The resurrection tomb mystery

On the Thursday before Good Friday this year, the Discovery Channel screened a documentary, The Resurrection Tomb Mystery, claiming to reveal the earliest evidence for belief in the resurrection of Jesus. The documentary was about a sealed 1st century tomb found in Talpiyot, a suburb of Jerusalem, which contains ossuaries, or bones boxes.

Working with a camera mounted on a robotic arm, the filmmakers found an image on one of the boxes which biblical historian James Tabor believes is of the great fish in the story of Jonah. The early Christians used the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by the fish but later escaped from it, as a parable for the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Another of the boxes has an inscription which, according to James Tabor, says something like: ‘O Divine Jehovah, raise up, raise up’. Tabor, who is at the University of North Carolina, says he is 95 per cent certain in linking the image and inscription with Jesus.

Simcha Jacobovici, who produced the documentary, also made The Lost Tomb of Jesus in 2007, claiming that another tomb, just 200 metres from the ‘Resurrection’ tomb, contained the bones of Jesus and some of his earliest followers, including Mary Magdalene. That tomb also contained a number of bone boxes, but the Da Vinci Code-like conclusions drawn by the documentary were ridiculed by archaeologists who were involved in excavating the tomb.

This time round, The Resurrection Tomb Mystery has generated huge debate and disagreement on academic blogs around the world. Robert Cargill, of the University of Iowa, has demonstrated that the image of the ‘great fish’ has been clumsily Photoshopped for the documentary to make it more fish-like. At the time of writing, Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor have yet to admit that the image has been manipulated. Robert Cargill and other scholars believe the image is much more likely to be an amphora, or storage jar.

Meanwhile, Richard Bauckham, who was consulted for the documentary but has drawn very different conclusions about the tomb, has detailed no less than 13 possible readings for the inscription which James Tabor reads as ‘O Divine Jehovah, raise up, raise up’. Most of them have no resurrection theme. One of them reads, ‘Here are my bones. I, Agabus, crumble not away’.

Mark Goodacre of Duke University, North Carolina, who live blogged the screening of the documentary, said, ‘I was surprised to see… just how weak the attempts to link the tomb to Jesus appeared.’