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 and resurection. Together, the inscription and the Jonah image testify to early Christian faith in resurrection. The tomb record thus predates the writing of the gospels.
Discovered by James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the find comes with its own set of skeptics who believe that Tabor is trying to desperately connect the ossuaries with a controversial book he co-authored with filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, entitled “The Jesus Dynasty: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity” where he makes claims that Jesus was an apocalyptic Messiah whose extended family founded a royal dynasty in the days before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He included archaeological data as well as textual interpretations of biblical texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and ancient historical sources. The form of Christianity that grew out of this movement, led by the apostle Paul, was, according to Tabor, a decisive break from the original teachings of John the Baptist and Jesus.
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.”
A documentary on the discovery will also be aired by the Discovery Channel in spring 2012.
“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.”
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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