The Jonah Ossuary: The Physics of ‘Work’ and Data Interpretation

When I was in elementary school, the school itself was under heavy construction (it now looks completely different than it did when I attended).  So the fifth and sixth grade classes were held in trailers attached to the brick and mortar school by a wooden ramp.  All of our subjects were taught from these trailers my last two years there; whether it was snowing outside or a humid spring day, it didn’t matter, we were stuck there.  But our teachers did try to make it fun for us.

One day, during my sixth grade science course, our science teacher attempted to demonstrate ‘work’ in physics.  Many of us only understood the colloquial definition, that is to say, homework.  But in physics the concept is different and to explain this to us he told the class to head over to one side of the trailer and push it with all of our might.  He wanted us to push over the trailer.    Some of the more sinister amongst us tried to ram the side of the trailer while the rest of us did what we could, amidst the groans of failure, to tip it.  After minutes of pushing against the wall without success, the teacher asked us to stop and face him.  He stood next to a podium which rested on four wheels and, with the gentlest push, the podium slid across the room.

The instructor folded his arms and smiled and said, in the most dry manner he could manage, “I just did more work than all of you put together.”

I’ll never forget that lesson as well as the frustration we all felt.  And in a lot of ways this lesson has an appropriate correlation to the scenario with the Jonah ossuary.  You see, James Tabor has once again blogged a response to the latest criticisms of his interpretation of the data.  But it seems to me, at least, that James is just like the sixth-grader (albeit, with a PhD) trying with all of his might to push down that wall, using modern art and bizarre arguments which seem weak, stretched, and implausible to his colleagues, only to face down reconstructions and interpretations which do a better job explaining the evidence and require much less effort than his own.

For example, he belabors the point that the first interpretations of the ‘fish/vessel’ iconography suggested a nephesh.  So what?  That doesn’t negate the fact that no one has yet seen a fish who is either (a) not on payroll or in any way related to their documentary or (b) not related to Simcha.  Nor does it negate the fact that a vessel is the more probable interpretation on the ossuary.  It’s a sleight of hand: ‘Don’t look at those scholars making the vessel interpretations, focus instead on these other interpretations which aren’t as convincing!’  Still, a nephesh is more reasonable than a ‘fish’ and is found much more often (a ratio of about 1:150, a rather conservative estimate) than fish iconography (which has a ratio of about 1:600 or so, which is also a conservative estimation).  But this is all irrelevant anyway, since the iconography is still not a fish.  No one sees a fish but those who want to see a fish.  There, I said it.

And I’m not sure why Tabor keeps using modern and post-modern photos of fish-tails in his (rather extremely anachronistic) interpretation of the ‘half fish’ (actually, it is just another vessel as I show here).  Does no one else find it remarkable that no other ‘half-fish’ images from antiquity exist for him to make a suitable comparison?

As Bob Cargill makes note, motive is always on the table in a discussion like this.  And I second that.  When you have a clear predisposition to find a fish, and you find a fish, but no other critical eye in the academy not affiliated with Simcha doesn’t see a fish, then there is definitely reason to question motive.  So, yes, James, you are correct.  It is anything but a fish (though, as we keep explaining over and over, it is most probably an ancient vessel).

P.S. And if someone is wondering, the ratio of finding a vessel or amphorae on an ossuary is a ration of about 1:120 (c.f. Figueras, DJO, Plate 30).  Rare, but not as rare as finding a fish on an ossuary.  To put it in perspective, if we found about 5,000 ossuaries, we would find about 50 ossuaries with vessels depicted on them.  Out of that same 5,000, only eight would contain fish iconography.   Again, these are conservative estimates (because I’m including images that some think might be fish, but not necessarily).  Math+history=fun!

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