Comments from Prof. Steven Fine on the “Jesus Discovery”

Posted in: Archaeology, Archaeology and Bible, Archaeology in the News, ASOR, Epigraphy
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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.

Steven Fine, 
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
Website: http://yeshiva.academia.edu/StevenFine/About

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17 Comments for : Comments from Prof. Steven Fine on the “Jesus Discovery”
    • Jim
    • March 1, 2012

    Indeed.

  1. Thanks for your perspective. I have just submitted to the editors here a counter response to your nephesh idea. I hope it will appear soon. You are free to express your opinion here of course but I think your insinuation about media-driven discoveries, etc. is unkind and untrue. Our investigation was carried out in the most professional manner by Rami Arav and me, with IAA supervision, and if you and I disagree on the interpretation of this reading let's exchange our points and avoid personal aspersions.

    • Nathan
    • March 1, 2012

    Dr. Fine,

    You may want to indicate to your publisher that they've misspelled "foreword" in your "Art and Identity" before the next printing. They have "forward" (i.e., as opposed to "backward") rather than "foreword" (i.e., a word before the book, as opposed to "afterword.")

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    • Tim Noonan
    • March 1, 2012

    What a disappointing response from 6 professionals as they've offered their rather cloudy knee jerk opinions, some adding accusations of marketing exploitation and others even insinuating possible graphic depiction alterations concerning The Jesus Discovery. Though I'm certain they're meeting the high standards of ASOR Blog while maintaining an apolitical standard, and certainly their expressions must be without religious affiliation or premeditated bias. After all they are professionals.

    Then there's the apparent groupie commenter entering the blog zone at least slightly frightened until their favorite prominent person reassures them that their life does still have meaning and that they'll make certain that no new information will contradict their previous belief system. Wiping their brow, they seem to type a few words in that say "see I told you so, my favorite advocate agrees with me."

    The Talpiot and Patio Tombs beg for more research, an obvious fact. Shouldn't that be the goal of all professionals? I can't find one good reason why tradition should trump truth. Allow me to make the following challenge to the critics of The Jesus Discovery. Please flood Google Image with depictions of Nephesh Towers on 1st century ossuaries depicted horizontal, bending, with a mouth, something spewing out of the mouth, with fins and a tail.

    • ryan
    • March 1, 2012

    A fascinating, wonderful article of tremendous precision. I truly enjoyed it.

    Having said that, I can't fathom why the author would tarnish his article by pretending it has any illustrations in it that look even remotely like the "fish" presented by Tabor.

    The author opens by explaining the historiography of Jews and icons has often been driven by emotions rather than examination – in an effort to show "what kind of people" the Jews may have been.

    I'd venture that the replies to Tabor have been driven likewise by emotion.

    I don't happen to think much of Tabor's theory that it's a fish. But people who say that "a forceful display of dissent" is what is needed, rather than a compelling and thoughtful dissent, are doing a tremendous disservice to their own field.

    A forceful dissent is "we know exactly what this is. It's a nefesh. Anyone who doesn't think so doesn't know the field." The problem is that the forceful dissent has a glass chin. Any reporter hoping to find a good explanation will instantly see that the various nefeshim all have rectangular bases, while the drawing in question is an hourglass figure that doesn't look remotely like a building of any sort.

    "We don't know what this drawing is, but it certainly doesn't look much like Jonah and the whale" would be thoughtful and compelling. If I were a reporter (and I am at times, though not in this field) I'd be convinced. "It's a nefesh" has me looking back to Tabor's argument about names. He says that this set of names is fairly rare, and offers some statistical analysis. His opponents simply assert (oh, but "forcefully") that these are quite common names.

    The ridiculous "forceful" dissents have me wondering if Tabor isn't more worthwhile than the traditionalists. I don't think he's got the explanation. But he's searching for one. The traditionalists have accepted one that is patently ridiculous.

    • Jordan Wilson
    • March 1, 2012

    I've lost a lot of respect for so many scholars I use to admire who are claiming the drawing is a Nephesh Tower. It's obvious they're just trying to gang up on SJ because they despise the limelight he gets on his far fetched theories, but Tabor's crossed his t's and dotted his i's on this one, and they're the ones looking like charlatans. No unbiased opinion would say this looks more like a tomb than a fish. Why do they all say it looks like a tomb and not a vase? Because it's an orchestrated effort to discredit SJ. If they would at least attack him with some half believable theories I'd on their side. But this is a farce. Tabor's done a much better job of presenting his theory than his detractors!

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    • Joe D
    • March 2, 2012

    I'm in agreement with Jordan and Ryan. The rush to condemn here so the critics can maintain standing among their academic friends is truly disgusting.

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    • Terri Knoll
    • March 3, 2012

    In agreement that the "scholars" are looking more like playground bullies than people who genuinely care about researching and presenting theories for adult discussion.

    • Barrie Wilson
    • March 4, 2012

    “Ridiculism” represents a growing denomination within the academic study of Religion, disdaining new discoveries that fail to fit established paradigms and attacking scholars’ motivations instead of dealing with the evidence. Ad hominem attacks can, of course, go both ways, and those who question motives can expect to have their own held up to scrutiny. Why the resistance to the argument Jacobovici and Tabor make with respect to the Jesus and Garden tombs? Is their motivation to defend some literal theological position? Does that faith commitment, so often demanded of scholars in denominational schools, blind oneself to rational and civil discourse?

    Sometimes a fish is a fish, not a pillar, a post, an early example of the hourglass, a McDonald’s logo or a mathematical symbol for infinity. And when a 1st century artistic rendering of a great fish spewing forth a human being is discovered, why not relate it to the only other such fish known from antiquity? And to texts which refer to the sign of Jonah? And to a community which believes prominently in resurrection, perhaps Jesus’ or their own or likely both?

    And why not present discoveries in a fashion that ordinary people can understand, as Jacobovici has done over the course of a lifetime? Would the ridiculists prefer the clandestine methods of the cabal of the first Dead Sea Scroll scholars who hid their manuscripts away, intending to bequeath them to favoured graduate students for generations? Why not be transparent and make findings and interpretations accessible? In the modern age, academics can no longer hid behind privilege, sacred cows and tenured positions.

    The onus is on the ridiculists to stop their contemptuous dismissal and to come to terms with the evidence and open transparency.

    Excellent work Simcha and James and the start of a great discussion.

    • George Grubbs
    • March 5, 2012

    I can understand now why this sort of research and subsequent so-called peer review are called "soft science." It is very imprecise and open to interpretation informed by personal agendas. That is obvious here.

    And, throw in "mind and motive reading," and you have the stuff of the Dark Ages. I wonder if Dr. Fine and others used Ouija boards to discern the motives of Tabor and Jacobovici, or if they used talisman and amulets purchased on the antiquities market.

    Sure, the claims in the book may be invalid, but something of value and interest has been found. Let open our minds and see what it is. Why all the vitriol?

    I, for one, am wearied by these incessant, real-world wannabe academic reviewers and commenters who are stuck in group-think, a locked box with no key.

    • Nicole
    • March 5, 2012

    Well said, Professor Barrie Wilson.

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  7. That sentence towards the end " The “Jonah Fish” is just the next installment in the Jesus-archaeology franchise—timed, as always, to precede a major Christian feast." says it all. The phrase Jesus arch. franchise brings back memories of archaeo-porn from the Ted Koppel panel discussion in 2997.

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