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In an ancient tomb buried under an apartment block in a suburb of Jerusalem, researchers believe they may have found the earliest inscriptions espousing Christian beliefs -- and what may be additional clues pointing to the existence and location of Jesus' family tomb.
But experts in biblical research have been quick to dismiss those claims, calling the findings "unsurprising."
At a press announcement at the Discovery Times Square exhibit space in New York on Tuesday, biblical scholar and historian James Tabor and documentarian Simcha Jacobovici said that after five years of work, they believe they've found the earliest Christian references on record: an early Christian symbol relating the story of Jonah and the whale, and an inscription relating to resurrection on two ossuaries (or stone boxes) used to hold the bones of the deceased 2,000 years ago.
More tantalizing, the markings may indicate that those buried there were early followers of Jesus. And perhaps not coincidentally, the find is near another tomb that some believe may have been Jesus’ final resting place.
The use of ossuaries in tombs was common in and around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Thousands of such boxes in hundreds of tombs have been uncovered over the years, often by accident during construction projects. But Tabor, Jacobovici and Rami Arav, an archaeologist and professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, say what's unique about these two ossuaries are their inscriptions and carvings.
On one crudely hand-carved box is what appears to be a large fish spewing forth a person, iconography that suggests the story of Jonah and the whale, a popular Bible story that Christians associate with the resurrection of Christ (just as Jonah was resurrected from the whale). On a second ossuary bearing ornamental rosette carvings is what they claim is a rare inscription: "Jehovah (God), raise up, raise up."
It's this inscription in ancient Greek that, together with the fish and Jonah symbols, suggests early Christian beliefs and perhaps a belief in Jesus' resurrection.
"It is the only statement of faith found on any ossuary out of some 2,000 [that have been found in the area]," Jacobovici said. Indeed, marking an ossuary with such symbols would have been contrary to Jewish beliefs at the time, as would naming God in stone. This is why Tabor and Jacobovici are convinced the markings represent the beginnings of Christianity.
If they are right, the location of the so-called "Patio Tomb," which was found under an apartment building's patio, could have implications for another nearby tomb. The land was originally thought be a wealthy family's residence in ancient times. This suggests to biblical scholars that it could be the resting place of Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple who was responsible for placing Jesus in his tomb, according to the Gospels. If this were so, it might support the idea that the nearby tomb, which was explored earlier, is in fact the Jesus family gravesite.
The so-called Jesus Family Tomb is located approximately 200 feet from this latest find. The Jesus tomb is so named because ossuaries removed from it by archaeologists contain an interesting collection of inscribed names: Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Maria. Some scholars have suggested that this means it could be the final resting place of Jesus and his family. But others vehemently disagree.
"The idea of resurrection is one of the most common beliefs at the time, we have it in many [ancient] Jewish texts," Eric Meyers a professor at Duke University who specializes in early biblical research and archaeological studies, told FoxNews.com. "So there's nothing to be surprised about the inscription."
The word that Tabor and Jacobovici interpret as God is also disputed by Christopher Rollston, a professor and expert in ancient text at Emmanuel Christian Seminary. Furthermore, Meyers doesn't see the carving on the other ossuary as that of a fish. He believes it could be a stylized column, common at the time in such carvings.
Archaeology related to Christ is by its very nature something of a third rail in academic circles. If a discovery relates in any way to biblical times, it's bound to create sparks. Nearly every item connected with the time of Jesus, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to authenticated ancient texts, has generated controversy and criticism, and Tuesday’s announcement was no exception.
Some critics charge that Tabor and Jacobovici are just trying to sell their book, The Jesus Discovery, and promote a forthcoming documentary.
For their part, Tabor, Jacobovici, and Arav say they welcome the debate and the opportunity for others to offer expert translations of the inscriptions. "But these are the facts," says Arav referring to the authenticity of the find.
"What bothers me are the personal attacks," said Tabor at the briefing. "Unfortunately, archaeology and religion seems to bring this out more."