Washington: Archaeological examination 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.
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.
"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," said James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
"Our team was in a kind of ecstatic disbelief, but the evidence was clearly before our eyes, causing us to revise our prior assumptions," he asserted.
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. 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," Tabor pointed out.
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.
In 2009 and 2010, Tabor and his team obtained a license to excavate the current tomb from the Israel Antiquities Authority under the academic sponsorship of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Because of its physical location under a modern building (making direct access nearly impossible), along with the threat of Orthodox Jewish groups that would protest any such excavation, Tabor`s team determined to employ a minimally invasive procedure in examining the tomb.
A robotic arm and a second "snake camera" were inserted through two drill holes in the basement floor of the building above the tomb. The probe was successful and the team was able to reach all the ossuaries and photograph them on all sides, thus revealing the new inscriptions.
Beyond the possible Christian connection, Tabor noted that the tomb`s assemblage of ossuaries stands out as clearly extraordinary in the context of other previously explored tombs in Jerusalem.
"Everything in this tomb seems unusual when contrasted with what one normally finds inscribed on ossuaries in Jewish tombs of this period. Of the seven ossuaries remaining in the tomb, four of them have unusual features," Tabor said.
The findings are detailed in a preliminary report by Tabor published online in www.bibleinterp.com.