pretty clear from the shifting flow of opinions about this image that the amphora option, much like the nephesh, had been basically abandoned for the Cargill sanctioned krater “vase,” albeit, 3rd century BCE. So why would it matter if someone, presumably Kloner, incorrectly thought it was an amphora? Are Chris Rollston and Eric Meyers now saying that is their view? Is anyone willing to defend the “amphora” option it with parallels from the other ossuaries with amphora? I have looked at them all and they simply have no correspondence to this image. Besides, the amphora possibility was cited in my article, with illustrations, and is in our press kit. If Ilan, or Kloner, identified it as such it is not as though some bolt from heaven has now stuck. It has always been in play as a possibility, though we think, and most of our critics seem to agree, a weak one.

(6) Fish in the margins. Tabor and Jacobovici claim that there are little fish in the margins of the ossuary in question.  They suggest that these interpret the larger “fish”.  However, on closer inspection, these do not appear to be fish.  They are simple decorative ovals.

This is not the case. There are definitely fish in those margins, see all the photos we have provided. I have no idea what “decorative ovals” are and don’t recall such images as part of the standard reprotoire of ossuary designs, see Rahmani’s introductory material in his Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries.

(7) The handled half-fish. The image that gets all the attention is on the front facade of the ossuary.  But on its side there is another image, an image of a vase with clear, obvious handles on each side.  This vase helps one to interpret the other image as a vessel.  Tabor and Jacobovici suggest that this is a “half-fish”, pointing downwards, but the handles are problematic for this interpretation.

There simply are no handles on the “half fish” on the side of the ossuary. One of the so called handles is at a 45 degree sharp angle, and unconnected to the image, and the other is curved–not even matching. They are most likely just surface scratches of some type. And why would anyone picture a “half-vessel,” with unconnected, unmatched handles? It makes no sense. When ossuary images are incomplete they are not normally “half-drawn,” but rather outlined, as the rosette on our MARA ossuary in this tomb, but just not finished out.

(8) The Inscription Does Not Clearly Refer to Resurrection.  Although Tabor and Jacobovici are confident that the four line Greek inscription refers to resurrection, the evidence for this is now looking increasingly weak.  It requires time to examine these things, but the sight-reading shown in the documentary and reported in the book is shaky. In particular, it needs to be stressed that the inscription does not mention Jesus.

I think this is a great overstatement of where we are on the inscription but Bauckham’s latest summary is helpful. I won’t make this already too-long-post any longer here but will post something on the inscription in a subsequent blog post and try to offer some definitive input on some of the unresolved issues. The inscription clearly has to do with “lifting up” or heavenly exaltation, and coupled with the Jonah image, and the text of Jonah 2, see above–we can connect it to Jesus.

(9) The Tomb Does Not Clearly Date to the time of Jesus. In order for this tomb to be connected to Jesus’ disciples, and specifically Joseph of Arimathea, it would need to be dated to the narrow period from the 30s to 70 CE.  However, the dating evidence suggests that the tomb may have been in use much earlier in the early Roman period, perhaps as early as the first century BCE

This is a clear misreading of Kloner. There was nothing in the tomb dating it to the 1st century BCE. If one reads Necropolis carefully it is clear that this broad dating of 30BCE to 70CE represents general parameters of the Jerusalem “necropoplis,” i.e.. “Late Second Temple period,” or “Herodian period,” not dates for this particular tomb. It is unclear what “dating evidence” is referred to here. There is nothing in any of the published literature and Gat’s original survey of the land with these three tombs, a mikveh, and an oil press that dated it to the 1st century BCE.

(10) Witnessing to Resurrection Does Not Make the Tomb Christian.  Even if, for the sake  of argument, we were to grant Tabor and Jacobovici’s claims about the tomb’s inscription and iconography, this would witness only to early Jewish belief in resurrection.  We already know from many texts that many Jews believed in resurrection in the Second Temple period.  Belief in resurrection from the dead is not distinctive of the early followers of Jesus.

First,  if we are right in these claims then the unique contents of this tome are not just about resurrection but ascent to heaven and enthronement. The whole understanding of the Jonah story in early Christianity, and by extension it passed to Islam, was of rebirth into the heavenly world–thus the fish becomes death, but also the womb, and one is “born from the dead” (see Paul and John, and the discussion in Goodenough, Jewish Symbols). In some texts Jonah is naked, in others he is even an embryo. This is decidedly not the case in any Jewish texts of the period. Jonah is not used in this way, nor is he represented in ancient Jewish art of the period. We have no examples on any other Jewish ossuaries of this kind of use of either Jonah or statements about resurrection or heavenly exaltation. It would be unprecedented and represent one of the most important finds of the period–and less than 200 feet away from the tomb of the “Jesus son of Joseph.”