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’.


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 ( 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.


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.

Joe Zias’ Reaction to BBC Article

Joe was goodly enough to pass along this comment to me, posted with his permission:

First thing one has to see is who is promoting it.  Englishman who broke the story called me a few yrs back wanting to meet with me here in Jerusalem, over a book he was writing on Qumran.

We met and he asked me about a skeleton from tomb 18 at Qumran as he was told, so he says, by the French priest who excavated the tomb that it may be John the Baptist. As I know the material quite well I told him that the skeleton there has a head and I would provide the photo of the grave the following morning which I did. A short time later the book The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran appeared and lo and behold, the story of the headless skeleton appeared.

I might add that he also helped authenticate on the basis of the patina that the lead coffin, originally discovered by BAR in Qumran was  ancient. A short time later it was determined that it was zinc not lead and then  after it was published at least three times, that it was coated with Barium-Titanium paint, patented in the 1920’s to prevent oxidization on zinc. That unique, one of a kind, first, was, as I told them probably a Bedouin water trough which morphed into a ‘ancient’ coffin lid. Shanks brought this to public attention in BAR with the headline ‘Jews, Save the Bones of your Ancestors’ and the money flowed in. As for the ‘bones of the ancestors’ c-14 dates  from AZ, showed that  two of the three, were from the late Pre-historic period, pushing , literacy, the DSS and Abraham and the clan back thousands of yrs.

Soon you will see something similiar this time it’s the $ign of Jonah, the Profit. National Geog.  same cast of characters as Talpiot tomb of Jesus (2007)  with a little help from folks at UNC-Charlotte.

Joe Zias
Science and Antiquity Group – Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Israel

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