I was a member of a team assembled last summer by a major media outlet to evaluate this project. Sitting in a stately conference room, Mr. Jacobovici, Professor Tabor and Professor Charlesworth presented their discoveries for the consideration of an internationally renowned group of scholars. The members of the evaluating team then offered our professional evaluations of this project.
After a short introduction, my colleagues and I were shown the so-called “fish.” At that point, I opened my Ipad and pulled off the web an article of mine that deals with similar looking artifacts (http://cojs.org/stevenfine/articles_files/Feinberg-Fine.pdf). The article is itself a chapter of my book (Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World [Cambridge University Press, 2005, rev. 2011]). I proceeded to show the team of scholars a whole group of Nefesh tombs from Jerusalem, and I pointed out parallels in modern Syria, Lebanon and Pompeii. I noted that this was a very common type of burial monument in the first century.
Most importantly, images of such funerary monuments were often inscribed on the sides of ossuaries—secondary burial boxes used in the environs of Jerusalem. They have been widely published and are very well known (see my article for bibliography and illustrations). This so-called Jonah “icon” (as it has been described in media materials), is nothing more than the image of an ancient Jewish tomb incised on the side of an ossuary. In fact, it is a very nice image of one.
The interpretation presented by Professor Tabor is not grounded in the evidence, nor in even the most basic rules of art-historical analysis. The image has nothing to do with Jonah, Jesus, or Judea in the first century. Elsewhere I have referred to this genre of media-driven discoveries as the “DaVinci Codification” of our culture—the presentation of odd and associative thinking previously reserved for novels as “truth” to the general public (http://sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=655). The “Jonah Fish” is just the next installment in the Jesus-archaeology franchise—timed, as always, to precede a major Christian feast.
I, for one, am wearied by the almost yearly “teaching moment” presented by these types of “discoveries.” I am hopeful, however, that—this time—a forceful and quick display of unanimous dissent by the leading members of the academic community will be taken seriously by the media and the public at large.
Professor of Jewish History, Yeshiva University
Director, YU Center for Israel Studies, www.yu.edu/cis
Co-editor, Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture