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The Hebrew Name “YONAH” Embedded in the Image of the Fish on the Talpiot Tomb Ossuary

Although it might be possible the engraver would write “Jonah” on a vase, amphora, perfume flask, or pillar, it seems more likely his or her intent was to represent the image of resurrection through Jonah and the fish, a symbol known in this period only in the gospel of Matthew.

See Also:

A Perfume Flask or a Fish?

A Preliminary Report of a 1st Century Tomb. (Updated Version 3/16/12)

By James D. Tabor
Chair, Dept. of Religious Studies
UNC Charlotte
April 2012

To read this article in its entirety, we have presented it here in PDF format.

Comments (19)

Even if it is a fish and if it is depicting the Jonah Story and it spells Jonah, what is the connection to Jesus. Jonah is a well known Old Testament story and any Jew would know it. Jews believed in resurrection. Why is it being linked as "Christian" and not seen as any "Jewish" symbol
#1 - Joe Rozario - 04/12/2012 - 10:28

So now the ancient artist had to make double sure that his christian intention was not misunderstood? For the benefit of later viewers he incorporated the name into his "stick man"[sic] by using letters he etched into the ossuary. One has to wonder why, if this symbol was known and, as you all seem to testify, is plainly recognisable as jonah and a fish. As Simcha Jacobovici attests, even a six year old can do it.

I think you have become more desperate or wishful than ever before in proving your sensational theories and will go to any lengths in stretching your imagination. It's questionable enough seeing a fish in the image in the first place, what with its proportions, different "scales" and position, let alone some figure being spewed out of its "mouth". It just goes to show: Poeple do see what they want to see every now and then - even well meaning, honest, hard working scholars...
#2 - Robert Lippner - 04/12/2012 - 17:43

An excerpt from the book, The Brother of Jesus, by Hershel Shanks & Ben Witherington III, c 2003 ~ "...a short-lived burial practice common among Jews in Jerusalem from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 70. Corpses were laid out in family cave tombs. About a year after the death, when the body had decomposed, the dry bones were gathered together in a bone box, or ossuary, which was left in the tomb. About 250 of the 900 catalogued ossuaries from this period bear inscriptions that identify the person or persons buried inside."!
#3 - Teah Coffaro - 04/12/2012 - 19:37

Joe, the Hebrew Bible story of Jonah did not become a Jewish symbol of resurrection. It's as simple as it sounds. Moreover: Jonah's story represents a three days resurrection, if any, not the "general resurrection in the end of times, when the Messiah will appear" - which is the Jewish normative resurrection. You seem to ignore another fact: whether it's a fish or not, it's the only Jewish tomb with iconography inside it, that we know of. Thus it's not a normative Jewish tomb; the Greek inscription explains the uniquness of the patio tomb. I quote R. Lipnner (comment 2, above): "It just goes to show: Poeple do see what they want to see every now and then - even well meaning, honest, hard working scholars...". That maybe right; on the other hand, others don't see what they don't want to see, and still others silent what they don't want others to see, including world leading scholars.
#4 - Eldad Keynan - 04/12/2012 - 23:26

Is there a word limit to this? I pray not. There is much on my mind, and more on my heart.

Moderation may well be in order here, though it isn't my intention to offend any one.

It's frightening, isn't it? To think for a moment that near two thousand years of church teachings - teachings that billions of people have relied up and considered to be no less than the absolute and inerrant truth upon which they have placed all of their hope, might be crumbled in the mere twinkling of an eye or the overturning of a stone?

This is the real reason for all of this resistance to the findings of the Talpiot tombs, isn't it? Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of being wrong about the most important matter of all - getting and staying and being right with Almighty God, which was at the very heart of all of Jesus' teachings, was it not?

I really don't understand the "so many" within academia and church hierarchy.

How is it that these "so many" think they know all there is to know and so that there is nothing more to be learned?

How can they be so willing and even eager to forfeit what might well turn out to be truth as they have not ever before known it to be?

Is any man, and no matter how learned, ever such an authority?

All matters of God must be tested and tried and retried even in order to be in compliance with the teachings of Jesus who would but have us get and stay right with his Father and our Father (to quote him) God!

It seems to me that most would rather remain in their "desperate" states of habit and denial, than to explore new possibilities that might well give them a far better understanding of not only who Jesus is/was, but who God is and who He is not; and let's just face some hard cold facts here - if Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, physically, and thereafter ascended physically, then the majority of Evangelical Christianity is WRONG. For that matter, if Jesus isn't God, how many are in error?

Who wants to accept that? Who wants to deal with that? For Pete's sake, we're still observing Good Friday when it's widely known and accepted that Jesus couldn't have been crucified on a Friday and raised on Sunday! And yet we remain creatures of habit - creatures who so value our comfort zones.


It also seems to me that those who are truly seeking after God and His truth, should be stumbling all over themselves to better understand these tombs, if but for the sake of truth, as well as for the sake of our beloved Jesus who may well have been robbed of his ability to be HIMSELF and revered as such! For no one has ever tried harder than it was that Jesus tried to get us right within ourselves and with our God.

#5 - Carolyn Pendray - 04/13/2012 - 01:09

Joe, thanks for your comment and query. It is a good one. Even though Jonah is a story from the Hebrew Bible, and quite well known, it was not appropriated in our Jewish sources as a symbol of resurrection. Most often, in the Rabbinic materials for example, Jonah is used as a negative example of one who ran from God, or a lesson in repentance--God can forgive even those who disobey. That is why it is read still today on the Yom Kippur in all synagogues in the world. That is likely the reason Jonah images never appear in Jewish art of this period.

In contrast, the Jesus followers, as early as the 1st century, based on the Matthew 12:38-40, appropriated Jonah as a symbol of Jesus' resurrection. This was a unique and amazing move and by the 3-4th centuries, in the catacombs of Rome, it becomes the preeminent symbol of Christian resurrection. Finding it then in a 1st century tomb is highly significant, and one less than 200 feet away from the Jesus tomb, all the more so.
#6 - James D. Tabor - 04/13/2012 - 06:46

I don't see why you would turn to personal comments of this type that imply bad motives and desperation. It is unkind and untrue. Why don't you take a look yourself at the photos, both marked and unmarked. These are not random lines. They are part of the image and quite carefully drawn. The stick figure is clear, with arms and legs but we had puzzled over the image on the left of the figure--a kind of "F" looking thing. What was it? No one was thinking letters until someone noticed this was a perfectly formed Heh, and then we took another look. Charlesworth, who has devoted his career to reading Dead Sea Scroll scripts of this period, put it all together for us. Once you see it the four letters are clear, though some epigraphers we consulted have discussed if the nun might be a lamed and the you a zeta. But these are letters.
#7 - James D. Tabor - 04/13/2012 - 06:53

Carolyn - You have said everything I wanted to say but only better.

Eldad - The Jonah story is definitely not "as simple as it sounds". The PIE cosmogony and Jonah story may have same origin. I think it is both; nefesh and fish.
#8 - Susan - 04/14/2012 - 01:18

I have been rather amazed at the reactions (and non-reactions) of my academic colleagues to the announcement by Prof. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminar that he is convinced the name YONAH is written in Hebrew letters on the mouth of our Fish/Jonah ossuary image. It appears to be rather ingeniously combined with the stick figure, so that one can look at one or the other, but see both.

First of all Prof. Charlesworth's qualifications in reading ancient scripts are impeccable. He has specialized in working on Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts since the 1980s. That colleagues would dismiss his seasoned observations with a wave of the hand, even charging falsely that he was "paid off" by Simcha Jacobovici, is truly insulting and shows where we have sadly come in this field. Cargill began to jeer and make fun of this proposal on national TV and his blog even before he could have possibly had time to think it through. Antonio Lambatti immediately posted a blog rejecting it, saying it was just random lines, and misquoting me and the Globe and Mail article, getting all the attributions of who said what mixed up. Steve Caruso, who supposed is an expert in Aramaic, put up a very offensive and cavalier post where he gave Charlesworth a failing "grade" on a paper with the note: "see me after class." Truly insulting to Prof. Charlesworth, and really, other than to a small group, surely not funny. Rollston, surely well qualified, immediately, said, within seconds of being told by the Globe and Mail reporter of Charlesworth's discovery--there are NO letters. Talk about dogmatism. Just sort of amazing. In the meantime one of the greatest epigraphers, the one responsible for much of the prestigious Corpus of Jewish inscriptions of the period (CIIP), Haggai Misgav of Hebrew University definitely sees letters. He reads Zilah or Zoilah, taking the Yod as a Zayin and the Nun as a Lamed or Vav/Lamed. But letters these are, not random scratches. Finally, Robert Deutsch, who everyone in the field goes to for readings of amulets, seals, coins, and pottery inscriptions of ancient Hebrew says yes, definitely letters, and definitely YONAH, agreeing with Charlesworth. Yardeni says she is not sure, and Pfann says maybe letters, but not sure. Saying maybe letters but not sure is not the same as saying NO LETTERS, and so far only one epigrapher has said that--Chris Rollston.

Continued, next post...
#9 - James D. Tabor - 04/15/2012 - 08:37

Continued from post above:

Also, really offensive and out of place are the many bloggers who immediately picked up Cargill's shoot-from-the-hip non-epigrapher's judgment and slanderously charged, even on national TV, that "we" came up with this crazy Jonah reading because we were so desperate at the refutations of the fish image we had to grasp at something, and further that Charlesworth's academic voice is not to be valued because he is "paid" by Simcha. This kind of thing, in my view, is completely out of place in this discussion and should be rejected by all of us in favor of a substantive discussion. To his credit, Cargill does put up photos of Greek krater-vase bases with vertical lines that he thinks are parallel to our Hebrew letters in the Jonah/fish image, but anyone looking at those can see they are not even remotely parallel--nor is the vase itself for that matter. One has to wonder sometimes what kind of world we inhabit here. This should be nothing about "vindication: or "blogging wars" but a proper academic exchange based on our collective expertise.

There are Hebew letters, they stand out clearly as the deep engraving marks, not the light scratches, in the "mouth" of the fish image. The open question is what they say. I am hoping that the discussion here might serve to elevate things a bit so we can make some real progress. I see YONAH clearly and I have put together precise parallels of every letter from other ossuary inscriptions. Anyone who would spend 30 minutes with Rahmani would see those examples clearly. Now that Charlesworth has made his proposal and we have made this progress forward in figuring out what this image is, I will publish my own analysis of the inscription soon.
#10 - James D. Tabor - 04/15/2012 - 08:37

One would think that any and every "scholar" would endeavor to inquire, collaborate and research to the fullest extent possible, any new archaeological discovery. But regarding the Talpiot A&B Tombs, this has not been the case. Instead, many of these "expert's" rebuttals to the Talpiot Tombs plausible findings have served as a mere public relations endeavor all for the sake of tradition and the status quo. Their arguments seem to have turned into an astonishing and disgusting form of blatant propaganda. What a sad commentary for their profession. And what a shameful disservice they do. To put it plainly, they're on the wrong side of history. Time and facts will one day prove them wrong. Unfortunately, the resistance has only just begun. Were I in the same place, I'd have to ask myself when did I convert from scholarly ethics and obligations, to become instead, a mere tool for public relations; even to the extent of propagandizing those efforts?
#11 - Tim Noonan - 04/15/2012 - 15:04

Most likely, it's a vase.

Vases are among the very most common decorations put on the sides of ROMAN tombs.

Combined with Greek inscriptions and so forth? Likely this was the ossuary of a say, a rather greco-romanized Jew.

"Hellenized" Jews were common enough in an era, c. 64 BC ff., when Jeruaslem came under even more direct control by Rome; and common in 30 AD, when Jeruslaem had a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Such Jews were widely despised by conservative Jews. Though to be sure? Likely, Jesus himself was a rather Hellenized Jew.
#12 - Griffin - 04/16/2012 - 05:20

Any self-respecting scholar as I presume Mr. Cargill is, who says in a TV interview that the claimed "cross" is not a cross, but is "parallel lines that intersect" truly cannot be trusted to comment on archaeological finds. By definition, parallel lines do not intersect. I do believe they are perpendicular lines that intersect, thus, may or may have been intended to be a cross, but perhaps so. He made many other misstatements on this broadcast. He stated flatly what the inscribed image is and is not. The fact is, he nor all other experts, including Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor, really know what the image is. It can legitimately be interpreted as a stylized fish spewing Jonah out of its mouth; it can legitimately be interpreted as a crudely etched kind of amphora (vase).
#13 - George - 04/16/2012 - 10:08

Excellent question, John Andrew MacDonald!

Thanks you, Susan, for your response to my comment. My heart got away from me for a moment. Even so it remains, weary of the absolute insolence of some. I'll not mention names. ;)
#14 - Carolyn - 04/19/2012 - 08:03

I don't know the first thing about archaeology and translating ancient Hebrew, but from what I do know of Hebrew letters yod, vav, nun or hei anywhere in that. Nor do I see any symbolization of a fish. Don't tell me that 1st century inscribers didn't understand how to draw. Is there any chance people are injecting their own desires into the interpretation?
#15 - JonnyGouda - 04/21/2012 - 06:27

This artifact should be analyzed and debated without a christian bias.

Artifacts cannot compare to the words of Jesus. The words themselves freshly printed on paper in 2012 can stand up to any skeptic.

Let the artifacts speak for themselves and let the words of Jesus speak for themselves. If someone already denies Jesus they will deny authentic artifacts too.

#16 - Mark - 04/21/2012 - 08:55


I think you got the absolute truth which is
"No one knows the truth"

We are looking at bits and pieces of things, writings etc. and trying to get into the mindset of people who lived 2000 years ago.

Every one is entitled to their own opinion and interpretation.

We should keep these discussions polite and respectful but free to express one's thoughts for everyone sharing pleasure
#17 - Joe Rozario - 04/25/2012 - 14:20

Mr. Tabor, you have stated that "in the Rabbinic materials Jonah is used as a negative example of one who ran from God" and is not necessarily used as a symbol of resurrection until the Jesus followers. But have you considered the Zohar's exegesis on Jonah? Although the Zohar's original composition has not been dated this far back, it is agreed upon by most Kabbalists that the teachings contained within it go back much further. The Zohar does relate the story of Jonah to a soul's journey and ultimately to resurrection. I don't disagree with your findings on the ossuary, but rather it being linked to "Christianity." I think that these teachings were around before Jesus, but Jesus brought this thought to the gentiles and then grew Christianity, then ultimately the division - which was His purpose (Luke 12:51). But saying it is somewhat of a a "Christian" finding, is something that I am not quite comfortable with.

However, I respect you for having the courage to bring this forward and make this connection. I love what you and Simcha are doing, it's time for the truth! Thanks for continuing to do what you do, despite all the crazy, unnecessary opposition you two always seem to get :-/ If it's any consolation, you guys are my heros!

Elizabeth :o)
#18 - Elizabeth Canova - 04/26/2012 - 18:10

Dear Mr. Tabor,

thank you for taking the time and trying to answer my comment adequately. I know you have lots of work on your hands and I do applaud your efforts addressing all the critics throughout the promotion of this whole idea.

I honestly find it hard to separate the sensational journalistic aspect of this whole enterprise from the actual archeology, so please bear with me, should I seem to question your integrity as a scholar. In for a penny, in for a pound, is the impression I get, so to speak.

I do think you ignore the main part of my very short comment, instead focusing on my post being somehow unkind and unfair, for I have obviously not looked at the images (in your opinion).

I find it rather disappointing that you seem to think many critics haven't taken the time to look into the subject at hand (and implicitly be persuaded otherwise if they had?) You are quick to imply one hasn't read the book or looked at this or that evidence (e.g. images), when addressing a lot of criticism. This is not the case each time, Mr. Tabor.

And yes, I still think your* (*always including Mr. Simcha Jacobovici et al) effort is quite strained, starting off with the weird "fish" image and ending with the Letter-Jonah-Stick-Man you keep promoting.

I, for one, cannot see a fish, or an aborted effort in depicting one by a bad artist for that matter, let alone Jonah (so much for "The stick figure is clear, with arms and legs" claim), so what is the use in trying to see the actual name of Jonah in those markings as well? (Quite a few scholars don't see any Hebrew letters there at all either!)

And why, I ask again, would the artist need or want to provide an image which you claim is clear as day (or words to that effect) and then spell out the name of Jonah as well in such a fashion?

At the end of the day I see no sense in it at all, UNLESS one is bent on trying to prove the Garden Tomb is somehow connected to Jesus of Nazareth and Early Christianity.

This does not mean you are manipulating this isssue. But it can imply that you have become biased over the years, thus unintentionally distorting what you find to suit your theory. For example starting to see what one expects or hopes to see. I cannot really tell, only guess, as I wasn't there with you all of course. But this is what I interpret out of the current discussion.

And it is by no means only Christians that have the urge to criticize this idea or have something personal at stake here as some posters wrongly imply (As an Atheist I myself would be more than happy to actually welcome the ideas promoted by you, if they had such merit.) No, obviously it is also those who work hard on this Talpiot theory, with their reputations at stake:

Who would want to have to admit that many years of their lives were spent working very hard but in vain by following a sensational, misguided idea?
#19 - Robert Lippner - 04/29/2012 - 22:37

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