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Home » Archaeology and Bible » A Reply from Prof. Tabor—A Jonah Fish Image or a Tower Tomb Monument?

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

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. Our exploration of this second Talpiot tomb (i.e. the “patio tomb”) was in response to an informal but unanimous vote of 47 scholars held at the end of the 2008 international Jerusalem conference “The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins,” organized by James H. Charlesworth. The papers from that conference are forthcoming in 2012 with Eerdmans press. Both Eric Meyers and Chris Rollston were in attendance. As a group we agreed on little else, but all of us affirmed that exploring the nearby “patio tomb,” less than 40 meters from the so-called “Jesus” family tomb, might potentially yield more scientific information that would shed light on both tombs (and a 3rd “ruined” tomb) nearby—all located on an ancient estate along the ancient road in the present area known Armon HaNetziv (the Promenade is meters away). I thank Simcha Jacobovici and his amazing team for providing both the funding and the expertise to make such an exploration by robotic camera possible. I have described in our book the many seemingly insurmountable challenges we faced and overcame. It is all quite an extraordinary story. Rami Arav and I were granted the excavation license for both tombs by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2009 (renewed in 2010, 2011) under the supervision of Janet Levy, chair of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Our operations were thoroughly professional and carried out according to IAA specifications with normal IAA supervision. We decided to concentrate first on the “patio” tomb that had been briefly examined in 1981 by Amos Kloner and his assistants on behalf of the IAA. All this is described in detail in both the book and the paper mentioned above.

The tomb contained a number of interesting features, as all tombs of this period and provenance do, but two ossuaries in particular drew our special consideration—nos.  5 and 6 (kokh 1) on our published map. No. 5 had inscribed what we have tentatively identified as a “Jonah and the great fish” image and no. 6 a fascinating 14 letter, four line inscription in Greek. Both of these are described in detail in my paper and several potential readings of the inscription are explored. These two finds in particular were the subject of a cordial but intense discussion and analysis sponsored by the National Geographic Society on May 19, 2010. Participants were: James Charlesworth, Steven Fine, Simcha Jacobovici, Robin Jensen, Christopher Rollston, and me.  Eric Meyers and Rami Arav were invited but unfortunately could not attend. I later met with Eric Meyers and summarized for him what we had covered. Due to the sensitivity of the finds and the funds invested in the investigation by National Geographic (and now subsequently Discovery Television), we all signed non-disclosure agreements which all of us have strictly abided by until released this week. Once the project was acquired by Discovery TV we brought in eight other scholars as our consultants, among them Richard Bauckham, Greg Snyder, and Dom Crossan. Since the others have not yet spoken publically I will not mention their names at this point as several have told me privately that they are appalled at the less than professional level of the interchanges they have seen on this subject and so far have not chosen not to participate. My hope is that others will speak as time goes on so that we can have a balance of all views expressed, which I think is the purpose of the forum. Taken together, our consultants represent a distinguished and balanced group of art historians, textual experts, and scholars of early Christianity and ancient Judaism. We have learned immensely from one another and our relations have been exceptionally cordial and professional. I have over 1,350 e-mails that have been exchanged between the sixteen of us in a thoroughly professional and courteous dialogue regarding these finds and their interpretation.

Just this week Meyers has offered the following analysis in his essay on this ASOR Blog:

In fact, the image in the book is so poorly reproduced in my copy that one suspects it has been intentionally altered so that no one could see what the image really is. Indeed, the image actually seems to resemble a nephesh, or tomb monument, like those found in many places in Jerusalem in the first century CE and depicted on ossuaries of this very period (so for example in fig. 13 or 30 of Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, 1994). A nephesh is the above-ground monument of a tomb that marks the tomb below and the one(s) buried there.

I will ignore the insulting insinuation regarding deliberate alternation. However, Meyer’s suggestion that there is a nephesh (or tomb) monument instead of a “Jonah” image seems to be the main alternative for the image put forth so far on the ASOR Blog. Meyers’ suggestion is now supported, so far as I can tell, by Steven Fine (who first suggested this in Washington D.C.), Jodi Magness, Rollston, Bob Cargill, and a chorus of others (I do not know if Robin Jensen agrees). We considered this alternative at the time of the discovery, along with others (i.e., vase or amphora), as I have mentioned in my paper. Yet, for the reasons I will enumerate here, we found the nephesh possibility decidedly unlikely.

1.  The disputed figure occupies the left panel of the front of the ossuary. The orientation of the figure, as shown in the photo in my book, is what we identify as the tail of the fish at the top and the head of the figure pointed down, barely touching the bottom incised border of the ossuary. If this image is a nephesh it would be upside down—with its highly irregular “base” in the air, unlike any other example on ossuaries of which I am aware—and I would of course welcome any examples of anything close to this. Using Cargill’s example of the well-known “Absolom pillar,” you would turn it on its head and it would be “leaning” over like our proverbial Pisa tower. The museum at Discovery Times Square, where the current Dead Sea Scroll exhibit is on display, has constructed two very lovely museum quality reproductions of both of these ossuaries and they are on display there now in a special exhibit. Since our photos were necessarily limited by our highly challenging circumstances—even with the amazing technical capabilities of the robotic arm—seeing the ossuary as it would look if we could bring it out of the tomb I think helps to orient oneself—especially regarding this idea that we are looking at a funerary monument or pillar. The craftsmen who constructed this replica tried to present most of the features accurately though one should not rely on this but our published photos for details (available at

Museum reproduction of ossuary 6, Talpiot “Patio” Tomb

I should point out here that the right side of the front panel is only hypothetically drawn in here since it is blocked by the adjacent ossuary (see our map of this kokh published in my article and in the book). The square temple-like figure has some kind of pattern inside—probably a square within a square, but we can only see the portion shown here—that looks like a “gallows.”  The image we identify as a fish, however, is completely visible in the photos, though you have to put several together to get the composite view. We have done the best with what we have, and I commend our team for its exceptional work. There are six little fish-like images incised along the upper border, and what appear to be a “half fish” on the right end, as if it is diving into the water. The left end, as seen here, has an entrance like barred doorway. Seen in this perspective, I think that the hypothesis that this is a common, ordinary, nephesh is untenable, and I am puzzled that anyone would seriously suggest it.

 2. In both orientation and form I have seen nothing resembling this. Even the “curved” nephesh that Rahmani reproduces, which Eric Meyers has in his post, only has that appearance because it is squeezed between two rosettes—as Rahmani clearly explains—not because it represents the style of a nephesh. The same is the case for the images produced by Hachlili, Figueras, and others. Unfortunately that ossuary is not extant but its curved sides are exceptional—in contrast to the straight pillar-like shape that is normal. The image in our ossuary 6 is free standing, so that in both shape and style it is clearly something quite different. Fine was kind enough to provide me with all his published articles related to this question, including the one he posted today in the ASOR Blog, and there is nothing even close to this figure in any of his examples (despite his claim in this regard). I urge readers to take a look for themselves.

3. I am convinced, as are several others we consulted, that what we clearly have here is a “great fish” drawn in an eastern style. The oannes-like “stick figure” is quite clear, with two arms carefully postured, and two legs.  As one of our consultants pointed out—the artist who drew this image was likely reluctant to represent a clear human figure in graphic form in a funerary context. The eye of the fish is clearly visible on the right side. I am not sure what the detached ヲ-like etching to the left of the figure might represent, and I welcome any suggestions. The head of the figure is being spat out onto land, wrapped in what we take to be the seaweed mentioned in the book of Jonah—thus its downward orientation to the border of the ossuary, representing land. If this is in fact a Jonah image, its creator is taking his or her cues from the text of Jonah itself—not from a pattern of evolving types—since we have no Jonah images, or for that matter, any biblical scene from this period. The text of Jonah seems to provide the clues and that is how I have interpreted its several features in my paper:

 I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried . . . Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 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 (Jonah 2:2-6).

The half fish on the right side represented being taken under the waters; the door-like bars are the “bars of Sheol,” with the ossuary full of bones representing death, the fish expelling the stick-like human figure representing being brought up out of Sheol—again all taken from the text of our biblical book of Jonah. It is possible that the square-like structure on the right side represents a temple or hekalot idea—also mentioned in the text of Jonah.

I conclude that this interpretation, that has been supported by a number of our consultants, is much more compelling than the assertion that this is a common ordinary “pillar”—which I am convinced is simply is not the case. My sense, regrettably, is that personal issues, as reflected in the sometimes sarcastic and disrespectful tone of many of the reactions to our work, have been a factor in shaping what could otherwise be a most profitable discussion of this fascinating ossuary.

My main purpose in this post has been to offer these observations on the discussion so far of ossuary 6, but since we also have a lovely museum reproduction of ossuary 5 as well, I thought that I would present it here so readers can orient themselves to just where the four-line Greek inscription appears on that ossuary.  Those living near or visiting New York can see these reproductions at the museum through April 15th.

Finally, I must say that I am surprised by Meyer’s assertion that even if this inscription does have to do with life after death that it would represent nothing unusual on an ossuary. There are less than a dozen epigrams or epitaphs among the more than 600 known ossuary inscriptions (Cotton, et al., CIIP) and all of them, with maybe one exception, have to do prohibitions against moving bones. Whatever this one says, it seems that it is anything but common—as all our consulting scholars initially agreed in the D.C. meeting. I anxiously await Rollston’s translation since he too, if I understand him correctly, has now changed his mind and thinks this inscription is quite ordinary as is everything else found in this tomb.

Museum reproduction of ossuary 5, Talpiot “Patio” Tomb


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A Reply from Prof. Tabor—A Jonah Fish Image or a Tower Tomb Monument? Reviewed by on . 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 Roll 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 Roll Rating:
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