The archaeological examination by robotic camera of an intact first century tomb in Jerusalem has revealed a set of limestone Jewish ossuaries or “bone boxes” that are engraved with a rare Greek inscription and a unique iconographic image that the scholars involved identify as distinctly Christian.
The four-line Greek inscription on one ossuary refers to God “raising up” someone and 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.
In the earliest gospel materials the “sign of Jonah,” as mentioned by Jesus, has been interpreted as a symbol of his resurrection. Jonah images in later “early” Christian art, such as images found in the Roman catacombs, are the most common motif found on tombs as a symbol of Christian resurrection hope. In contrast, the story of Jonah is not depicted in any first century Jewish art and iconographic images on ossuaries are extremely rare, given the prohibition within Judaism of making images of people or animals.
The tomb in question is dated prior to 70 CE, when ossuary use in Jerusalem ceased due to the Roman destruction of the city. Accordingly, if the markings are Christian as the scholars involved believe, the engravings represent – by several centuries – the earliest archaeological record of Christians ever found. The engravings were most likely made by some of Jesus’ earliest followers, within decades of his death. Together, the inscription and the Jonah image testify to early Christian faith in resurrection. The tomb record thus predates the writing of the gospels.
The findings are detailed in a preliminary report by James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, which is published online.
“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,” Tabor said. “Our team was in a kind of ecstatic disbelief, but the evidence was clearly before our eyes, causing us to revise our prior assumptions.”
The publication of the academic article is concurrent with the publication of a book by Simon & Schuster entitled “The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity.” The book is co-authored by Professor James Tabor and filmmaker/professor Simcha Jacobovici. A documentary on the discovery will 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. Adding to the controversy is the tomb’s close proximity to a second tomb, discovered in 1980. This tomb, dubbed by some “The Jesus Family Tomb,” contained inscribed ossuaries that some scholars associate with Jesus and his family, including one that reads “Jesus, son of Joseph.”
“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.”
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.
The tomb 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.
The ossuary taken, that of a child, is now in the Israel State Collection. It is decorated but has no inscriptions. The archaeologists mention “two Greek names” but did not notice either the newly discovered Greek inscription or the Jonah image before they were forced to leave. The tomb was re-sealed and buried beneath the condominium complex on what is now Don Gruner Street in East Talpiot.
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SI Moderator - Greg Gordon