Prof. Robin Jensen Refutes Any Claim that She Concurs with the Interpretation in “The Jesus Discovery”

From Prof. Robin Jensen, Vanderbilt University

In December, 2010, I was asked to participate in a National Geographic film project that—I was led to believe—would investigate the image of Jonah in early Christian art. I was asked to fly to Rome in January in order to be filmed in the catacombs and comment on the figure of Jonah as it appeared in the iconographic décor of those underground cemeteries. It was made clear that my expertise in ancient Christian art, especially in regard to representations of Jonah, was the reason for this invitation.

No one, prior to my arriving in Rome, mentioned ossuaries or Jerusalem, much less the Tomb of Jesus. I was under the impression that the film—being produced for The National Geographic Society—was to be focused on early Christian art. Once I got to Rome, I began to realize that Simcha Jacobovici was involved in some way, but I was still very much in the dark about what that involvement was.

The first day of filming was in the Catacomb of San Sebastiano. I was rather surprised that Simcha kept looking for fish images, rather than Jonah images. He seemed resistant to accept my correction. Jonah is not swallowed by a fish in early Christian art but, rather, by a sea monster who normally is depicted with a curly tail, paws, and ears. No matter. Simcha kept steering me to fish imagery and tried over my objections to insist that these were somehow connected to the iconography of Jonah. Nothing I said seemed to make any dent in his certitude. Moreover, we had quite a debate about dating the images. Simcha preferred a much earlier date than most responsible scholars would allow. The images are late third-century at the earliest (and most are early fourth-century).

That first evening, I was presented with a non-disclosure agreement and asked to sign it in order to hear the “whole story.”

Note: Up until this point I have honored that policy. Now that the information has been made public through book publication etc., I understand that the policy is no longer binding. In any case, nothing that I say here violates that agreement.

Once I had signed, I briefly was shown a set of grainy black and white photographs and told their version of the Talpiot tomb story by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici. I have to admit that I had only distantly followed the earlier ruckus about the Jesus tomb and, while seriously skeptical, had not really studied the matter. I began to understand at this point, however, why I had been brought to Rome. It was not for the reason that I had been told.

At the end of our second day of filming (in the Catacomb of Priscilla), someone suddenly thrust a photograph into my hands and asked me to comment upon it while cameras were running. I was asked if it might be an image of Jonah. I really didn’t know what to say. What I did say was something like this (I don’t recall my actual words):

“If (and it’s a big IF) this were an actual image of Jonah from the first century, it looks nothing like the images we have just been discussing. If this dates to the first century, it also would be two hundred years older (more or less) than the next earliest image of Jonah. It would be unique. I cannot say more than that.”

I did not say that I believed the photograph to show an early Christian image of Jonah. In fact I have not clear idea what the image was that I was shown. I had no opportunity to study the photograph prior to my being asked, on camera, what I thought. In a later meeting, I had a longer time to study and came to the conclusion that the image likely depicted something other than Jonah.

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.


Robin Jensen

15 thoughts on “Prof. Robin Jensen Refutes Any Claim that She Concurs with the Interpretation in “The Jesus Discovery”

  1. Robin,

    I am curious to understand what, if any, discovery would convince you of some of these claims? It seems you make a quick judgement and if so, you must know what to look for specifically.


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  3. Robin, Simcha did not put you in the film for that very reason in connection with this find. He has never twisted your words and has honored your request. Nothing was twisted. You appear in the film totally out of connection with the Jerusalem tomb, only the catacombs. Actually you first saw the image over drinks at the bar of our hotel, no cameras, and we talked about it for quite some time. Things were very friendly. Lori and I were there. Maybe you forgot. Then we spent a day in D.C., all of us, and talked about it and at that time you seemed to be still be leaning toward the image being a fish-whether Jonah or not. Maybe you have changed your mind, as you have not told me and if so I would really like to hear what you think now.

  4. While it might be exciting to consider an item as proof or disproof of a theory, it is always foolish to go looking only for artifacts that would prove any theory. All artifacts must be examined in conjunction with their surroundings, as well as when and where any specific surroundings are located in relation to what other locations you are trying to link. While Simcha’s televised work often allows us to see some artifacts we might never have seen prior, even an amateur enthusiast like myself can very often see big holes in the links that are trying to be made.
    Professor Jensen rightly feels a need to clarify her experience and position. I appreciate her clarification.

  5. James,

    I did not change my mind, because I never made any for-the-record statement about what that ossuary image depicts. I can only speak about the iconography in the Roman catacombs with any expertise. Thus, to suggest that I agree with your interpretation is a complete misrepresentation. Nice conversation over drinks or not (while being presented with something I had no idea was about to be sprung on me), it’s simply impolite to use your colleagues in this way. Next time check with your “sources” before you cite them. I did not then, nor do I now, have any opinion on what this shows. After our conversation in DC, I am more inclined to agree with those who think it’s a nephesh tower.

    I am sure you don’t mean to burn bridges, but that’s what you are doing.


  6. I apologize Robin if I misunderstood you. What I wrote was what happened, not on camera but in our personal conversations. No one was put on the spot, it was a relaxed back and forth exchange. And yes, it was not “on the record,” nor were my views either. We were talking about it. It was not a fuzzy B&W photo but a Hi-Res color…I still have it in my Rome folder. I have never told anyone you have taken an official position. There are two art historians in our group of 18 consultants who think it is a Jonah image and my reference was to them, not to you, as you said you were not sure. At the end of the D.C. meeting you said to the whole group, when we summarized and went around the table, that you thought it was a fish but had questions about the stick figure and the limbs. Thanks for updating me on your current views about a tower. I don’t see why these exchanges should burn any bridges, they surely don’t with me and I have never intentionally misrepresented anything. Warmest best as ever, James

  7. I’m confused. How exactly was Prof. Jensen misquoted?

    Did someone name her as one who supported the fish conclusion? If not, what the heck is this article about?

  8. This is most assuredly “off the record.” But I must admit! Some scholars, academics and professionals sometimes seem overly sensitive, vulnerable, biased, confused and confusing. Other than that they’re alright.

    Were this “on the record,” I would have said something cordial and non-controversial and certainly not what I just said “off the record.”

  9. Hi Robin,

    I must say I’m disappointed in your portrayal of being somehow tricked into commenting on the Jonah image and being misquoted. First, I haven’t quoted you. Second, I have the transcript of our interview in the catacombs of Rome.

    At time code 05:11:32 on the tape I say; “I brought with me this image we talked about.” At time code 05:14:02 I say; “I’ve got this image that we talked about briefly last night that we got in Jerusalem, and I just wanted to get your take on it.” Meaning, twice in the catacombs I referred to the previous night when you saw the image, signed the non-disclosure, and agreed to be interviewed.

    At 05:14:27 you state; “first of all, it’s Jonah coming out of the mouth of the fish, we only ever see Jonah coming out of the mouth of a monster here [in Rome] so….I don’t think anything from this part of the world would show Jonah coming out of the mouth of a fish. It’s also…more primitive, so I would date it….much earlier than this.” At 05:14:54 you say that the image is “easily from the east, and I might have guessed Asia Minor or maybe Israel.” You go on to say; “it’s very schematic, Jonah is very schematically drawn here.”

    At 05:15:52 you surprise us with a real insight because you say; “in this case, the fish is more like the fish that we see representing Jesus in Christian art.” You then describe the fish as “a real fish with scales [and] two fins.”

    At this point I’m intrigued by what you’re saying and you make clear that whereas in Rome the Jonah images depict Jonah coming out of a sea monster, in this instance the Jonah is coming out of “Christ.” In your words, at 05:18:07; “it’s very different from what we see here, stylistically different, and different in a very important way; if this is Jonah coming out of the mouth of a fish, and not Jonah coming out of the mouth of a curled tailed sea monster, we have….a kind of hybrid because we do have fish here [in Rome] and we have Jonahs here in Rome, but these are later and what we see…here is the idea of Jonah coming….resurrected….we have Jonah being resurrected, but by a fish and not from a monster.” At 05:19:13 you say; “we could say that this Jonah is being resurrected in the body of Christ, in Christ….this Jonah is actually even being more specific of being resurrected out and of…out of faith in Christ.”

    Rather than planting ideas in your head, my reaction at 05:19:43 is; “that’s very interesting because I hadn’t thought of it.” And your response is that this image relates to a “funeral meal.” At 05:20:09 you state, pointing to some Catacomb painting, “and so it means perhaps that one eats the fish as a sign of both participating in Christ but actually as also having the wonderful meal that’s promised at the End of Days, in the next world.” At 05:20:32 I state; “so this is….I guess important?” And you respond at 05:20:41 “it’s very important [laugh] and I think it….may show us that ummm….Christian art has gone back much further than we thought.”

    At 05:21:19 you state; “it also shows us that people are already thinking of the story of Jonah in figurative ways to show in a funeral connection, in the tomb, to show the hope that the Christian has of resurrection from death.” At this point, I wrap up the interview but you have one more thing to add at 05:22:49; “if this is Jonah coming out of the mouth of the fish, we have Jonah not resurrected from the monster but Jonah resurrected from Christ.”

    Robin, you asked us not to use any of it in the film. We didn’t. You asked us to change your reference to fish images in the catacombs from 3rd century to 4th century, and we did as you asked. I’m sorry to learn that you now no longer know if this is a Jonah image, nor do you know if it is a fish image (which you never question in the above), you forgot that you were shown all this the night before, you forgot that you agreed to be interviewed on it, and you obviously have forgotten your insight that Jonah emerging out of the fish, instead of a pagan Roman curly tailed sea monster, is a direct attestation of resurrection through Jesus.

    It was insightful then. It is insightful now.

    Best regards,

  10. Shalom & Erev tov…it is a pity that no-one is using the word(s) most applicable to this entire matter: hoax, fraud, come to mind. Having studied the material — and seeing no 1st century CE evidence of anything — I can agree with Robin Jensen. I was think she was lied to. I would add a further thought (if anyone can provide Hebrew or koine Greek 1st century contemporaneous documentation, you will have a picnic bench in Gan Eden, as I can read both): ‘Yeshua benMiriam’ was the fabrication of a Graeco-Roman-Egyptian revelatory cult. There was no pathenogensis, no discipleship, no ‘passion’, no Gol Goatha, no ‘empty tomb’, no ‘resurrection’. The 3rd century koine Greek forgeries (the ‘gospels’) are pathetic propoganda. There is, however, a direct road leading from the exterminationist phantasies of crucifictionism to the gates of Auschwitz. There has NEVER been a crucifictionist ‘covenant’. STEPHAN PICKERING / Chofetz Chayim benAvraham

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  14. Stephan Pickering, you haven’t studied any material except your own agenda for anti-Christian propaganda. Could you please just go away?

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