A world-renowned UNC Charlotte professor and historian has made another discovery that stirs controversy about the life and times of Jesus.
The findings are detailed in a preliminary report by James D. Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at UNC Charlotte that were published online in www.bibleinterp.com on February 28. The announcement has garnered worldwide media coverage, from the New York Post to The Telegraph in the United Kingdom, to www.msnbc.com, among many others in Europe and South America.
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 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.
– James Tabor, Professor of Religious Studies
The tomb in question is dated prior to 70 CE, when ossuary use in Jerusalem ceased due to the Roman destruction of the city. 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, and predate 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," 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.