Who Built the Jesus Family Tomb?

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Roundup of Biblioblogger Comments on the New Jacobovici Claims

I have collected below a list of snippets from various academics and bibliobloggers on the subject of James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici’s ‘discovery’.

ASOR

First and foremost, everyone should check out the scholarly articles on the subject at the ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) blog.

Eric Meyers writes in his review of the new book on the “discovery”:

The book is truly much ado about nothing and is a sensationalist presentation of data that are familiar to anyone with knowledge of first-century Jerusalem. Nothing in the book “revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus or early Christianity” as the authors and publisher claim, and we may regard this book as yet another in a long list of presentations that misuse not only the Bible but also archaeology.

Christopher Rollston also reviews the the find:

Ultimately, therefore, I would suggest that these are fairly standard, mundane Jerusalem tombs of the Late Second Temple period.  The contents are interesting, but there is nothing that is particularly sensational or unique in these tombs.  I wish that it were different.  After all, it would be quite fascinating to find a tomb that could be said to be “Christian” and to hail from the very century that Christianity arose.

Also check out Rollston’s thorough refutation here.  This is a snippet:

Here are the basic claims of James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici: “Talpiyot Tomb B contained several ossuaries, or bone boxes, two of which were carved with an iconic image and a Greek inscription.  Taken together, the image and the inscription constitute the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus’ resurrection.”  They go on and state that these ossuaries “also provide the first evidence in Jerusalem of the people who would later be called ‘Christians.’  In fact, it is possible, maybe even likely, that whoever was buried in this tomb knew Jesus and heard him preach.”

In addition, Tabor and Jacobovici claim that because “Talpiyot Tomb B” is within around two hundred feet of “Talpiyot Tomb A” (the tomb Tabor and Jacobovici have also dubbed the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’), “the new discovery [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb B] increases the likelihood that the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ is, indeed, the real tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Tabor and Jacobovici also believe that “Jesus of Nazareth was married and had a son named Judah,” something which they have been proposing for several years now.  Tabor and Jacobovici also assume that “both tombs appear to have been part of the property of a wealthy individual possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to the gospels, buried Jesus.”

At this juncture, I shall turn to a fairly detailed discussion of both tombs and the contents thereof.  Anticipating my conclusions, I am confident that most scholars will not consider the grand claims of Tabor and Jacobovici to be cogent.  The reason is quite elementary: the conclusions they draw do not follow from the extant evidence.

Jodi Magness fires this volley:

As a professional archaeologist, it pains me to see archaeology hijacked in the service of non-scientific interests, whether they are religious, financial, or other. The comparison to Indiana Jones mentioned in the media reports is unfortunate, as those films misrepresented archaeology as much as they popularized it. Archaeologists are scientists; whatever we find is not our personal property but belongs to (and usually must remain in) the host country. Archaeologists seek to understand the past by studying human material remains (that is, whatever humans manufactured and left behind) through the process of excavation and publication. For this reason, professional archaeologists do not search for objects or treasures such as Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail. Usually these sorts of expeditions are led by amateurs (nonspecialists) or academics who are not archaeologists. Archaeology is a scientific process.

Bob Cargill offers a refreshing take on the ‘fish’ iconography:

The initial thought that came to my mind was the so-called Tomb of Absalom (that we coincidentally discussed today in my “Jerusalem from the Bronze to Digital Age” class at Iowa). The shape of the figure resembles the shape of the Tomb of Absalom in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, which is dated to the 1st C. CE. I suggest that the “round” figure at the top of the ossuary image may be an attempted representation of a lotus flower, not unlike that which Kloner and Zissu state is carved into the top of the Absalom monument. (Kloner A. and Zissu B., 2003. The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period. Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and The Israel Exploration Society. Jerusalem (in Hebrew), pp. 141-43.) The round figure could certainly be interpreted as an attempt at the petals of a flower.

The Tomb of Absalom may not be the exact inspiration for the image on the ossuary, but it is in line with what Drs. Rahmani, Rollston, and Meyers argue above. And it certainly seems more likely than a “fish” spitting out a “human head.”

And Robin Jensen does not like having her words twisted:

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.

Steven Fine offers his apt take on the ‘discovery':

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 proceed 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.

Bibliobloggers:

Jim West opines:

It’s just more marketing by the Discovery Channel team of ‘biblical archaeologists’ and here, most pertinently, we all need to remember- neither Tabor nor Jacobovici are archaeologists.  They’re marketers and promoters of their own ideas.  That’s all.

If you want to buy the book (that’s the aim of all the publicity- to get you to buy the book), go ahead.  But I recommend you wait a few weeks.  It’ll end up in the dollar bin soon enough, along with its predecessor.

Also see Jim West’s excellent suggestion that we direct media attention towards ASOR.

Bob Cargill aptly writes:

Fascinating how these stories all hit the wires the same day – Feb 28, 2012 – precisely the same day that Jacobovici’s new book gets released?? And, is it coincidence that said media marketing campaign gets kicked off during the Lenten season just before Easter?

This is nothing more than a coordinated press release to sell a book and promote a forthcoming documentary. There is no new discovery here; this has been known for years.

REMEMBER: don’t watch what Simcha says – you know he’s going to try and sell the public on his latest speculation. Rather, watch what the scholars say – or better yet, watch what the scholars don’t say, and you’ll have your answer.

Antonio Lombatti notes on the iconography itself:

The image found by Jacobovici et al. is not unique at all. Similar representaions have been found on Jewish ossuaries (see Rahmani and Figueras). The one over here was taken randomly from Rahmani’s volume. I’m not convinced that the fish shown in The Jesus Discovery book is a whale eating Jonah. It might be, but I’m skeptic. Much more interesting is the fish-like graffito found on ossuary n. 402 (Figueras) on which there’s also the name ישוע (Jesus).

He more recently discussed the probability that the ‘fish’ isn’t a fish at all, but an amphora.

Rollston Epigraphy (Christopher Rollston’s blog) links to an article Rollston wrote some years ago on the statistics of the so-called family tomb:

This (2006) article is methodological in nature and attempted to put the tomb which Tabor and Jacobovici dubbed (in 2006/07) the “Jesus Family Tomb” in its broader context, hence, I first discussed the nature of prosopographic analysis (i.e., attempts to discern familial relationships between ancient peoples, and then the attempt to connect those with people known from ancient literary sources) and then I turned in earnest to the Talpiyot Tomb.

Paleobabble had this to say:

The man who brought us the error-plagued Jesus family tomb, then the nails from the cross, now claims that he has found a tomb which held the remains of at least some of the disciples of Jesus. Granted, the article at the link is just a preliminary news leak to garner interest for an upcoming press conference where the world will get to see what $imcha has discovered.  Still, this announcement isn’t encouraging. Here’s what we learn that supports the new discovery, at least in part:

  • This cave is nearby the alleged Jesus family tomb (I read in another article that the site is considered pre-70 AD; by whom I don’t know).
  • There is a Jonah and the whale symbol in it (a “Christian symbol” the article notes)
  • An inscription with the word “God” in Greek, the Tetragrammaton (the four-consonant sacred name of God: YHWH), and the word “arise” or “resurrected” in Hebrew
  • Apparently the Tetragrammaton is on an ossuary, something that (according to the article) has never been found on an ossuary. That would suggest a Christian, not a Jewish, burial

My first question was whether the site bears any name of a disciple. If not, why conclude it is connected with them?

Fr Stephen Smuts also has an excellent roundup of the news articles (including a new press release from James Tabor) on the subject and some comments.

Joel Watts offers his take on the subject and links to other bloggers.

Mark Goodacre also posted up some comments:

It is difficult to comment until we know a bit more but no doubt that will be forthcoming.  If there is to be a large website on this find, though, I hope that it will be better researched than the error-riddled Jesus Family Tomb Website (Jesus’ Family Tomb Website: Errors and Inaccuracies, 2007, still on the web five years later).  I’ll be on the look-out.

And in case you missed it, James Tabor published a paper on Bible and Interpretation as well on the subject.

David Meadows over at rogueclassicism suggests the transcription done by Tabor, et al, might be completely wrong:

So as I see it, the inscription is a basic transliterated Latin-Greek commemorative inscription to one Gaius Iunius. But what about that mysterious last line? What I see is ΑΓΒ and one of Tabor’s photos seems to show this very nicely — arguably it’s the clearest line of all of them, but also the most puzzling. Tabor gives all sorts of possibilities, ranging from Greek, to backwards Aramaic, to Hebrew transliteration (he eventually settles on a Hebrew imperative which runs parallel to the hypso suggestion). Perhaps it has merit, but it seems to introduce a rather complicated linguistic scheme unnecessarily. If we are dealing with a simple transliterated Latin-style funerary inscription, we’d expect the inscription to end with some reference to the deceased’s age (annos vixit x). Might we suggest that ΑΓΒ is an abbreviation for A(nnos) 3  B(ixit)?  Or if that Gamma is actually a Pi, A(nnos) 80 B(ixit)?

In other words, from a (rogue)classicist perspective, this pre-destruction-of-the-temple-collection-of-ossuaries is interesting not because of some purported early Christian connection, which is tenuous at best and requires an awful lot of argument to make it sound convincing. Nay rather, this collection of ossuaries is interesting because one of the niches includes the remains (possibly) of an obviously-Roman-named Julia and (apparently) of a Gaius Junius, whose ossuary commemorates him Roman-style with Greek letters.

Richard Carrier also writes on the inscription (which I echo elsewhere) and offers this:

The lesson to learn here is never to trust the media, much less the rumor mill, when claims of an amazing new find like this crop up. Wait for the evidence to actually be presented, for many independent experts to actually analyze it. Then see what survives. Usually, nothing.

Archaeologist Gordon Franz writes on this:

One thing that struck me on the ossuary is the orientation of the “fish.” On all the blogs and news articles I have read, the picture of the “fish” is facing the wrong way. Sometimes it is horizontal, either facing left or right, and made to look like a swimming fish. Or the “fish” has the round ball (“Jonah”, according to Simcha) facing upwards, thus making the “fish” look like a funerary monument. Usually pictures of Absalom’s Pillar are shown to bolster the case for this view. The fact of the matter is that the “fish” is facing down! Please see the picture on page 86, fig. 26 of the book. It is clear enough, but a line drawing of the panel on the ossuary should have been included. So, one must understand the correct orientation of the picture in order to appreciate the discussion of the issue.

My initial impression is that the “fish” looks like an ornamental glass vessel, perhaps a pitcher or flask of some sort. The Ennion vessel found by Prof. Avigad in the Jewish Quarter comes to mind (see page 108 in Discovering Jerusalem). Perhaps some glass expert might suggest a better parallel from this period than the Ennion vessel, but this is worthy of consideration.

2012 is Shaping Up to be the Year of Fakes, Frauds, and Sensationalism

First, we had the picture of the Markan manuscript fragment that has widely been debunked as a fake.

Now we have a ‘new’ 1500-year-old Bible with what appears to be gold lettering that just seems all sorts of odd.

And just today, wouldn’t you know, a month and some days away from Easter, a new announcement was made by Simcha and Co.   Oh yes, another ossuary.  This time with a a carving of Jonah the Whale…so it must be related to Jesus and Christians! *ugh*

Now let’s see them tie all their findings together in their Dan Brown-like fashion: the crucifixion nails, the Caiaphas ossuary, the so-called ‘Jesus family tomb’ ossuaries, the tomb itself, and so on.  What is next?  The Ark of the Covenant?

Defining Jesus Agnosticism: It is Time for Representation

I am officially ceasing my series ‘Defining Mythicism’ and will now start, at long last, to focus on what I consider myself to be: a Jesus agnostic (that is someone who is agnostic on the question of historicity).   I realized that, for some time, the spectrum has only been at polar opposites.  The only options one seemed to have is either accept the historicity of Jesus or deny it completely and frankly I don’t think either of them are an accurate representation of what I believe.  So beginning here, on this blog, I hope to work up some drafts of the definition and, hopefully, publish something on the matter over the next few months.

Mark Goodacre on the Markan Fragment

Mark Goodacre offers up some sage words on the Markan Fragment:

As far as I am concerned, this settles the question.  So often we are faced with artifacts appearing on the antiquities market with unknown provenances, or vague tales about their being found in caves somewhere.  Not here.  The artifact is from no less a source than GodAlmighty himself and his Facebook friend who knows some Greek.  What more do we need to know?

Words of wisdom, if there ever were any.

James McGrath, Neil Godfrey, and Mythicism: Once More Into the Fray

Let me preface this by stating clearly and directly that everyone, regardless of who you are or what you study, has a bias towards the evidence.  This includes me, this includes Godfrey, this includes James McGrath.  We all are approaching the evidence from a position of bias.  It is the goal of each of us–at least I know it is for me and it should be for everyone else–to limit the effect of that bias upon our conclusions.  We do this by trying to come up with sound methodology and we try to apply this methodology rigorously and critically, even against our own conclusions (at least we should), so that we can come up with an interpretation of the evidence that is as free of our own will as we can.

First, my biases: I am a humanist, but I am also a metaphysical naturalist and I see the world through a secular lens.  I am critical of the Biblical narratives, though I appreciate them and have a fond respect for their history and place in that diachronic scale, but I have no vested interest in the narratives being true.  I lean towards a mythical figure of Jesus (that is to say, I doubt such a figure existed historically), but I am agnostic on the question since I don’t believe an answer can be found just yet.  But even if it turned out that the figure of Jesus was historical, it would change nothing for me.  He would still be that guy (no, not that guy) who died a few thousand years ago.  It might change how I evaluate the New Testament (in that I would have to reconsider the value of Paul’s letters towards the question of a historical Jesus) but such occurrences happen often in scholarship (I am constantly adjusting my interpretation of the evidence based upon new data–even if it conflicts against opinions I have held for a while).  So I really have no bias at all towards the idea that Jesus was a mythical construct.  Myth or historical fact, it troubles me not.  I just happen to feel that the evidence may more strongly weigh down on this side of the debate.

I am not so sure that the same can be said for either James McGrath or Neil Godfrey.  This troubles me because they have both been at each others throats now going on three or more years.   They continue to talk past each other, producing a dialogue which is full of vitriol.  It is neither helpful not productive.  I sit back and watch at a distant and shake my head.  Both are committing errors that need to be rectified if this slugging match between them has hopes of turning into anything fruitful.

Neil is constantly coming down upon James’ credibility as a scholar and his credentials.  He attacks James personally and then gets upset when James does the same.   He is not always cordial, he can be careless when making points, or relies too much on his own wit without taking into consideration how his post will come across.  But more than this I believe that Neil has an emotional investment in the ahistorical arguments of the figure of Jesus.

I believe strongly that this is the case; Neil gets way too defensive when James comes after him and forgets his sense of humor.  That to me is indicative of a person who has too much of himself involved in his perspectives.  I can completely relate because I used to live in Neil’s shoes (on this issue, I mean).  There was a time when I was emotionally invested in the arguments against historicity.  It wasn’t that I was ignorant (much), but I failed to see the larger picture.  There is a point when one has to pick their battles and I was far, far too ideological for my own good.  Neil might not see this in himself, and he might disagree with me, but the evidence really isn’t that conclusively in favor of his arguments (even if I think he often makes strong arguments that fall upon deaf ears).

But Neil isn’t the only one responsible for this failed dialogue.  James has his own share of problems that I believe desperately need to be addressed.  And I want to be clear here: I have nothing but respect for both parties.  I respect Neil for his forthrightness, that he is well-read, and for his clarity (though it is extremely under-appreciated by others) and I respect James on multiple levels–as a blogger, a scholar who has earned his credentials and his position, and as a person I consider a friend.

But perhaps that is why I am so disappointed.  James is the professional–a point he continually makes.  We can almost forgive Neil for his antagonism; he is not in the guild.  But James is, and people look to him as an authority.  As a professional he should be taking more of a leadership role in these conversations; unfortunately at times–and I hope he takes what I’m saying and merely a gentle nod and not as an attack–James came come across immature.  His comments can be snide, sarcastic, antagonistic, petty, and unreasonable.  This is expected by those who are untrained and outside the Academy, but we ask more of our own.  There are examples of this throughout his blog on these subjects.

First and most importantly, James makes constant comparisons between creationism and mythicism, but he does so falsely.  I suspect that most of this is antagonism and a lot of tongue-in-cheek.  But if any of his comparisons are said in seriousness, he is patently wrong. For starters, comparing a hard science which is deductive to a field like history where the evidence is extremely interpretive and inductive is just plain silly.  The evidence for the figure of Jesus is scarce and what we have is limited to ones evaluation of the data.  A hard science like evolutionary biology relies upon thousands and thousands of pieces of data which are supported by thousands of other pieces of data–which are continuously observable.  History isn’t observable at all.  So his comparison is unfair and unrealistic on even the most basic of levels.

But there is more to it than that.  Evolutionary theory and the origins of the universe, our plant, and our universe were not conjured up from matters of faith but of science (as those who believe in creationism will tell you).  And science is not a product of faith but a product of critical-thinking Greeks (who gave us science)–those who we would consider today to be atheists or deists (at best).  Yet the figure of Jesus does not come from science.  It comes from a book, which contains a collection of books, which were written by multiple men who were most probably very pious (I would not use the term ‘religious’ since ‘religion’ is a modern construct), for the purpose of having a ‘canon’ upon which a church of faith was built.  The figure of Jesus does not come from critically-minded people but from a series of books from which, as it stands, are are a part of the same collection of god-fearing texts that creationism stems!  The difference for James is that evolution and the big bang (or string theory; whichever) doesn’t interfere with his positions a ‘Progressive Christian’.  So James does not have a problem with ridiculing other Christians who, from the same collection of books, draw upon an irrational belief based upon faith while ignoring the conflicting evidence.

One final interesting tidbit is that creationism, so rooted in a historical Adam and Eve, and fundamentalism–rooted in the historical accuracy of other Old Testament characters–appear to be contrary to James’ beliefs, yet not too long ago, within the past four decades, many of those figures we now consider to be fictional characters were accepted as historical figures by the majority of scholars.  That is to say, it was unthinkable at one time that scholars would ever doubt the historical Moses and the historical Patriarchs.  Now the consensus has shifted.  It is not that these books are not a part of the same collection as those books from the New Testament.  Of course they are from different times, different socio-cultural systems, different people–but this does mean that consensus can be overturned by a small fringe group.

That said, James is not ignorant, by no stretch of the imagination, and clearly he compartmentalizes his faith well since his historical Jesus is a far cry from that of the walking-on-water Jesus Christ of the Gospels.  But James is mistaken if he doesn’t suffer from the same faith-based bias that do Young-Earth Creationists.   It is one thing to humanize Jesus and another to remove him completely from history.  It is hard to be a Christian, even a progressive one, if there is no Christ at all.  There is no denying the fact that James has a vested interest in a historical figure of Jesus.  This analogy that James draws between mythicists and creationists is a projection.   And nothing makes this more clear than the way he reads (or pretends to read) and responds to posts on the subject of the historicity of the figure of Jesus with which he disagrees.

James responds like someone with an emotional investment in the material.  It is not for want of professionalism, for even when James is lambasting someone he does so politely.   But he is incautious (more than he should be if he were critically analyzing the data), and speaks too soon before thinking carefully about what was said to him.  As a result he ends up eating his own foot, which is a real shame because when James posts on other subjects he is insightful (if not brilliant).

An excellent example of this is when Richard Carrier, a noteworthy mythicist, posted up a blog on a method of historicity.  Without realizing that Carrier’s point as it was written actually provided some support for historicity (because he didn’t read it carefully enough), James McGrath responded with a ‘see how silly mythicists are’ attitude as if he were responding to a post arguing against historicity.  What’s more, he missed a critical explanation of a source mentioned and James went about “correcting” Carrier, even though James had been wrong–had he given the post more time, looked at it like a critical scholar should instead of skimming (and assuming the conclusion), he would have avoided having to apologize.  Though to his credit, James did indeed apologize–a sign that James is an honest person.

But James’ honesty is not in question here; neither is his integrity.  The question becomes does ones bias affect the way they handle new data?  Clearly the bias that James has does affect his willingness to consider opposing views.  He cannot deny this, for if it didn’t affect him in this manner we would see much more engaging and useful posts from James about the subject.  We would not see James pressupposing the arguments for mythicism–like we see constantly–instead we would see James actually critically engaging the arguments given.  And sometimes he does, but even during those instances, James does not fully consider the opposing arguments.

I would add here that there is not much difference between a fundamentalist and a normal Christian–even progressive Christians–when it comes to faith.  Faith is faith.  The difference may rest upon the dogma one places their faith in, but I would argue that in terms of emotional investments, the difference between the emotional invest of a fundamentalist in the young-earth mythology and a normal Christian’s emotional investment in a historical Jesus is negligible.

The many ‘yes-men’ on both sides do not help, but are like kindling on a fire that has been burning for far too long.  That is to say, many of those who comment on these blogs egg these two on in a manner which promotes diatribe and not discussion.  Despite what many in the field believe, the question of historicity is still open.  And James is wrong to suggest that there is no evidence for it, since the evidence that mythicists use is the exact same evidence that James uses.  That is the real tragedy in all this.  Between the bickering and the name calling and the challenges, real information is being ignored on both sides.  That James still does not grasp the basic and fundamental arguments of mythicists after all this time and that Neil still does not grasp the fundamental arguments of historical Jesus scholars is a prime example of the problems of this discussion.  One side just assumes the other is wrong without recognizing that the positions re just varied interpretations of the exact same evidence.  It really is nothing more than that.

The final question that must be asked: can either of them overcome their bias against the views of the other or will it continue to consume them both?  Many watching from the sidelines like me–many in the Biblioblog community–wonder if we will ever see sensible posts on the subject.  And that is the real tragedy here.  Because both James and Neil have something to offer scholarship in their own ways.  We may disagree with them at times, but disagreements don’t necessary mean that what they offer is irrelevant.   It is my hope that they both come away from this trying to find that spark of relevance in each other.

As an Addendum, I suspect that following this post I can probably forgo applying to Butler for graduate studies.  ;-)

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