Image: Markings
Courtesy of
A photo taken by a camera mounted on a robotic arm shows much-disputed markings on a Jerusalem bone box, or ossuary, that is thought to date back to before the year 70.
updated 4/21/2012 1:27:11 AM ET 2012-04-21T05:27:11

A 2,000-year-old box that is being lauded as the earliest Christian artifact ever found has been misconstrued, according to several scholars who were not involved in the box's discovery. They say that the evidence for the box — engraved in Jerusalem, mere decades after Jesus' death — being Christian is extremely frail, and a case of finding meaning in random squiggles.

Known as the "Jonah ossuary" (the term for a box made to hold human remains), the artifact is in a sealed tomb that's located below an apartment building in Jerusalem. The tomb has been dated to a time before the year 70. James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and his team recently used a remote-controlled robotic camera to explore the tomb, and discovered an engraving on the ossuary that Tabor says proves it is the earliest known Christian artifact.

Image: Hebrew letters
Courtesy of
The markings purported to be Hebrew letters have been highlighted in yellow.

The robotic exploration of the tomb — and interpretations of the artifacts observed during that exploration — are detailed in a documentary for the Discovery Channel called "The Jesus Discovery."

Tabor and his team say the ossuary is engraved with a picture of a fish with a stick figure in its mouth. Upon seeing the engraving, they concluded that the stick figure referred to Jonah, the Old Testament prophet whose story of being swallowed by a whale was embraced by early followers of Jesus. If it really is a picture of Jonah and the whale, this would prove the ossuary was Christian. However, when the team published their analysis, outside experts said the depiction was not a whale swallowing a man at all, but rather a funerary monument.

In response to that criticism, James Charlesworth, professor of New Testament language and literature at the Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the ossuary's discovery team, came back with what he said was better proof that the box is Christian: The "stick figure" in the "fish's mouth" is not just a stick figure, but also forms the Hebrew letters that spell "YONAH," or Jonah. [Images of the Jonah Ossuary]

Jonah, Jesus or Yo Yo Ma?
Skeptics are calling the new claim "Rorschach test archaeology." Steve Caruso, a professional translator who analyzes inscriptions on ancient artifacts for antiquity dealers, said Charlesworth's interpretation of the inscription is "more of an exercise in reading tea leaves."

Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, concurs. "One must do some rather strenuous mental gymnastics to arrive at the letters for the name of Jonah in this image, including ignoring lines that are clearly present but do not fit the desired inscription, joining together lines that are clearly not conjoined, reshaping letters, and eliminating any semblance of linear alignment," Cargill says on his blog.

If all those adjustments are permissible when interpreting ancient text, the lines in the inscription can be made to spell out anything from "Jesus" to "Yo Yo Ma," the scholars note. [Poll: Do You Believe in God?]

Random squiggles
On top of the fact that several lines must be ignored to read the inscription as YONAH, the second supposed letter in the series, which Charlesworth claims is the Hebrew letter nun (shaped like a backwards L), appears to be two unconnected lines rather than one unbroken line. "This is not a nun; it is two random lines," wrote Mark Goodacre, associate professor of New Testament at Duke University.

  1. Tracing the bone-box controversy
    1. Courtesy of
      Christian inscription? Or random squiggles?

      A 2,000-year-old box lauded as the earliest Christian artifact ever found has been misconstrued, according to several scholars who were not involved in the box's discovery.

    2. Letters said to confirm claims about Christian artifact
    3. Discovery resurrects 'Jesus Tomb' debate
    4. Doubts raised about the 'Jesus Discovery'
    5. Christian tomb talk leads to a fuss over a fish

On his academic blog, Goodacre explains that it was common for the bases of funerary monuments (which, he believes, this part of the engraving depicts, instead of a fish's head) to be decorated with geometric designs, which could easily be represented with the lines in the image.

The skeptics also point out that the discovery team's own photos, released before Charlesworth and Tabor began claiming the inscription says "YONAH," clearly show two unconnected lines rather than a backwards L-shape representing "nun." Tabor has since released a different picture of the inscription in which the "nun" appears to be unbroken, and has addressed the controversy thus: "The 'nun' is not broken. There are some white splotches on the ossuary surface in our close up photos and one of them is at the juncture, which might make it look like the line is broken, but it does intersect."

The discrepancy between the photos raises further skepticism about the discovery. "Each photograph of the supposed 'inscription' seems to paint a different picture, and since the beginning of this debacle a disconcerting number of photographs have been found to be filtered, altered, or mislabeled," Caruso told Life's Little Mysteries.

Charlesworth did not reply to requests for comment.

Claims about early Christians
A year ago, during Easter season, another claim surfaced about the discovery of an early Christian artifact — that time, lead books containing references to Jesus — and Caruso and others also decisively proved those to be fakes.

As Kimberley Bowes, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said at the time, "Modern people's urge to find material evidence from the first two centuries of Christianity is much stronger than the actual evidence itself. This is because the numbers of Christians from this period was incredibly small — probably less than 7,000 by 100 A.D. — and because they didn't distinguish themselves materially from their Jewish brethren."

"It does seem that every Easter there is some 'big discovery,'" Caruso added. "Mostly it's film makers or other sensationalists trying to strike while the iron is hot during the season where everyone is rather Jesus-focused. [The discovery of a] very early, relatively undisturbed tomb in and of itself is fascinating; however, a generic first-century Jewish tomb doesn't quite sell.'"

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @ nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @ llmysteries and join us on Facebook.

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Explainer: The archaeology of Christianity

  • Ahmed Ali  /  EPA

    An estimated 2 billion Christians around the world celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While those believers take the stories of Jesus as told in the New Testament on faith, archaeologists have scoured the Holy Land and beyond in search of clues about the real life of Jesus and his followers. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about eight of their finds.

    — John Roach, contributor

  • First reference to Christ?

    Courtesy of Namrata Anand

    Does the world's first known reference to Christ refer to him as a magician? An inscription on a bowl uncovered from the underwater ruins of Alexandria in Egypt reads "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which archaeologists translate to mean either "by Christ the magician" or "the magician by Christ." The bowl dates to between the late second century B.C. and the early first century.

    If the word "Christ" does indeed refer to the biblical Jesus Christ, then it would be the first known written reference to Christ and might provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world. The archaeologists who discovered the bowl think that a magus could have practiced fortune telling rituals with the bowl and used the name Jesus to legitimize his supernatural powers. At the time, the people of Alexandria were likely aware of stories about Jesus' miracles, such as turning water into wine and multiplying loaves of bread.

  • Turning water to wine

    Jesus' first and perhaps best-known miracle, as recorded in the Gospel of John, was turning water into wine at a Jewish wedding in Cana that had run short of the celebratory drink. Archaeologists at a salvage dig in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one shown here, that date to the time of Jesus and appear to be the same type of jar mentioned in the water-to-wine story.

    A similar find at a rival dig several miles to the north of this site, however, is leading some archaeologists to yearn for further excavations before the issue is settled. One crucial question was where exactly the biblical Cana was located.

  • Nailed to the cross

    National Geographic Magazine

    Ancient literature suggests that crucifixions — central to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection — were common in Roman times, but there is scant archaeological evidence for the practice. Some scholars argue that since there was likely little concern for people who were crucified, their remains were simply scattered. A rare exception came in 1968 when a first-century funerary box was discovered with the remains of a man who had apparently suffered the grisly form of execution.

    Analysis of the remains revealed that the feet of the crucifixion victim really were nailed to the cross — one of the foot bones, in the center of this image, has a nail driven through it from the side. The nail is bent, which is perhaps why it was left intact instead of being removed, according to archaeologists. The hand bones, however, showed no signs of being nailed to the cross, suggesting this practice often depicted in crucifixion artwork may not have always occurred.

  • Wrapped in a cloth

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Antonio Calanni  /  AP

    A long piece of cloth, or a shroud, kept under close guard at a cathedral in Turin, Italy, is believed by many to be the burial cloth that was wrapped around the crucified Jesus. Scientific interest in the shroud began in earnest when negatives from a 1898 photograph revealed the image of man who appears to have suffered a crucifixion. Since then, biblical scholars, archaeologists and the faithful have hotly debated the authenticity of the so-called Shroud of Turin.

    Vatican-approved carbon-dating tests on fibers taken from the cloth in 1988 indicated that the shroud dated to medieval times — ranging from 1260 to 1390. Scientists concluded that the claims about Jesus' image were an elaborate hoax. Other studies have since argued that the dated fibers were from a repaired section of the cloth and that the carbon dates were therefore invalid.

    Other evidence supporting the authenticity of shroud includes pollen residues on the cloth that are unique to Israel and Turkey, indicating it must have spent time in those countries. In support of the skeptics, a second burial shroud that dates to the time of Jesus is of a completely different style than the Turin shroud.

  • Laid to rest

    Courtesy of David Liu

    For many Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the heart of Jerusalem is where the crucified Jesus was laid to rest, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Archaeologists, naturally, have attempted to verify the site's history. While proof remains elusive, the scientific sleuthing has pieced together a trail of evidence to support the claim.

    For example, excavations indicate the site was a limestone quarry in the seventh or eighth century B.C. that was filled in the first century B.C. with stone and soil and turned into a garden and cemetery. According to the Gospels, Jesus was buried in a garden near the city. Though the church today is inside the city walls, the site was outside city walls until Jerusalem was expanded in A.D. 41 — a few years after the traditional time frame for the crucifixion.

    Of course, other theories abound, including one widely publicized in a controversial TV documentary by the director James Cameron and investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici. In that program, some experts suggested that 10 ossuaries found in a suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the remains of Jesus and his family — including a son. The burial boxes are inscribed with names that match those of Jesus and his family — Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judah, the purported son of Jesus, among other relatives. The team said statistics argue against another family having that combination of names. Other archaeologists, however, have dismissed the claim.

  • The baptism cave

    Kevin Frayer  /  AP

    Did John the Baptist perform the spiritual cleansing ritual at a cave near the village where he was born, Ein Kerem? That's one theory mulled by archaeologists who discovered thousands of presumably ritually broken pottery shards, a stone used for foot cleansings and drawings related to John the Baptist on the cave walls. Scholars say the evidence that John actually performed baptisms there is inconclusive. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that some sort of ritual water purification rites took place in the first century.

    The history of the cave goes even deeper: It was apparently carved by Israelites in the Iron Age between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C. and perhaps used then as a ritual immersion pool. More recent excavations have revealed corridors leading to what appears to be a second cave. A secular theory on the cave's purpose suggests it was used as a clay production facility.

  • The bones of St. Paul

    Max Rossi  /  Reuters

    For centuries, the faithful have believed the bones of St. Paul, who helped spread the Christian faith after the death of Christ, were in a tomb under the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome. Though the belief has seldom been questioned, Vatican archaeologists recently carbon-dated the remains for the first time and found that they date from the first or second century.

    "This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of Apostle Paul," Pope Benedict XVI said as he announced the findings. In addition to the bone fragments, archaeologists found grains of incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and a blue fabric with linen filaments.

  • Early worship in Israel

    Ariel Schalit  /  AP

    An Israeli prisoner tasked with clearing rubble prior to construction of a new prison ward uncovered the edge of an elaborate mosaic on the floor of what may be the oldest church in the Holy Land. Archaeologists have dated the church to the third century, decades before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century.

    The mosaic includes drawings of fish, which was an ancient Christian symbol that predated the widespread use of the cross, and three inscriptions. One tells the story of a Roman officer who contributed towards paving the floor, the second is dedicated to the memory of four women, and the third mentions a woman who contributed a table, or altar, to God Jesus Christ, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.


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