April 10, 2012— -- Archaeologists working in Jerusalem claim that a discovery they made inside a burial tomb, dating back to the time of Jesus Christ, could shed new light on the origins of Christianity.
Biblical historian James Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, is working with the team, led by controversial filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. Using a camera mounted on a robotic arm, the team found a 2,000-year-old engraving, which they claim depicts Jesus' resurrection, on an ossuary -- a limestone burial box that contains human bones -- in a first-century tomb.
Their exploration of ancient life in the holy land is told in a new documentary for the Discovery Channel called "The Resurrection Tomb Mystery," which premieres on April 12 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
"It's almost like a moonscape feeling of something eerie, something kind of silent- a reverent feeling really," Tabor said. "Because these people died 2,000 years ago and now we are investigating their last memories, how they bury their dead, what they left behind, so that was there and then the excitement of, 'Well will there be something we'll find or will we find just another Jewish tomb'?"
But the team thinks they found something much more than that. Tabor believes the engraving found on the ossuary depicts the Biblical story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale in the Book of Jonah.
For many Christians, the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale has come to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus. If the engraving is of Jonah, as Tabor believes, he said it would be the earliest Christian symbol of resurrection ever found.
However, many biblical scholars don't see it that way at all.
Mark Goodacre, an associate professor of religious studies at Duke University, who specializes in the New Testament, says there are other, far more likely, explanations as to what the engraving could be, such as a vase with handles.
"When is a fish not a fish? When it has handles, matching handles," he said. "It's a vessel. It's a vase. It's a vase that looks like many of the ones that you'll find in the early Roman period."
Yet Jacobovici and his colleagues believe that ancient Greek letters found on another ossuary a few feet away from the engraving also refer to resurrection.
"Now whether they were saying he rose or we will rise, we can argue about it, but the finds themselves are hard archaeology that show, you know, new light, shed new light on the big bang of Christianity," Jacobovici said.
But again, religious scholars say it is more like a big bust.
"He's seeing things that simply aren't there," Goodacre said. "His head is so full of 'DaVinci Code.'"
Robert Cargill, an assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, told "Nightline" that the original image of the engraving that Tabor sent him is "clearly displaying the handles" but that the handles do not appear in the image that was distributed to the press.
"There are clearly handles on the top of the so-called 'Jonah fish' image, but Tabor and Jacobovici don't include them in their museum replicas or the CGI image," Cargill said. "No credible scholar except those that work with or for Simcha on this or some other project believe his conclusions... The evidence does not support their sensational claims. But that doesn't stop them from wanting it to be true, so in their minds, it's true."
Jacobovici has been criticized before when he made the claim five years ago that he had found Jesus' family tomb, with ossuaries that contained the bones of Jesus' mother Mary, Jesus himself, Mary Magdalene and perhaps -- as told in "The DaVinci Code" -- their love child.
But Tabor, among others, do believe that Jacobovici did find something significant -- that the two tombs, just 200 feet apart, are related somehow. Tabor has even collaborated on a new book called "The Jesus Discovery."
"We have one tomb that has the bones of Jesus and 200 feet away, people celebrating his resurrection," Tabor said. "They're able to put this together in a way that maybe people today haven't considered."
However, as Goodacre points out, there is no evidence that either tomb has anything to do with Jesus. But what Jacobovici and his critics can agree on is that exploring the inside of tombs dating back to the first century is "really exciting."