Tuesday, November 19, 2013

If it walks like a duck: Ossuary 6 of the Talpiot 'Patio' Tomb depicts commonly used Jewish images

I am delighted to be able to publish today a guest post from Wim G. Meijer about the images on the ossuary 6 in Talpiot Tomb B. Dr Meijer has been a reader of the NT Blog for a while and he has followed the story of the Talpiot Tombs with some interest. We have been corresponding in recent months about some fascinating observations that he has made about parallels with the images on Talpiot Tomb B, Ossuary 6, that shed light on those images. I encouraged Dr Meijer to write up his observations for the blog and I am delighted that he has now done so. Although this article is Dr Meijer's work, I would like to make clear that I find his observations enlightening and persuasive. His expertise is in a different discipline (Biomolecular and Biomedical Science), but I think his eye is sharp and his instincts right.

If it walks like a duck: Ossuary 6 of the Talpiot 'Patio' Tomb depicts commonly used Jewish images

Wim G. Meijer, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland (wim.meijer@ucd.ie)

Tabor and Jacobovici identified ossuary 6 of the Talpiot 'resurrection' tomb (Talpiot patio tomb) as early Christian based on the presence of a cross on the side of the ossuary and the depiction of Jonah as a stick figure with his head wrapped in seaweed, apparently being spit out by a giant fish. In addition, it is claimed that the fish head also contains a Jonah inscription. If true, this would be the earliest example of these Christian images ever identified. Furthermore, Tabor and Jacobovici argue that the presence of this Christian tomb 60 meters from the controversial ‘Jesus family tomb’ (Talpiot garden tomb) supports their conclusion that Jesus and his family were buried there.

Figure 1: The ‘Yehosah’ ossuary
 (top panel) and the ‘cross’ in
 the middle of the ossuary
 (enlarged) compared to replica 1
 of ossuary 6 of the Talpiot tomb
 (bottom panel)
A golden rule in science is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Have they provided such extraordinary evidence? I don’t believe they have. In what follows below I provide what I believe is compelling evidence that the images on ossuary 6 are standard Jewish images of the period, not connected to the emerging Christian movement. Therefore, in my opinion ossuary 6 is not from a distinctively Christian ‘resurrection’ tomb, but from a tomb belonging to a normal Jewish family.

A cross is also present on the ‘Yehosah’ ossuary from a tomb belonging to a priestly family.

The ‘Yehosah’ ossuary, described by Asher Grossberg in the Biblical Archaeology Review, was discovered in a cave tomb in south-eastern Jerusalem (Grossberg, 1996). The ‘Yehosah’ ossuary displays a clearly identifiable cross in the centre (Fig. 1), with similar dimensions as the one on Talpiot ossuary 6. Clearly the cross on ossuary 6 is not unique, but is it Christian? The ‘Yehosah’ tomb contained a further seven ossuaries bearing the inscription of names that are closely associated with contemporaneous priestly and Levite names. This includes the name ‘Tarfon’, which is mentioned in the Talmud as belonging to priests performing duties in the Temple. Grossberg thus concludes that the Yehosah ossuary is from a tomb belonging to a priestly family. The cross on the Yehosah ossuary is therefore most certainly not a Christian symbol. Based on ancient descriptions of the Temple, Grossberg argues that the central image containing the cross is a depiction of the second Temple.

The depiction on the side of ossuary 6 is strikingly similar to images of the second Temple.

Tabor and Jacobovici focused on the cross on the side of ossuary 6 as a Christian symbol, and have not paid much attention to the image as a whole. However, when the entire image is taken into consideration (Fig. 2), one can not help but notice the striking similarities between this image with that on a coin struck during the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 CE). This coin depicts a structure with two columns on each side, which is generally believed to be the facade of the second Temple. These two columns on each side are clearly visible on the side of ossuary 6 (Fig. 2). The columns flank an arched, dome like structure in both images, with at the centre a square, which on ossuary 6 is freestanding, while the sides are merged with the sides of the domed structure on the coin. However, based on the similarities it seems clear that these two contemporaneous images depict the same: the facade of the Temple. This imagery was not only used in the 1st and 2nd century CE, but is still present in many synagogues as the Aron Kodesh, housing the Torah scrolls (Fig. 2). It is arguably one of the oldest and most enduring images in Judaism.

Figure 2: Comparison of the image on the side of replica 1 of ossuary 6 to a coin
 struck during the Bar Kokhba revolt and an Ark Kodesh of the Rachmastrivk
a Hasidim, Jerusalem.
In summary, comparison of the image on the side of ossuary 6 to contemporaneous images on an ossuary belonging to a priestly family and to a coin of the Bar Kokhba revolt strongly suggests that the image on the side of ossuary 6 is Jewish, and most likely depicts the facade of the second Temple.

The image of the ‘fish’ is similar to vessels on contemporaneous coins of the first Jewish revolt.

Figure 3: Comparison between Temple
 vessels depicted on coins of
 the first Jewish revolt to the
vessel on replica 2 of ossuary 6.
The front of ossuary 6 depicts what Tabor and Jacobovici argue is a depiction of a large fish spitting out Jonah. If so this would be the earliest known use of this Christian image. During the first Jewish revolt (66-70 CE), ending in the destruction of the Temple, coins were struck displaying vessels that experts agree were used in Temple services, in particular wine libation, as is suggested by the presence of a grape leave on the other side (Fig 3). The vessels depicted on these coins have a mouth that is as wide or wider than the widest part of the vessel, and have two handles in the middle at the widest point of the vessel, just below the neck. The similarity of these vessels to the image on the ossuary is striking: this too has a mouth (the tail of the 'fish') that is wider than the widest part, and has two handles ('fins') in the middle at the widest part of the vessel just below the neck. The ‘fish’ thus has the same characteristics as the vessels depicted on contemporaneous Jewish coins.

If Tabor and Jacobovici are correct about their ‘fish’, then the critical part of the ‘fish’ image, defining it as Christian, is its mouth spitting out Jonah as a stick figure and containing a Jonah inscription. I cannot help but wonder that if this part of the image is all important then why is the tail of the fish depicted on the side of the ossuary and not Jonah? Without Jonah, the inscription and the fish head, there is nothing in this half image that has any Christian significance. However, depicting just the very wide mouth of a vessel used in Temple services still makes this half image instantly recognisable as a ritual vessel.


If ossuary 6 is early Christian, as claimed by Tabor and Jacobovici, it would have contained uniquely Christian images that are not shared with or have similarities to images on Jewish objects. However, the images on ossuary 6 also occur on contemporaneous Jewish coins and an ossuary belonging to a priestly family, which most likely depict the Temple and a vessel used in Temple rituals. Therefore both Occam’s Razor and the Duck test lead to one obvious, inescapable conclusion: Ossuary 6 is Jewish and does not have any connection with the emerging Christian movement.


Grossberg, A. ‘Behold the Temple: is it depicted on a priestly ossuary?’ Biblical Archaeology Review 22,3 (1996) 46-51, 66.

Monday, November 18, 2013

When two worlds collide: SBL & the Day of the Doctor

There will be lots of doctors walking around in tweedy jackets this weekend in Baltimore but sadly, most of them will be obsessing about their papers at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting this weekend and not about the matter of real interest to the rest of the world, the fiftieth anniversary of the longest running science fiction show of all time, Doctor Who, the first episode of which aired on 23 November 1963.

I've long realized that the two things would collide, Doctor Who's fiftieth birthday and this year's SBL Annual Meeting, and for many of us it has been an source of great anxiety.  Doctor Who is, of course, used to sharing the limelight with other momentous events.  That first episode, "An Unearthly Child", went out the day after JFK's assassination, also the day of C. S. Lewis's death.

I must admit that for a long time I was worried that I might just have to find some quiet corner somewhere and stream the anniversary episode, "The Day of the Doctor", on my laptop wearing my headphones.  In fact, I couldn't be sure if fate would dictate that I might have to give a paper or chair a session at the moment the fiftieth was airing.  Luckily, that did not come to pass.

So what are the options for those who are at the SBL for watching "The Day of the Doctor"?  As I see it, here are the options:

(1) Hardcore fans who are lucky enough not to be on the SBL programme will want to watch the live simulcast of "The Day of the Doctor".  The ideal way of doing this will be to go to one of the screenings in the cinemas.  Sadly, there are not many of these, and they are all sold out.  And the nearest one to Baltimore is Fairfax, VA, a good hour's drive from Baltimore.

(2) Another possibility would be to watch the live simulcast on BBC America.  However, posh American hotels are not known for their good access to cable, and BBC America is typically a "second tier" channel and so you are unlikely to get it in your hotel room.

(3) I'm grateful to Heather McMurray at SBL headquarters for the good news of another option for watching the fiftieth live -- the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, Oriel Grill bar, has BBC America. Monica Floyd, the concierge, is putting them on notice for possible SBL watchers on Saturday, Nov 23 at 2:50pm.

(4) For those who simply can't do the simulcast because of other commitments, there is still some hope.  BBC America shows the episode again in the evening of Saturday 23rd, so if you can find a TV with BBC America, you'll be OK.  Or, I suppose, you could find a way of downloading and viewing it the same evening.  It will go on iTunes at some point, perhaps as early as Saturday evening.

(5) And then there are the Monday night cinema showings.  The good news here is that whereas there are only eleven cities showing the simulcast on Saturday, there are hundreds showing the episode on Monday evening.  The nearest to Baltimore is Owings Mills, which is about a 25 minute drive.

Luckily, I was able to go for option 1, and was at my computer the second the tickets went on sale, and it was a matter of great relief.  I have also gone for option 5 for my second and more relaxed viewing with friends too, for good measure.

Good luck finding the best way of watching the fiftieth!

Friday, November 15, 2013

"Tomb of Jesus" Volume from Eerdmans - Charlesworth Interview & Errors in the Blurb

Over on the EerdWord blog, there's a new video interview with James Charlesworth (on Youtube here) in which he discusses the forthcoming volume The Tomb of Jesus and his Family, the proceedings of the conference in 2008 in Jerusalem relating to the Talpiot Tomb.  Regular readers will know of my own interest in this tomb and my scepticism about the claims of Simcha Jacobovici that this tomb can be identified as the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

Charlesworth himself is non-committal in the interview.  He mentions the range of views covered in the volume and although he includes among the possibilities that it belonged to "Jesus' clan", he does not associate himself with this view as he has done on previous occasions (James Charlesworth on the "Jesus Family Tomb" and James Charlesworth on the "Jesus Family Tomb": follow-up).

Charlesworth also mentions the controversy that surrounded the Jerusalem conference in 2008 (see The Talpiot Tomb Controversy Revisited, Simcha Jacobovici responds to his critics and Charlesworth on the Talpiot Tomb Symposium) and he counsels greater co-operation and friendliness in the future.  He does not mention Simcha Jacobovici in the interview.

The interview was presumably filmed at SBL last year.  It looks like the same room as for my interview on Thomas and the Gospels.  The book itself is due to come out in December this year, after several delays.

I do want to quibble with the book's blurb, which features a couple of errors:
About twenty-five years ago archaeologists discovered a tomb near Jerusalem that contained a family's ossuaries — limestone bone boxes commonly used in ancient Near Eastern burial customs — inscribed with some familiar New Testament names: Mary, Joseph, James, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus. The Discovery Channel produced a film investigating "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," raising interest among the public and specialists alike. Could this actually be the tomb of Jesus and his family? [emphasis added].
The blurb appears on EerdWord, Youtube and the Eerdmans Website.  Quibbles:

  • Minor quibble: the tomb was excavated in 1980, which is 33 years ago, a little more than "about twenty-five years".

  • Major quibble 1: the tomb does not feature the name "Mary Magdalene".  If it did, it would have been a really remarkable find for the study of Christian origins.  The name is not there.

  • Major quibble 2: the tomb does not feature the name "James". Although Jacobovici and Tabor have argued that the James ossuary came from the tomb, this is a controversial and problematic claim that cannot simply be stated as fact.

The list of (Anglicized) names should really be given instead: Jesus? Son of Joseph, Mary, Mariam (or Mariame) and Mara, Joses, Matthew, Judas son of Jesus.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bible Secrets Revealed on History Channel, Wednesday

History Channel now has a website devoted to its new six-part documentary series about the Bible:

Bible Secrets Revealed

The site features the "sneak peak" previously mentioned and details about the first episode, Lost in Translation.

See also the interview with Robert Cargill, consulting producer on the series, in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

The series premieres this Wednesday, 13 November, at 10pm.

Jerome Murphy O'Connor, O. P., 1935-2013

I was so sorry to hear of the death of Jerome Murphy O'Connor earlier today.  Not only was he a fine scholar, but he was also a kind-spirited, sweet-natured and generous human being, who always had time for for people.  I was only lucky enough to meet him on a couple of occasions, one time in London as he was exiting an art gallery as I was entering it.

Everyone spoke well of him.

Jerome Murphy O'Connor was a gifted writer, whose prose was always lucid and lively.  His scholarly insights were fascinating, even surprising (like his suggestion that Paul's wife died in a house-fire, or that the Galatians may well have had extraordinarily large moustaches).

See also comments from James McGrath, John Byron, Jim Davila, Jim West, James Tabor and many others.

A sad loss for the guild.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Bible Secrets Revealed Intro

Here's the first couple of minutes of the forthcoming History Channel series Bible Secrets Revealed:

This is taken from the Prometheus Entertainment website. Robert Cargill is consulting producer on the series and has more on his blog.  The series premieres next Monday 11 November on History Channel at 10/9C.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Death of François Bovon

I was very sorry to hear today of the death of Prof. François Bovon of Harvard Divinity School. (HT: several Fb friends & Jim West).

Update (4 Nov.):  A Message From Dean Hempton on the Passing of François Bovon (HT: Annette Yoshiko Reed on Fb).

Friday, November 01, 2013

Britney Spears Musical about Jesus?!

Thanks to Helen Ingram for this one.  If it were April Fool's Day, I'd think this was a particularly fine prank.  But it seems to be true -- there's a musical that uses Britney Spears's music to tell the story of Jesus!  Details in this article in the NME:

New musical SPEARS will tell story of Jesus Christ through Britney Spears songs
Preview of show to be held in New York on November 7
A new musical will tell the story of Jesus Christ using the songs of Britney Spears. 
Spears The Musical: The Gospel According To Britney is currently being developed for the stage, with a preview of the show to be held for funders in New York on November 7. The production will give an account of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus by using Spears hits such as 'Stronger', '...Baby One More Time' and '(You Drive Me) Crazy'. 
Speaking about the project on the musical's official website, creator Pat Blute said: "These are Britney's lyrics. These are Jesus Christ's images. The Britney Spears you see is not Britney Spears. Remember that. The Jesus Christ you read is not Jesus Christ. These are manifestations. Accounts through the media, through the words of followers, of friends, of foes, of villains, of heroes, of liars, of biases.
Here's the official website:

SPEARS: The Gospel According to Britney

I, for one, will definitely be going to see this!