rogueclassicism Review: The Resurrection Tomb Mystery ~ The Circus

Well then, after six or so weeks of  hype and scholarly scrutiny, Professor Simcha Jacobovici‘s and Dr James Tabor‘s The Resurrection Tomb Mystery documentary finally aired on the Discovery Channel (in the US) and Vision TV (in Canada).  As such, it  is now time to give it a formal review of sorts and try to bring some semblance of order to the claims and scholarly reaction since, of course, this doc will likely live on in repeats for a few years at least and folks will be hitting the interwebs to see what folks who know a lot about the issues think about it. It’s also worth reviewing because in a week, Vision TV in Canada will be airing a 90-minute special on the program and perhaps that might require a followup review.  At the outset, we should draw attention to our previous posts on this, which, as might be suspected, will overlap the current effort to some extent:

We should also note that — like most documentaries of this nature — the show was also the subject of a book treatment. I have not read the book myself, but possibly will in the future, but folks who want a review of that would do well to read Christopher Rollston’s treatment and/or Eric Meyers’ review of same. Also worth a look (although not necessarily specific to the book) is Mark Goodacre’s post: “The Jesus Discovery”: Summary and Top Ten Problems and Thomas Verenna’s What are the Criticisms of the ‘Jonah’ Ossuary?.

In terms of format, I’m going to be doing something similar to my approach in my Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer review, namely, to give a brief summary of each section and, where appropriate, point out anything worthy of praise or blame. Unlike that review, however, we don’t have the segments available on Youtube (whether they end up on Youtube is another question), but we do have other videos we’ll be bringing up. At the outset, we should also note that a number of our Biblioblogger friends were liveblogging the program as it aired in the U.S. and folks might want to visit those posts just to confirm that I’m not making things up and to see their reactions as well. In no particular order:

We should also note that, in the weeks leading up to the program, Dr James Tabor also published a major article on the tomb which is the focus of the documentary — usually designated as Talpiot or Talpiyot B , a.k.a. ‘The Patio Tomb’ — at the Bible and Interpretation site (which was revised shortly after its initial publication):

… and we should also note the existence of the project’s official website, which includes a press kit, photos, and the like: The Jesus Discovery.  And so, onto this lengthy review, which I’d like to think is the blog equivalent of a review article …

First Segment:

The first minute or so is pretty much the stuff that was in the promo released just prior to the actual show being released, with a sort of dramatization of the crucifixion and the connection to Joseph of Arimathea‘s tomb. They acknowledge the existence and traditions associated with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but say that there is no archaeological evidence for it being the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Then they flash forward to2007 and Talpiot A stuff and give a quick overview of the so-called ‘Jesus Family Tomb‘ and the suggestion that the people who don’t believe the results of that dig are religious types and controversy over the claims is somewhat downplayed. In light of that, we point people to a page at Biblical Archaeology Magazine’s site which includes a pile of papers/statements by scholars of various stripes given/discussed at a conference organized by the Princeton Theological Seminary:

In the same vein, just prior to this writing ASOR made available for free the issue of Near Eastern Archaeology (NEA 69:3/4 [2006]) which included a number of papers on the subject. It is, alas, no longer free but is accessible via JSTOR should you desire to track it down.

The segment continues with a shot (clearly staged) of the team planning to investigate the other Talpiot tomb (i.e. the one currently of interest) by discussing it over a model of the apartments that were built over it. We then get the story of Amos Kloner’s initial (brief) investigation of the tomb and its subsequent building over  by said apartments. We are told of the ‘ritual pipe’ being put in and being cemented shut (I confess in my notes I have a pile of question marks beside that one).

We then get a scene where James Tabor is on screen and suggests the location of the tomb associates it with Joseph of Arimathea. The tombs (both A and B) are on what was once a first century estate which have a wine press and ritual bath.  From the spot where  Dr Tabor is standing can be seen the Herodium, Temple Mount, and the  Hill of Evil Counsel, which he says have “strategic meaning” and Professor Jacobovici becomes increasingly convinced that this was Joseph of Arimathea’s estate. That said, it is worth noting that neither Talpiot A nor Talpiot B have anything in them — inscription-wise or artifact-wise — which suggests any connection to Joseph of Arimathea. As such, I’m not sure how anyone could connect the  location so specifically to someone we know so little about.

So they make plans to do the dig and get a license to do so, but then we get the drama of the Heredim objecting to what would amount to desecration of a tomb. There’s a scene of some shoving and pushing, and one of the Heredim claim Tabor and Jacobovici are acting like Nazis, which is a rather tasteless comment, given that professor Jacobovici’s parents were Holocaust survivors. This leads to Professor Jacobovici and Dr Felix Golubev meeting with a rabbi, as a result of which they get permission for a limited investigation.

The first segment then ends with a problem: they don’t know where the tomb is and have to relocate it using ground penetrating radar. If the purpose of the opening segment of a documentary is to ‘set the stage’ and sort of prepare the viewer for what to expect as the rest of the story unfolds, this little bit does — but only if one is aware of the previous documentary. I invite readers to consider this excerpt from the first documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus (the one directed by James Cameron) and fast forward to the 2:00 minute mark and watch for a while:

As can be seen if one has viewed the current documentary (i.e. the Resurrection Tomb Mystery), Professor Jacobovici and team had — back in 2007 — accidentally (?) discovered this tomb already. They had put a camera down the ‘ritual pipe’ (hence my confusion above at it being cemented) and had already seen the ossuaries therein. In other words, claiming they didn’t know where this tomb was was a load of hooey, and claiming they needed ground penetrating radar to locate it is similarly in the realm of hooey. That the gpr may have been needed to establish the best place to drill other holes seems reasonable, but to come up with this easily-disprovable story simply for dramatic effect is our first hint that it’s the ‘story’ that’s more important in this documentary than the scholarship.

Second Segment

The second segment begins with the team locating the tomb with gpr (surprise!) and then they wonder how they can get in. The enlist the talents of Walter Klassen to build a robotic arm on which they are going to put a remotely operated camera (a PTZ model put out by GE, although it really isn’t specified in the documentary). This section is actually really interesting and I do have to stress that I could see this kind of technology having much application in difficult sites in archaeology (e.g. it appears to take much better shots than the similar thing which was used in that so-called Lupercal find a while back).

While the building of the robotic arm is going on, Professor Jacobovici wonders what an early Christian symbol would look like and goes to Rome to meet with Dr Robin Jensen of Vanderbilt University, who shows him around the catacombs.  He’s looking for symbols of early Christianity (not seeming to care or be aware that the Catacomb of San Sebastiano that they’re in is at least a couple of hundred years later than the Talpiot Tombs) like fish  or anchors and eventually settles on Jonah and the Whale. We are then shown images of Jonah from the catacomb of Sts Marcellinus and Peter and the cubiculum of Jonah, and Dr Jensen confirms that Jonah would have been an early Christian symbol.

At this point we have to interrupt the story and alert readers to the fact that Dr Jensen has adamantly dissociated herself from the impression given in the documentary that she supports the theories therein. Here’s an excerpt from a post at the ASOR blog:

[...] At the end of our second day of filming (in the Catacomb of Priscilla), someone suddenly thrust a photograph into my hands and asked me to comment upon it while cameras were running. I was asked if it might be an image of Jonah. I really didn’t know what to say. What I did say was something like this (I don’t recall my actual words):

“If (and it’s a big IF) this were an actual image of Jonah from the first century, it looks nothing like the images we have just been discussing. If this dates to the first century, it also would be two hundred years older (more or less) than the next earliest image of Jonah. It would be unique. I cannot say more than that.”

I did not say that I believed the photograph to show an early Christian image of Jonah. In fact I have not clear idea what the image was that I was shown. I had no opportunity to study the photograph prior to my being asked, on camera, what I thought. In a later meeting, I had a longer time to study and came to the conclusion that the image likely depicted something other than Jonah.

Once I knew how my judgments were going to be used, I persistently tried to get my “handlers” to understand the much later Christian art from Rome is of an entirely different style and content than anything from first-century Palestine. There simply is no significant correlation between them. Because of this, my expertise was totally irrelevant. I know very little about ossuary art and could not possibly verify anything related to their authenticity or their iconography. [...]

So just as in the first segment, the second segment has something that’s just not quite right. Even without that, however, the suggestion that Jonah may have been a Christian symbol as early as Professor Jacobovici would like it to be is a little out of whack:

The segment then returns to Jerusalem, where the intention is to look for “Christianity’s ultimate secret”. The team is drilling in the hallway and it’s slow going. Are they in the right place? We get shots of Professor Jacobovici looking pensive. They fiddle with the drilling angle … the moment they’ve been waiting for … dramatic foreshadowing with concerns about the robotic arm, which has only been tested in the lab … then, of course,  a commercial.

Third Segment

After a lengthy recap and review of the technology, they’re through! But … the arm gets stuck. After some tense, dramatic shots and worries the camera will smash, they do manage to get in. The first shot of matters archaeological are what are now known as ossuaries five and six. Then we cut away to some human remains and what is obviously a pelvis morphs into a skull in the dramatic recreation of Jewish burial practices. On to the first niche, where the person who commissioned the tomb would lie — of course, Joseph of Arimathea’s name is dropped here. We get a nice shot of the ossuary, with two rosettes and what is a very stylized ‘nephesh’ between them and we are told the image is a “symbolic reference to the afterlife” (without explanation). What is also odd (to me, anyway) is that this ossuary is remarkably similar to one which is shown in the publicity photos (one apparently from 2005, which includes Professor Jacobovici and Felix Golubev in the IAA’s (I believe) warehouse where they store such things), but no comparison is made in the current documentary (why not?). Whatever the case, after we are told there is no inscription, we move on.

We now go into the second “niche” which has three ossuaries, one with graffiti. One of the ossuaries here, of course, is the one with the Mara inscription. I’m still not clear how they get the full shot of this ossuary in another photo, but before I break my brain on that, they make the link between Mara here and the controversial Mariamne inscription on an ossuary in Talpiot A. And, of course, they take it to its (il)logical conclusion again of a link to Mary Magdalene. Plenty of excitement amongst the folks looking at the screen tracking the camera’s progress — Dr Tabor even takes a photo of the screen with his camera.

On the name ‘Mara’:

As an aside, this, incidentally, likely explains the relatively poor photo quality of all photos which matter (i.e. the ones including inscriptions and others) which have been made available via the Jesus Discovery site. The GE CA-Zoom PTZ camera is capable of taking very high resolution photos, but it certainly isn’t what we are given. In at least one of the inscription photos, e.g., the edge of a computer screen is clearly visible. Such things to have implications for the abilities of other scholars to see and/or criticize claims being made (more on this below).

Back to the show and the claims about Mara — before we have an opportunity to process the claim, we get more drama: the robotic arm snaps and it won’t move: cut to commercial.

Fourth Segment

As might be expected, a good chunk of this segment is devoted to watching/dramatizing the likely very real problem-solving that was needed to get the robotic arm functional again. They are successful, of course, and Walter Klassen and Bill Tarant (from the Ontario branch of GE!) do a great job in a stressful situation.

When the adventure resumes, we see the plain ossuary and a bunch of human remains in kokh three. Then we get to the ‘meat’ of this whole thing: the “niche” ossuaries five and six. There, however, we are told about ossuary four (is that right?) and on one side we see what we are told is an early Christian cross. This is a very important discovery, if true, because, of course, current knowledge suggests the cross would not become a Christian symbol until a couple of centuries after their claimed date of this tomb (which is first century A.D./C.E., of course). We should note that in reportage leading up to the airing of the documentary, Professor Jacobovici seemed to be stressing this cross whenever possible:

Interestingly, in his article on the Bible and Interpretation site (p. 22), Dr Tabor doesn’t really say much about this cross other than to describe it as being a “bell-shaped circle with a cross inside” and to speculate that (along with the other images on the ossuary, which we’ll get to in a second) it forms part of a “resurrection narrative”. It’s interesting, however, to compare the image from the documentary, which is very much like the one at the Jesus Discovery site:

Actually, the one in the documentary might be even more cropped, so all we see is the cross and none of the border. Figure 23 from Dr Tabor’s article is a useful comparison:

… in which we can clearly see the ‘bell shaped’ thing which ‘frames the frame’ which the cross is actually within. Again, I cannot help but say that something isn’t right about the way it is presented in the documentary, which clearly would lead one to identify it as a cross. When one sees the ‘big picture’ (literally), one sees something quite different, no? I’d say it’s a Roman-style bread oven, but I’m not sure if/when they might have been brought to the area (the sorts of bread ovens used in Jewish homes at the time had the hole in the ‘roof’, as far as I’ve been able to find). Whatever the case, when seen without the cropping, it’s really difficult to identify this as a Christian cross. Again, something isn’t quite right.

Nevertheless, the documentary goes on to compare early images of crosses, including the famous Alexamenos graffito, one from Pozzuoli, and something from Pompeii (all of these shots, incidentally, seem to have been culled from Professor Jacobovici’s other recent documentary Vesuvius and the Fear of God in the Decoding the Ancients series). Then comes the question of whether they actually have discovered the earliest image of a cross ever found. And, of course, that means it’s time for a commercial break.

Fifth Segment

After what seems to be an unnecessarily long recap, we hear the team discussing the nicety of the cross, but that they need more evidence to connect this tomb with Talpiot A. So they go back for another look (supposedly … this is all staged, of course). Professor Jacobovici spots another image on the ossuary — lots of wows all around — and Ravi Arav suggests it’s a nephesh. After assorted agreeing and disagreeing, and mentions of handles, someone suggests it’s a fish. It’s more than a fish, it’s a whale! It’s Jonah! Dr Tabor further identifies it. It has scales and fins and a head wrapped in seaweed. Of course, we get all the photoshopping and odd orientations which we criticized when these images first hit the press a month and a half ago. Still (and again), something ain’t right. At this point, it is also useful to reiterate that a rather large group of more-than-qualified scholars have pointed out that it isn’t even close to being a fish/whale/Jonah but is clearly some sort of vessel. Here’s the list from our previous roundup:

… and Dr Tabor responded to many of these in comments to the above and  at:

… also of note:

… and as we’ve mentioned in the past, it might be suggested that there has been some photomanipulation and/or exploitation of problems of perspective going on to lead viewers to a conclusion:

… and we should point out that it seems pretty convincing that whatever the thing is, it is a vessel with handles:

As for the ‘head wrapped in seaweed’ claim, it has also been pointed out by a number of scholars that it’s just the base of the vessel as portrayed by a less-than-competent artist:

Dr Tabor has responded to many of these suggestions (see the comments to the blog posts above) and I leave it to the reader to decide how convincing his defense of his view actually is. Dr Robert Cargill has responded to Dr Tabor’s responses as well on a couple of occasions:

To further bolster the nautical theme, we are then told of a border of fish also being on the ossuary, and are given a bit of digital ink to help us see what they claim is there. Again, however, other scholars have capably demonstrated that these little fish quite simply are not there:

From all this, the team concludes that this is the “earliest representation of the resurrection”. And so, of course, they also believe they have the connection to Talpiot A and even speculate that since this ossuary was originally in the first ‘niche’, this might have been the actual ossuary of Joseph of Arimathea. Cut to commercial.

Sixth (and final) Segment

After another lengthy recap the documentary finally moves to the inscription. Despite the fact that Dr Tabor seems to have more than adequately been able to explain their view of what the inscription says (see pp 14 ff of his Bible and Interpretation article, where you can also read their version of the transliterated text), they bring in Dr James Charlesworth to explain it all, and it gets really confusing. After going through the Greek line by line and noting things like ‘God’ and ‘Zeus’ and ‘lifted up’, Dr Charlesworth tells us it says “I am lifted up, says Jesus, I am lifted up”. Then we are told it’s alternating lines of Greek and Hebrew with say “God Yahweh raise up, raise up”. Then somehow that gets transmuted into “Lord Jesus, rise up rise up”. And so, we have gone from a very difficult to see and understand inscription to an exhortation to Jesus — who they believe is buried in Talpiot A, of course — to rise from the dead. On the inscription:

… FWIW, I do tend to lean toward Dr Rollston’s interpretation but am still uncomfortable with the reading of a psi in line three of the inscription. I still think the right branch of the psi is a scratch caused by the movement of the ossuaries, but none of the photos that have been provided are clear enough for me to say that with any certainty. The fact that the letter that precedes it isn’t very clear (but likely is an upsilon … is there another stroke after it?) doesn’t help matters much either. Of late I’ve been toying with the idea that the first couple of letters might, in fact, refer to someone name Dion vel simm. and the mysterious final three might be an abbreviation for a place of birth/hometown, but I do not plan to pursue such theories in much detail at the present time — I’ve stared at bad photos for too long!

That said, I also can’t help but wonder about how much this section with Dr Charlesworth was staged … cf, e.g.:

… and Charlesworth’s letter at the Jesus Discovery site which mentions people thinking they were looking at a boat (and I don’t recall hearing that). Something ain’t right.

But back to the program: we then are given a bit of an explanation by Dr Tabor about spiritual vs bodily resurrection and the program comes to a somewhat abrupt end.

The two word summary I ended my notes with: “That’s it?” pretty much says it all. It was an incredibly unsatisfying documentary and, as mentioned throughout the above, was rife with scenes which just weren’t right from a scholarly point of view. I was hoping we’d see some more high res versions of the images which are on the Jesus Discovery website, but we didn’t get any. This thing neither satisfied many outstanding questions that I had nor substantiated/supported any of the claims which have already been made. If nothing else, the claims did lead to some interesting academic discussion — unfortunately, it’s the sort of discussion which probably should have occurred before the book was published and certainly before the documentary was approved.

I’ll conclude by glossing my title: The Resurrection Tomb Mystery ~ The Circus. I called this a circus, because there was much excitement attending its impending arrival and promise of a big show but as far as the show itself went, it wasn’t very good. At the same time, however, every circus has a sideshow of some sort — I’ll be dealing with that in a separate post (I’ll also include links to all the ’roundups’ from the past six or so weeks, so folks who would like to have the ‘full monty’ treatment can have it … look for that post next weekend after the second showing of the documentary and Vision TV’s 90-minute special).

And just as an added bonus, I list below the academic affiliations of the scholars I cite above; any links go to their personal blogs if I’m aware of it:

  • Dr James Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Thomas Verenna, Independent Scholar and Researcher
  • Dr Robert Cargill, Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies, The University of Iowa
  • Dr Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor of New Testament in the Religion Department at Duke University
  • Steve Caruso, Aramaic Translator, Language Instructor, and Consultant
  • Dr. Christopher A. Rollston, Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Tennessee
  • H. Gregory Snyder, Professor of Religion, Davidson College
  • Juan V. Fernández de la Gala, Forensic Anthropologist and Zooarchaeologist, Associate Professor of History of Medicine, Universidad de Cádiz, Spain
  • Andrew McGowan, Warden and President of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne
  • Antonio Lombatti
  • Richard Bauckham, Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland
  • Dr. Joan E. Taylor, Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies, King’s College London
  • Robin Jensen, Vanderbilt University
  • April DeConick, Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University
  • Eric M.Meyers, Duke University