Beginning with the first publication of James Tabor’s B&I piece on Talpiot Tomb B, the Tabor/Jacobovici theory that this is the tomb of the earliest Christian disciples has hinged in large part upon their identification of the “sign of Jonah,” a nose-down fish spitting out a stick-man Jonah, on the front of one of the ossuaries in the tomb. The vast majority of scholars who have weighed in on the subject have strongly disagreed with this interpretation of the image as a fish spitting out a stick man, with most seeing the image as a relatively roughly done vessel of some sort, functioning as a nefesh on the front of the ossuary. The Tabor/Jacobovici camp have also further thrown their own theory into doubt by changing which lines supposedly function as the stick man’s arms and legs after James Charlesworth’s far-fetched claim that the name “Jonah” is actually scribbled into that area (addressed here and here), with some of the lines of the name also functioning as part of the stick man.
But before we can even discuss whether this stick man is in fact struggling for his life and therefore changing the position of his limbs, we first need to answer the question my wife (an artist herself) asked the first time she saw the supposed Jonah/fish: “Wait, did they even draw stick men back then?” It’s such an obvious question, but it has somehow (perhaps for that very reason) been overlooked so far. As it turns out, this is a pretty important question, since any interpretation of this image as the “sign of Jonah” depends on ancient viewers being acquainted with the phenomenon of representing human beings with a few quick lines—enough that the engraver of this ossuary would have carved such an unclear figure but still assumed the implied audience would interpret this set of lines as an upside-down
kicking, struggling, limb-shifting human being.
We modern Westerners are quite familiar with stick-figures, so much so that we might assume they have always been the quick way to draw human beings. But as it turns out, after searching for analogous stick figures in antiquity—especially in this period of the ancient Mediterranean—I’ve come up completely empty. So have the other historians and scholars I’ve asked to take a look through the data.
Human beings are depicted in all sorts of ways, but I have not found a single example of a modern-style stick figure in this period. Not one. The closest analogs look something like the Alexamenos Graffito, which features a donkey-headed man on a cross and another figure, said to be Alexamenos, worshiping his God (presumably the figure on the cross, a derogatory reference to Christian worship). But the figures in this graffito, which was found near the Palatine Hill in Rome, although crudely drawn, have distinct trunks and multi-line limbs (as you can see in the picture to the right).
As far as those of us who have looked into this can tell, there are no examples of stick figures from the Hellenistic period at least until Augustulus. Take a look at the vase art from that period: nothing even close to a stick figure. Below I’ve pasted some examples of human depictions in graffiti from second and third century Ostia, more of which can be accessed here:
It’s pretty clear that nothing here looks remotely like a stick figure. The human form is consistently represented with full limbs and trunk, even in graffiti. Even the ancient petroglyphs I’ve looked at have wide trunks denoting the larger width of the body than the arms and legs and show more detail than a modern stick man. The absence of stick figures in the ancient Mediterranean is really the final nail in the coffin for this “Jonah” theory, as it is highly improbable that the engraver of this ossuary decided to draw a human being in a way that would be familiar only to those living centuries after him.
It is even more improbable that he would put this stick figure inside a non-stick-figure fish and then spend significantly more time and effort detailing the seaweed wrapped around Jonah’s head than he had spent on the entire figure of Jonah. Think about that for a second. It’s absurd, even ridiculous, to suggest that the engraver would spend much more time—and many more scratches—carving the seaweed than on Jonah himself or on the alleged inscription intermingled with Jonah’s flailing limbs. On the contrary, as Juan V. Fernández de la Gala has already shown (after pointing out nine incongruities that have yet to be satisfactorily rebutted), the “seaweed” is simply the artist’s attempt to represent shading on the vessel:
This theory has already been shown to be deeply flawed, but the fact that it is built on an anachronism, on the assumption ancient people drew stick figures, discredits it from the very start. This theory is the product of modern people seeing what they want to see—and what ancient people clearly would not have seen. Unless Tabor and Jacobovici want to claim that this also happens to be an unprecedented find of the first recorded stick man from that region and period in addition to being an unprecedented example of “the sign of Jonah” in an unprecedented early Christian tomb, this case is closed.