updated 2/29/2012 9:16:08 PM ET 2012-03-01T02:16:08

The researchers behind a 2007 documentary detailing “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” have uncovered evidence that a first-century Israeli tomb once belonged to the Biblical prophet Jonah, who was famously swallowed whole by a whale in the Book of Jonah.

The prime evidence comes from an ossuary, a box or chest built to contain human remains that was examined in the tomb in Jerusalem by a robotic arm and a “snake camera.” It has a four-line Greek inscription that refers to God “raising up” someone. A carved image found on an adjacent ossuary shows what appears to be a large fish with a human stick figure in its mouth -- interpreted by the excavation team to be an image evoking the biblical story of Jonah.

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"If anyone had claimed to find either a statement about resurrection or a Jonah image in a Jewish tomb of this period I would have said impossible -- until now," said James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "Our team was in a kind of ecstatic disbelief, but the evidence was clearly before our eyes, causing us to revise our prior assumptions."

Tabor collaborated with filmmaker/professor Simcha Jacobovici to study the tomb, which lies in close proximity to the Jesus family tomb, the subject of a wildly popular and highly controversial Discovery Channel documentary of the same name.


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The new findings will be detailed online at www.bibleinterp.com on Feb. 28, 2012.

They will also be published in a book by Simon & Schuster entitled "The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity" and detailed in a fresh documentary to be aired by the Discovery Channel in spring 2012.

The findings and their interpretation are likely to be controversial, since most scholars are skeptical of any Christian archaeological remains from so early a period.

"Context is everything in archaeology," Tabor pointed out. "These two tombs, less than 200 feet apart, were part of an ancient estate, likely related to a rich family of the time. We chose to investigate this tomb because of its proximity to the so-called 'Jesus tomb,' not knowing if it would yield anything unusual."

An ossuary expert debunked the 2007 documentary, telling the Associated Press at the time that the documentary fudged some of the facts.

"James Cameron is a great guru of science fiction, and he's taking it to a new level with Simcha Jacobovici. You take a little bit of science, spin a good yarn out of it and you get another 'Terminator' or 'Life of Brian,'" said Stephen Pfann, a textual scholar and paleographer at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who briefly appeared as an ossuary expert in that documentary.

The tomb containing the new discoveries is a modest sized, carefully carved rock cut cave tomb typical of Jerusalem in the period from 20 BCE until 70 CE.

It was exposed in 1981 by builders and is currently several meters under the basement level of a modern condominium building in East Talpiot, a neighborhood of Jerusalem less than two miles south of the Old City.

Archaeologists entered the tomb at the time, were able to briefly examine it and its ossuaries, take preliminary photographs, and remove one pot and an ossuary, before they were forced to leave by Orthodox religious groups who oppose excavation of Jewish tombs.

In 2009 and 2010, Tabor and Rami Arav, professor of archaeology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, working together with Jacobovici, obtained a license to excavate the current tomb from the Israel Antiquities Authority under the academic sponsorship of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, excavations funded by the Discovery Channel.

Among the approximately 2000 ossuaries that have been recovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority, only 650 have any inscriptions on them, and none have inscriptions comparable to those on ossuaries 5 and 6.

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Less than a dozen ossuaries from the period have epitaphs but, according to Tabor, these inscribed messages usually have to do with warnings not to disturb the bones of the dead. In contrast, the four-line Greek inscription contains some kind of statement of resurrection faith.

Tabor noted that the epitaph's complete and final translation is uncertain. The first three lines are clear, but the last line, consisting of three Greek letters, is less sure, yielding several possible translations: "O Divine Jehovah, raise up, raise up," or "The Divine Jehovah raises up to the Holy Place," or "The Divine Jehovah raises up from [the dead]."

"This inscription has something to do with resurrection of the dead, either of the deceased in the ossuary, or perhaps, given the Jonah image nearby, an expression of faith in Jesus' resurrection," Tabor said.

The ossuary with the image that Tabor and his team understand to be representing Jonah also has other interesting engravings. These also may be connected to resurrection, Tabor notes. On one side is the tail of a fish disappearing off the edge of the box, as if it is diving into the water. There are small fish images around its border on the front facing, and on the other side is the image of a cross-like gate or entrance—which Tabor interprets as the notion of entering the "bars" of death, which are mentioned in the Jonah story in the Bible.

"This Jonah ossuary is most fascinating, " Tabor remarked. "It seems to represent a pictorial story with the fish diving under the water on one end, the bars or gates of death, the bones inside, and the image of the great fish spitting out a man representing, based on the words of Jesus, the 'sign of Jonah' – the 'sign' that he would escape the bonds of death."

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