Thursday, April 12, 2012

"The Jesus Discovery": Summary and Top Ten Problems

James Tabor & Simcha Jacobovici, Robotic Arm Control Center
The Jesus Discovery Website,
I have now been blogging about Talpiot Tomb B for almost six weeks.  Since the The Resurrection Tomb Mystery (Discovery Channel, USA) / The Jesus Discovery (Vision TV, Canada) is being broadcast tonight, I thought I would take a moment to draw things together and summarize my top ten problems with the claims that are being made.

Several people have asked me for a kind of "layperson's guide" to the claims and what is wrong with them so I will attempt to provide it here.  After providing a summary of the case, I will list my problems with the case as succinctly as possible.  Some of these are things that I have brought up; others are things highlighted by other bloggers.  I have tried to link to at least one blog post to provide more detail on each of the problems.  I may update the post with more after it goes live.

First, a quick survey of the context and claims.  In 2007, a Discovery Channel documentary on The Lost Tomb of Jesus was broadcast, and there was an associated book and website.  The creative force behind the project was Simcha Jacobovici.  The claim at the centre of the documentary was that they had discovered the family tomb of Jesus in Talpiot, Jerusalem. The basis of the claim was that there was a remarkable cluster of names, several of which corresponded to names found in the New Testament.  The vast majority of scholars rejected the claims being made in the documentary, the book and the website.  I listed multiple Errors and Inaccuracies, all of which remain on the website to this day.

Now, in 2012, there is a follow-up documentary, book and website, labelled either "The Jesus Discovery" or "The Resurrection Tomb Mystery".  The key figures here are filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and Professor James Tabor of UNC-Charlotte.  The new project involves the investigation of a tomb that is next door to the one discussed in the previous project.  It is labelled Talpiot Tomb B, or the "patio" tomb.  It is underneath an apartment block and has been reached by the use of ingenious, expensive technology, a robotic arm and snake camera.  This is because the ultra-orthodox Jews were unwilling to allow them to enter the tomb.

The claim at the heart of the new documentary is that this tomb belonged to some of Jesus' disciples, his earliest followers, probably Joseph of Arimathea himself, the man who buried Jesus.  The basis for the claim is twofold: (1) One of the ossuaries is said to feature a picture of a fish, pointing downwards, that is spitting out a stick man.  They interpret this as depicting the Hebrew Bible's story of Jonah and the fish, and they suggest that this is being used as a symbol of early Christian resurrection. (2) Another of the ossuaries features an inscription that they interpret as referring to resurrection.

I have read the book carefully, I have examined all the photographs and footage that have been made available so far, and I have carefully read James Tabor's Preliminary Report.  On the basis of all the material I have seen so far, I want to state unequivocally that I am totally unconvinced by the claims that are made by Tabor and Jacobovici.  The case that this tomb belonged to Jesus' disciples is very weak.  Here are some of the reasons that I am unpersuaded:

(1) Weak circumstantial evidence alone. There is nothing in this tomb that offers a clear and explicit link to the early Christian movement.  The case is based on circumstantial evidence alone, and weak circumstantial evidence at that.

(2) Handles on a fish?  The claim that one of the ossuaries depicts the tale of Jonah and the fish is weak.  The image is of some kind of vase or vessel.  The vessel features matching handles at the top and in the middle of the image.  And when is a fish not a fish?  When it has handles. (See Sins of Commission and Omission).

(3) Layered patterns of geometric shapes.  The vessel also features layered patterns of geometric shapes.  These decorations are not bizarre attempts to draw the scales of a fish -- they are decorations that match the border decorations of the ossuary in question. (See Scales of a Fish on the Talpiot Ossuary?).

(4) The Composite Computer-Generated Image. The project works with a computer-enhanced, composite, re-oriented CGI image of the vessel in all of its publicity materials.  The clever use of this image, which differs in important ways from the actual photographs, achieves a kind of "cognitive priming".  (See If the Evidence Doesn't Fit, Photoshop It).

(5) The original excavators did not see a fish.  The tomb was first excavated in 1981. In a write-up in DAVAR in May that year, Zvi Ilan reported that the excavators, who actually saw the ossuary, interpreted the image in question as an amphora (a vessel).  (See "Jonah" Ossuary Discussed in Print in 1981).

(6) Fish in the margins. Tabor and Jacobovici claim that there are little fish in the margins of the ossuary in question.  They suggest that these interpret the larger "fish".  However, on closer inspection, these do not appear to be fish.  They are simple decorative ovals. (See Sins of commission and Omission).

(7) The handled half-fish. The image that gets all the attention is on the front facade of the ossuary.  But on its side there is another image, an image of a vase with clear, obvious handles on each side.  This vase helps one to interpret the other image as a vessel.  Tabor and Jacobovici suggest that this is a "half-fish", pointing downwards, but the handles are problematic for this interpretation.  (See When is a Fish Not a Fish?).

(8) The Inscription Does Not Clearly Refer to Resurrection.  Although Tabor and Jacobovici are confident that the four line Greek inscription refers to resurrection, the evidence for this is now looking increasingly weak.  It requires time to examine these things, but the sight-reading shown in the documentary and reported in the book is shaky. In particular, it needs to be stressed that the inscription does not mention Jesus. (See The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B and Bauckham on the Talpiot Tomb Inscription)

(9) The Tomb Does Not Clearly Date to the time of Jesus. In order for this tomb to be connected to Jesus' disciples, and specifically Joseph of Arimathea, it would need to be dated to the narrow period from the 30s to 70 CE.  However, the dating evidence suggests that the tomb may have been in use much earlier in the early Roman period, perhaps as early as the first century BCE (See The Dating of Talpiot Tomb B).

(10) Witnessing to Resurrection Does Not Make the Tomb Christian.  Even if, for the sake  of argument, we were to grant Tabor and Jacobovici's claims about the tomb's inscription and iconography, this would witness only to early Jewish belief in resurrection.  We already know from many texts that many Jews believed in resurrection in the Second Temple period.  Belief in resurrection from the dead is not distinctive of the early followers of Jesus.


TonyTheProf said...

Extremely good post - the errors made are almost an object lesson in how to do good archeology, by pointing up the mistakes made by bad practice.

James D. Tabor said...

Nice summary Mark, though I think you are quite wrong on several of your points, i.e. there are no handles on either of the "fish" images, there is nothing in the tomb dating it to the late 1st c. BCE (Kloner's comment is a general one about ALL tombs in the Herodian period), see the latest comments and translation on the Davar article, I think you have jumped the gun on that one, etc.

As you know, Prof. Charlesworth has now identified the name YONAH encrypted on the fish via the stick figure, see

I can't cover all these point in a comment but those, such as the unknown TonyTheProf here, who charge bad archaeology are insulting and uninformed. Everything we did was impeccable archaeology and I think our interpretations, of both the image and the inscription, will stand. This tomb is incredibly important for understanding the Jesus movement and its understanding of resurrection, or more important, "ascent to heaven." Everything on the inscription and the image is taken from Jonah 2, even the specific terms: Lord YHVH, lifted up from Sheol, beholding the Temple, etc. We should be celebrating this as our earliest archaeological testimony to a "high" Christology, which we have witness to in Paul and other gospel layers. Hurtado, Bauckham, etc. are right. The earliest followers saw Jesus as one of the "Two Powers in Heaven" and this testimony makes that clear. More on my blog...enjoy the show tonight. I think it will clarify a lot of things for everyone.

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