A Reply from Prof. Tabor—A Jonah Fish Image or a Tower Tomb Monument?

James D. Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

 I want to thank ASOR’s executive director Andy Vaughn, guest editors Eric Meyers and Christopher Rollston, and participating colleagues, for devoting time and space to a special consideration of the ideas expressed in the non-specialist book, The Jesus Discovery as well as the more technical paper I have published at the web site The Bible and Interpretation, “A Preliminary Report of an Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem” during the month of March. Whether damned or praised—and so far there has been much more of the former than the latter—it is an honor to have ones ideas considered by colleagues. Our exploration of this second Talpiot tomb (i.e. the “patio tomb”) was in response to an informal but unanimous vote of 47 scholars held at the end of the 2008 international Jerusalem conference “The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins,” organized by James H. Charlesworth. The papers from that conference are forthcoming in 2012 with Eerdmans press. Both Eric Meyers and Chris Rollston were in attendance. As a group we agreed on little else, but all of us affirmed that exploring the nearby “patio tomb,” less than 40 meters from the so-called “Jesus” family tomb, might potentially yield more scientific information that would shed light on both tombs (and a 3rd “ruined” tomb) nearby—all located on an ancient estate along the ancient road in the present area known Armon HaNetziv (the Promenade is meters away). I thank Simcha Jacobovici and his amazing team for providing both the funding and the expertise to make such an exploration by robotic camera possible. I have described in our book the many seemingly insurmountable challenges we faced and overcame. It is all quite an extraordinary story. Rami Arav and I were granted the excavation license for both tombs by the Israel Antiquities Authority in 2009 (renewed in 2010, 2011) under the supervision of Janet Levy, chair of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Our operations were thoroughly professional and carried out according to IAA specifications with normal IAA supervision. We decided to concentrate first on the “patio” tomb that had been briefly examined in 1981 by Amos Kloner and his assistants on behalf of the IAA. All this is described in detail in both the book and the paper mentioned above.

The tomb contained a number of interesting features, as all tombs of this period and provenance do, but two ossuaries in particular drew our special consideration—nos.  5 and 6 (kokh 1) on our published map. No. 5 had inscribed what we have tentatively identified as a “Jonah and the great fish” image and no. 6 a fascinating 14 letter, four line inscription in Greek. Both of these are described in detail in my paper and several potential readings of the inscription are explored. These two finds in particular were the subject of a cordial but intense discussion and analysis sponsored by the National Geographic Society on May 19, 2010. Participants were: James Charlesworth, Steven Fine, Simcha Jacobovici, Robin Jensen, Christopher Rollston, and me.  Eric Meyers and Rami Arav were invited but unfortunately could not attend. I later met with Eric Meyers and summarized for him what we had covered. Due to the sensitivity of the finds and the funds invested in the investigation by National Geographic (and now subsequently Discovery Television), we all signed non-disclosure agreements which all of us have strictly abided by until released this week. Once the project was acquired by Discovery TV we brought in eight other scholars as our consultants, among them Richard Bauckham, Greg Snyder, and Dom Crossan. Since the others have not yet spoken publically I will not mention their names at this point as several have told me privately that they are appalled at the less than professional level of the interchanges they have seen on this subject and so far have not chosen not to participate. My hope is that others will speak as time goes on so that we can have a balance of all views expressed, which I think is the purpose of the forum. Taken together, our consultants represent a distinguished and balanced group of art historians, textual experts, and scholars of early Christianity and ancient Judaism. We have learned immensely from one another and our relations have been exceptionally cordial and professional. I have over 1,350 e-mails that have been exchanged between the sixteen of us in a thoroughly professional and courteous dialogue regarding these finds and their interpretation.

Just this week Meyers has offered the following analysis in his essay on this ASOR Blog:

In fact, the image in the book is so poorly reproduced in my copy that one suspects it has been intentionally altered so that no one could see what the image really is. Indeed, the image actually seems to resemble a nephesh, or tomb monument, like those found in many places in Jerusalem in the first century CE and depicted on ossuaries of this very period (so for example in fig. 13 or 30 of Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, 1994). A nephesh is the above-ground monument of a tomb that marks the tomb below and the one(s) buried there.

I will ignore the insulting insinuation regarding deliberate alternation. However, Meyer’s suggestion that there is a nephesh (or tomb) monument instead of a “Jonah” image seems to be the main alternative for the image put forth so far on the ASOR Blog. Meyers’ suggestion is now supported, so far as I can tell, by Steven Fine (who first suggested this in Washington D.C.), Jodi Magness, Rollston, Bob Cargill, and a chorus of others (I do not know if Robin Jensen agrees). We considered this alternative at the time of the discovery, along with others (i.e., vase or amphora), as I have mentioned in my paper. Yet, for the reasons I will enumerate here, we found the nephesh possibility decidedly unlikely.

1.  The disputed figure occupies the left panel of the front of the ossuary. The orientation of the figure, as shown in the photo in my book, is what we identify as the tail of the fish at the top and the head of the figure pointed down, barely touching the bottom incised border of the ossuary. If this image is a nephesh it would be upside down—with its highly irregular “base” in the air, unlike any other example on ossuaries of which I am aware—and I would of course welcome any examples of anything close to this. Using Cargill’s example of the well-known “Absolom pillar,” you would turn it on its head and it would be “leaning” over like our proverbial Pisa tower. The museum at Discovery Times Square, where the current Dead Sea Scroll exhibit is on display, has constructed two very lovely museum quality reproductions of both of these ossuaries and they are on display there now in a special exhibit. Since our photos were necessarily limited by our highly challenging circumstances—even with the amazing technical capabilities of the robotic arm—seeing the ossuary as it would look if we could bring it out of the tomb I think helps to orient oneself—especially regarding this idea that we are looking at a funerary monument or pillar. The craftsmen who constructed this replica tried to present most of the features accurately though one should not rely on this but our published photos for details (available at thejesusdicovery.org).

Museum reproduction of ossuary 6, Talpiot “Patio” Tomb

I should point out here that the right side of the front panel is only hypothetically drawn in here since it is blocked by the adjacent ossuary (see our map of this kokh published in my article and in the book). The square temple-like figure has some kind of pattern inside—probably a square within a square, but we can only see the portion shown here—that looks like a “gallows.”  The image we identify as a fish, however, is completely visible in the photos, though you have to put several together to get the composite view. We have done the best with what we have, and I commend our team for its exceptional work. There are six little fish-like images incised along the upper border, and what appear to be a “half fish” on the right end, as if it is diving into the water. The left end, as seen here, has an entrance like barred doorway. Seen in this perspective, I think that the hypothesis that this is a common, ordinary, nephesh is untenable, and I am puzzled that anyone would seriously suggest it.

 2. In both orientation and form I have seen nothing resembling this. Even the “curved” nephesh that Rahmani reproduces, which Eric Meyers has in his post, only has that appearance because it is squeezed between two rosettes—as Rahmani clearly explains—not because it represents the style of a nephesh. The same is the case for the images produced by Hachlili, Figueras, and others. Unfortunately that ossuary is not extant but its curved sides are exceptional—in contrast to the straight pillar-like shape that is normal. The image in our ossuary 6 is free standing, so that in both shape and style it is clearly something quite different. Fine was kind enough to provide me with all his published articles related to this question, including the one he posted today in the ASOR Blog, and there is nothing even close to this figure in any of his examples (despite his claim in this regard). I urge readers to take a look for themselves.

3. I am convinced, as are several others we consulted, that what we clearly have here is a “great fish” drawn in an eastern style. The oannes-like “stick figure” is quite clear, with two arms carefully postured, and two legs.  As one of our consultants pointed out—the artist who drew this image was likely reluctant to represent a clear human figure in graphic form in a funerary context. The eye of the fish is clearly visible on the right side. I am not sure what the detached ヲ-like etching to the left of the figure might represent, and I welcome any suggestions. The head of the figure is being spat out onto land, wrapped in what we take to be the seaweed mentioned in the book of Jonah—thus its downward orientation to the border of the ossuary, representing land. If this is in fact a Jonah image, its creator is taking his or her cues from the text of Jonah itself—not from a pattern of evolving types—since we have no Jonah images, or for that matter, any biblical scene from this period. The text of Jonah seems to provide the clues and that is how I have interpreted its several features in my paper:

 I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried . . . Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit (Jonah 2:2-6).

The half fish on the right side represented being taken under the waters; the door-like bars are the “bars of Sheol,” with the ossuary full of bones representing death, the fish expelling the stick-like human figure representing being brought up out of Sheol—again all taken from the text of our biblical book of Jonah. It is possible that the square-like structure on the right side represents a temple or hekalot idea—also mentioned in the text of Jonah.

I conclude that this interpretation, that has been supported by a number of our consultants, is much more compelling than the assertion that this is a common ordinary “pillar”—which I am convinced is simply is not the case. My sense, regrettably, is that personal issues, as reflected in the sometimes sarcastic and disrespectful tone of many of the reactions to our work, have been a factor in shaping what could otherwise be a most profitable discussion of this fascinating ossuary.

My main purpose in this post has been to offer these observations on the discussion so far of ossuary 6, but since we also have a lovely museum reproduction of ossuary 5 as well, I thought that I would present it here so readers can orient themselves to just where the four-line Greek inscription appears on that ossuary.  Those living near or visiting New York can see these reproductions at the museum through April 15th.

Finally, I must say that I am surprised by Meyer’s assertion that even if this inscription does have to do with life after death that it would represent nothing unusual on an ossuary. There are less than a dozen epigrams or epitaphs among the more than 600 known ossuary inscriptions (Cotton, et al., CIIP) and all of them, with maybe one exception, have to do prohibitions against moving bones. Whatever this one says, it seems that it is anything but common—as all our consulting scholars initially agreed in the D.C. meeting. I anxiously await Rollston’s translation since he too, if I understand him correctly, has now changed his mind and thinks this inscription is quite ordinary as is everything else found in this tomb.

Museum reproduction of ossuary 5, Talpiot “Patio” Tomb


20 thoughts on “A Reply from Prof. Tabor—A Jonah Fish Image or a Tower Tomb Monument?

  1. Dr. Tabor,
    I understand that many people are arguing that this image is a nefesh. However, what are the reasons for not thinking it could be an illustration of an amphora?

    Thanks in advance for your response.

    L. Huber

  2. It really surprises me that Meyer, et al. ( and just today Prof. Jensen wrote me that she too is leaning toward the “nephesh” idea would favor this above an obviously more likely position-an amphora. I do not think is is an amphora, for the reasons I give above for the Jonah image, but at least it could be argued whereas the nephesh idea, it seems to me at least, is impossible on the face of it. The “tower” simply will not float. Baukham, one of our very able consultants, who also helped us with a brilliant reading of the inscription that I think he will be posting here, had suggested that, and I think Greg Snyder (who can speak for himself if he wishes) was also leaning that way. Both of these scholars were an immense help to me in my paper and we carried on an amazing and respectful dialogue over many months-as we have done with Dom Crossan and others. It would be great to raise the level of this discussion to something beyond personal innuendos and mud slinging accusations. Thank you for your suggestion. It seems obvious to me and I cover it in my paper and we include it in the film. Rami Arav, our archaeologist, first entertained both the nephesh, and then the amphora idea, before settling on the Jonah image-which I think clearly has the preponderance in terms of possibility. I look forward to someone, maybe it will be Richard or Greg, that will argue it here so we can explore the possibilities.

  3. James,

    Although I find your fish interpretation unpersuasive, I certainly agree that it’s an interpretation that merits some consideration and discussion. But a significant part of the problem, it seems to me, is that this discussion is only now beginning to take place - after a press release on the eve of Easter. I wonder if the strong push back has less to do with your interpretation and more to do with what appears to be a short-cutting of the academic process. We’re told of an extensive discussion, hosted by the NGS (but with a non-disclosure agreement), and you refer to unnamed epigraphists and art historians who agree with your interpretation. But we don’t know who they are, and more importantly, we can’t see/evaluate their arguments. Why not, after using this wonderfully exciting camera technology, let the specialists - epigraphists and art historians - work on this material and publish their interpretations in peer-review venues? Perhaps a collection of scholarly essays that presents a range of interpretive options *by specialists*. I recognize, of course, that much of your funding is coming from media sources that are anxious to get things out there, and to make a splash. But it seems to me that we’re in danger of sacrificing the sober and critical (and yes, sometimes slow) process of evaluation - something that I sense you value - when we become beholden to the sensationalist interest of our financial backers.

    Anyway, that’s my take on this very interesting discussion.

    Best regards,


  4. Thanks for your input Jason. I am curious though, if you are not convinced this is a fish what is your own leaning and why-I know it could be an involved question, but briefly if you don’t mind.

    I think what you suggest is pretty much what has happened and is happening. We only made these discoveries in 2010-2011. I have now published my preliminary report with my own interpretation. Rami and I met this week to work out our plan for our joint publication and we met with the President of AIA the other night to talk about that. We have put our evidence before our peers and the discussions have begun. Others can offer whatever they wish. So far no one has offered, or really had time yet to offer, full and serious interpretations other than these blog posts. Are you saying I should not have given my views until others had spoken first? Of the 18 consultants brought in by NatGeo and Discovery only two that I know of have said they don’t want to get involved in a public discussion-both of them art historians. I think the others either have spoken or will in the future. And yes, let’s hope what emerges is a serious of scholarly discussions. I am doing proposing a paper for SBL and I think Steven Fine is as well. There are lots of possibilities.

    Best, James

    I don’t get the Easter thing…Feb 28th is hardly the “eve” of Easter and that date was picked by Simon & Schuster not the Discovery film-having more to do with the Spring catalogue schedule. It was totally arbitrary.The book is another thing entirely and only three chapters are devoted to the new discoveries in the “patio” tomb, the rest of the book is an overview of the broader issues related to the Talpiot tombs in general-but in a non-specialist way. It is not an academic book but I hope it does reflect considered academic positions but in a way accessible to the public.

  5. Hello Dr. Tabor.

    I do see similarities between the Jonah image and an amphora. You mention the small fish on the border; I would like to see those, because they change the context so dramatically in favor of a fish image. I can’t find them online. Can you provide a website with some good images of the small fish?

    Thank you in advance for a response,
    Kim Anderson

  6. Thanks for responding, James. I suppose if pressed I would lean toward amphora. But I’m not an art historian, and this is precisely my frustration. I just haven’t seen enough discussion amongst the specialists to make an informed decision on the iconography. I agree that the nephesh seems to have an orientation problem - and I’d love to hear supporters of this interpretation respond to this issue - but I think your fish’s orientation is equally problematic. I would think one would expect a horizontal fish, or if spacial limitations required vertical, then at least a vertical-upward orientation, with the figure “resurrecting” toward the opening of the ossuary.

    I will openly confess that I do have a bias against your interpretation, a bias forged not at the altar but in the academy. I think we all tend to approach novel and spectacular theories with a healthy measure of skepticism. That’s the nature of our business, right? And frankly, when a new “Jesus discovery” is announced in the shadow of Easter (surely Lent is sufficiently Easter Eve-ish!), I tend to turn my skepticism lever from healthy to hyper. This doesn’t mean I can’t be persuaded. But the threshold is perhaps a bit higher than normal. I suspect I’m not alone.

    In any case, Chicago in November promises to be loads of fun.


  7. Good grief, Jason, why do you keep babbling about Easter? If your bias is forged at the academy, why do you even mention the Easter holiday, which is in April, which comes after the entire month of March? What does that have to do with anything regarding interpretation of the image on the tomb?

    I know — it is a way to insinuate bad faith. But it’s ridiculous, a way of rooting about for something to complain about. If this was done at some other time of the year, it would be close to some other holiday.

    And the idea that the information is coming out too quickly, again, if it were up to the Heathers in the achaeological community, this would kept in a vault for 25 years until they came up with a theory that would be acceptable to the cool crowd.

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  9. Dr. Tabor,
    I was able to view the small fish on the Jonah ossuary border, and the fish tail, now that your Jesus Discovery site is working. As an artist, I can only offer some comments about visual aspects of the image. One detail I notice is that the weeds you mention, on the head of the stick figure are not understandable visually if one views them as the base of an amphora: not spatially, not schematically. They make no sense. Nor do the lines of the stick figure, extending upward into the body of the fish, make any sense visually if this were meant to be an amphora. They do not define the form of the amphora, and they say nothing about with what might be inside an amphora, nor do they appear to be decorative; they don’t relate to an amphora at all, in my opinion. The several amphoras on ossuaries that I’ve seen on line, look more stylized, schematic, mechanical, and decorative than this image, which is incredibly detailed and individual; it looks more organic- a fish rather than an object. I turned a photo of the catacomb fish upside down and placed it next to the Jonah image. The shapes were very similar. It’s striking to me that less than 200 feet away from this image is another visual anomaly: the facade of the Talpiot tomb.
    Thank you for all the work you’ve done on bringing the Talpiot Tomb to the attention of open minded people. When I read some of the comments directed at you and your work by otherwise thoughtful people, I get the urge to apologize for the human species.

    Kim Anderson

  10. Chris, what you are describing sounds like a Roman soldier.
    Are you saying Christianity spread through stories spread in the Roman Army?

  11. Thanks Kim. We became obviously convinced it is a fish/Jonah for all the detailed reasons I have given and so far no one has offered a single argument that I would consider weighty against that thesis. The main refrain seems to be it is “up-side-down,” which does not make sense in water, if it is a fish, but ironically, having a tower up-side-down, resting on its ball top was no problem. The misunderstanding had nothing to do with the orientation of the photos. Steve Fine, Chris, Eric, Robin and others on our consulting team were provided full information about orientation, photos, etc. I honestly love the “fish” look of the lovely blue perfume flask that Tom posted at Joan Taylor’s piece. But as fish-like as it is, no one would say it is a fish. The same thing is going on here in the reverse. I find it hard to believe anyone would say this “fish” image is an amphora or perfume flask. Also on the latter, I don’t think there are any examples on ossuaries…so that is another point to consider.

  12. Of course it could be a kind of flower pot. The ball (flower) is definitely attached to something that looks like the main stem. The other lines look like smaller stems. The side loops appear to be for carrying.

    It’s a odd shaped conical pot, but that might be appropriate for a single large flower.

    To me, the fish interpretation seems like a stretch, but I guess it’s as good as any other interpretation at this point.

    Quite a mystery. Erich von Daniken would see it as a rocket ship.

  13. As an archaeologist specializing in ancient building/engineering,what struck me about the image, is the laying out lines/scratches which lie just beyond and parallel to the main image. These horizontal scratches appear to mark the main divisions in the design, suggesting some care was taken over the proportions of the image.
    Initially, this, its form and the overall symmetry, suggested that the image was a more ‘architectural’ design, however, if this was the case it would appear to be upside down, and, for no good reason.
    Thus, while I was keen for it be be representative of architecture, I can’t square this with its orientation, and would have to conclude it was a image of some form of vessel or container.
    Also it appears that a piece along the top of the image has flaked off, enhancing the impression of a tail.

  14. As an Archaeologist and Christian, I am interested in Dr. Tabor’s findings. However, I have found certain information either left out of the discussion entirely or quickly dismissed. In the previous documentary The “Jesus” Tomb, it was mentioned that a Greek inscription was on the wall inside the tomb. I have found no mention of that inscription anywhere else even though it may shed incredible light on this sensitive topic. Was it part of the original IAA report? Can anyone shed light on whether it was ever photographed or deciphered? What were the other names on the ossuaries found inside the “patio tomb” according to the 1981 report? Without the answers to these and many other questions I have regarding Dr. Tabor’s findings, I cannot understand why there is such a rush to conclusions - one way or the other. I think his work is worthy of further investigation and consideration, though I am not ready to sign off on his conclusions.

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  16. Without discussing the larger question of the possible or impossible connections between the “Patio Tomb” and the “Jesus Family Tomb” (Talpiot cave), I would like to address what I see engraved on the façade of the ossuary, the so-called “fish” image presented to us in the press conference in NY (28.February.2012) , and in the article written by Professor James Tabor and posted on “Bible and Interpretation” and in ASOR Blog. It is interesting to note that almost all those who objected to the “Jesus Family Tomb” (Talpiot Tomb) are also among those who dismiss Tabor’s claims regarding the “Patio Tomb.” These ferocious attacks appear to derive from the opponents’ wish to protect their previous objections to Tabor and Jacobovici’s claims concerning the Talpiot Tomb. Science evolves by debate in an academic atmosphere based on facts, interpretations by open minded people with impartial views. This does not seem to be the case in relation to the “Patio Tomb.”
    There have been a variety of interpretations of the ossuary photos. They include a pillar, a perfume bottle, Nefesh, Avshalom tomb and a fish as suggested by Tabor and Simcha. I am not a specialist in biblical archaeology or in the study of Jewish burial tombs from the first century CE. I have studied geology, biology and paleontology and examined fish fossils in the Late Cenomanian rocks of the Jerusalem region. In my opinion, the most likely image in question on this ossuary is that of a fish.
    The outline of the present image is fish-like, the tail is asymmetrical with a slightly concave end. The location of the short direction lines from both sides of the body is typical to fins of a fish that swims downwards. The semicircular engravings on the base of the stick figure is clearly a depiction of a gill cover of a fish. It seems that all the rows with the geometric designs including the four “Y” shape images are a schematic representation of a cultural origin.
    The rounded form outside the fish’s mouth containing many waving lines possible portrays a human face that can be observed side-wise. The two eyes (one narrow line the other just a dot) , a diagonal nose connected to a brow, a small mouth, a pointed chin, and wavy hair, all appear to be a schematic head of a human face. The face is connected to a stick inside the fish’s mouth. This would lead one to believe that there is a possibility that the “Patio Tomb” is an early Christian tomb as Tabor maintains.
    Appeared first on “Bible and Interpretation”
    Amnon Rosenfeld

  17. Just posted this at bibinterp.com; thought it might be helpful to post it here, too.
    Greetings all,

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have no special training in biblical history or archaeology. (I am an academic in a different field.) Nonetheless, after reading the Tabor/Jacobovici book and trying to follow the internet discussion, I must say that I find quite convincing Professor Tabor’s interpretation of the Jonah/Great Fish image, and his reasons for rejecting the interpretations as a nefesh, amphora, or unguentariam.

    For what it is worth, I would like to add the following ideas to the discussion:

    1. If Professor Tabor’s interpretation of the image as a depiction of Jonah being expelled from the great fist is indeed correct, then might the symbol on the facade of the Garden Tomb
    be an icon form of the same image? The “inverted V” could represent the fish’s mouth and the circle could represent the head of Jonah.

    2. Some have suggested that Professor Tabor’s interpretation cannot be correct because the orientation of the fish, tail up mouth down, would be unnatural. I would like to suggest that perhaps the ossuary artist had in mind not only Jesus’s “sign of Jonah” (from the Q source) but also Jesus’s lesson to Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (from John 3:3). Tail up and mouth down would then be the natural orientation.

    -Drew Sills

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