Simcha Jacobovici’s Archaeology

Here’s something that we’re going to be forced to confront on a regular basis at Churnalism.

Today’s Irish Independent syndicates some Daily Telegraph content from journalist Adrian Blomfeld in Jerusalem. In Blomfeld’s report, an ‘amateur archaeologist’ (that doesn’t bode well) claims he has ‘discovered’ the tomb of Jesus’ disciples. [link]

Blomfeld’s report, in turn, bears an uncanny resemblance to,

a.) the press release by Simon and Schuster about an up-coming book by ‘archaeologist’ Simcha Jacob0vici, The Jesus Discovery, and,

b.) the press release for Jacobovici’s made-for-tv documentary of the same name (airing in Spring 2012.) All Blomfeld appears to have done is unthinkingly excerpt paragraphs from these press releases.

Israeli-born (Canadian based) Simcha Jacobovici boasts qualifications in Philosophy (BA) and International Relations (MA) but not a whit in Archaeology. In fact he’s mostly a documentary film-maker whose previous wheezes include the discovery of the ‘Jesus family tomb’ (2007) and ‘Atlantis’ (2011).

What’s instructive about the ‘Jesus tomb’ controversy is that Jacobovici, in an interview with Time magazine about his 2007 film, derived strange vindication from a  2008 conference at Princeton University to discuss the tomb:

“It’s moved from ‘it can’t be Jesus’ family tomb’ to ‘it could be’.”

This is poor epistemology from a Philosophy graduate – seeing as his firm claim in the 2007 film was that it had to be the family tomb. This is an unceremonious shift of position.

Any scholar worth their salt will always remain open to possibilities, i.e. ‘it could be’, however remote. An Israeli Archaeologist involved in the 2007 film, Amos Kloner, however, sounds the death knell anyway:

“I don’t accept the news that it [the tomb] was used by Jesus or his family,” he told the BBC News website. “The documentary filmmakers are using it to sell their film.”

Quite. Kloner also remarked that names etched on the sarcophagi in the tomb ‘were very common at the time’.

– – –

To consider the ‘latest’ discovery in greater depth is to simply ask questions that neither the Irish Independent nor the Daily Telegraph bothered to ask:

The caskets, known as ossuaries, were inscribed with what some experts said could be the earliest Christian iconography ever documented.

Who are these experts? What qualifies them as experts? Are they university researchers? Do they have a track record of peer-reviewed research? Finally, just how many experts are there pinning their colours to the mast on this claim?

We certainly know that one professional Archaeologist active in the creation of Jacobovici’s latest documentary is quite unimpressed:

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. – Prof. Robin Jensen, Vanderbilt University at

The professor is. not. the. only. one. Oh dear!

In light of that, let’s return to Blomfeld’s re-hashed press release:

One of the ossuaries carries an etching of a fish with what appears to be a human head in its mouth, perhaps an image of Jonah. His story was of major significance to early Christians because Jonah spent three days in the belly of the giant fish, just as Christ spent three days in the tomb.

These are weasel words: ‘perhaps’ being deeply unsatisfactory. It also appears obvious (to me) that we could be dealing with a simple instance of anachronism – how are the etchings on these caskets being dated?

Later Christian tradition in interpreting the Torah, the Old Testament, was summed up by St. Augustine as the New Testament being concealed in the Old Testament and in the New the Old being (truly) revealed.

Christians worked backwards to find corroborative symbols and significance in Jewish writings (e.g. numerology.) In their own time, then, Old Testament writings about Jonah stood on their own and (obviously) anticipated no Christians. Jews would still have looked to the story of Jonah without that making them Christian, any more than the story of Noah or Job would!

What also of the (even more likely) possibility that a tomb was converted for use by Christian descendants of  Jewish ancestors later on?

Independent archaeologists [who – Robin Jensen?] said no Jewish tomb from antiquity was known to have carried a fish, giving further credibility to the theory that the etching was Christian.

Uh-uh! It works in precisely the opposite way. This suggests even more strongly the possibility that we’re dealing with anachronistic etchings.

The tomb would almost certainly date to before AD 70, the year the city was destroyed by a Roman army. If the remains were those of early Christians, they may well have been contemporaries of Christ, perhaps even his disciples, as the community was small.

In AD70 Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans. It was not completely levelled any more than Rome itself was levelled when it was sacked by Alaric the Visigoth in AD410.  A small tomb could very well have remained extant and in ongoing use well beyond AD70. The primary victim of the Roman ransack was the Jewish Temple of David (aka the ‘old’ Temple).

The remainder of the paragraph is just plainly arguing against itself: the early Christian community was small, but not so small that this discovery can be heralded as anything like ‘the tombs of Jesus’ disciples’ without far more copious positive evidence (leaving all obvious questions of anachronism aside.)

On a final note, again returning to anachronism:

Not only did fish feature in a number of miracles, while many of the disciples were fishermen, but the Greek for fish — ichthys — was held to be an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Saviour”.

New Testament Greek, and extensive Greek settlement in Jerusalem, most definitely occurs after AD70.

The earliest date which scholars will assign to any Gospel is that of Mark the Evangelist (and it is likely the gospel had more than one author): c. AD70 after the destruction of the Temple.

Only tradition has it that Mark was a companion of Peter the apostle, and nothing stronger than that. It is unlikely that Jesus’ original 12 disciples (only attested to by these essentially unreliable gospels) would have spoken Greek (more likely Aramaic.)

A general rule of thumb is established by the journeys of Paul and Peter throughout the Mediterranean (and their contact with Greek and Latin speaking communities): those men met their end out on the road and didn’t return to Jerusalem with anyone to etch Greek on their coffins as an epitaph.

Better work next time, Journalism™.