Monday, June 11, 2012

James Charlesworth on Talpiot Tomb B (Revised and Updated)

This is a fully revised and updated version of my earlier post James Charlesworth on Talpiot Tomb B which commented on an earlier version of an article by James Charlesworth on Talpiot Tomb B that was subsequently removed.  This post revises that one so that it responds to the new version of the article.

Those with an interest in the claims made by Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor on Talpiot Tomb B, "the Patio Tomb", have been looking forward to hearing more about the views of Prof. James Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary who acted as the "primary academic consultant" on the project (Tabor, Preliminary Report, 1, n. 2) and who appears in the documentary labelled The Resurrection Tomb Mystery (USA) / The Jesus Discovery (Canada).  His report is now available, as a PDF on the Bible and Interpretation website:

What is the Message of the "Patio Tomb" in Talpiot, Jerusalem?
James Hamilton Charlesworth, Princeton, June 2012

The article provides a useful summary of the issues raised by the documentary and the related book (but not the Jesus Discovery website or the Preliminary Report, neither of which is mentioned).  Charlesworth is broadly supportive of Tabor's and Jacobovici's claims, but he is cautious and sceptical at several points.  Charlesworth discusses the different possibilities for the interpretation of the image on ossuary 6 (nefesh, amphora or fish?) and he defends his reading of YONAH at the bottom of that image.  He asks lots of questions and encourages continued debate.

The piece is aimed at a non-scholarly audience for whom Charlesworth explains terms like "ossuary" and "nefesh"; he explains what happened in 66CE (2); he notes the correspondences between Hebrew and English letters (9) and explains that  "Hebrew is written right to left" (9).

In spite of that target audience, I will admit to some disappointment that Charlesworth does not engage directly with any of the scholars' critiques of the project, whether here, on the ASOR blog, on Bible and Interpretation, on Robert Cargill's blog, on Christopher Rollston's blog or elsewhere.  He does mention "scholars and non-scholars" who "have been reporting and blogging" and he speaks about his dismay over "occasional ad hominem comments" (1).  As one who has experienced some unpleasant remarks, including from those involved in the making of the documentary, I very much share Charlesworth's concern on that front.  Nevertheless, I think there is a danger in only mentioning blogging in the context of complaining about those who abuse the medium because it can all too easily be taken as a reason not to engage with serious scholarly criticism of the claims.

In relation to this, it is disappointing that Charlesworth simply repeats the sight reading of the inscription on Ossuary 5, "Divine [YHWH], who lifts up (or raised up), from (the tomb or death?)" (6), which is seen in the documentary.  With the exception of a brief footnoted reference to Bauckham (15, n. 10), he does not engage with the careful analysis and criticism of this claim, with alternative readings, offered by Richard Bauckham, Christopher Rollston and others (see also Rollston's review here; see further links in those posts).  The difficulty with not engaging with the critics is that it can give the impression that the reading in question is uncontested and somehow self-evident.  It is not.  It is controversial and unclear.

By contrast, there is some exposition of the alleged YONAH inscription that appears at the bottom of the image on Ossuary 6 (6-11).  It is useful to have this exposition given that previously Charlesworth's views were only known through reports (See most fully Taborblog).  Charlesworth is actually quite guarded about his suggestion and only puts forward the reading quite tentatively.  Of the four alleged letters, he regards only the he as "unmistakable" (9).  The yod may be a zayin; "some imagination is required" for the reading of the waw (9) and the nun "is not prima facie obvious" -- it may be a lamed (9).

Having read Charlesworth's own defence of this claim, I admit to being no more convinced than I was before, and pleased to see the way in which he makes the suggestion only tentatively.  One of the reasons for my own scepticism has been the confusing nature of the case.  With so much going on in the head of the fish / base of the vessel -- arms and legs of a stick man, a mouth and an eye of a fish, Hebrew letters that extend unusually and further lines that are unaccounted for -- it is doubtful that YONAH is there (see further The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy and the Talpiot Tomb).

Like Tabor and Jacobovici, Charlesworth is inclined to see a stick man here too (5, 9-10 and especially 11), though he does not explain which lines belong to the stick man, and whether any of the lines that form the stick man do double duty as parts of the alleged YONAH inscription (see further my Changing Body of the Stick Man and links there).  I suspect that most scholars will remain sceptical about the presence of a stick man given the lack of clarity about which lines represent his arms and legs.

Charlesworth does, however, add a new element to the discussion of the stick man with an interesting speculation about the size of his head:
If this is a large fish and Jonah is intended, then it is possible to image [sic, imagine?] a stick figure inside the fish.  If so, the head is absurdly large. Why? Obviously, some Jews imagined the resurrection body to be similar to but different from the fleshy body.  Would some early Jews have imagined a resurrected body would have a large head?  Is that the ideal body? We simply need to raise questions and be open to dialogue. (5).
I would be interested to hear if there is any analogy for the idea of the resurrection body having a massive head.  I would doubt it, but I will listen with interest.  But in any case, the key question presumably would relate not to the resurrection body but to the book of Jonah, where there is no hint that the character has a massive head, either before or after being swallowed by the fish.

Moreover, one of the issues mentioned by Charlesworth does have a straightforward explanation.  He asks:
Why has the engraver spent so much time on the lines within the spherical "bottom"?  One can count at least 14 strokes.  Why? What was imagined? (5).
As  Juan V. Fernández de la Gala has helpfully illustrated (ASOR Blog), those lines are the way that the artist shades in the vessel, seen also at the top of the vessel (the "fish tail") and the vessel decorations (the "scales"):

But what of the image itself?   According to Jacobovici and Tabor's Jesus Discovery, at the time of viewing, Charlesworth "offered without hesitation the same interpretation of the fish" (loc. 1041).  In the new article, he is still inclined towards the "fish" interpretation, but he suggests that there are merits also in the ideas that it is a nefesh monument or an amphora.  Indeed he wonders whether the artist was being deliberately ambiguous, perhaps attempting to depict all three.  He suggests, for example, that:
A symbol must be interpreted and usually has many meanings.  Symbols appear in a world of ambiguity and bring with them more than one meaning (4).
Charlesworth adds:
But, something is intended.  We should move beyond what it could possibly be and ask what is the intentionality that created this image (5).
I must admit to struggling with this.  It is difficult to ask about the "intentionality" of the artist without having a clear handle on "what it could possibly be".  Perhaps my fondness for Occam's Razor is the problem.  Where Charlesworth wonders about the decorative squares inside the image --
Did the inscriber attempt to meld an image of a fish with a nefesh? Is there some conflation of symbols? Are there multiple meanings to be contemplated? (5), 
-- I can't help thinking that it is unnecessary to interpret the image as a conflated nefesh-fish when the vessel interpretation appears more plausible.

Charlesworth's concern with the amphora theory relates to the handles:
The image has something on each side. Could these be handles?  If so, they are not like any known handles on an amphora, whether drawn or part of an amphora itself (4).
Since Charlesworth does not mention any of the scholarly critiques of the project, it may be that he is unfamiliar with the attempts to illustrate answers to this type of question.  Antonio Lombatti's detailed and helpful illustrated article Observations on the “Jonah” Iconography on the Ossuary of Talpiot B Tomb, for example, provides several useful analogues, including this graphic from a useful post by Thomas Verenna:

Moreover, since he does not mention it in the article, Charlesworth may be unaware that in May 1981, Zvi Ilan reported that the first excavators of the tomb, who actually saw the ossuary, interpreted the image in question as an amphora (ASOR blog).  Furthermore, Charlesworth does not mention the image on the side of ossuary, the image that Tabor and Jacobovici had interpreted as a "half-fish" but which clearly appears to have handles on either side, as I have often mentioned here (see How the half-fish became a vase and why it matters and links there):

The key point about this image, which Tabor and Jacobovici concede may have been interpreted as a vase in 1981, is that it provides the all-important contextual information about the image on the façade.  Vase on the side; vase on the front.

Charlesworth's post concludes with reflections on the meaning of the image, and although he suggests that "meaning resides in ambiguity and all symbols are multvalent" (11), he focuses on the idea of Jonah and the fish, linking this first with repentance and then with resurrection. He draws attention to the repentance theme in Luke 11.29-32 and adds that
 Jonah is still read on the evening of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) to signal the importance of seeking forgiveness before God (11).
There is, however, no evidence that I am aware of that Jews were reading Jonah on the Day of Atonement as early as the first century.  The first reference I know of to Jonah being read at Yom Kippur is b.Meg. 31a.  But in any case that does not help with the imagined Christian identification of the tomb.

Charlesworth goes on to mention the connection between the resurrection and the sign of Jonah in Matt. 12.38-41, the text that is key in Tabor's and Jacobovici's case (See my The Talpiot Tomb, Jonah and Q).  The big question here relates to dating.  Most scholars (me included) date Matthew after 70CE, after the dates of the ossuaries in this early Roman period tomb, which places a question mark against Tabor's and Jacobovici's case.  Charlesworth's comment is:
These Jewish reflections [Matthew's] are from the first century CE, but after 70CE they were reported by those who were claimed to have seen a resurrected Jesus (12).
And Charlesworth goes on to quote 1 Cor. 15.3-8 followed by Joseph Ratzinger's Jesus of Nazareth.   It looks like Charlesworth is here distancing himself from interpreting the sign of Jonah as a sign of the resurrection in the pre-70 period, and so aligning himself more with sceptics like me than with Tabor and Jacobovici.  But I could be wrong -- it is not easy to parse Charlesworth's prose here (What does "they were reported by those who were claimed to have seen a resurrected Jesus" mean?).

Before concluding this post, I would like to comment on three other things of interest.  The first is the mention of a "rubbing of that image" (Q & A with Ben Witherington, footnote 1), i.e. the image of the fish / vessel on ossuary 6.  I had not heard about this before and so asked Prof. Charlesworth for clarification.  He responded by saying emphatically that "there was no rubbing" and in the revised article, the reference has been changed to "a CGI generated image created from a composite of several photographs from different angles and in different lighting" (14, n. 2).

Second, I was interested to see measurements for the fish/vessel image (23 x 15 x 9 x 3) for the first time (4). This is helpful information, but I am curious about how the image was measured.

Third, it is helpful to have some clarifications of the dates in this article.  Charlesworth here dates his involvement to June 2010, which coheres with the dating in The Jesus Discovery and corrects his earlier dating of June 2011.

In summary, after having read Charlesworth's article carefully, I am sorry to say that I remain completely unpersuaded by the claims made in the documentary, the book, the website, and the preliminary report.

Appended Note 1:  Two of Richard Bauckham's comments to the earlier version of this post remain relevant to this revised version, so I will quote them again here:
(2) Charlesworth's reiteration of the reading of the Greek inscription that he made when he first saw it (shown in the film) without taking any notice at all of any of the very considerable subsequent discussion of it by fellow-scholars is extremely disappointing, especially as he himself says in this article that "we need each other in a dialogue that appreciates the input of others" (p. 5).
(3) I was puzzled by his appeal to the multivalency of symbols in relation to the fish/nephesh/amphora image when he first made it in email correspondence back in the autumn, and his elaboration of it in this article still leaves me baffled. He says, "Any attempt to enter the mind of an engraver in order to discern the intention of an “artist” borders on unsophisticated methodology," but then goes on precisely to discuss all sorts of considerations precisely with a view to discerning the engraver's intention. Furthermore, what exactly does he mean by calling this image a symbol. His footnote refers to his own extensive discussion of the image of the "serpent" in his book on that topic, reporting that he found this to have about thirty meanings. But these are all meanings of the image of a SERPENT. This scarcely seems a valid parallel to the suggestion that the image on the ossuary may be ambiguously a nephesh or an amphora or a fish. If it is indeed a fish, then one might say that the fish is a multivalent symbol - conceivably, for example, an early Christian engraver might have intended both Jonah's fish and the Christian ICHTHYS acronym (though Jim Charlesworth himself rather dogmatically dismisses the latter as having any relevance). An amphora might also have more than one possible symbolic significance (a funerary symbol? one of the famous Temple vessels?). In such cases, we could be dealing with an intentionality on the part of the engraver to provide a symbol with a range of meaning or we could have an image so ambiguous that we can't discern the engraver's intentionality, given our limited evidence. But what does it mean to say that the image is ambiguously a nephesh and a fish and an amphora? I don't think Charlesworth means that the engraver could have intended such an ambiguity (see page 4, paragraph 4, beginning "It is easy..."). He seems to mean that the image is ambiguous to us and we find it very difficult to discern the engraver's intentionality. Even so, as I have pointed out, Charlesworth himself offers plenty of considerations towards resolving the ambiguity. So is his appeal to the multivalency of symbols no more than a warning to us not to seize too quickly on an interpretation, but to engage, as he says, in "a dialogue that appreciates the input of others, whether philologists, archaeologists, biblical scholars, or specialists in ancient art" (p 5). If that is all it amounts to, then I must say it seems to me that a good deal of such dialogue has actually occurred in the extensive discussions, especially in the highly reputable location of the ASOR Blog. I can say this as someone who has not contributed to that particular dialogue myself (reserving my own contributions to the discussion of the Greek inscription).

Appended Note 2: See also James Tabor's comments on the earlier draft of Charlesworth's article at Taborblog.  Tabor echoes Charlesworth's focus on the "intention" of the engraver and suggests that "Often only a trained eye can decipher what the writer intended".  This may well, of course, be the case, but the "intention" of the writer still has to be demonstrated on the basis of what s/he actually wrote.

Tabor also echoes Charlesworth's stress on the notion that all the strokes at the base of the vessel / fish are accounted for:
Also, as Charlesworth points out, those who read these markings as intentional Hebrew letters do not claim that all the marks in the mouth of the fish are part of the letters, some are related to the fish itself (i.e., the straight line of the mouth), whereas others seem to form the eye of the fish as well as the arms and legs of a stick-like figure, attached to the large head. What does seem to be the case is that all of the inscribed markings (not the scratches or imperfections in the stone) are intentional.
There are, I think, a couple of difficulties here.  First, Charlesworth does not appear to be convinced that the image is a fish.  He thinks it might be, but he also finds the nefesh and amphora theories compelling, even suggesting some conflation of all three, with ambiguity and multivalence. But if it is not a fish, then all the extra lines in its "head" need explanation because they can no longer be relegated to the background in order for the alleged YONAH inscription to stand out.  

Second, even if some lines are attributed to YONAH, some to a stick man (variously configured) and some to a fish head and mouth, there are still some lines left over.  See, for example, Bob Cargill's helpful graphic here:

Notice especially the several "ignored lines". 

Third, both Charlesworth and Tabor make clear that they don't see all the marks here as forming Hebrew letters.  Charlesworth writes:
Obviously, I never intimated that all the lines in "the head of the fish" are letters; anyone who imagined that I did make such a claim or that I ignored some lines simply was dependent on a journalist's summary of my rather lengthy and detailed comments (9).
And Tabor here echoes the comments.  I am puzzled by their insistence on this point since I am unaware of anyone who says that they claimed that  "all the lines . . . are letters".  It is a fact, though, that several of the lines in the "head of the fish" do not do service as letters or lines in the fish head or lines on a stick man.  But to repeat my earlier point, I think it is always preferable to cite those against who one is arguing so that one can check up on whether the argument is fairly represented.

Update (13 June): Thanks to George Makrauer for letting me know that Prof. Charlesworth's article now also appears here (PDF) on the Foundations on Judaism and Christian Origins website.  As far as I can tell, the two versions are identical (with the exception of the preparatory material) but the page numbers to not tally.  The page numbers in my response above refer to the Bible and Interpretation version.


Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

"The first reference I know of to Jonah being read at Yom Kippur is b.Meg. 31a. "

I know you're writing for a better informed audience, but could you add a gloss for that reference for us newbs? Or just a date, so that it makes sense in context.

"I would be interested to hear if there is any analogy for the idea of the resurrection body having a massive head."

Perhaps it's not meant to be Jonah, but rather Jacobovici.

(Sorry. I'll be good now.)

" is extremely disappointing, especially as he himself says in this article that "we need each other in a dialogue that appreciates the input of others" (p. 5)"

Sadly a tactic used by Internet trolls everywhere. I'm not saying that it is dr Charlesworth's intent, but it certainly smacks of wanting to remove the mote from his brother's eye.

"He says, "Any attempt to enter the mind of an engraver in order to discern the intention of an “artist” borders on unsophisticated methodology," but then goes on precisely to discuss all sorts of considerations precisely with a view to discerning the engraver's intention."

Again akin to that most obnoxious of modern liberal theologians: The Bible is metaphor except when it isn't. Or alternatively IOKIYAR. It's not a problem for dr Charlesworth to discern the minds of others, but lesser mortals should not engage in such attempts at clairvoyance.

Again, I do realise I'm being very uncivil, but I have grown up in more rough-and-tumble parts of the Internet, and while I admire your patience and politeness, I cannot in good conscience emulate it, myself.

Jim Deardorff said...

Charlesworth is only being realistic in taking into consideration a plausible motivation of the engraver/chiseler. The ossuary may have been one containing the bones of a witness to Jesus when he spoke of the sign of Jonah, with this witness having been known for speaking out on it as he may have actually heard it: Jonah disappeared alive into the belly of the fish, dwelled alive in its belly for three days and nights, and emerged alive again into the light.

Only in a redacted form could this have been utilized by the writer of Matthew – i.e., as in redaction criticism, one naturally assumes that the intention of the writer would have been to omit anything that went against the basis of his religion. In Luke (11:29-30) the sign of Jonah would be further mollified.

Similarly, the possible intentions of the engraver need consideration. Surely in the decades following the crucifixion there was much heated debate between those who had seen Jesus in the flesh afterwards (disciples, family members and close associates, without seeing him walk through doors or suddenly appear/disappear) and those who believed he could not have survived, including later followers of Paul. Hence with the fish interpretation, the engraver plausibly needed to disguise his artwork to allow the alternate interpretation of an amphora. Some of his own family members may not have appreciated a “sign of Jonah” interpretation.

Sorry for the "sensationalism," but it couldn't be avoided. Is any amphora known whose very top was the broadest part?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Sili, several of which made me smile! I should have said that b.Meg. refers to a tractate from the Babylonian Talmud, c. 6th century.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your comments, Jim. Well, I am not persuaded at all that we are looking at an upside down fish spitting out the large, seaweed-wrapped head of a stick man, but I realize that there are those who do find that interpretation plausible, including Prof. Charlesworth. For drawings of vases where the top is the broadest part, see Lombatti's article referred to above, p. 13.

Jim Deardorff said...

Thanks, Mark. I did notice 3 or 4 on Plate 30 of Lombatti's article, and two in his subsequent figure.

Mandela Online said...
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