A Reply from Prof. Tabor—A Jonah Fish Image or a Tower Tomb Monument?

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James D. Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

 I want to thank ASOR’s executive director Andy Vaughn, guest editors Eric Meyers and Christopher Rollston, and participating colleagues, for devoting time and space to a special consideration of the ideas expressed in the non-specialist book, The Jesus Discovery as well as the more technical paper I have published at the web site The Bible and Interpretation, “A Preliminary Report of an Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem” during the month of March. Whether damned or praised—and so far there has been much more of the former than the latter—it is an honor to have ones ideas considered by colleagues. (more…)

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20 Comments for : A Reply from Prof. Tabor—A Jonah Fish Image or a Tower Tomb Monument?
    • Lynn Huber
    • March 1, 2012

    Dr. Tabor,

    I understand that many people are arguing that this image is a nefesh. However, what are the reasons for not thinking it could be an illustration of an amphora?

    Thanks in advance for your response.

    L. Huber

  1. It really surprises me that Meyer, et al. ( and just today Prof. Jensen wrote me that she too is leaning toward the "nephesh" idea would favor this above an obviously more likely position–an amphora. I do not think is is an amphora, for the reasons I give above for the Jonah image, but at least it could be argued whereas the nephesh idea, it seems to me at least, is impossible on the face of it. The "tower" simply will not float. Baukham, one of our very able consultants, who also helped us with a brilliant reading of the inscription that I think he will be posting here, had suggested that, and I think Greg Snyder (who can speak for himself if he wishes) was also leaning that way. Both of these scholars were an immense help to me in my paper and we carried on an amazing and respectful dialogue over many months–as we have done with Dom Crossan and others. It would be great to raise the level of this discussion to something beyond personal innuendos and mud slinging accusations. Thank you for your suggestion. It seems obvious to me and I cover it in my paper and we include it in the film. Rami Arav, our archaeologist, first entertained both the nephesh, and then the amphora idea, before settling on the Jonah image–which I think clearly has the preponderance in terms of possibility. I look forward to someone, maybe it will be Richard or Greg, that will argue it here so we can explore the possibilities.

    • Jason von Ehrenkrook
    • March 1, 2012


    Although I find your fish interpretation unpersuasive, I certainly agree that it's an interpretation that merits some consideration and discussion. But a significant part of the problem, it seems to me, is that this discussion is only now beginning to take place – after a press release on the eve of Easter. I wonder if the strong push back has less to do with your interpretation and more to do with what appears to be a short-cutting of the academic process. We're told of an extensive discussion, hosted by the NGS (but with a non-disclosure agreement), and you refer to unnamed epigraphists and art historians who agree with your interpretation. But we don't know who they are, and more importantly, we can't see/evaluate their arguments. Why not, after using this wonderfully exciting camera technology, let the specialists – epigraphists and art historians – work on this material and publish their interpretations in peer-review venues? Perhaps a collection of scholarly essays that presents a range of interpretive options *by specialists*. I recognize, of course, that much of your funding is coming from media sources that are anxious to get things out there, and to make a splash. But it seems to me that we're in danger of sacrificing the sober and critical (and yes, sometimes slow) process of evaluation – something that I sense you value – when we become beholden to the sensationalist interest of our financial backers.

    Anyway, that's my take on this very interesting discussion.

    Best regards,


  2. Thanks for your input Jason. I am curious though, if you are not convinced this is a fish what is your own leaning and why–I know it could be an involved question, but briefly if you don't mind.

    I think what you suggest is pretty much what has happened and is happening. We only made these discoveries in 2010-2011. I have now published my preliminary report with my own interpretation. Rami and I met this week to work out our plan for our joint publication and we met with the President of AIA the other night to talk about that. We have put our evidence before our peers and the discussions have begun. Others can offer whatever they wish. So far no one has offered, or really had time yet to offer, full and serious interpretations other than these blog posts. Are you saying I should not have given my views until others had spoken first? Of the 18 consultants brought in by NatGeo and Discovery only two that I know of have said they don't want to get involved in a public discussion–both of them art historians. I think the others either have spoken or will in the future. And yes, let's hope what emerges is a serious of scholarly discussions. I am doing proposing a paper for SBL and I think Steven Fine is as well. There are lots of possibilities.

    Best, James

    I don't get the Easter thing…Feb 28th is hardly the "eve" of Easter and that date was picked by Simon & Schuster not the Discovery film–having more to do with the Spring catalogue schedule. It was totally arbitrary.The book is another thing entirely and only three chapters are devoted to the new discoveries in the "patio" tomb, the rest of the book is an overview of the broader issues related to the Talpiot tombs in general–but in a non-specialist way. It is not an academic book but I hope it does reflect considered academic positions but in a way accessible to the public.

    • Kim Anderson
    • March 1, 2012

    Hello Dr. Tabor.

    I do see similarities between the Jonah image and an amphora. You mention the small fish on the border; I would like to see those, because they change the context so dramatically in favor of a fish image. I can't find them online. Can you provide a website with some good images of the small fish?

    Thank you in advance for a response,

    Kim Anderson

    • Jason von Ehrenkrook
    • March 2, 2012

    Thanks for responding, James. I suppose if pressed I would lean toward amphora. But I'm not an art historian, and this is precisely my frustration. I just haven't seen enough discussion amongst the specialists to make an informed decision on the iconography. I agree that the nephesh seems to have an orientation problem – and I'd love to hear supporters of this interpretation respond to this issue – but I think your fish's orientation is equally problematic. I would think one would expect a horizontal fish, or if spacial limitations required vertical, then at least a vertical-upward orientation, with the figure "resurrecting" toward the opening of the ossuary.

    I will openly confess that I do have a bias against your interpretation, a bias forged not at the altar but in the academy. I think we all tend to approach novel and spectacular theories with a healthy measure of skepticism. That's the nature of our business, right? And frankly, when a new "Jesus discovery" is announced in the shadow of Easter (surely Lent is sufficiently Easter Eve-ish!), I tend to turn my skepticism lever from healthy to hyper. This doesn't mean I can't be persuaded. But the threshold is perhaps a bit higher than normal. I suspect I'm not alone.

    In any case, Chicago in November promises to be loads of fun.


    • Edson
    • March 2, 2012

    Good grief, Jason, why do you keep babbling about Easter? If your bias is forged at the academy, why do you even mention the Easter holiday, which is in April, which comes after the entire month of March? What does that have to do with anything regarding interpretation of the image on the tomb?

    I know — it is a way to insinuate bad faith. But it's ridiculous, a way of rooting about for something to complain about. If this was done at some other time of the year, it would be close to some other holiday.

    And the idea that the information is coming out too quickly, again, if it were up to the Heathers in the achaeological community, this would kept in a vault for 25 years until they came up with a theory that would be acceptable to the cool crowd.

  3. Pingback: TaborBlog » Blog Archive » What a Difference a Day Makes

    • Kim Anderson
    • March 2, 2012

    Dr. Tabor,

    I was able to view the small fish on the Jonah ossuary border, and the fish tail, now that your Jesus Discovery site is working. As an artist, I can only offer some comments about visual aspects of the image. One detail I notice is that the weeds you mention, on the head of the stick figure are not understandable visually if one views them as the base of an amphora: not spatially, not schematically. They make no sense. Nor do the lines of the stick figure, extending upward into the body of the fish, make any sense visually if this were meant to be an amphora. They do not define the form of the amphora, and they say nothing about with what might be inside an amphora, nor do they appear to be decorative; they don't relate to an amphora at all, in my opinion. The several amphoras on ossuaries that I've seen on line, look more stylized, schematic, mechanical, and decorative than this image, which is incredibly detailed and individual; it looks more organic- a fish rather than an object. I turned a photo of the catacomb fish upside down and placed it next to the Jonah image. The shapes were very similar. It's striking to me that less than 200 feet away from this image is another visual anomaly: the facade of the Talpiot tomb.

    Thank you for all the work you've done on bringing the Talpiot Tomb to the attention of open minded people. When I read some of the comments directed at you and your work by otherwise thoughtful people, I get the urge to apologize for the human species.

    Kim Anderson

    • Jer
    • March 2, 2012

    Chris, what you are describing sounds like a Roman soldier.

    Are you saying Christianity spread through stories spread in the Roman Army?

  4. Now that we know the correct alignment, here is another very similar shape:


    The Lulav on the Bar Kochva coins.

    The "fish" in the borders? Etrogim.

  5. Thanks Kim. We became obviously convinced it is a fish/Jonah for all the detailed reasons I have given and so far no one has offered a single argument that I would consider weighty against that thesis. The main refrain seems to be it is "up-side-down," which does not make sense in water, if it is a fish, but ironically, having a tower up-side-down, resting on its ball top was no problem. The misunderstanding had nothing to do with the orientation of the photos. Steve Fine, Chris, Eric, Robin and others on our consulting team were provided full information about orientation, photos, etc. I honestly love the "fish" look of the lovely blue perfume flask that Tom posted at Joan Taylor's piece. But as fish-like as it is, no one would say it is a fish. The same thing is going on here in the reverse. I find it hard to believe anyone would say this "fish" image is an amphora or perfume flask. Also on the latter, I don't think there are any examples on ossuaries…so that is another point to consider.

    • George Grubbs
    • March 5, 2012

    Could the image be of an oil lamp showing perhaps an eternal flame?

    Here are a few examples:


    Just a shot in the dark so to speak.

    • George Grubbs
    • March 5, 2012

    Of course it could be a kind of flower pot. The ball (flower) is definitely attached to something that looks like the main stem. The other lines look like smaller stems. The side loops appear to be for carrying.

    It's a odd shaped conical pot, but that might be appropriate for a single large flower.

    To me, the fish interpretation seems like a stretch, but I guess it's as good as any other interpretation at this point.

    Quite a mystery. Erich von Daniken would see it as a rocket ship.

  6. As an archaeologist specializing in ancient building/engineering,what struck me about the image, is the laying out lines/scratches which lie just beyond and parallel to the main image. These horizontal scratches appear to mark the main divisions in the design, suggesting some care was taken over the proportions of the image.

    Initially, this, its form and the overall symmetry, suggested that the image was a more 'architectural' design, however, if this was the case it would appear to be upside down, and, for no good reason.

    Thus, while I was keen for it be be representative of architecture, I can't square this with its orientation, and would have to conclude it was a image of some form of vessel or container.

    Also it appears that a piece along the top of the image has flaked off, enhancing the impression of a tail.

    • K. Samuel
    • March 9, 2012

    As an Archaeologist and Christian, I am interested in Dr. Tabor's findings. However, I have found certain information either left out of the discussion entirely or quickly dismissed. In the previous documentary The "Jesus" Tomb, it was mentioned that a Greek inscription was on the wall inside the tomb. I have found no mention of that inscription anywhere else even though it may shed incredible light on this sensitive topic. Was it part of the original IAA report? Can anyone shed light on whether it was ever photographed or deciphered? What were the other names on the ossuaries found inside the "patio tomb" according to the 1981 report? Without the answers to these and many other questions I have regarding Dr. Tabor's findings, I cannot understand why there is such a rush to conclusions – one way or the other. I think his work is worthy of further investigation and consideration, though I am not ready to sign off on his conclusions.

  7. Pingback: Early Christian Tombs Discussion–Continued « Larry Hurtado's Blog

    • Amnon Rosenfeld
    • March 12, 2012

    Without discussing the larger question of the possible or impossible connections between the "Patio Tomb” and the “Jesus Family Tomb” (Talpiot cave), I would like to address what I see engraved on the façade of the ossuary, the so-called “fish” image presented to us in the press conference in NY (28.February.2012) , and in the article written by Professor James Tabor and posted on “Bible and Interpretation” and in ASOR Blog. It is interesting to note that almost all those who objected to the “Jesus Family Tomb” (Talpiot Tomb) are also among those who dismiss Tabor's claims regarding the “Patio Tomb.” These ferocious attacks appear to derive from the opponents' wish to protect their previous objections to Tabor and Jacobovici's claims concerning the Talpiot Tomb. Science evolves by debate in an academic atmosphere based on facts, interpretations by open minded people with impartial views. This does not seem to be the case in relation to the "Patio Tomb."

    There have been a variety of interpretations of the ossuary photos. They include a pillar, a perfume bottle, Nefesh, Avshalom tomb and a fish as suggested by Tabor and Simcha. I am not a specialist in biblical archaeology or in the study of Jewish burial tombs from the first century CE. I have studied geology, biology and paleontology and examined fish fossils in the Late Cenomanian rocks of the Jerusalem region. In my opinion, the most likely image in question on this ossuary is that of a fish.

    The outline of the present image is fish-like, the tail is asymmetrical with a slightly concave end. The location of the short direction lines from both sides of the body is typical to fins of a fish that swims downwards. The semicircular engravings on the base of the stick figure is clearly a depiction of a gill cover of a fish. It seems that all the rows with the geometric designs including the four “Y” shape images are a schematic representation of a cultural origin.

    The rounded form outside the fish's mouth containing many waving lines possible portrays a human face that can be observed side-wise. The two eyes (one narrow line the other just a dot) , a diagonal nose connected to a brow, a small mouth, a pointed chin, and wavy hair, all appear to be a schematic head of a human face. The face is connected to a stick inside the fish's mouth. This would lead one to believe that there is a possibility that the "Patio Tomb" is an early Christian tomb as Tabor maintains.

    Appeared first on “Bible and Interpretation”

    Amnon Rosenfeld

    • Drew Sills
    • March 16, 2012

    Just posted this at bibinterp.com; thought it might be helpful to post it here, too.


    Greetings all,

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have no special training in biblical history or archaeology. (I am an academic in a different field.) Nonetheless, after reading the Tabor/Jacobovici book and trying to follow the internet discussion, I must say that I find quite convincing Professor Tabor's interpretation of the Jonah/Great Fish image, and his reasons for rejecting the interpretations as a nefesh, amphora, or unguentariam.

    For what it is worth, I would like to add the following ideas to the discussion:

    1. If Professor Tabor's interpretation of the image as a depiction of Jonah being expelled from the great fist is indeed correct, then might the symbol on the facade of the Garden Tomb
    be an icon form of the same image? The "inverted V" could represent the fish's mouth and the circle could represent the head of Jonah.

    2. Some have suggested that Professor Tabor's interpretation cannot be correct because the orientation of the fish, tail up mouth down, would be unnatural. I would like to suggest that perhaps the ossuary artist had in mind not only Jesus's "sign of Jonah" (from the Q source) but also Jesus's lesson to Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (from John 3:3). Tail up and mouth down would then be the natural orientation.

    –Drew Sills

  8. Pingback: TaborBlog » Blog Archive » Reviews of The Jesus Discovery: Eric Meyers

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