A team of international scholars claims to have found the first archaeological evidence dating from around the time Jesus lived, and which could be linked directly to his earliest followers.
Exploring a previously unexcavated tomb three kilometres south of Jerusalem, the researchers discovered burial boxes, or ossuaries, decorated with early Christian iconography.
Dropping a flexible, robotic camera into the cave, they found two limestone ossuaries decorated with carvings of a large fish that appears to be swallowing a man.
Until now, the earliest known Christian art, located in catacombs beneath the city of Rome and in Coptic caves in the Egyptian desert, dates from the late third or early fourth century AD.
The majority of the Rome images depict the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, presumably because the term 'the sign of Jonah' is used by Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The fish image was adopted by Jesus' disciples to signal a belief in resurrection.
They believed that Jesus, like the prophet Jonah in the Biblical account, was miraculously reborn after three days.
The new discovery, the scholars said, would appear to move the evidentiary clock back by at least 200 years if, as the scholars suggest, they date from before 70 AD, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.
On another box in the tomb they found a Greek inscription which, translated, calls on God or Jehovah to rise up or to raise up, an apparent reference to resurrection.
The research team included Israeli archaeologist Rami Arav, of the University of Nebraska, and James Tabor, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.
The tomb was discovered in 1981 but then sealed. Orthodox officials in Israel refused permission to conduct a formal excavation – the Jewish religion prohibits interference with the resting places of the deceased – but did allow the team to drop state-of-the art robotic cameras through existing vent holes and drill holes.
Their discoveries are documented in the just-released book, The Jesus Discovery, by Dr. Tabor and Emmy-award winning Canadian filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. A feature documentary about the investigation is scheduled to be aired on Vision TV and Discovery in the United States in April.
"The ossuaries show a cross, a fish, Jonah and an inscription about resurrection," said Mr. Jacobovici, in an interview. "For me, they are like resurrection machines. It's essentially a gospel in images. I don't see how anyone can argue that this is not related to Jesus' followers."
However one reads them, both the four-line Greek inscription and the Jonah image "are unprecedented, either as ossuary inscriptions or inscriptions more generally for period," Dr. Tabor wrote in a published article on the findings.
The cave, situated under a condominium patio in the suburb of Talpiot, is located less than 45 metres from another tomb that was the subject of a controversial 2007 book, The Jesus Family Tomb, and the documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus.
The names inscribed on a group of ossuaries found inside that tomb included Yeshua bar Yehosef, Maria, Yose, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Matya (Aramaic), and Mariamenou Mara or Mariam kai Mara. Those names suggested to some scholars that the tomb may have belonged to the family of Jesus – a claim that many other scholars have dismissed as fanciful.
Mr. Jacobovici, the filmmaker, said the new discoveries support his belief that the nearby tomb is indeed connected to the family of Jesus.
"Everything in archaeology is about context," he said. "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."