Jerusalem cave may be tomb of Jesus's disciples

"Jonah and the Whale" as depicted on a wall of a Jerusalem burial cave. (Associated Producers Ltd.)

By NIR HASSON (Haaretz)

Under an ordinary residential building in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, a robotic arm with a camera inserted into a Second Temple-era burial cave has revealed mysterious inscriptions and drawings on ossuaries.

Simcha Jacobovici, an Emmy-winning documentary director and producer who is best known for his documentary TV series The Naked Archeologist, argues that the cave served as a burial cave for at least some of Jesus’s disciples.

Jacobovici is exploring the cave for his latest documentary project, backed by the Discovery Channel, and hopes his findings substantiate his earlier theory that a nearby cave is the one where Jesus was buried. He made that claim in a previous documentary, and said the theory was backed up by the names found on the ossuaries, or receptacles for bones, in the cave.

The discoveries could potentially have revolutionary implications for the understanding of early Christianity and of Jesus as a historical figure.

Jacobovici’s previous theories were based on findings by others, and a press conference he is scheduled to hold Tuesday in New York to unveil a book and film about his current project will be the first time he and his colleagues reveal findings from their own explorations.

Every few years, Jacobovici shakes up the archeological world, mainly with his interpretations of Second Temple-era finds having to do with the New Testament. Last year, he argued that a pair of nails found in another burial cave in Jerusalem were the original nails used to crucify Jesus.

Violent confrontation

The cave, which was found in the 1990s, was sealed after protests from ultra-Orthodox activists stopped the exploration, and an apartment house was subsequently built on top of it.

After successfully negotiating with the residents’ committee of the building on Olei Hagardom Street for permission to drill into the floor, Jacobovici had an almost violent confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox group Atra Kadisha.

Eventually, he pledged to Atra Kadisha leader Rabbi David Schmidel that he would explore the cave only by means of a robotic arm inserted through the building floor.

It seems that the finds—the most important of which was an incised drawing clearly showing a large fish swallowing or vomiting a human figure—were worth the effort.

The carving underscores Jacobivici’s belief that Jesus was buried in the nearby cave, because the fish, and the image of Jonah and the whale, were both early Christian symbols.

The fish cannot be mistaken for something more ordinary, like the prow of a ship, and can only be understood as a fish and a human figure—making it unique among the hundreds of ossuaries found in Jerusalem, said Israeli archeologist Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska, a member of Jacobovici’s team.

Another member of the team is James Tabor, an expert on religions from the University of North Carolina.

In the early Christian burials in the Catacombs of Rome are 108 depictions of Jonah, Jacobovici told Haaretz last week. Jonah’s power as a Christian symbol comes from a verse in the Book of Matthew comparing Jonah’s emergence after three days in the belly of the whale to Jesus’s resurrection after three days.

The second of Jacobovici’s dramatic finds is an inscription in Greek letters. It can be variously interpreted, but all refer in one way or another to resurrection, he says.

Jacobovici, along with the experts he has enlisted, claims the words are “God” in Greek, the Tetragrammaton (the traditionally unutterable four-letter name of God in Hebrew), the word “arise” or “resurrected” in Greek, and the word “arise” or “resurrected” in Hebrew.

This appears to support the claim that the cave was used as an early Christian burial site, because the idea that a mainstream member of the Jewish community would inscribe an ossuary with the Tetragrammaton is unlikely; even a prayer containing this word has never been found on an ossuary.

“It shows us that perhaps this whole area was a very unorthodox area, a different area. Not the Jewish mainstream,” said Arav.

Unlike many archeologists, Israel Antiquities Authority archeologist Yuval Baruch –who appears to be the only Israeli archeologist other than Arav who has seen the findings—says Jacobovici could be right.

Although Baruch said Monday that Jacobovici’s use of a robot “to photograph not in the best light” was problematic, he added: “If it is indeed a fish, it is fantastic. It has no parallel.”

Baruch criticized Jacobovici’s work for being “mostly unconnected to context.”

“Ossuaries were not mass produced, and different decorations are being discovered all the time,” he said. All the same, he added, archeologists should be grateful.

“Archeologists have to understand that what Simcha does is to take the esoteric profession of archeology and turn it into Indiana Jones, something very appealing,” he said. “From that perspective, we should thank him.”