Image Album: The Jonah Ossuary

Jonah ossuary

Museum reproduction of the ossuary with the alleged "Jonah and the whale" image on the left front panel.

This reproduction of the Jonah ossuary, a pre-70 A.D. artifact, shows the contentious image on the left front panel. The ossuary's discoverers claim it depicts a downward-facing fish swallowing Jonah, the Old Testament figure revered by Christians. This interpretation would suggest it is a Christian artifact. However, most outside scholars think the image is a right-side-up funerary monument, such as an amphora.

Hebrew inscription?

Discoverers of the ossuary claim the lines in what would be the fish's mouth, if this is an image of a fish, spell the Hebrew word "YONAH," (the Hebrew form of Jonah). The four letters are traced in yellow. However, skeptics argue that the second "letter" is actually two disconnected lines, and that other lines that don't fit with the interpretation are ignored.


Jonah written in Modern Hebrew (red) and Ancient Herodian script similar to that used in the Dead Sea Scrolls (black). The discoverers of the Jonah ossuary say an inscription in the fish's mouth is the same as the Herodian word.

Finding meaning in random lines?

(Image credit: Steve Caruso)

Critics say the discoverers of the Jonah ossuary are seeing what they want to in the random lines engraved on the artifact.

Endless possibilities

(Image credit: Steve Caruso)

With such loose rules for how to interpret the lines in the image, they could spell out any number of words.

Nun or no?

(Image credit: Robert Cargill)

Close-up of a photograph of the supposed letters, and the same image with the contrast increased for clarity. The red arrow points to a space between the lines that make up the supposed 'nun', a backwards L-shape Hebrew letter. Because the two lines are disconnected, experts say this is not a "nun," and thus that the inscription doesn't spell "Yonah."

Fish in the margins

(Image credit: Steve Caruso)

In the museum replica of the ossuary, there are fish decorating the ossuary's border; if those are in the original, they would seem to be strong evidence in favor of the interpretation that the larger panel image is of a fish, and is Christian. But are they really there? See the next two slides.

Outlined fish

(Image credit: Steve Caruso)

Images on the website of the documentary "Jesus Discovery" originally showed these "fish in the margins" with digital ink over them to make them "clearer." When criticism mounted, they removed the doctored photo and replaced it with...

No fish

(Image credit: Steve Caruso)

In the original photographs of the ossuary, there are only faint marks where the fish are supposed to be, not discernible as fish at all.

Live Science Staff
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