Feb. 28, 2012 at 10:32 PM ET
Now that the word about "the Jesus Discovery" is out in the open, outside experts are weighing in — and many of them look upon the robotic exploration of a 1st-century Jerusalem tomb as a technological tour de force resulting in an archaeological faux pas.
On one level, the "Jesus Discovery" investigators saw this project as a follow-up on the sensational claim they made five years earlier in "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," that Jesus and members of his family were buried in what is now a southeast residential neighborhood of Jerusalem. On another level, they set forth what they said were the earliest known evidence of Christian references in the Holy City — in the form of an inscription referring to resurrection on one casket, and a fishlike design on another casket.
Today, several experts specializing in 1st-century Christianity said the investigators failed to make their case on either level.
"In my assessment, there's zero percent chance that their theory is correct," said Andrew Vaughn, executive director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, or ASOR.
Christopher Rollston, an expert in Semitic epigraphy at Emmanuel Christian Seminary in Tennessee, said that although the underground chamber is "a nice tomb ... it's hard to press it into service as an impressive find."
Some archaeologists were familiar with the project months before it came into the spotlight, but non-disclosure agreements kept them from commenting until today's press announcement at Discovery Times Square in New York. The project has already spawned a book by scriptural scholar James Tabor and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, titled "The Jesus Discovery," and a documentary about the find is due to air on the Discovery Channel this spring.
When today's embargo lifted, the criticism from outside experts hit with full force on the ASOR Blog.
"Nothing in the book 'revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus or early Christianity,' as the authors and publisher claim, and we may regard this book as yet another in a long list of presentations that misuse not only the Bible but also archaeology," Duke University biblical scholar Eric Meyers declared.
Jodi Magness, a religious-studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said "it pains me to see archaeology hijacked in the service of non-scientific interests, whether they are religious, financial, or other." In her view, Tabor, Jacobovici and their colleagues set out to dig up evidence to support their earlier claims about a different tomb nearby, the so-called "Jesus Family Tomb" — and then rustle up a fresh round of media attention.
"Professional archaeologists do not search for objects or treasures such as Noah's Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail," she wrote. "Usually these sorts of expeditions are led by amateurs (nonspecialists) or academics who are not archaeologists. Archaeology is a scientific process."
Old and new claims
The main objection to the claims for the Jesus Family Tomb, like the claims themselves, retraces ground that's been well trod since 2007: Just because bone boxes are marked with the name "Jesus" and the names of his brothers and sisters, as mentioned in the Bible, doesn't necessarily mean these are the actual biblical figures.
Tabor and Jacobovici produced a statistical analysis looking at the frequency of names in ancient Jerusalem, and claimed that the close fit to the names on Jesus' family tree couldn't be just a coincidence. Last month, Tabor said further research has strengthened the case he and Jacobovici laid out in 2007.
The critics insisted once again that a statistical argument could never win the day. "Dramatic claims require dramatic evidence. ... The claims of Tabor and Jacobovici for this tomb are no more convincing now than they were then," Rollston wrote.
But what about the inscription in the more recently explored tomb, known as the Patio Tomb? And what about the fish? Rollston said the fish was more probably a type of ornamental design typically seen on Jewish bone boxes, known as a nephesh tower. Where Tabor and Jacobovici saw the "fins" of the fish, Rollston saw the eaves of the tower's roof.
Even if it was intended to be a fish, "it would most naturally be understood as simply a reflection of a nautical motif in a tomb," or perhaps representative of the deceased's occupation — for example, a fishmonger. Unlike Tabor, Rollston did not rule out the possibility that a Jew would have such a design engraved on the bone box.
As for the inscription, Rollston said the resurrection connection was questionable. Tabor, Jacobovici and their colleagues suggested that it could be interpreted as reading, "Divine Jehovah (Yahweh), lift up, lift up," or "The Divine Jehovah raises up from [the dead]." But Rollston said the first letter in the word that was said to refer to Jehovah — IAEO — looked like a T rather than an I.
"This can't be an iota," he told me, "and that's the one letter that has to be there."
He also questioned the interpretation of the inscription's key word, "UPsOO," or "hupso," which would be a form of the verb "to lift up." Even if one assumes that's what was intended, the word wouldn't necessarily refer to raising up in the resurrection sense, he said. And even if one assumes it was indeed meant as a reference to resurrection, there were some Jewish sects back then — such as the Pharisees — that believed in a general resurrection.
"For someone to state that this is an early Christian tomb, there really has to be some clear and decisive evidence to back up that statement," Rollston told me. "And it just really isn't here."
In a follow-up email, Tabor told me that the "tower will not float" as an alternate explanation for the fishlike image. He also pointed to the comments he posted on the ASOR Blog, taking further issue with the nephesh tower interpretation. In a comment addressed to Rollston, he said, "We have much to discuss, but I look forward to doing it face to face."
On the positive side...
Not every outside expert was totally critical: The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Yuval Baruch, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, as saying that Tabor and Jacobovici may well be right about the fish. Baruch noted that the fishlike image was not photographed "in the best light," but added: "If it is indeed a fish, it is fantastic. It has no parallel."
Baruch cautioned against reading too much into a single decoration, however. "Different decorations are being discovered all the time," he told Haaretz.
Rollston and ASOR's Vaughn both said the robotic-arm exploration technique that Tabor and his colleagues used to explore the 1st-century tomb held promise for future digs. Israel's religious and civil authorities are reluctant to have ancient sites disturbed, and even if the excavations are approved, they can create huge disruptions for residential areas like the one where the tomb currently in question is located. Tabor and his colleagues circumvented many of those typical problems by using a camera-equipped robotic arm that they snaked down through a pipe going into the tomb.
"The robotic-arm technology used by James Tabor is truly amazing," Vaughn said. "To be able to explore in a relatively non-invasive way, and to respect the artifacts and bones that may be present there, is certainly of much value."
Magness, however, stressed in her blog posting that robotic-arm video couldn't take the place of a full-fledged dig.
"The archaeological endeavor involves piecing together all available information, not just one artifact taken out of context," she wrote. "Context is the reason that archaeologists go to so much trouble to document the provenance of every feature and artifact dug up on an excavation. The current claim is based on finds that have no context, as they have not been excavated. All we have are photos taken by a robotic arm of objects (or parts of objects), the dates and identification of which are unknown or unclear."
Rollston said further analysis could well shed more light on the central question raised by the current controversy: How did the first Christian communities emerge and manifest themselves? But the process of getting definitive answers doesn't necessarily match the typical time frame for a television production or book project.
"The wheels of scholarship, like the wheels of justice, grind slowly but surely," he told me.
More about biblical brouhahas:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.