From Prof. Robin Jensen, Vanderbilt University
In December, 2010, I was asked to participate in a National Geographic film project that—I was led to believe—would investigate the image of Jonah in early Christian art. I was asked to fly to Rome in January in order to be filmed in the catacombs and comment on the figure of Jonah as it appeared in the iconographic décor of those underground cemeteries. It was made clear that my expertise in ancient Christian art, especially in regard to representations of Jonah, was the reason for this invitation.
No one, prior to my arriving in Rome, mentioned ossuaries or Jerusalem, much less the Tomb of Jesus. I was under the impression that the film—being produced for The National Geographic Society—was to be focused on early Christian art. Once I got to Rome, I began to realize that Simcha Jacobovici was involved in some way, but I was still very much in the dark about what that involvement was.
The first day of filming was in the Catacomb of San Sebastiano. I was rather surprised that Simcha kept looking for fish images, rather than Jonah images. He seemed resistant to accept my correction. Jonah is not swallowed by a fish in early Christian art but, rather, by a sea monster who normally is depicted with a curly tail, paws, and ears. No matter. Simcha kept steering me to fish imagery and tried over my objections to insist that these were somehow connected to the iconography of Jonah. Nothing I said seemed to make any dent in his certitude. Moreover, we had quite a debate about dating the images. Simcha preferred a much earlier date than most responsible scholars would allow. The images are late third-century at the earliest (and most are early fourth-century).
That first evening, I was presented with a non-disclosure agreement and asked to sign it in order to hear the “whole story.”
Note: Up until this point I have honored that policy. Now that the information has been made public through book publication etc., I understand that the policy is no longer binding. In any case, nothing that I say here violates that agreement.
Once I had signed, I briefly was shown a set of grainy black and white photographs and told their version of the Talpiot tomb story by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici. I have to admit that I had only distantly followed the earlier ruckus about the Jesus tomb and, while seriously skeptical, had not really studied the matter. I began to understand at this point, however, why I had been brought to Rome. It was not for the reason that I had been told.
At the end of our second day of filming (in the Catacomb of Priscilla), someone suddenly thrust a photograph into my hands and asked me to comment upon it while cameras were running. I was asked if it might be an image of Jonah. I really didn’t know what to say. What I did say was something like this (I don’t recall my actual words):
“If (and it’s a big IF) this were an actual image of Jonah from the first century, it looks nothing like the images we have just been discussing. If this dates to the first century, it also would be two hundred years older (more or less) than the next earliest image of Jonah. It would be unique. I cannot say more than that.”
I did not say that I believed the photograph to show an early Christian image of Jonah. In fact I have not clear idea what the image was that I was shown. I had no opportunity to study the photograph prior to my being asked, on camera, what I thought. In a later meeting, I had a longer time to study and came to the conclusion that the image likely depicted something other than Jonah.
Once I knew how my judgments were going to be used, I persistently tried to get my “handlers” to understand the much later Christian art from Rome is of an entirely different style and content than anything from first-century Palestine. There simply is no significant correlation between them. Because of this, my expertise was totally irrelevant. I know very little about ossuary art and could not possibly verify anything related to their authenticity or their iconography.
Therefore, I absolutely refute any claim that I concur with the interpretation of any first-century ossuary iconography as depicting Jonah. Nor do I believe that “first-century visual evidence of Christian belief in the resurrection” has been discovered to date.