The tiny stone markings fill a space of no more than half an inch. But what they say – and could mean – may speak volumes for our understanding of early Christianity.
Etched into a 2,000-year-old limestone ossuary (bone box) in a tomb in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiyot, the markings are part of a larger image that has already ignited a war of words among archaeologists, historians and religious thinkers.
The contents of the tomb, previously unexplored, were photographed by a miniature camera during the making of a documentary, The Resurrection Tomb Mystery, which airs Thursday night on Vision TV in Canada and the Discovery Channel in the United States.
The larger image has been variously interpreted – as an amphora (a two-handed vase), a funerary pillar, a perfume bottle, and a fish that may graphically recount the Biblical story of Jonah's encounter with a whale.
On another ossuary in the tomb, a team led by University of North Carolina religious scholar James Tabor and University of Nebraska archaeologist Rami Arav found an inscription in Greek and Hebrew that seems to refer to resurrection.
A lively scholarly debate about the ossuaries began last month, with publication of The Jesus Discovery, a book by Mr. Tabor and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici based on the tomb findings.
Now, a new element seems certain to rekindle the furor: tiny markings encrypted in the head of the "fish" that, according to some epigraphers, spell the name Yonah, the Hebrew version of Jonah.
"Most likely," says Princeton Theological Seminary scholar James Charlesworth, director of a project on the Dead Sea Scrolls, "we may comprehend the inscription as reading 'Jonah.' And I have no doubt it is a fish."
If Prof. Charlesworth is right, then a consensus may form that the ossuary depicts Jonah being vomited out of the mouth of the fish. Because Jesus mentions "the sign of Jonah" in the Gospel of Matthew, the saga is traditionally used as a metaphor for his resurrection.
Thus, says the documentary's director, Mr. Jacobovici, the Talpiyot tomb itself would become – by almost three centuries – the earliest known evidence of belief in Jesus as a messiah. "Professor Charlesworth has decoded a hidden inscription that settles that debate. It's time we set aside bogus issues, face the archaeology and deal with the implications of these finds for the origins of Christianity."
According to Prof. Charlesworth, the discoveries are part of "a tsunami of changes in perceiving first-century Judaism. Only recently are scholars realizing how important is archaeology and the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jewish magical papyri, and some passages in the documents later collected into the New Testament."
The Talpiyot tomb is less than 100 metres from another ossuary-filled cave, which, in an earlier book and documentary, Mr. Jacobovici suggested might have belonged to members of Jesus's family.
He believes the new ossuary findings support his thesis. "If the earliest signs of Christianity have been identified next to a tomb with inscriptions saying 'Jesus, son of Joseph,' two 'Marys' and a 'Jose,' then it's that Jesus! Put simply, if Jonah, then Jesus."
No clear consensus
Like almost every aspect of the tomb debate, there is no clear consensus on the inscription. The 'Jonah' interpretation is based on reading the letters, left to right: A 'He,' (English H); a 'Nun,' English N); a 'Vav,' (English W, U or O); and a 'Yod,' (English Y, I or J).
What the experts say
James Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary: "Thus we may discern: HNOJ. Since Hebrew is written right to left, we may recognize: JONH."
Robert Deutsch, epigrapher: "Self-evident 'Yonah.' I don't know if it's a fish or an amphora, I have to see it, but the inscription is made intentionally and is not just a decoration."
James D. Tabor, UNC Charlotte: "I believe it says Yonah, very clearly. The implications are huge. I still believe we have the stick figure, but ingeniously made into the name as well. The artist is telling us what he/she wants us to understand – this is Yonah!"
Haggai Misgav, Hebrew University of Jerusalem: "[I read it as]ZYLH – Zilah or Zoilah, a Greek feminine name. A woman from Jerusalem, probably Jew, that died in the first century. [The image]is an amphora. I've seen a lot of amphorae on ossuaries. I don't think it has any meaning."
Christopher Rollston, Emmanuel Christian Seminary: "I've looked at the photographs really carefully. The name Jonah is simply not there. It's really ridiculous. They are etchings that are part of the amphora. There are no letters."