Sunday, September 22, 2013

How accurate is that replica, and why does it matter?

After discussions of the Talpiot Tombs resumed recently in the blogs (see James McGrath, Talpiot Tomb Latest and Talpiot Tomb Representation and Rhetoric), I have found myself reviewing some of the materials and looking back at old contributions.  The fact that some time has passed since the excitement of March-April 2012, when details of and theories about Tomb B emerged, actually helps one to get the kind of perspective that only time can provide.

One thing that has become clearer to me with the passage of time is the importance of distinguishing between the evidence itself and the project leaders' interpretations of the evidence.  Because the academy at large has been broadly critical of the project leaders' theories, it is easy to give the mistaken impression that we are not genuinely fascinated by the materials that they have uncovered.  If we have not underlined that sufficiently in the past, it's worth doing it again here -- the new finds in Talpiot Tomb B are fascinating and well worth studying. Nevertheless, our interest in the evidence does not, of course, commit us in any way to accepting the project leaders' interpretations of the evidence.

And there is a difficulty here.  A lot of the evidence has got bound up with the interpretations of the evidence.  Thus, the CGI composite image of the "fish" should only be used as an illustration of Jacobovici's and Tabor's theory.  It should not be used, as it was back in March 2012, as if it were an actual photograph.  It represents the theory.  It is not part of the data set.

It is clear now also that both ossuary replicas are best understood as attempts to represent Jacobovici's and Tabor's theory about the tomb.  As such, they are very useful.  In order to see this, we need to play down the language about the accuracy of the replicas, and especially Replica 2 (e.g. recently in the video interview with Prof. Puech).  While there are important points of contact between the replicas and the artifacts that they are modelling, there are also important points of divergence.

Let me illustrate.  I pointed out the other day that one of the ways that Replicas 1 and 2 differed was in the depiction of the border of the ossuary -- see here:

Replica 1 (left); Replica 2 (right), bottom left facade
Replica 1 is far more accurate here than Replica 2.  Replica 2 simply produces regular triangles without any attention to what is actually on the ossuary.  It is as if someone has just said "Do me some regular triangles in the border".  Replica 1, on the other hand, attempts to depict what is actually on the ossuary.  Take a look. I can only find two published photos that feature that part of the ossuary, one on the Jesus Discovery site and one on James Tabor's blog, but notice how on each you can see that the triangles are not even, and the bottom one protrudes over the border.  This is the clearest one:

Bottom left of ossuary 6 showing triangle protruding over border, as in Replica 1
Here, then, Replica 1 is more accurate than Replica 2, and we should treat the claims about the great accuracy of the replica with a touch of caution.

However, the point of this post is not solely to point to the problems with the claims of the accuracy of "the replica", but to reflect on what this tells us about how the filmmakers are looking at the photos.  Allow me to explain.

We already know that the alleged "Jonah" inscription does not feature on Replica 1 but appears clearly on Replica 2 (See A Tale of Two Replicas, and see now also with helpful illustrations in Unfaithful Representation: The Second Replica and A Comparison of the First Replica on Steve Caruso's blog). The reason that that is interesting is that it illustrates the value of the replicas for showing how those involved in the project are seeing the evidence.  The replicas function not so much as facsimiles of artifacts but instead as models of theories.

The point can be further illustrated by looking at the issue of the shading on certain areas of Replica 2.  Several of us have been saying for some time that the lines in the ball-shaped object at the bottom of the image do not represent Jonah's seaweed-wrapped head, as James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici argue, but rather they are the artist's typical means of shading his image (e.g. Juan V. Fernández de la Gala).  The same shading appears all over the ossuary, in the borders and in the image itself.  Here is the relevant area:

Close-up of bottom of image on Ossuary 6 (source; also here

Notice the shading in the ball area at the bottom.  It's the same shading that we see here at the top of the same image:

Close-up of top of image on Ossuary 6 (source)
That's not seaweed wrapped around the top of the image; it is the artist's way of shading in his image, helpfully illustrated in this reconstruction by Juan V. Fernández de la Gala:

Juan V. Fernández de la Gala's illustration (source)
What Replica 2 illustrates, however, is that Jacobovici and Tabor appear not to be paying attention to the shading at the top of the image.  Replica 2 depicts the shading at the bottom of image:

Close up of Replica 2 showing the shading at the bottom of the image (source)
This is where they are attempting to depict Jonah's head wrapped in seaweed.  However, at the top of the image, the shading is left blank:

Close up of Replica 2 showing the lack of shading at the top of the image (source)
What the replica does is to illustrate the theory that this is an image of Jonah and the fish.  The shading of the "tail" is irrelevant to that theory, just as the shading in the border triangles is irrelevant, so they are left blank.  It is the same issue as the alleged "YWNH" inscription, that the elements relevant to the model are illustrated and the elements that do not fit the model are not illustrated.

For what it's worth, I don't think that there is anything wrong with providing helpful illustrative models of theories.  In fact, I think it's a really useful way of proceeding because it helps one to explain the theory as clearly as possible so that scholars can assess it.  The point is to be clear in this context about what the replicas are -- they provide illustrative models for a theory.

Nevertheless, the issue over the replicas, like the issue earlier over the CGI composite image (originally simply called a "blow up"), is that a fascinating and highly worthwhile project of excavation, exploration and analysis has become inextricably linked with a particular theory about the project, a theory that many of us regard as untenable.  In other words, it is a project that is driven by an interpretative model that has serious problems.

Unfortunately, the analysis of the finds is difficult because any resistance to the project leaders' theory is interpreted not as honest, rigorous, critical analysis of the evidence, but as irrational reflections that proceed from some kind of reactionary, theological agenda.  But this is why I refuse to engage in the kind of playground games that the project leaders like (see Response to Simcha Jacobovici's "Pants on Fire") and instead prefer to reflect critically on the evidence.

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