Inscription on the “Jonah image” Says YONAH
by James Tabor
I mentioned the breaking story in the Toronto Globe and Mail last week that reported Prof. James H. Charlesworth’s discovery of the inscription “YONH: (Yod, Vav, Nun, Heh) on the controversial Jonah and the fish image on the ossuary in the Talpiot “Patio” tomb (also known as Talpiot Tomb B). Below is an untouched photo from our HiDef camera with natural color that shows very clearly the lines of the inscription, including the “Nun” that some have questioned as two broken lines. Here one can see the lines are clearly connected. One has to compare several photos in contrasting light to see what is apparently intended in this engraving. Bruce Zuckerman and others have demonstrated this with scripts and it is particularly true with artifacts such as ossuaries, that are engraved. However, I should point out that even in the photos originally posted, here below, with the Hebrew letters highlighted, the nun is unbroken, despite some claims to the contrary. What has confused some is that there is a splotch or imperfection in the stone, right below the vertical juncture of the letter Nun, that some have mistaken for a continued line. It simply is not there. In fact our CGI representation has the lines of this Nun unconnected, despite claims to the contrary. Those who have charged that one can only see these clear Hebrew letters by ignoring lines that are clearly present or joining together lines that are clearly not conjoined are mistaken. Some have even objected that the letters need to be linearly aligned, which is obviously incorrect as even a glance at the 600 or so ossuary inscriptions we have will quickly demonstrate. Inscribed names are written in all sorts of configurations–even vertically and zig-zaged.
In this engraving, which is complex and very carefully executed, some lines are part of the mouth of the fish, the eye, and the stick figure, and thus overlap or intersect with the inscribed name YONAH. The large “eye” of the fish has been added by extra lines, not part of the letters Yod and Vav, but barely touching. In the same way the “mouth” of the fish, with its straight line, serves also as the line of the stick figure. Finally, the curve that encloses the whole, similar to other engraved fish images, giving the effect of the fish head/gills, is not part of the letters. There are also a few very faint scratches and indentations that are not part of the engraving. One who is not used to looking at ossuary inscriptions might find these letters a bit clumsy and imprecise, but just a glance through some of the parallels in Rahmani’s Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries from the period show the almost infinite variety of individual graffito styles and informal representations (see, for examples, nos. 15, 26, 35, 76, 82, 107, 456, 704, 705, 706, 783). It is interesting that some of the best parallels to these letters come from the nearby “Jesus” tomb.
Prof. Charlesworth has spent his long and amazingly productive career reading texts and manuscripts of the late 2nd Temple period and he does not need me to defend his ability to decipher such materials. In fact he has devoted much of his time in recent years to difficult readings in some of the Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts that have faded with age or through poor atmospheric conditions. However, anyone who spends just a bit of time with Herodian script, even just paging through the Hebrew/Aramaic inscriptions on ossuaries in Rahmani’s Calogue of Jewish Ossuaries, will see that these four letter forms on the ossuary are clear once the lines are correctly identified.
A few years ago Prof. Stephen Pfann, working on the “Shimon bar Yonah” ossuary fragment, for which he offered a re-reading (Shimon bar Zila), speculated about how an inscription reading “Jonah” from this period would look and his results were surprisingly close to what we have on our Jonah image–though in a more informal graffito lapidary script.
Prof. Charlesworth is completing a more comprehensive analysis and I bow to his expertise and offer these few observations of my own. In the meantime it looks like his discovery is getting a wider circulation:
I can’t help but think that some of the initial reaction last week was a bit of the “knee-jerk” variety, only because the name Jonah in the mouth of the fish would pretty well end the six weeks of back-and-forth in the blogging world regarding this iconic image as to whether it is a funerary monument, a perfume flash, a Hellenistic krater-vase, an amphora, or–God forbid–an image of JONAH and the fish! I am hoping colleagues might calmly reconsider and allow this interesting discovery of Prof. Charlesworth to be more than scoring points tit-for-tat in some kind of “blogging war” on the internet. If we indeed have an image of Jonah and the big fish on this ossuary then it will be most useful for us to discuss what that might mean in terms of its implications within late 2nd Temple Judaism so that our discussions can move on in positive ways. Even though I have referred to this image in a kind of shorthand as a symbol of “resurrection” and connected it to the Jesus movement, more precisely it has to do with ascent to heaven, rebirth, being re-clothed in heavenly garments, and sitting/ruling/reigning in heavenly glory at the “right Hand” (Enochian materials, Dead Sea Scrolls, Hechalot and Merkabah traditions). In the case of Jesus worship it reflects the very earliest “Christology,” even predating Paul, as reflected in the hymn he quotes in Philippians 2:5-10 based on Genesis 2 and Psalm 110. It finally comes down to the “two powers in heaven” notions that Daniel Boyarin has so beautifully summarized for a non-technical audience in his latest work, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. That we have the first archaeological evidence for these ideas from the Herodian period is truly quite remarkable and it is unfortunate that the discussion has become clouded with vituperative exchanges.
NOTE ON THE PHOTOS: Since some have falsely charged that we have manipulated, altered, or otherwise “photoshopped” images related to the Talpiot tomb B findings here is an official “on record” statement by Felix Golubev, director of our technical operations, in consultation with William Tarant of General Electric Technologies, about the photos here published as well as all photos we have released related to our investigations:
Attached are two best images of “Yonah” inscription in question. One image came from the high definition camera and the other one from the fiber-optic video probe. None of these images were altered, enhanced or even colour corrected. The difference in colour is due to how these two cameras process light. In the HD image, you will notice that the subjects on left and on the right are out of focus. This is because the HD camera has a shallow depth of field and when you zoom in whatever is in front goes out of focus. On the left, we are looking at the wall of the koch, on
the right – is the edge of the ossuary with 4 line inscription. Felix Golubev, via e-mail April 21, 2012