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Get ready for more controversy over archaeology in Jerusalem.
After the Discovery Channel aired a documentary this month about what’s underneath a building in East Talpiot, the aftermath of the film’s public debut could pit Christian theologians against documentary filmmakers and historians.
Entitled “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery,” the one-hour film (aired April 12) documents in dramatic fashion the four-year-long project undertaken by Canadian-Israeli filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, archaeologist Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska, and historian Prof. James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina, who together with a team of forensic archaeologists and remote camera experts succeeded in investigating an unexcavated tomb underneath an apartment building in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood that contains seven ossuaries in pristine condition.
Back in 2007, Jacobovici, a Canadian-Israeli, known for “The Naked Archaeologist”TV series, produced another sensational documentary entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” based on his theory that another burial chamber in Talpiot is in all likelihood the Jesus family tomb, as he calls it. Many archaeologists, including Prof. Amos Kloner of Bar Ilan University, who originally excavated the cave in the 1980s, disputed the theory.
A statement signed in 2008 by 15 scholars in the field concluded by saying: “We wish to make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance [at a conference on the findings]—including all of the archaeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb—either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus’ family or find this claim highly speculative.”
Nonetheless, Jacobovici convened a recent news conference in Jerusalem together with Prof. Tabor to show reporters replicas of the ossuaries discovered in the second burial cave that they’re calling the Patio Tomb, due to its location underneath a patio of a six-story Talpiot apartment building.
Jacobovici and his colleagues believe the burial chamber dates from the 1st century C.E and contains ossuaries with markings and inscriptions that are the earliest evidence of faith in Jesus’s resurrection, pre-dating the New Testament Gospels. “These are the earliest Christian symbols ever discovered, the oldest First Century Christian symbol found in Jerusalem and the earliest representation in Jewish art of a Biblical story,” says Jacobovici outside the Talpiot building.
Jacobovici and his team commissioned a state-of-the-art robotic arm and camera to probe deep beneath the apartment building and explore the nine by nine foot chamber and its contents without actually excavating or disturbing the ossuaries.
Tabor and Jacobovici explained the prominent markings and their significance to journalists as they displayed the replicas.
One ossuary bears a drawing of a large fish with a stick figure emerging from its mouth—a representation of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, which, according to Prof. Tabor would have been a story known by the Jewish followers of Jesus, and symbolizes resurrection, since Jonah was brought back to life. “It’s like the Jewish followers of Jesus were celebrating their rebbe,” Tabor said of the illustration, which he called the “earliest Christian art.”
A four-line Greek inscription on a second ossuary found underneath the six-story apartment building on Olei Hagardom Street is interpreted by Tabor and other experts to also reference resurrection, with the words “Rise Up” or “Raise Up” clearly carved into the ossuary stone.
At the news conference, Jacobovici led reporters 50 yards down a path between apartment buildings to a concrete slab in the garden of an adjacent building. This is the controversial Jesus Family Tomb that was the subject of another Discovery Channel documentary in 2007.
According to Jacobovici and Prof. Tabor, the new revelations about the contents of the Patio tomb and its proximity to the Family Tomb corroborate Jacobovici’s theory that the names inscribed on the ossuaries at the Family Tomb are associated with Jesus and his family and bolster the likelihood that the tomb in the Talpiot garden is in fact the tomb of Jesus—a theory that puts them at odds with billions of Christians around the world who revere the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City some two miles north of Talpiot as Jesus’s burial place.
As to why an observant Jew should be involved in research about Jesus, Jacobovici responded, “It’s part of my history, part of Jewish history. I don’t think Jesus was ever in Rome or in Montreal.”
To coincide with the TV documentary, Jacobovici and Tabor have published a new book called The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity.
Still, residents of Talpiot probably don’t have to worry that their neighborhood will become the next great Christian pilgrimage site. As Easter week unfolded in Jerusalem, tens of thousands of Christians flocked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, oblivious to the media hype.