Is it a fish? Is it a Jar?

March 2, 2012

Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and  scriptural scholar James Tabor have done it again: another sensational discovery in Jerusalem that will lead the two to the “real” tomb of Jesus. Headlines screamed, press conferences were packed.

The sensation is about a group of burial caves from the Second Temple Period, located  south of ancient Jerusalem that were discovered in the early 1980′s and then covered up, after the Ultra Orthodox  “Holy Sites” group, an organization bent on preventing archaeologists from disturbing the last resting place of Jewish bones, demonstrated on the site. The new neighborhood of Armon Hanatiziv was built over the caves. In order to allow the spirits of the 2000-year-old departed souls to rest in peace and the new residents to be able to live above them, all sorts of ceremonial contraptions were added over the caves, including special “vents” that made it religiously possible for the ancient and modern residents to live one on top of the other. The caves and their contents were quickly documented before they were sealed – and the finds have recently been published by archaeologists Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, in a detailed scientific book on the “Southern Necropolis of Jerusalem”.

One of the caves contains four stone bone-coffins (called sarcophagi), with the names “Yeshua”, “Miriam” and “Yosef” scratched on them, and a fourth sarcophagus with the name “Yehudah ben Yeshua” on it.  Very common Jewish names 2000 years ago.

Enter Simcha Jacobovici.

“Yeshua” – i.e. Jesus, Miriam and Joseph buried in one cave can mean only one thing he claims – this is the burial site of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The fact that we also have a son of Jesus buried here, Yehudah, is problematic, but all part of the mystery. Jacobovici, Indiana Jones style, finds the nails from the cross hidden in the artifacts taken from the cave in the 1980′s, puts together a fascinating yarn, with a prime time television movie, a book and more. The quest for the true tomb of Jesus is on.

In 2009 he is back in Jerusalem to expand the search. Now he plans to look into another cave, 200 feet away from the “Jesus Cave”, in which 8 or 9 sarcophagi were discovered. The problem is that the cave is under a condominium and that any probing into it would need an excavation license. James Tabor, Jacobovici’s partner is not an archaeologists, and so the pair enlist Israeli archaeologist Dr. Rami Arav, who teaches in the Department Philosophy and Religion, at the University of Nebrasaka in Omaha, and obtain a license.

With the license in hand they have to overcome another problem: how to get into the sealed of forbidden cave. In order to that a long electronic probe is build, with a camera on it. The arm will be able to enter the cave through the “vents” built into it for the ancient spirits. The Ultra Orthodox gave their permission, on the condition that nothing would be taken from the cave, and the residents of the building gave their permission – both transactions, it seems, required various expenditures.

Finally the cave could be entered. The probe photographed everything in it, and came up with a lot of inscriptions, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and a sensation: One of the sarcophagi had a drawing of a fish carved into it. The fish wasn’t just any old fish, it had a human figure in its mouth, the ball like head on the outside of the mouth and the body inside the fish: a depiction of Jonah been vomited by the fish, claimed Jacobovici, in a dramatic press conference.

This is the “Sign of Jonah” mentioned a few times in the New Testament, a symbol of resurrection. Jonah remained in the belly of the fish for three days, and then reemerged – unharmed, returned from the dead. And so, claimed Jacobovici, the people buried here were early Christians, Judeo- Christians, who carved the sign of Jonah on their coffins, waiting for the resurrection. Why did these early Christians seek out this place to be buried? were are told by the probe-team, because the cave next door was the tomb of Christ.

Everything in archaeology is about context,” said Jacobovici in an interview after the press conference, “If, 2,000 years from now, they find a tomb with the names George, John, Paul and Ringo, and less than 200 feet away, they find another tomb containing the box of the president of the Beatles’ fan club and his CD collection, it will be hard to argue that it’s another George, John, Paul and Ringo.”

But, their are a few problems with the unique and unprecedented  “fish” carving  and the reading of the inscriptions found in the cave which Tabor claims talks about “raising up” something or someone. The photo of the carving presented to the public shows it laying on its side -sideways to the sarcophagus. But if you turn it around at a right angle, and show it as a person looking at the coffin would have seen it – it looks a lot  like an ancient jar, what archaeologists call an amphora. And jars like these can be found in the hundreds on coffins in burial caves around Jerusalem.

The quest continues…

Read more in the upcoming issue of ERETZ Magazine as we discuss the renewed and sensational “Quest for the Historical Jesus”, with a look at hard facts and interviews with archaeologists and experts on the subject.