The reading of the inscription has spurred a healthy amount of discussion among scholars, but Tabor and Jacobovici’s interpretation of one of the carvings has been rejected outright. Where they see a stick-figure Jonah emerging from a great fish heading downward, others see a vase, a perfume bottle or a pillar but no fish and no Jonah.
“The image on ossuary 6 is not Jonah’s great fish spitting out a seaweed-wrapped head of Jonah,” says Cargill, who favors the Greek vessel interpretation. “Fish don’t have handles.”
Whether it is a fish matters because Tabor and Jacobovici say Jonah’s tale mirrors Jesus’s resurrection, as he spent three days inside the belly of the whale the way Jesus is said to have spent three days in his tomb before coming back to life.
When it comes to who exactly was buried in the Patio Tomb, the mystery remains. Based on the short distance — less than 200 feet — between the two tombs and other contextual clues, Jacobovici posits that it might be the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the man said to have taken possession of Jesus’s body. In any case, Jacobovici says, these were Jesus’s contemporaries.
“These people must have known him,” he says. “They must have heard him preach.”
Biblical archaeology has long lent itself to debate and controversy. Biblical texts can be interpreted in various ways, and little archaeological evidence related to Jesus and his disciples has been found. While the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is widely accepted by Christians as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, death and resurrection, others have proposed alternative sites. Tabor, for example, suggests that the crucifixion took place on the Mount of Olives.
Jacobovici went to great lengths — literally — to explore the Patio Tomb. He commissioned a robotic arm mounted with a camera to survey the tomb without setting foot in it. Excavations of Jewish tombs are extremely sensitive in Israel, as religious activists — often ultra-Orthodox Jews also known as Haredim — condemn any disturbance of the dead.
“Legally, we could dig a tunnel and excavate, but you would have 100,000 Haredim burning tires,” Tabor says.
Given the hundreds of similar tombs in the area, the robotic arm could prove useful for future excavations. Cargill also says that the inscription and carvings found in the tomb are significant regardless of their interpretation.
As to the residential neighborhood of East Talpiot becoming a hot spot for Christian pilgrims, there seems to be some more convincing to do. Five years after the movie was broadcast worldwide, the alleged tomb of Jesus remains an unmarked concrete slab in an overgrown grassy area.
Brulliard is a freelance writer.