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TALPIOT II - THE "PATIO TOMB" OF JESUS
Email Exchanges between
The following is an exchange of emails initiated by Dr. Ben Witherington, III to Dr. James H. Charlesworth asking about Dr. Charlesworth's involvement and opinions about the "Talpiot II, Patio Tomb" project, the Discovery Channel's documentary on the subject, and Dr. Charlesworth's appearance in that documentary.
Ben Witherington and I have been close for decades. We both belong to the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
He saw me featured on the Discovery special that was focused on the tombs in Talpiot.
He asked to interview me for his blog; here is the interview.
Subject: my answers to your questions
I find it difficult to imagine that Jesus’ bones would have been put in an ugly ossuary with a name that was scribbled so crudely that “Jesus, son of Joseph” would have to appear in any sophisticated work with dots over “Jesus” to signal that the name is a guess. If Jesus’ bones were still on earth one year after his resurrection, they would have been collected and honored by Jews who hailed him as the Messiah, the Christ.
Let us not forget that the great Professor Eleazar Lipa Sukenik found in a warehouse an elegant ossuary with this clear marking: “Jesus, son of Joseph.” Those names were as popular as “John” and “James” today; moreover, we must admit to the existence of at least two men called “Jesus, son of Joseph,” as there are two separate bone boxes.
The long and concave figure is approximately 23 cm. long and approximately 15 cm. wide at the greatest extremity (the curved bottom that is at the top) or 9 cm near the appendixes.[i] The figure comes to a point on one end and fans out on the opposite end. At the pointed end is a circular shape about 3 cm in circumference. On each side of the figure are lines that appear to be appendages. In the center of the figure are three lines. The section closest to the tip contains square markings while the other two contain triangular lines. Halfway between the appendages and the tip is a section that contains numerous lines drawn at different angles. A series of horizontal lines running perpendicular to the main figure run across the sphere at the bottom. What could this image symbolize or is it just a sign? That is, is the drawing a sign or a symbol? A sign can mean one and only one thing; a good example is the stop sign. All know where to stop. A symbol must be interpreted and usually has many meanings. Symbols appear in a world of ambiguity and bring with them more than one meaning.[ii]
A Nefesh (a tomb monument that signals the “soul(s)” entombed). Looking at the image on an unpublished ossuary in Rahmani’s Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries,[iii] it is easy to imagine the image is a nefesh. In both drawings, the “bottom” is concave. Some images of a nefesh do have something on the sides like spirals. The experts who were studying the Patio Tomb identified a nefesh on one ossuary but concluded this image was not a nefesh. Yet, it is conceivable that the drawing is a nefesh; after all we should admit the drawing is crude. One problem with the assumption that the image is a funerary monument is that it would be up-side-down, with the base at the top. Does that seem likely?
An Amphora. The image does appear in some ways like an amphora. It is rounded and has a top. The image has something on each side. Could these be handles? If so, they are not like any known handles on an amphora, whether drawn or part of an amphora itself. Is it possible that retinal retention has elicited these attempts to discern the meaning? If one looks at an amphora, one can easily see this image as an amphora. But, is that what the engraver intended? The oval-shaped bottom of the drawing seems too rounded for the base of an amphora. The handles, moreover, are oddly shaped and unlike any on an amphora. Many artisans depicted amphora correctly on ossuaries, why is this image so unlike others?
Any attempt to enter the mind of an engraver in order to discern the intention of an “artist” borders on unsophisticated methodology, frequently speculating with unexamined presuppositions. To discern what it might mean to a viewer is another matter. Both of the attempts so far rightly assume that ossuaries exist with a drawing of a nefesh or an amphora.
A Fish. If this is a fish, it seems crudely drawn and depicted downward. It may well be a fish, if one imagines an unsophisticated attempt. The shape does seem reflective of a large fish. The head appears pointed and expands outward towards the center and then slopes inward and down to an elongated “tail.” That contour is “fishlike.” The tail seems concave like the tail of a fish; it is well drawn but the appendages are poorly indicated. Could they be a crude attempt to depict the flippers on a big fish? Had the “artist” ever seen a large fish? If this is a drawing of a big fish, where is the eye and where is the mouth? Perhaps the mouth is at the point near “the bottom,” and the eye is a barely visible circle to the left of the “mouth.” We will need better images to prove what some see as a mouth and an eye (but many images of fish have no eye).
Fish do appear on ossuaries; Rahmani reported that Ossuary 348 had a mark that “seems to represent a fish.” Is this another example of a fish and if so does it merely mean that the one who bones are inside the ossuary was a fishmonger? According to Nehemiah 13:16, men came to Jerusalem from Tyre (on the coast north of Acco) with “fish” to sell. Rahmani is convinced that the circle on Ossuary 140 around “Yeshua‘” (“Jesus”) is only coincidentally “a fish.”[iv] Is that discussion closed?[v]
Why has the engraver spent so much time on the lines within the spherical “bottom”? One can count at least 14 strokes. Why? What was imagined?
It is easy to dismiss the suggestion that someone tried to draw a large fish. The middle section with squares needs explanation. And one should be willing to imagine that the image is really an amphora. Staring at it for long periods can convince one it might be a crude attempt at a nefesh. But, something is intended. We should move beyond what it could possibly be and ask what is the intentionality that created this image?
All attempts have so far failed to explain why the drawing is upside down. If the Jewish engraver who made this etching had Jonah in mind, then perhaps some answers are forthcoming. According to the biblical author, Jonah was spat out by the “large fish” unto dry land (Jonah 2:11); that could be depicted by placing a fish upside down. Any other angle would mean that “Jonah” was shot into the air.
A resurrection belief was shared by many early Jews, representing various groups or sects. As I showed in Resurrection: The Origin and Future of a Biblical Doctrine, resurrection belief means that someone who lived and has died will be raised by God to an eternal existence with God.[vi] The belief in a resurrection may be found in some Davidic Psalms, but the first lucid (or un-debatable) reference to it appears, perhaps around 200 BCE, in the Books of Enoch (1 Enoch). Then chronologically, the concept appears in Daniel 12. At Qumran, in a document probably not composed at Qumran, the belief clearly appears in On Resurrection (5Q521) and in Pseudo-Ezekiel 54Q385-388). In many works of Early Judaism the belief in a resurrection is evident, including Josephus’ compositions, the Psalms of Solomon, the Life of Adam and Eve, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, 2 Enoch, the History of the Rechabites, the Lives of the Prophets, 1-4 Maccabees, Pseudo-Philo, the Apocryphon of Ezekiel, Pseudo-Phocylides, Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Abraham, the Testament of Job, the Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs, the Apocryphon of Ezekiel, and the Odes of Solomon. The belief in the resurrection is also found in the Didache, the Hellenistic Synagogal Prayers, and the Amida or 18 Benedictions. According to Hippolytus (but not Josephus), the Essenes believed in the resurrection of the flesh (Haeresies 9.27).The Samaritans believe that God will summon “his creatures” so that all of them will “arise in one moment before him (Memar Markah 4.12; cf. also Yom ad-Din 26). Moreover, the concept of a bodily resurrection created and defined the Palestinian Jesus Movement; according to Paul, if Jesus was not raised by God then “our proclamation is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1Cor 15:14). Without any doubt, the concept of resurrection (far more than a belief in a coming Messiah) brings into perspective the shared beliefs and hopes within Early Judaism.[vii]
Are the inscription and the drawing not to be perceived within Jewish resurrection beliefs? It is as absurd to dismiss the possibility that this tomb has some relation with the Palestinian Jesus Movement as to claim that it clearly must be labeled a “Christian” tomb. Emotions are too enflamed by such unscholarly outbursts.
Finally, we Christians do not need any proof or support for our commitment to God through Jesus Christ, but we should find inviting the enlightening reflections in windows provided by the Talpiot Patio Tomb. Through them, we may see more clearly the world that shaped the lives and beliefs of luminaries like the Righteous Teacher, Hillel, John the Baptizer, Jesus, Peter, Gamaliel, Paul, and Stephen. What are we now learning about Jewish resurrection faith before the burning of the Temple in 70 CE?
[i] At this stage, none of us can be precise. We must work with an image taken from a distance and a rubbing of that image, since the ossuary is still in the tomb. At least no one can debate the provenience of the ossuary. I am trying to discern the tomb in which was found the ossuary that Sukenik found in the PAM with the name “Jesus, son of Joseph.” Here are some corrections to COJO: In 222, the Hebrew is backward. In 288, the name is “Liezer” (not “Eli‘ezer”). In 428, the name is “Maryah” (not “Kyria”) and “Shim‘on” is scratched out (as is a name in the so-called ossuary of Simon of Cyrene). Possibly, in 430 the reading seems to be “Shalom Hallel.” The שלם may be conceivable, but הלל seems clear. Recall the name in Judges 12:13-15: “Abdon son of Hillel.” Of course, one
[ii] The serpent can be seen to have about 30 meanings. See Charlesworth, The Good and Evil Serpent (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library; New Haven and London: YUP, 2010).
[iii] The ossuary is in the École biblique. See L.Y. Rahmani, COJO, p. 32, Fig. 30 [drawing of the nefesh].
[iv] COJO, 140; see p. 113 and Plate 20.
[v] P. Figueras disagrees with Rahmani’s interpretation. See Figueras, Decorated Jewish Ossuaries (Leiden: Brill, 1983) and his “The Ornamentation of Jewish Ossuaries – Is It Symbolic?” Archaeologya 2 (1989) 49-51.
[vi] See J.H. Charlesworth, et al., Resurrection (New York, London: T & T Clark, 2006) pp. 12-17.
[vii] But note Sirach 10:11; Sirach apparently taught that after death a person inherits worms. The Sadducees probably denied any concept of resurrection or positive afterlife (viz., Josephus War 2.165; Acts 23:8).
From: Ben Witherington [mailto:ben]
This is simply great, and I realize it took some time, so thanks.
It shows proper scholarly reflection in depth, and will let my audience understand that these things are often ambiguous, and can be interpreted in various ways by equally competent scholars.
Dr. Ben Witherington, III