on ‘absalom’s tomb’ in jerusalem and nephesh monument iconography

Images of the 'Tomb of Absalom' (1 C. CE Jerusalem) flank an image carved into a burial ossuary.

Images of the 'Tomb of Absalom' (1 C. CE Jerusalem) flank an image carved into an ossuary. Photo credits: Left: Brian796 (http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-photo/brian796/2/1264692913/the-tomb-of-absalom.jpg/tpod.html). Center: MSNBC Cosmic Log (http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/27/10521007-new-find-revives-jesus-tomb-flap) Right: Ariel Horowitz on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Avtomb.JPG).

Here’s a thought:

In response to Simcha Jacobovici’s sensational claims of a “Jonah’s Great Fish” icon on a burial ossuary in Jerusalem, Duke University’s Dr. Eric Meyers states the following:

In fact, the image in the book is so poorly reproduced in my copy that one suspects it has been intentionally altered so that no one could see what the the image really is. Indeed, the image actually seems to resemble a nephesh, or tomb monument, like those found in many places in Jerusalem in the first century CE and depicted on ossuaries of this very period (so for example in fig. 13 or 30 of Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, 1994). A nephesh is the above-ground monument of a tomb that marks the tomb below and the one(s) buried there.

Chris Rollston adds:

I must emphasize that I am confident the engraving  is simply a standard “nephesh tower motif,” an ornamental motif that is fairly widely attested on the corpus of ossuaries.  In fact, in Rahmani’s discussion of the ornamental motifs of ossuaries, the first ornamental motif he mentions is that which has the appearance of a tomb façade or nephesh tower. (Rahmani, L. Y., 1994. A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, p. 28).

By the way, the features of  this ossuary’s ornamentation that Jacobovici and Tabor contend are the “fins of a fish,” are actually a standard feature of a roof, namely, the eaves (which, of course, are important for directing the water away from a building).  Note also that eaves are visible in multiple of Rahmani’s drawings of ossuary ornamentation.  In short, this is not a fish.  It is a nephesh tower or tomb façade.

The initial thought that came to my mind was the so-called Tomb of Absalom (that we coincidentally discussed today in my “Jerusalem from the Bronze to Digital Age” class at Iowa). The shape of the figure resembles the shape of the Tomb of Absalom, which is dated to the 1st C. CE in Jerusalem. I suggest that the “round” figure at the top of the ossuary image may be an attempted representation of a lotus flower that Kloner and Zissu state is carved into the top of the Absalom monument. (Kloner A. and Zissu B., 2003. The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period. Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and The Israel Exploration Society. Jerusalem (in Hebrew), pp. 141-43.) It certainly could be interpreted as an attempt at the petals of a flower.

Likewise the lower panels of the image could be an attempt at a representation of the tomb’s pillars.

Images of the 'Tomb of Absalom' (1 C. CE Jerusalem) flank an image carved into a burial ossuary.

Images of the 'Tomb of Absalom' (1 C. CE Jerusalem) flank an image carved into an ossuary. Photo credits: Left: Brian796. Center: MSNBC Right: Ariel Horowitz on Wikipedia.

Note also that the sections of the “tail” of the “fish” correspond to the attempted representations of the stacked Greek architectural segments on the tomb’s (frieze, architrave, etc.):

'The Tomb of Absalom.' Peter Bergheim, a Jerusalem resident of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, took this photo, which shows how the rock rubble piled up even inside the tomb. The Bergheim family had a bank just inside Jaffa Gate. Photo by Peter Bergheim, courtesy of Joe Zias. (Available at: http://tfba.co/content/index.php/projects/34-tomb-of-absalom/46-the-tomb-of-absalom-reconsidered?start=9)

'The Tomb of Absalom.' Peter Bergheim, a Jerusalem resident of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, took this photo, which shows how the rock rubble piled up even inside the tomb. The Bergheim family had a bank just inside Jaffa Gate. Photo by Peter Bergheim, courtesy of Joe Zias. (Available at: http://tfba.co/content/index.php/projects/34-tomb-of-absalom/46-the-tomb-of-absalom-reconsidered?start=9)

This may not be the inspiration for the image on the ossuary, but it certainly seems more likely than a “fish” spitting out a “human head.”

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10 Responses

  1. it’s certainly very possible and more probable than tabor’s suggestion of a ‘fish’.

  2. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    Bob is probably right on target here. And this tomb of Absalom certainly is closer to the imagery produced in the ossuary Tabor ‘discovered’ than a fish.

  3. Well, hell, you gotta try, right? If it *looks* like a nephesh motif, and it’s *positioned* like a nephesh motif, and it therefore must *be* a nephesh motif, why not rotate it and claim it’s a cetacean disgorging a homo sapiens cranium?

    It worked for Eric von Däniken, so it must work for other semi-archaeologists with an axe to grind!

    To my eye, it also looks like a schematic representation of the NASA shuttle, complete with (misplaced) tower control jet, taking off on a cloud of thunder! Go, Discovery, go!

  4. When I first looked at the “Jonah and the Whale” slide I said to myself, “It looks like architecture.”In my mind I was seeing Absalom’s Pillar. I quite agree that this is no reference to Jonah.

  5. Thanx Dr. Strange. I agree with you.

  6. Thank you for this. I didn’t think it looked like a fish.

  7. [...] on this topic. Bob Cargill posted on whether Absalom’s Tomb is the image in question (having also posted twice on his own blog). Yesterday Eric Meyers and Jodi Magness posted. Christopher Rollston today posted [...]

  8. Rather than architecture or a fish, the image on the ossuary looks decidedly like the description of the priestly garments of the Old Testament.

    Exodus 28 lists what was required of priestly garments:

    a turban (which seems to be on the ‘head’ of the man.

    an ephod with shoulder pieces that are tied in the back (this seems to be a back view), that is split in the middle to allow the head through.

    a robe, large and lengthy enough to be carried by ‘ten men’ and which spreads out as the ‘tail fin’ in the image.

    a checkered tunic (the two bands of squares).

    a decorated sash (the band of triangular shapes separating the bands of the tunic.

    The only thing missing is the breast piece ordained by God, but if this is a rear view or the image of a regular priest and not the high priest, such a breast piece would be moot.

    This seems to be the image of a priest and not a fish as Tabor claims.

  9. [...] what I said about ‘Absalom’s Tomb’ here and here. It was a nice observation, but it’s probably not correct. In fact, it’s [...]

  10. [...] Cargill: On Absalom’ Tomb in Jerusalem and Nephesh Monument Iconography Jodi Magnes Responds on ASOR’s [...]

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