The “Patio Tomb” … Evidence of Early Christianity? I Hae Me Doots (A Classics Perspective)

As long time readers of rogueclassicism — and even my Explorator newsletter — are no doubt aware, it is rather commonplace for Jesus-related claims to be made by folks of various qualifications as Easter approaches. In last year’s season, e.g., we were dealing with claims about lead codices (which seem to have disappeared off the radar) and Simcha Jacobovici’s claims regarding crucifixion nails which supposedly came from the tomb of Caiaphas (see, e.g.: Simcha’s Crucifixion Nail Silliness). The latter, of course, was media hype connected to a television documentary (The Nails of the Cross), which coincidentally I saw for the first time in the past couple of weeks, but it is interesting that the investigative techniques which were seen there for the first time (I believe) are the same sort of thing used in the present claim.  The new claim is about a set of burials a short distance away from the Talpiot Tomb, which, of course, Professor Jacobovici has previously hyped as the family tomb of Jesus, a claim which is so well-known by now that I really don’t have to say much more about it. The ‘new’ burials are in something which is also a ‘Talpiot Tomb’, but is being referred to as the “Patio Tomb” and the claim is that some of the folks buried within are our earliest examples of Christians, nay, this is the burial place of some actual disciples of Jesus. In passing we should note the tomb is assumed to be pre-destruction of Jerusalem (i.e. pre-70 A.D./C.E.). The claim is based on a purported ‘fish’ image and a puzzling inscription, and James Tabor has written a lengthy, illustrated piece at Bible and Interpretation defending the view (A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera: Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem … pdf) — it’s worth noting that Dr Tabor features prominently in much of Professor Jacobovici’s documentary work.

The press coverage has been extensive, but I think it will suffice to present here the UNC Charlotte press release which seems to have been the starting point for much of the coverage yesterday (Tabor’s article seems to have come out after many of the stories hit the airwaves):

The archaeological examination by robotic camera of an intact first century tomb in Jerusalem has revealed a set of limestone Jewish ossuaries or “bone boxes” that are engraved with a rare Greek inscription and a unique iconographic image that the scholars involved identify as distinctly Christian.

The four-line Greek inscription on one ossuary refers to God “raising up” someone and a carved image found on an adjacent ossuary shows what appears to be a large fish with a human stick figure in its mouth, interpreted by the excavation team to be an image evoking the biblical story of Jonah.

In the earliest gospel materials the “sign of Jonah,” as mentioned by Jesus, has been interpreted as a symbol of his resurrection. Jonah images in later “early” Christian art, such as images found in the Roman catacombs, are the most common motif found on tombs as a symbol of Christian resurrection hope. In contrast, the story of Jonah is not depicted in any first century Jewish art and iconographic images on ossuaries are extremely rare, given the prohibition within Judaism of making images of people or animals.

The tomb in question is dated prior to 70 CE, when ossuary use in Jerusalem ceased due to the Roman destruction of the city. Accordingly, if the markings are Christian as the scholars involved believe, the engravings represent – by several centuries – the earliest archaeological record of Christians ever found. The engravings were most likely made by some of Jesus’ earliest followers, within decades of his death. Together, the inscription and the Jonah image testify to early Christian faith in resurrection. The tomb record thus predates the writing of the gospels.

The findings will be detailed in a preliminary report by James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to be published online in on February 28, 2012.

“If anyone had claimed to find either a statement about resurrection or a Jonah image in a Jewish tomb of this period I would have said impossible — until now,” Tabor said. “Our team was in a kind of ecstatic disbelief, but the evidence was clearly before our eyes, causing us to revise our prior assumptions.”

The publication of the academic article is concurrent with the publication of a book by Simon & Schuster entitled “The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity.” The book is co-authored by Professor James Tabor and filmmaker/professor Simcha Jacobovici. A documentary on the discovery will be aired by the Discovery Channel in spring 2012.

The findings and their interpretation are likely to be controversial, since most scholars are skeptical of any Christian archaeological remains from so early a period. Adding to the controversy is the tomb’s close proximity to a second tomb, discovered in 1980. This tomb, dubbed by some “The Jesus Family Tomb,” contained inscribed ossuaries that some scholars associate with Jesus and his family, including one that reads “Jesus, son of Joseph.”

“Context is everything in archaeology,” Tabor pointed out. “These two tombs, less than 200 feet apart, were part of an ancient estate, likely related to a rich family of the time. We chose to investigate this tomb because of its proximity to the so-called ‘Jesus tomb,’ not knowing if it would yield anything unusual.”

The tomb containing the new discoveries is a modest sized, carefully carved rock cut cave tomb typical of Jerusalem in the period from 20 BCE until 70 CE.

The tomb was exposed in 1981 by builders and is currently several meters under the basement level of a modern condominium building in East Talpiot, a neighborhood of Jerusalem less than two miles south of the Old City. Archaeologists entered the tomb at the time, were able to briefly examine it and its ossuaries, take preliminary photographs, and remove one pot and an ossuary, before they were forced to leave by Orthodox religious groups who oppose excavation of Jewish tombs.

The ossuary taken, that of a child, is now in the Israel State Collection. It is decorated but has no inscriptions. The archaeologists mention “two Greek names” but did not notice either the newly discovered Greek inscription or the Jonah image before they were forced to leave. The tomb was re-sealed and buried beneath the condominium complex on what is now Don Gruner Street in East Talpiot.

The adjacent “Jesus tomb,” was uncovered by the same construction company in 1980, just one year earlier. It was thoroughly excavated and its contents removed by the Israel Antiquities Authority. This tomb’s controversial ossuaries with their unusual cluster of names (that some have associated with Jesus and his family) are now part of the Israel State Collection and have been on display in various venues, including the Israel Museum. These ossuaries will be in an exhibit running from late February through April 15 at Discovery Times Square.

In 2009 and 2010, Tabor and Rami Arav, professor of archaeology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, working together with Jacobovici, obtained a license to excavate the current tomb from the Israel Antiquities Authority under the academic sponsorship of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Because of its physical location under a modern building (making direct access nearly impossible), along with the threat of Orthodox Jewish groups that would protest any such excavation, Tabor’s team determined to employ a minimally invasive procedure in examining the tomb.

Funding for the excavation was provided by the Discovery Channel/Vision Television/Associated Producers. Jacobovici’s team at the Toronto based Associated Producers developed a sophisticated robotic arm to carry high definition cameras, donated by General Electric. The robotic arm and a second “snake camera” were inserted through two drill holes in the basement floor of the building above the tomb. The probe was successful and the team was able to reach all the ossuaries and photograph them on all sides, thus revealing the new inscriptions.

Beyond the possible Christian connection, Tabor noted that the tomb’s assemblage of ossuaries stands out as clearly extraordinary in the context of other previously explored tombs in Jerusalem.

“Everything in this tomb seems unusual when contrasted with what one normally finds inscribed on ossuaries in Jewish tombs of this period,” Tabor said. “Of the seven ossuaries remaining in the tomb, four of them have unusual features.”

There are engravings on five of the seven ossuaries: an enigmatic symbol on ossuary 2 (possibly reading Yod Heh Vav Heh or “Yahweh” in stylized letters that can be read as Greek or Hebrew, though the team is uncertain); an inscription reading “MARA” in Greek letters (which Tabor translates as the feminine form of “lord” or “master” in Aramaic) on ossuary 3; an indecipherable word in Greek letters on ossuary 4 (possibly a name beginning with “JO…”); the remarkable four-line Greek inscription on ossuary 5; and finally, and most importantly, a series of images on ossuary 6, including the large image of a fish with a figure seeming to come out of its mouth.

Among the approximately 2000 ossuaries that have been recovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority, only 650 have any inscriptions on them, and none have inscriptions comparable to those on ossuaries 5 and 6.

Less than a dozen ossuaries from the period have epitaphs but, according to Tabor, these inscribed messages usually have to do with warnings not to disturb the bones of the dead. In contrast, the four-line Greek inscription contains some kind of statement of resurrection faith.

Tabor noted that the epitaph’s complete and final translation is uncertain. The first three lines are clear, but the last line, consisting of three Greek letters, is less sure, yielding several possible translations: “O Divine Jehovah, raise up, raise up,” or “The Divine Jehovah raises up to the Holy Place,” or “The Divine Jehovah raises up from [the dead].”

“This inscription has something to do with resurrection of the dead, either of the deceased in the ossuary, or perhaps, given the Jonah image nearby, an expression of faith in Jesus’ resurrection,” Tabor said.

The ossuary with the image that Tabor and his team understand to be representing Jonah also has other interesting engravings. These also may be connected to resurrection, Tabor notes. On one side is the tail of a fish disappearing off the edge of the box, as if it is diving into the water. There are small fish images around its border on the front facing, and on the other side is the image of a cross-like gate or entrance—which Tabor interprets as the notion of entering the “bars” of death, which are mentioned in the Jonah story in the Bible.

“This Jonah ossuary is most fascinating,” Tabor remarked. “It seems to represent a pictorial story with the fish diving under the water on one end, the bars or gates of death, the bones inside, and the image of the great fish spitting out a man representing, based on the words of Jesus, the ‘sign of Jonah’ – the ‘sign’ that he would escape the bonds of death.”

Here is a smattering of the press coverage as of this writing … the headlines will give an idea how this is being spun:

… and we should highlight one media outlet (MSNBC) which isn’t buying into the hype:

MSNBC is to be commended because — unlike the majority of the other media outlets, which took the claims at face value — they looked into what the Biblioblog community was saying about the claim. I urge readers to read the Biblioblogger commentary for themselves, which is conveniently presented in ’roundup’ form by Tom Verenna:

… also worth checking out are the entries at the ASOR blog in general for the past couple days (beginning February 28, 2012 if you’re coming to the party late).  Of the various items there, I encourage folks to also read Christopher Rollston’s entry (Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici) since it complements some of what I have to say below and vice versa (hopefully!). I’ll also be referring to some of the figures (etc.) in James Tabor’s article mentioned above … if it’s in the TL;DR range for you, at least check out pp 12-22 or so.

So with the Bibliobloggers’ excellent background, we now bring a (rogue)Classicist perspective to this. When I first became aware of this story, I scrambled to find relative photos — they were rather sparse, initially. But now practically all coverage has a photo of some sort, and most of them have this one (this is the version in the Daily Mail; some outlets credit this to Simon and Schuster) from one of the ossuaries:

We are told that what this depicts is a whale spewing out Jonah (portayed as a ‘stick figure’). In Tabor’s article, it is presented as figure 21 and he discusses this image on pp 20-22 of his article. It is rather interesting how important a role the story of Jonah played in early Christianity. Tabor also offers an image from the San Sebastiano Catacomb as comparanda (fig. 22). When I initially saw this photo, I immediately wondered about its orientation. As presented in all the newspapers, of course, it does look rather ‘fish-like’ (whale-like), but I was skeptical whether it really was oriented that way. The Classicist in me rotated it thusly, the first time:

… and I saw an image of a priestess; perhaps someone associated with the cult of Diana. Was there a cult of Diana at Jerusalem? Nah … didn’t seem right. So we rotated it again:

… and we saw a pot of some sort. Rollston (section B) sees a Nephesh Tower or perhaps a tomb facade. I’ll defer to his judgement on this bit of iconography, but will note that Tabor does claim it isn’t a Nephesh Tower (pp 23-24). He insists it’s a stick figure emerging from the mouth of a whale.

After all that, however, I am disturbed by a couple of things. When Tabor’s article did come out, it was clear that the orientation of the photo in the newspapers — which clearly leads one to see something fish-like — isn’t the orientation in the tomb. While the image is presented in this orientation in the article (fig. 21), another image shows that it is, in fact, presented in the above-mentioned ‘nephesh’ pose (fig. 20).  Further, the ‘nephesh’ pose photo in Tabor also indicates that the upper right ‘rim’ of the tower is cut off by something and there is no explanation for the difference in the photos (did I miss it?). I find such things suspicious.

Whatever the orientation, however, to see a whale vomiting out a figure is a major stretch. Even if you are a hack artist, does it seem likely that you will portray a whale doing something akin to spitting out chewing tobacco saliva (i.e. with the mouth closed, more or less) or will you open that whale’s mouth wide? I’ve never seen any image of Jonah being spewed out where the beast’s mouth isn’t a gaping maw.  I’ve also never seen an image of Jonah being vomited ‘downward’.  This simply doesn’t look like a whale, much less a whale expelling Jonah, to me. Removing the “Jonah connection” also seems to be a major blow to the supposed Christian identification of this particular ossuary.

Now we turn to something which I think is far more significant — an inscription on one of the ossuaries. But first a bit of background … there were a pair of ossuaries originally found together in one of the niches, but now moved from their original positions.  Tabor described their difficulties photographing the first one (p. 14):

4. Ossuary 4:2=Kloner 4:2 . This  ossuary is  in its original position. It is ornamented  but due to its distance
in the niche and its closeness to the wall we were not able to examine  its façade closely. Its far end  has a
name inscribed in Greek but unfortunately even our snake camera probe could not reach far enough
inside the niche to shoot back at that end and get a clear wide  shot of  the letters. All we have is the 1981
enhanced photo in which the Greek letters are faintly v isible but remain undeciphered . Our best
reading at this point is  that the name might be ΙΟΝΑΣ (Jonah)  ΙΟΝΕΣ (John) or maybe even  ΙΟΥΛΙΑ
(Julia), but these are uncertain possibilities. 

The rogueclassicist in me, of course, was very excited at the possibility that there was someone named Julia in this tomb, and found it interesting that her obiously-Latin name (if it is her name) was transliterated by Greek characters, which is not an uncommon phenomenon in this part of the world. Of course, I was also disappointed that I couldn’t look at a photo of this. That said, however, the other ossuary also had an inscription and — perhaps not coincidentally — it forms the other major part of the identification of this tomb as belonging to early Christians. Here’s a photo of the inscription which has appeared in many newspapers:

Tabor’s article has two other versions which really should be looked at side by side (I can’t seem to extract them from the pdf, so I will refer you to fig. 19). Here’s how he reads this (p. 14) … apologies for the formatting:

5. Ossuary 5:3=Kloner 5:2 . This ossuary is has a highly ornamented f ront f açade with twin rosettes and
an elaborate  frieze border. In  the narrow curved blank space between the rosettes there is a four line
Greek inscription written in uncial letters ( Fig.  1 9 ). The final two letters of line 4 are uncertain, both in
their formation and due to the limitations of remote autopsy by camera. Th e following variations
appear possible:
We are convinced that each line of  the inscription is a separate and discrete word, yielding the f ollowing
word divisions. I include here  the variables of  line 4:  
1.  ΔΙΟΣ
2.  ΙΑΙΟ
3.  ΥΨΩ
4.  ΑΓΒ   ΑΓΙΩ   ΑΠΟ or ΑΠΒ

Rollston (section C) raises numerous objections beginning with the first line. Rollston doesn’t think someone in this part of the world would use the equivalent of ‘deos’, but would prefer ‘theos’ or something like that. He also doesn’t see the second line (which is supposedly the tetragrammaton) beginning with an iota. He also doesn’t have the certainly of the reading ‘hypso’ — which supposedly refers to the resurrection — in line three that Tabor seems to have. For what it’s worth, I think Rollston’s criticisms are very valid, but he has, perhaps, missed  something which I find to be incredibly interesting, if it can be confirmed somehow.

I spent hours (literally) staring Sheldon-like at the photo of this inscription, and did much playing in Photoshop with contrast and the like to  try and get the most visible version. Here’s what I did most of my work from:

I was initially struck by the apparently huge space between the delta and the sigma. There also seemed to be some sort of ‘squiggle’ separating them which is somewhat more visible in Tabor’s fig. 19 photo. I could not see this squiggle forming an iota and omicron. What I did see was a mu … and suddenly things came together!!! This is an ossuary! Could it be that we might have a Latin style funerary inscription beginning with D(is) M(anibus) S(acrum) in Greek characters?

If such were the case, we’d expect the name of the deceased next, in the dative form. As Rollston notes, the second line doesn’t begin with an iota. From my black-and-white fiddling, I suggest it begins with a Gamma and the second line actually reads ΓΑΙΟ … i.e. Gaius (in a transliterated dative form)

Line three is a mess, but when one looks at all the photos together, it emerges that there isn’t a Psi in that line; the upper right ‘fork tine’ of the psi seems to be a scratch or photographic artifact. What is actually there (as I hope can be seen from my photo) is a Nu. What precedes the Nu, however, is a bit of a mess and seems to be a couple of letters run together. There also is a faint trace of a letter before the Omega which ends the line. I suggest what is written here is ΙΥΝΙΩ … i.e. Junius (also transliterated dative).

So as I see it, the inscription is a basic transliterated Latin-Greek commemorative inscription to one Gaius Iunius. But what about that mysterious last line? What I see is ΑΓΒ and one of Tabor’s photos seems to show this very nicely — arguably it’s the clearest line of all of them, but also the most puzzling. Tabor gives all sorts of possibilities, ranging from Greek, to backwards Aramaic, to Hebrew transliteration (he eventually settles on a Hebrew imperative which runs parallel to the hypso suggestion). Perhaps it has merit, but it seems to introduce a rather complicated linguistic scheme unnecessarily. If we are dealing with a simple transliterated Latin-style funerary inscription, we’d expect the inscription to end with some reference to the deceased’s age (annos vixit x). Might we suggest that ΑΓΒ is an abbreviation for A(nnos) 3  B(ixit)?  Or if that Gamma is actually a Pi, A(nnos) 80 B(ixit)?

In other words, from a (rogue)classicist perspective, this pre-destruction-of-the-temple-collection-of-ossuaries is interesting not because of some purported early Christian connection, which is tenuous at best and requires an awful lot of argument to make it sound convincing. Nay rather, this collection of ossuaries is interesting because one of the niches includes the remains (possibly) of an obviously-Roman-named Julia and (apparently) of a Gaius Junius, whose ossuary commemorates him Roman-style with Greek letters.

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