The 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 sign of Jonah.
Scholars Tabor and Jacobovici, working with archaeologists, geologists, and forensic anthropologists, made the discovery.
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 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.
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,” 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. A documentary on the discovery will be aired by the Discovery Channel in spring 2012.
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,” Tabor said. “Of the seven ossuaries remaining in the tomb, four of them have unusual features.”
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, including 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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Sources: University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Science Daily