Feb. 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM ET
Using a remote-controlled camera on the end of a robotic arm, investigators have found what could be the earliest evidence of a Christian iconography in Jerusalem, engraved on a set of "bone boxes" inside a nearly intact 1st-century tomb.
One of the limestone boxes, known more formally as an ossuary, carries a Greek inscription calling on God to "rise up" or "raise up" someone. Another box appears to show the carved image of a fish, perhaps with the prophet Jonah in its mouth. Allusions to fish and the "sign of Jonah" came to be widely used among early Christians, but not among Jerusalem's Jews.
Those discoveries alone would be enough to get biblical scholars excited. But the investigators in this case are the same people who claimed five years ago that ossuaries from a nearby tomb were engraved with the names of the biblical Jesus and his family. They're putting forth this new find as supporting evidence for their earlier claims, and resurrecting the topic in a newly published book ("The Jesus Discovery") as well as a Discovery Channel documentary that's due to air this spring.
"This does reopen the whole question about the 'Jesus Tomb,'" James Tabor, a scriptural scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told me.
That almost guarantees that the link to Jesus will take center stage once again in the discussion of the discovery, with most archaeologists discounting the connection. There's even a chance that the renewed controversy would push this most recent find out of the spotlight. That would be a terrible shame, said John Dominic Crossan, an expert on 1st-century Christianity and former Catholic priest who is a professor emeritus at DePaul University.
"It's a stunning discovery," he said. "It's a stunning piece of technology. As a scholar, I really don't want to get lost in saying, 'Oh, come on, it's off the wall.' Yeah, it's off the wall. But look at the wall!"
Or in this case, look at the box.
How the boxes were found
Tabor and documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici located both of the 1st-century tombs — the so-called Jesus Family Tomb as well as the one with the newly revealed inscriptions — in a Jerusalem neighborhood known as Talpiot years ago. They looked into previous claims that the bone boxes in the Jesus Family Tomb were marked with names that meshed with the names of Jesus' brothers and sisters, as mentioned in the Gospels. The investigators went on to cite a statistical analysis of name frequency as evidence that the family interred in the caskets was that of Jesus.
Most provocatively, they pointed to one box that was said to contain the remains of Jesus, and another containing the remains of "Judah, son of Jesus." These claims ran counter to the mainstream Christian view that Jesus made a bodily resurrection after his crucifixion and death, and that he did not marry or have children. To explain the seeming discrepancy with the Gospels, Tabor and his colleagues suggested that early Christians did not necessarily believe in a bodily resurrection, but rather a spiritual resurrection in which Jesus left behind the "old clothes" of the flesh.
The first book ("The Jesus Family Tomb") and TV documentary ("The Lost Tomb of Jesus") set off a wave of protests, with skeptics saying that Tabor and Jacobovici were sensationalizing an unprovable assertion. Despite the criticism, the team continued their work, focusing on the other tomb. This tomb was only briefly examined in 1981 before protests by Orthodox Jews, concerned about the disturbance of a gravesite, forced an end to the archaeological study. The tomb was sealed back up, and a condominium was built over it. Tabor and his colleagues refer to this tomb as the "Patio Tomb," because a patio sits almost directly above the tomb.
Israel's civil and religious authorities were resistant to efforts to reopen the Patio Tomb, so Tabor, Jacobovici and their colleagues came up with an unorthodox alternative: They suggested building a robotic arm that could be extended down vent holes and drill holes into the tomb, to a maximum length of more than 15 feet. The authorities gave their permission, and the documentary team proceeded with their remote-controlled video exploration in June 2010.
The filmmakers peered into niches cut into the tomb and found several inscribed bone boxes, including one that was left ajar to reveal the bones still within. In one of the niches, two boxes were jammed close together. As the robotic arm maneuvered to look at the side of one of the boxes, one of the investigators cried out, "Wait, wait, stop there!" A design had been etched into the limestone — a design that could be interpreted as a fish with a stick figure hanging out of its mouth.
The meaning of the inscriptions
After consulting with other scriptural experts, the investigators concluded that the etching showed a representation of Jonah and the fish. The biblical tale of the prophet who was swallowed by a giant fish, only to be vomited up alive three days later, had a special resonance for early Christians, who believed in Jesus' resurrection after three days in a tomb. The image of the fish, which would not typically be carved on a Jewish ossuary, suggested to Tabor and his colleagues that this might be the earliest surviving example of a Christian marking on an artifact in Jerusalem.
The team's excitement grew when they saw the inscription on the box sitting next to the one with the fish: A four-line inscription in Greek appeared to refer to a belief in the resurrection. The inscription could be read as "Divine Jehovah, raise up, raise up," or "The Divine Jehovah raises up to the Holy Place," or "Divine Jehovah, raise up [abbreviated name]."
"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 in a news release.
The Jesus connection
Tabor and his colleagues tie this latest discovery to their earlier claims by suggesting that the two tombs were part of one complex, which might have been chiseled out by a wealthy supporter of Jesus and his disciples. They even name their prime suspect: Joseph of Arimathea, a high-ranking religious official who was said in the Gospels to have arranged Jesus' burial. In the investigators' view, the fact that they found such a strong connection to early Christianity in the Patio Tomb strengthens their original claims for the Jesus Family Tomb, which is 200 feet away.
"We now have the new archaeological evidence, literally written in stone, that can guide us in properly understanding what Jesus' earliest followers meant by their faith in Jesus' resurrection from the dead — with his earthly remains, and those of his family, peacefully interred just yards away," Tabor and Jacobovici wrote.
Crossan said that was too much of a leap. "There's nothing that associates [the Patio Tomb] with Joseph of Arimathea," he said.
He said the two tombs may well have no relationship to each other: "This whole area is riddled with tombs, as far as we can tell."
Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary, voiced a similar view. "The attempt to connect [the Patio Tomb] to the other tombs is sheer conjecture, unless the tombs were connected," he told me.
Witherington said the connections made in the newly published book were similar to those put forth in Tabor's earlier work. "Most of us who have evaluated his work would say, OK, all very interesting, but it's building one speculation on another speculation," he said.
However, Witherington was intrigued by the fish carving. "We have early Christian ossuaries with the fish symbol ... in the 2nd century, if not back into the 1st century," he said. "That is the early Christian symbol for I-Ch-Th-Y-S ... 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.' What we don't have any evidence for is that symbol on Jewish ossuaries."
The words of the inscription also caught Witherington's interest. "They imply a belief about the resurrection," he said.
It is thought that the use of such bone boxes in Jerusalem ceased in the year 70, due to the Roman destruction of the city. Thus, there's a chance that the residents buried in the Patio Tomb actually lived during the time of Jesus and his first disciples. However, Crossan noted that Christians weren't the only ones in 1st-century Jerusalem who held a religious belief in resurrection. The Pharisees and the Essenes also looked forward to the resurrection of the righteous, he said.
"What I would say is ... this is a rich Pharisee, a rich person in the 1st century who believes in the resurrection," Crossan told me. "We always thought that [the image of] Jonah coming out of the fish was peculiarly Christian. Maybe that's one more thing that the early Christians took from Jewish tradition, and this would be the first evidence."
More about biblical archaeology:
An academic paper on the Patio Tomb project is being posted to The Bible and Interpretation on Tuesday, and Tabor says the paper will be submitted for print publication as well. A press event about the project and the Discovery Channel documentary has been scheduled for 11 a.m. ET Tuesday at Discovery Times Square in New York City. Funding for the project was provided by Discovery Channel / Vision Television / Associated Producers. Tabor's colleague in obtaining the excavation license from the Israel Antiquities Authority was Rami Arav, professor of archaeology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
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.