how to substitute press releases for evidence

The supposed "Jonah inscription"

The supposed "Jonah inscription"

If you can appreciate “circular reasoning,” then you’ll love this latest example of “circular citations,” a process referred to by my colleague Steve Caruso as the “Citation Two-step” or the “Feedback Fox Trot,” but what I call the “Evidentiary reach-around.”

By now, many readers have been following the sensational claims made by Simcha Jacobovici and Dr. James Tabor. The pair claim to have discovered (among other things):

  1. The “Sign of Jonah”
  2. The “earliest christian symbols ever discovered”
  3. The “first christian symbol ever found from first century CE Jerusalem”
  4. The “earliest testimony of faith in the resurrection of Jesus”
  5. The “earliest record of a teaching or saying of Jesus”
  6. An inscription calling on “YHWH to raise up”
  7. And most recently, an “Inscription bearing the name of Jonah”

(see the back cover of The Jesus Discovery for a full list of sensational claims)

Note that none of these claims have been confirmed, and just about all scholars (except those working with or for Simcha on this or another of his film projects) reject these sensational claims outright. I said as much in my live interview with CNN’s Carol Costello on “CNN Newsroom:”

However, the night before the premier of “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery,” (Simcha Jacobovici’s latest documentary on Discovery Channel), apparently not happy with their “stick man Jonah” argument, the team jettisoned that claim and Dr. James Tabor announced via his blog that a “new discovery” had been made by none other than “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery” consultant and collaborator, Dr. James Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary.

And where was this great new discovery published? In a peer-reviewed journal? At a professional conference? How about on a blog? No, the revelation came via an article in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail by Michael Posner entitled, “Ancient ossuary hints at earliest reference to resurrection of Jesus.” In the article, Dr. Charlesworth is quoted as follows:

Most likely,” says Princeton Theological Seminary scholar James Charlesworth, director of a project on the Dead Sea Scrolls, “we may comprehend the inscription as reading ‘Jonah.’ And I have no doubt it is a fish.”

If Prof. Charlesworth is right, then a consensus may form that the ossuary depicts Jonah being vomited out of the mouth of the fish” (italics mine)

Again, Dr. Charlesworth has yet to publish anything on the supposed “inscription.” There has certainly been no announcement on the two places we would expect to find announcements of this magnitude: the Princeton Theological Seminary website and Dr. Charlesworth’s Foundation on Judaism and Christian Origins. Yet in both places there is nothing. Nothing has been published by Dr. Charlesworth as of yet (although he is said to be presently working on something for publication regarding this inscription.)

And yet, that does not stop the press machine from grinding away.

Dr. Tabor next sends an article to Bible and Interpretation, where it is published citing only a single source: the Globe and Mail article by Toronto’s Michael Posner. Again, not a single shred of evidence or scholarly consensus has been cited other than the claims of Dr. Charlesworth as reported by Dr. Tabor on his blog, by Dr. Tabor on Bible and Interpretation, and by the single article in the Globe and Mail.

In the mean time, the press office at then University of North Carolina, Charlotte issues a press release which parrots the claim of the “discovery” of the “inscription.” Nowhere in the press release is any source cited; the press release quotes only Dr. Tabor, and parrots the announcement that Dr. Charlesworth has made a momentous “discovery.”

And for good reason: Dr. Charlesworth has not yet published anything on the subject. But because the press release is coming from UNC Charlotte to promote its professor and his claimed discovery, the press release is issued without citing anything other than conversations with Drs. Tabor and Charlesworth. And this is all well and good. The UNC Charlotte public relations office is doing its job: announcing the claims of its faculty.

All is well and good.

However, once the press release is issued, it is immediately picked up by science news aggregate website That got the story directly from the UNC Charlotte press machine is made fully evident in the last line of this article, which reads:

“Provided by University of North Carolina at Charlotte.”

This means that this “story” was the same written and released by the press office of Dr. Tabor’s home university, The University of North Carolina, Charlotte. What’s more, far from mentioning the overwhelming scholarly rejection of these sensational claims, the press release reads:

“So far, Israeli epigrapher Robert Deutsch has confirmed Charlesworth’s reading of YONAH and Haggai Misgav of Hebrew University says there are definitely letters there although he reads them as ZOLAH rather than YONAH.”

The article does NOT mention the list of epigraphers (see Antonio Lombatti’s list) who reject outright that an inscription even exists, much less says what Drs. Tabor and Charlesworth say it says. Then again, as this press release was composed by UNC Charlotte to promote UNC Charlotte Professor, Dr. James Tabor, we should not expect a hint of objectivity in the press release. Rather, we should expect only Dr. Tabor’s claims and spin to support the claims.

But that does not stop the press machine.

Another Science news aggregator Eurekalert, picks up and parrots the story, and even uses the same headline: “Hebrew inscription appears to confirm ‘sign of Jonah’ and Christian reference on ancient artifact.”

Appears to confirm??” Again, no evidence has been cited, and Dr. Charlesworth still has not published a single word on the matter. But now, despite the overwhelming opposition to the sensational claims, they are apparently “confirmed”??

Meanwhile, science news website LiveScience staff writer, Jennifer Welsh picks up the UNC Charlotte press release that has been parroted by and Eurekalert, and publishes her own story entitled, “Ancient ‘Bone Box’ Called Oldest Christian Artifact.”

What?? Despite the fact that the article is largely rehash of the UNC Charlotte press release and now includes graphics taken from Dr. Tabor’s blog, somehow the claims is now “called the oldest Christian Artifact“??

Remember, to this point, the UNC Charlotte press release has been picked up and parroted by three news aggregators, with each one altering the title to make the claim a bit more substantiated, despite the fact that Dr. Charlesworth has still not published a word on the matter and the only source for all of these claims is the same author, Dr. James Tabor, who is selling a book making the claims, and who has utilized the UNC Charlotte press office to promote his claims.

And the press machine grinds on.

Finally, this afternoon, MSNBC re-published the LiveScience article by Jennifer Welsh as its own, this time altering the title to read, “Ossuary confirmed as oldest Christian artifact.”


Did you see that? CONFIRMED!?? While Dr. Charlesworth has still not published a single word on the supposed “inscription” – an inscription mind you that multiple epigraphers and scholars have rejected altogether as an inscription, much less one that reads “Jonah” – the UNC Charlotte press release, which was issued to promote the findings of Dr. Tabor as published in his new book, The Jesus Discovery, has gone from the Globe and Mail‘s headline of “Ancient ossuary hints at earliest reference to resurrection of Jesus,” to MSBNC’s headline of “Ossuary confirmed as oldest Christian artifact.”

(I shake my head.)

And nothing has changed. Not a single thing. Nothing has been published in support of the claim that has not originated from Dr.  Tabor and UNC Charlotte. Meanwhile, a host of scholars including myself have published rejections of all of these claims. And yet, there it is: Ossuary confirmed as oldest Christian artifact, all within 24 hours and without a shred of evidence or scholarly support.


Just to sum up:

  1. Dr. Charlesworth’s has yet to publish anything on a supposed “Jonah inscription.”
  2. Toronto’s Globe and Mail reports that Dr. Charlesworth has found something.
  3. Dr. Tabor cites the Globe and Mail article as “breaking news” on his blog.
  4. Dr. Tabor’s  university public relations office at UNC Charlotte issues a press release announcing the “discovery” of the inscription by Charlesworth in support the claims made in Dr. Tabor’s book.
  5. and Eurekalert pick up the UNC Charlotte press release that “confirms” the discovery.
  6. A LiveScience staff writer re-writes the and Eurekalert stories (which were based upon the press release), altering the title.
  7. MSNBC republishes the LiveScience story with the headline: “Ossuary confirmed as oldest Christian artifact.”

And nothing has changed. Not a shred of evidence has been presented outside of Dr. Tabor’s initial claims about Dr. Charlesworth’s apparent “discovery.’ No publications. No other citations. And yet, despite the chorus of scholarly rejections, the claim is “confirmed” in the press. The same story gets republished and republished, with the headline becoming more and more certain with each regurgitation.

And that, my friends, is what scholars call the “evidentiary end run.”

And that’s how you replace evidence and scholarly consensus with a press release.

13 Responses

  1. note: there may be typos in here, as i wrote it very quickly. if you catch any, please leave them here in the comments. thx.

  2. academics via press release….

  3. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    Indeed… academics via press release…

  4. What you describe in this segment reminds me of 2 things: 1. Dr. Tabor and company have resorted to the (late) Ron Wyatt School of Archaeology to conduct their investigation of this tomb and its ossuaries; and 2. That game where people sit in a circle and the lead person tells 1 thing to the first person and in turn each person is supposed to repeat what they had heard. Of course, by the time the message gets back around to the original person, the message is completely changed.

    Sounds like what is happeninghere and that the Tabor group are using that idea to get their message across.

  5. One question: I am looking at the picture of the ossuarry in the Live Science article you linked to and if the Tabor group can see a whale spitting out Jonah in the left engraving, why can’t the right engraving depict the earliest archaeological evidence for the game called Hangman? If you look closely enough there are similarities from that angle in the picture.

  6. Sigh…Well Bob I could not disagree more but you already likely know that. First, I don’t think charging colleagues with being desperate and somehow coming up with something in order to save their interpretation is helpful to this discussion. It is maybe a tad better than charging financial buy-offs but not by much. Actually, I think people like yourself, who have taken such a strong and adamant stand against this image being that of Jonah and the fish, have much more at stake in even considering this inscription. I think you posted your opinion within hours of seeing Charlesworth’s proposal. You were already positive these were not letters but decorations you compared to the straight lines on your Hellenistic krater-vase–a parallel that went totally beyond me and quite a few others. I would think you could at least see the Heh and maybe work backwards. Misgav is mainly working with the Nun/Lamed and the Vav/Zayin, but he is not doubting the letters, only offering his view of them. It would be a massive almost unimaginably huge dose of humble pie for you and a whole lot of folks given what has been said, and not always too kindly, over the past eight weeks, to accept this reading of YONAH. We would have to resuscitate Jim West for one thing. It is just too risky. For those of us who already think it is a fish it only adds corroboration to what we already found convincing. It is not a game changer either way for me, since I already think this is clearly a Jonah image. But I do find it remarkable that these “random decorations” end up matching Herodian script–and YONAH at that. Seems to be quite a coincidence don’t you think?

    Second, for Charlesworth to give an interview with Michael Posner, one of the best reporters in the business, about his readings of this inscription, with Posner’s report on what others say about it is also perfectly fine in my view, or for my university to pick up on this new aspect of the story related to my research. He saw something we had overlooked. For the past eight weeks folks have been posting all sorts of things they have seen, not seen, observed. Conjectures have been myriad and you have been at the head of that pack. Why is it only Charlesworth who must first publish in a journal before he can offer an new insight? I find his reading very convincing, and have argued so on my blog as you know. I too did not wait for six months until a peer reviewed journal article came out.

    Finally, so far as Antonio’s poll of what epigrapher’s think I have no idea what he sent them or how they were approached or even what they said back to him. I know Zias was going to “talk to Rahmani” so one can only imagine how objectively anything was presented to him. I do know that Antonio got things terribly confused in his early blog posts, not even citing correctly what Posner had reported. He wrote Haggai Misgav, for example, and told him that I had said he read the inscription as “Yonah,” eliciting an angry response from him when he thought he was being misrepresented when I had reported precisely what he had said with his ZOLAH reading. We can only say firsthand what Charlesworth, Deutsch, Yardeni, and Pfann have told us and I can tell you that neither Pfann nor Yardeni are being represented well. It is interesting that those who think these are “decorations” are still not agreed as to what this thing is they are “decorating,” nor has anyone cited any parallel on any ossuary image I know of that is even remotely parallel to this image, and now these clear engraved marks. Yesterday I went through Rahmani’s many examples and I could not believe how close the parallels were that I saw on page after page to these precise letters. I could go ahead and post these in detail but I thought I would give Charlesworth the respect to offer what he has seen first, rather than jumping in front of him since this is his discovery. He has an amazing eye for these things and right now is working with Dead Sea Scroll scripts. We talked this morning and he was quite excited about his research on this and was consulting various epigraphers and I am sure will include and benefit from their input. He does not read blogs so I hope he has not seen the insulting remarks people have made about him but he did mention that he wanted to put his paper on this up various places on the internet when it was ready.

  7. Dr. Tee, your insults of the Tabor group is a sign that the cult of New Testament archaeology is losing its grip on their minions. In the past the purpose of the cult was to (1) find Sodom and Gomorrah (2) throw chairs in front of any find that does not agree with NT. Since Tabor group is not adhering to cult dogma, they are vilified. The trial of Oded Golan has changed cult stranglehold. No longer does the IAA automatically check with Jodi Magness before issuing statements. Believing in virgin birth and dead coming back to life is no longer a requirement for admission. The cult is disintegrating and the world will be better for it.

  8. […] various sites such as, LiveScience and MSNBC are hyping these conclusions. Bob Cargill describes the alleged evidence they are drawing on as a case of “circular citation…Michael Heiser posted on the topic, and also on James Tabor’s post about resurrection.Mike […]

  9. […] can tell from the title of Cargill’s post that its content is pretty brutal. Readers know how I feel about using the popular media for […]

  10. James,

    Where have I charged anyone with buy-offs (or is that something someone else said that you’re responding to here as if I said it)?? Again, I am not they.
    I did note that you are now focused on Dr. Charlesworth’s claim, and that it doesn’t appear in the book or the documentary.
    I have yet to see Charlesworth’s published argument. Can you point me to it?
    (And I’d still love to see some measurements on the ossuaries and the names of the four art historians who agree with you.)
    I’ve admitted I’ve been wrong before, and if the evidence compels me, I’ll admit it again. But thus far, the evidence compels me not.
    As for humble pie…I don’t have an endowed chair and am relatively young in this field, so the advantage is all yours (and Dr. Charlesworth’s). You are the senior scholars. I’m just a junior scholar with a computer trying to make a contribution where I can. I expect you two to wipe the floor with me.
    I do think the lines that make up your ‘letters’ are a decorative motif. They may not be ‘random’ (as they were deliberately drawn), but methinks a more likely scenario is some attempt at imitating the decorative motif just above the base of Greek vessels that had been engrained in the minds of folks for hundreds of years.
    I think Michael Posner is an excellent journalist. What gave you the impression I thought he isn’t? He broke a story of a new claim. He did his job and he did it well. And I think he had a responsible title; the word ‘hints’ works for me. I think Posner did a great job. I think the Globe and Mail wrote a timely story. And I think your PR office did it’s job very well. I even wrote “All is well and good.” Your PR office promoted your findings, which is precisely what it is supposed to do. Like Mr. Posner, they too did a great job.
    My point is how the story went from Posner’s ‘hinting’ to MSNBC’s ‘confirming.’ To me, that was odd. Again, that’s not your doing, it’s the nature of the beast in the media.
    You can talk to Antonio about Antonio’s blog. Again, I am not he.
    As far as dissenters not agreeing, I’ll use an analogy I’ve used in the past: We don’t need to know how gravity works to know that it’s not a monster at the center of the earth with a giant vacuum. Skeptics disagreeing about what something is doesn’t provide any additional support to the default claim. They still unanimously disagree with the claim, even if they don’t agree with an alternative. You’ve used that argument a lot, but it’s a logical fallacy. Scholars say it’s not a fish. They say it’s not an inscription. We don’t have to agree on an alternative to know that it’s not the monster with the vacuum.
    Dr. Charlesworth is a highly respected scholar who has done some excellent work in the past. He trained one of my teachers and mentors, so I’m quite familiar with his scholarship. I haven’t read what he’s actually published on this matter yet, but if the reports about what he’s going to write are accurate, I’ll likely not agree. And as you know, the beautiful thing about scholarship is that I don’t have to. Of course, as a senior endowed scholar in our field, his interpretation will carry much greater weight than this young upstart in Iowa. So, I expect he should have no problem convincing all who read his article that you have been correct this whole time, and that I have been very wrong. Anything shy of that I’ll likely consider a positive contribution on both our parts to the professional discussion about your Jonah claim.



  11. […] quick illustration from originally published on May 18, 2009 that encapsulates what I described yesterday. The Science News Cycle (from PHD […]

  12. @Miss Burns– Please answer a previous question of mine that has not been addressed thoroughly. WHY would the engraver encrypt the name Jonah on an ossuary when there was no need to do so? If it truly is a picture of a whale, why not spell the name clearly so there would be no doubt? What evidence do you and the Tabor group have that clearly makes this ossuary a christian product and not a Jewish one? Then, since this is claimed to be christian artwork, and done after the ressurrection of Jesus, why wouldn’t the engraver use something from the ressurrection instead of using an Old Testament symbol? Christians preach Jesus’ rise from the dead NOT Jonah’s experience with a whale. We DO NOT need Jonah’s experience we HAVE Christ’s.

  13. I am going to predict the next argument in this subject. Just because it might say Jonah or Zolah, does not mean it has to refer to the Biblical Jonah. It could be the name of the person the ossuary was made for in the first place. Since you can’t see the whole ossuary, maybe that person’s name is written on another part of the box.

    I think you should consider how important this “discovery” is. If it is right or wrong, no one gets hurt. No religious beliefs are changed. It actually has no effect on the world. Some bad artist engraved a bad picture of something that could be explained many different ways. (My explanation is that it is a visual pun of an amphora that looks like a fish because that family might have been in the fish trade which involved transporting fish in amphoras.)

    Until you can examine the whole ossuary again, this debate is pointless. And even then it won’t really matter. This is not an important discovery in any way, even if it was Jonah and a fish.

    Kenneth Greifer

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