As expected, the so-called Jesus Discovery is making headlines around the world. The claims are amazing; the leaps in logic are breath-taking; and most archaeologists are utterly unconvinced. What has actually been found and what does it really mean? Before I can answer that question, I have to back up a bit.
Five years ago
In February 2007 Simcha Jacobovici, Canada's "Naked Archaeologist," and James Cameron, producer of "Robocop" and "Titanic," announced to the world that they had found the tomb of Jesus and his family. A book was released and a television documentary aired the following month. The tomb they had "found" had, in fact, been excavated in 1980. In 1996 the BBC aired a documentary exploring a possible Jesus connection.
Scholars didn't bite then and they aren't biting now. Respected archaeologist William Dever judged the whole business as "the worst kind of archaeology." Most agree.
The new Jesus Discovery claims are another kick at the can. But they are no more convincing this time than they were last time. Let's take a look.
What lies beneath
A second tomb, about 200 feet from the first one, was found in 1981, but archaeologists, pressured by Jewish fundamentalists, were not able to remove the ossuaries for study. The tomb was sealed and a condo was built over it.
Through diplomacy, ingenuity, and lots of hard work, in May 2010 Jacobovici and his team managed to drill a hole into the tomb (now called the "Patio Tomb") and insert a camera mounted on a mechanical arm. They did a remarkable job scanning the tomb and its contents. The tomb is made up of an entrance, a central chamber, nine niches, and seven ossuaries (small limestone bone boxes). Skeletal remains that had not been placed in ossuaries were found in four niches.
Two ossuaries caught the attention of Jacobovici and his team. One ossuary presented an etching of an oblong, vertical object. The other exhibited four incised Greek words. The object is said to be fish, with tail up and head down. At the end of the fish's mouth is a circle, interpreted as the head of Jonah, wrapped in seaweed. This fish, we are told, is spewing out Jonah. Because Jesus compared himself to Jonah, in the belly of the great fish for three days, Jacobovici thinks we have an allusion to Jesus. James Tabor agrees, declaring that it is "the earliest representation of the resurrection."
The Greek words on the second ossuary are interpreted to read, "God Jehovah, Raise up! Raise up!" or, perhaps, "Lord Jesus, Rise up! Rise up!" Thus, the fish that spews out Jonah and the Greek inscription compliment one another, each in its own way testifying to the belief that Jesus has been raised up. So goes the theory.
What it really means
All of this interpretation is convoluted and unconvincing. Eric Meyers, who teaches archaeology at Duke University and has written a major work on Jewish ossuaries and burial traditions, rightly notes that the "fish" has nothing to do with Jonah. It is more likely an urn or amphora, with handles, a nefesh (lit. "soul") that represents the life of the person contained in the ossuary. One of the other ossuaries in the tomb is adorned with a nefesh. The patterns in the fish-like nefesh, including the so-called "tail" at the top and the circle at the bottom, are seen is seen in others. Other archaeologists and interpreters are weighing in; and they agree with Meyers.
As for the Greek words, there is no reference to Jesus. The generally accepted reading, including that given by Jacobovici, is Dios Iaio hypso (H)agab. This most naturally translates "I Hagab lift up the Lord God." The language comes right out of the Bible: "I shall lift you up, Lord" (Ps 29:2 in the Greek version). Turning the inscription into a petition that Jesus be raised up is completely without foundation. The Patio Tomb has nothing to do with Jesus and his movement.
Jacobovici and his team construct a remarkable thesis from these two ossuaries. The documentary declares that the Patio Tomb provides "dramatic evidence that the tomb 200 feet away … is the Jesus family tomb" and then concludes by saying that "it is now up to scholars to weigh the evidence." Have no doubt; they will.
ABC News assured viewers that the Patio Tomb "will be debated for the next 2,000 years." I shall be quite surprised if anyone is talking about it in two years.
Craig A. Evans is the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. He has published several books, including Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).