NEW YORK – A new archaeological discovery on a Jerusalem site is causing controversy as it revives the debate over the "Jesus tomb" and presents what scientists claim is proof that a burial box was found containing the remains of Jesus, and possibly his family – a direct contradiction to the belief in Christ's bodily resurrection.
The team of scientists, lead by biblical scholar James Tabor and documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, co-authors of the newly released book, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity, claim the newly explored sealed tomb dating to the 1st century CE, is proof that the nearby tomb discovered a year earlier contains Jesus' remains.
Tabor and Jacobovici believe the new tomb, which they explored in 2010 with a robotic camera, is closely tied to another nearby tomb referred to as the "Jesus Family Tomb" or the "Garden Tomb." The tomb was first uncovered by construction work in 1981, but religious reasons did not allow exploration.
In a 2007 documentary, Jacobovici claimed that the "Jesus Family Tomb" ossuaries had once contained the remains of Jesus and his family. The tomb contained ossuaries with inscriptions containing the names Jesus, Mary, Joseph close to each other. That is little likely to be coincidental, the scientists said, even though at the time some scholars dismissed these claims, saying the names were mere coincidence.
Dr. Ben Witherington, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, had noted at the release of the 2007 documentary that the names etched on the ossuaries are extremely common place. For example, the name Mary was the most popular female name during that time and place, while the name "Jesus" was popular in the first century and appeared in 98 other tombs and on 21 other ossuaries.
Nevertheless, the scientists believe that the "Jesus Family Tomb" is located on the land once belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to Scriptures, had Christ's body placed in his own tomb.
Now, the newly explored tomb, located only 200 feet from the "Jesus Family Tomb," "ups the likelihood" that the theory is correct, Tabor told The Christian Post. The tomb contains several ossuaries that have images and inscriptions related to Jesus' resurrection, Christianity, and what the authors suggest is the first image of a Christian cross.
During a Tuesday press conference in New York at Discovery Times Square, the authors pointed to inscriptions on the bone boxes as evidence. One of them carries the sign of a fish, which the scientists interpreted as a reference to Old Testament prophet Jonah, and associated with Jesus' death and burial. The same box shows an inscription scientists say suggests resurrection and what looks like a sign of cross.
"Whether it's a Christian cross or not, normally if you find a cross – like creation on an ossuary – most scholars would say 'Well, it's not necessarily a cross, it could represent a gate or a doorway,' something like that, but with the Jonah image, I think there is more of a likelihood for it to be a cross," Tabor told CP.
The sign of Jonah makes the discovery easier to interpret, he claims, because Jesus is quoted as saying, in Matthew 12, "as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights."
"Everything was done properly, scientifically," Tabor insisted during Tuesday's press conference at Discovery Times Square.
The findings are the earliest testimony of faith in the resurrection of Jesus, pre-dating the oldest known copy of the New Testament Gospel and even the Gospels themselves, the scientists claim. The carvings are believed to be the earliest Christian symbols ever discovered, and have been in the tombs for the past 2,000 years. They are "the most important archaeological find since the Dead Sea Scrolls," Jacobovici said Tuesday.
Tabor and Jacobovici's theory is controversial, especially since the scientists believe they might have discovered Jesus' bones in one of the ossuaries. That theory goes against the belief of most Christians that Jesus appeared bodily to his disciples after the resurrection, and ate with them before finally ascending to heaven, as explained in the Gospels. One of the disciples is recorded in the Bible to have also touched the nail prints on Jesus' hands.
Furthermore, the scientists believe that there is a possibility that in the same tomb and next to the remains believed to be Jesus' are bones that might have belonged to Mary Magdalene.
Still, Tabor argues, the discovery does not necessarily go against Christian faith.
"What I encourage people to do is take these tombs one at a time," Tabor told CP. "This tomb, rather than being a threat to Christians, is an amazing archaeological evidence for early Christians recording their faith in Jesus' resurrection."
Therein comes the question of the meaning of "resurrection," he said. "Does it mean getting a new spiritual body? That's been debated by Jews and Christians for centuries –what kind of body will the resurrection body be? It doesn't necessarily involve the old body, especially if the old body has gone decayed or gone to dust."
"If we found evidence of people celebrating their faith in resurrection, that's good news for you," Tabor tends to tell Christians he believes might feel threatened by the discovery, he revealed. "Because before this, you didn't have any archaeological evidence at all for beliefs in Jesus' resurrection."
"This discovery by Tabor and Jacobovici will no doubt provide thoughtful new dialogue from both ends of the spectrum about one of the most discussed and divisive archaeological findings in recent history," Discovery Times Square CEO James Sanna said in a statement. Sanna also emphasized that the museum does not take a side on the findings.
The ossuaries the authors suggest are part of the "Jesus Family Tomb" are currently on display at Discovery Times Square, and coincides with the publication of Tabor and Jacobovici's book, The Jesus Discovery. A film titled "The Resurrection Tomb" will air this spring on the Discovery Channel and Vision Television in Canada.