Monday, March 05, 2012

Was there a predisposition to find Jonah and the whale?

While revisiting my old post on the Errors and Inaccuracies found at the "Jesus Family Tomb" website (see also The Talpiot Tomb and the Bloggers III), I noticed that one of them related to comments made there about the Book of Jonah, some of which are garbled, but some of which make sense.  The relevant part is here quoted:
The Book of Jonah is centered around a major conflict between God and Jonah, initiated by Jonah’s resistance to obey God, who calls upon him to declare judgment in Nineveh. Jonah resists this calling and attempts to flee, only to be thrown overboard as a result of a storm inflicted by God. Jonah is then swallowed by a great fish sent by God.
Jonah remains in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights, before reciting a prayer asking God for mercy. The previously relentless God answers Jonah’s prayer, and forgives him. Jonah then proceeds to fulfill the call of prophecy, and manages to turn 120, 000 people to God in Ninevah.
Why is this worthy of comment?  I recall being puzzled by the inclusion of this page at the time since there is no obvious relationship between Jonah and the (original) Talpiot tomb.  Bear in mind that this appeared in 2007, several years before the excavation of Talpiot Tomb B with its alleged imagery of Jonah and the fish.  Does this demonstrate, therefore, that there was at least a predisposition to interpret a symbol found in a subsequent tomb as Jonah and the fish?

The 2007 website also features a page on the Fish as an early Christian symbol. Moreover, the book that accompanied the website and documentary, Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No One Wanted to Find (2007), 153-4, likewise features material about Jonah, here in the context of Jacobovici's descent into the Talpiot Tomb where he lands in "piles of modern texts falling apart at the touch of my fingers", one of which was "a damaged book of Jonah":
The irony, which was not lost on me, was that Jesus, who spoke in parables and codes, told his disciples that the only "sign" that he would pass on to them regarding his mission on earth was "the sign of the prophet Jonah."  Christian theologians have always interpreted this to mean that just as Jonah spent three days in the belly of the whale, Jesus was predicting that he would spend three days in the belly of the tomb before he was resurrected.  I had studied this passage in Luke because I believe Jesus was following in the footsteps of Jonah when he sailed to the mysterious "land of the Gadarenes."  It was on this fateful trip to the land of the Gadarenes that Jesus, according to the Gospels, quelled the tempest, and it was in the necropolis of Gadara that he exorcised demons from two men and transferred the demons into a herd of swine (Matthew 8.24-27; Mark 4.35-41; Luke 8.22-25).**  It was a code.  Strangely enough, I had been working on that code, parallel with the search for the tomb. Now I found myself crawling in the dark over half a dozen books of Jonah, in the belly of what was arguably Jesus' death chamber.
Somewhat surprisingly, Jonah and the whale is in Jacobovici's mind at the very moment that he is exploring this tomb, several years before the discovery of an alleged image of Jonah and the fish on an ossuary in the tomb next door.

The fact that we might have a demonstrable predisposition for a particular interpretation does not, of course, invalidate that interpretation.  And if the experts end up agreeing that the picture in Talpiot Tomb B is of Jonah and the Whale, the predisposition will simply be interesting but irrelevant. However, where there is scepticism about the interpretation of the picture as Jonah and the Whale, the natural human inclination to find what one is looking for may need to be taken into account.

** Note: The references given here at to the Stilling of the Storm pericope and not to the Gerasene Demoniac, for which see Matt. 8.28-34 // Mark 5.1-20 // Luke 8.26-39.   The "two men" detail is taken from Matthew's (secondary) redaction of Mark's story.

8 comments:

Brian Springer said...

Very interesting. Though for the sake of keeping the peace, I think that it would be best if we forget about trying to find any predisposition on Tabor's and Simcha's part, let us focus instead on what the expert's have to say. But thanks anyway for bringing that to our attention. As always Mark, you have an eye to detail and knack for seeing things that the rest of us overlook.

Geoff Hudson said...

" natural human inclination to find what one is looking for may need to be taken into account."

Is professor Simcha cleverer than one thinks? It could be a matter of $'s, which might weigh heavily upon his 'natural human inclination'. But he seems to have the academic world dancing to his tune.

And how many instances are there where one finds, incorrectly, what one's 'natural human inclination' tells one?

steph said...

oh I don't know... there's a difference between 'trying to find' and pointing out the glaringly obvious. So was there? Of course. And I think Mark qualifies as an expert in his field.

Brian Springer said...

Thank you for the correction Steph. Though I still think that we should forget this because it's just going to spill some bad blood and we don't need that. And even if Simcha and Tabor were aware of their own biases before they began to share their findings with the rest of us, I don't think that detracts from their arguments [not that is saying much.]
Besides those of us who are skeptical about Simcha's and Tabor's claims are doing just fine without calling into attention this rather strange episode.

steph said...

Thank you for your thank you, and I'm glad you're doing just fine, therefore you can just ignore others, who find pretentions to critical scholarship all quite incredible and slightly amusing, instead of criticising them. It's just that your 'advice' comes across as slightly patronising and unnecessary as your 'we' would rather not pause to jest in this affair. The jest is a great way to be relieved from the absurdities of life... :-)

James D. Tabor said...

Mark, you are sharp to remember this as I have mentioned it also to Simcha. It seems to be one of those strange elements of syncronicity that we sometimes experience. At the time I remember thinking it weakened the ending of the film--why mention the "sign of Jonah"? But in terms of the exploration there could be no predisposition. When you see the original footage you will see, as it is all live and at the moment. We had no idea what would be in the tomb. Seven ossuaries we knew, but that one would have an unprecedented Greek inscription--and this image we took to be Jonah--no earthly inkling. Think of all the tombs we could survey and there would be nothing you could make of them in this regard--predisposed or not. (BTW, the iota is not a Tau--clearly not--so it can not be a defective spelling of osta as Chris thinks. I think Bauckham has turned in a paper on this. It could be a zeta, and we considered that, but we are quite sure it is an iota, with head and foot, as other examples of ossuary inscriptions show) As the image came into view we thought first a prow of a boat, then an amphora, then a nephesh--then when we saw the full thing, and the stick figure, Rami said--it is a fish--it is Jonah. I quickly agreed. Charlesworth came in the next day and quickly identified it as Jonah without us telling him a word. As did Robin Jensen (see quotes from the footage at her post on ASOR) and three other art historians we consulted. I think it is really sad how people keep mentioning $ and questioning motives, as if Simcha, who lives so modestly, extremely so, is some kind of a wealthy rip-off artist. People have no idea that documentaries never make a profit--even those that win Emmys. It is rare. And those of us who publish books know much of a profit is rare as well. Finally figured out how to not be "Unknown" on your blog--I think.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, James. I am looking forward to watching the documentary when it is out. I look forward also to seeing Bauckham's piece; at this early stage there has not been a lot of discussion about the inscription, has there?

Unknown said...

I was at the filming when Simcha, James, and crew took the footage of the image of what seemed to them to be a fish depicting the sign of Jonah. Though the filming was conducted as though they, James and Simcha, were seeing the image for the first time, it all felt strangely staged, but I suppose that's how these things are done for the sake of entertainment, suspense and drama.

The "off camera" discussion was less academic and more messianic in flavor. Simcha and James had a keen interest, stemming from their our religious backgrounds and biases, to find a plausible way to undermine Christian dogma in the manner of Dan Brown---taking the opportunity created by Hollywood and trying to authenticate it--- claiming to have found real, hard evidence. "Truth is often stranger than fiction," was a phrase James liked to use when discussing this find in contrast to Dan Brown's creative, imaginative story. Simcha as an Orthodox Jew and James as a former member of the WCOG and the current leader of United Israel World Union, saw themselves playing roles as modern day Biblical prophets. Perhaps they are...

What struck me as rather bizarre in the whole resurrection debate was their apparent blindness to the Hebraic meaning of resurrection. They spoke at legnth about the Jewish theology of a bodily resurrection after death in the first film, now they are discussing the Greek idea of a spiritual resurrection after the body has died, but they never addressed, nor seemed to understand resurrection as a mental shift in perception---an experience so well described and documented in the Hebrew Bible which saw resurrection as a transmutation of man while he is still a living being. During my many conversations with James I was struck by this glaring blind spot which seemed to me so obvious. Wasn't Jesus (as an Hebrew) referring to resurrection as the death of the ego (false self) and the possible resurrection of a new man and a new life---a new Adam perhaps? Wasn't resurrection a "now" thing, a way to experience the human existence as a new reality, one which is infused with Quodesh? During that last day of filming I watched...amazed and stunned. Here stood two men; a former Christian and an Orthodox Jew, on the edge of their own story, peering into an ancient teaching with a fervor and intensity that surely could have loosened some chains. And yet they seemed to fail to comprehend the meaning of the message of either prophets---not Jonah nor Jesus---as they pointed this scholar and film maker towards the simplicity of that ancient Biblical way...