Easter season has brought yet another claim about a find of an early Christian tomb at Talpiyot. This is actually a old story brought back from the dead.
The proponents are Jim Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici, who brought us the Jesus tomb in 2007. It returns to the site of the supposed Jesus' family tomb for another look, claiming Jewish Christian remains have been found on the site, supposedly shown through photos taken with a robotic arm that show a whale on the ossuary.
Here is Tabor's Preliminary report on the find that makes the claim that Jonah's whale is present (I have omitted footnotes and figure referecnes since I cannot display them).
6. Ossuary 6:3=Kloner 1:1. It should be noted that this ossuary, now in kokh 3, was originally in kokh 1, position one, indicating its prime location in the tomb in the first niche just to the right as one enters the tomb.45 This ossuary is by far the most fascinating in terms of its decorations. It is plain on the backside but on the front is what our excavation team concluded was a clear image of a fish, complete with tail, fins, and scales with a stick-like human figure with an oversized head coming out of its mouth.
We interpret this drawing as a presentation of the biblical story of Jonah and the “big fish.” In ancient Jewish art there are no attested representations of Jonah and the fish. Other biblical scenes are common such as Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Noah and the ark, Moses and the burning bush, Daniel in the lion’s den, especially in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. In contrast, images of what is called the “Jonah cycle” occur over 100 times in early Christian art, most often in tombs, as a way of proclaiming and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus—and thus Christian resurrection hope more generally
However, these images only appear in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, with many in the catacombs of Rome, but never earlier. If we do have a Jonah image in our tomb it would be a clear first and its implications would be quite dramatic.
How might we account for such? In our earliest gospel traditions there are a cluster of references to the “sign of Jonah,” in both the Q source and Matthew’s reworking of Mark (see Luke 11:29-32//Matthew 12:39 and Mark 8:11 with Matthew 16:4), as referring to faith in Jesus’ resurrection. As Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights, but emerged alive, Jesus would likewise emerge from the tomb/death. If our interpretation is correct this Jonah image would be the only archaeological witness to a sayings tradition attributed to Jesus predating the written gospel traditions (post 70 CE) but it would also represent archeological evidence related to faith in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—presumably by his contemporary 1st century followers.
In terms of style our Jonah image would be a first, most likely modeled from the biblical book of Jonah itself rather than developed from any preexisting motifs in Jewish art—since there appear to be none. This mean the person who drew the image is relying upon an imagined template, most likely drawn from the text and tradition of the tale of Jonah directly. Accordingly, we take the head of the figure, with its strange set of tangled lines, to represent the “weeds wrapped about my head” mentioned in Jonah 2:5 and the scales or markings on the body to indicate that the fish is “kosher,” which also fits Jewish traditions about Leviathan—the great sea monster, representing death and chaos, that the righteous will consume in victory in the last days.
Ossuary 6 has several other interesting inscriptions. The Jonah image is on the front left panel, with the head pointed down to the bottom of the ossuary, as if the fish is vomiting Jonah onto the land.
Along the top border are a series of smaller fish that seem to be swimming along a river. On the left end there is a bell-shaped circle with a cross inside. Whether this cross is intended as a Christian symbol or not belongs to the larger question of how the tomb is interpreted as a whole—that is whether it can be associated with followers of Jesus or not—but as a minimum, given the biblical Jonah story it might well represent the “bars of death” mentioned in Jonah 2:6. Jonah prays in the belly of the fish, similar to our Greek inscription, “You brought up my life from the Pit.” On the right end of the ossuary is the scaled body and tail of a fish, with only the lower portion shown as if it is diving down into water. Taken together, given the bones inside the ossuary, one might interpret the ossuary’s markings as a whole to represent a “resurrection” narrative—one enters through the cross-like “bars of death,” submerged under the water in the great fish, but then is vomited out alive on land—thus overcoming death.
This is not the only take on the find. It may not be the likely one. Four other proposals have been made, while some have complained about the way the images have been displayed.
(1) Christopher Rollston has given a full response on the ASOR blog web site. His treatment is full. He argues that this is not a whale but a nephesh tower or tomb facade. He also challenges claims about how the inscription reads on the bone box. The link is:
So check it out to get the rest of the story.
(2) An Italian writer notes that the object on the tomb is likely an amphora (a ceramic vase container) that has been rotated upside down to look like a whale.
Here is that note:
(3) Andrew McGowan on Robert Cargill's blog suggests the object in dispute is a "krater" not an amphora. A krater holds wine and can depict a nice afterlife, while an amphora is just for storage. This shows how we must interpret images we find.
Here is his comment:
I think the vase suggestion is on the right track. I would hesitate to call this an “amphora” though. The low handles and wide top suggest a “krater” which is for mixing and drinking wine at a banquet, where an amphora (which tends to have a more bulbous shape and looped handles higher up, for carrying) is for storage. The other examples depicted above are better described as “kantharos” types, which like the krater are more for serving and drinking wine than for storage. To draw a long bow, this would make the significance of the engraving evocation of a happy afterlife.
Click on the link below to see a picture of the disputed image. It is a 'museum quality replica' of the so-called 'Jonah Ossuary' from the "Jesus Discovery" website: http://thejesusdiscovery.org/intro/img_7422/
Discussion continues about the claims of a fish on an ossuary. Two more key discussions have surfaced. One is by Tom Verenna
It includes analysis and pictures of vases, as well as what Jonah and the whale look like in ancient reproductions. He ends his entry with discussion of how initial pictures of the claim appear to have been manipulated (or cropped) so handles on vases are less visible.
(4) The other is by Joan Taylor, positing the drawing is of an Unguentarium, or an oil, nard or perfume vase.
It also includes pictures. This option also fits burials, as a Krater or wine vase might.
None of these analyses see a fish as likely.
There is a major historical issue at work here. Jesus' resurrection (and thus a missing body with a belief of a physical resurrection normal for Judaism) means that in Jerusalem, the knowledge that the body could be found at Joseph's tomb could have been checked. Even the counter claim the body was stolen assumes the body is not where it originally was placed. Had a body been there, there would have been much less power to any claim of resurrection and no need for an alternative explanation of where the body was. All of these circumstances had to be persuasive enough that Paul (Saul), who was in Jerusalem shortly enough after events to persecute the church and hear the debate, came to faith with the appearence from Jesus on the Damascus road. Surely a left behind body that had a known location would not have led him into such a response, even to the point of teaching a physical resurrection as 1 Cor 15 and 1 Cor 6:12-20 show.
In addition, as I note in a comment below, Jesus could not be buried in a family tomb. That was the result of the dishonor that comes from dying as a criminal. So he could not have been placed in a tomb with others in his family or one intended for his family. The text is from the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 6:5. Here is Neusner's translation of it:
Sanh. 6:5 A. Said R. Meir, “When a person is distressed, what words does the Presence of God say? As it were: ‘My head is in pain, my arm is in pain.’
B. “If thus is the Omnipresent distressed on account of the blood of the wicked when it is shed, how much the more so on account of the blood of the righteous!”
C. And not this only, but whoever allows his deceased to stay unburied overnight transgresses a negative commandment.
D. But [if] one kept [a corpse] overnight for its own honor, [for example,] to bring a bier for it and shrouds, he does not transgress on its account.
E. And they did not bury [the felon] in the burial grounds of his ancestors.
F. But there were two graveyards made ready for the use of the court, one for those who were beheaded or strangled, and one for those who were stoned or burned.
Note how line F helps us see the subject of burial in line E. Crucifixion was seen as a form of felon death, even if it is not explciitly named here. It was seen as hanging by a tree and the death involved not being able to breath at the end, like strangling.
Finally, there is Richard Bauckham's take on what the inscription is on this tomb. That piece is “The Four-Line Greek Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B: A Summary of the Options for Reading and Interpreting it”, and it can be found on Larry Hurtado’s Blog: