'Earliest Christian Artifact' Just Random Squiggles, Scholars Argue

Museum preproduction of the ossuary
Museum preproduction of the ossuary with the Jonah and the Fish image on the left front panel

A 2,000-year-old box that is being lauded as the earliest Christian artifact ever found has been misconstrued, according to several scholars who were not involved in the box's discovery. They say the evidence of the box — engraved in Jerusalem mere decades after Jesus' death — being Christian is extremely frail, and a case of finding meaning in random squiggles.

Known as the Jonah ossuary (the term for a box made to hold human remains), the artifact is in a sealed tomb dated to before 70 A.D., which is located below an apartment building in Jerusalem. James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and his team recently used a remote-controlled robotic camera to explore the tomb, and discovered an engraving on the ossuary that Tabor says proves it is the earliest known Christian artifact. The robotic exploration of the tomb — and the historic find that resulted from it — are detailed in a new documentary for the Discovery Channel called "The Jesus Discovery."

Tabor and his team say the ossuary is engraved with a picture of a fish with a stick figure in its mouth. Upon seeing the engraving, they immediately realized the stick figure must be Jonah, the Old Testament prophet whose story of being swallowed by a whale was embraced byearly followers of Jesus. If it really is a picture of Jonah and the whale, this would prove the ossuary was Christian. However, when the team published their analysis, outside experts said the depiction was not an upside-down whale swallowing a man at all, but rather a right-side-up funerary monument. 

In response to that criticism, James Charlesworth, professor of New Testament language and literature at the Princeton Theological Seminary and a member of the ossuary's discovery team, has retaliated with what he says is new and better proof that the box is Christian: The "stick figure" in the "fish's mouth" is not just a stick figure, but also Hebrew letters that spell "YONAH," the Hebrew name of Jonah. [Images of the Jonah Ossuary]

Jonah, Jesus or Yo Yo Ma?

Skeptics are calling the new claim "Rorschach test archaeology." Steve Caruso, a professional translator who analyzes inscriptions on ancient artifacts for antiquity dealers, said Charlesworth's interpretation of the inscription is "more of an exercise in reading tea leaves."

Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa, concurs. "One must do some rather strenuous mental gymnastics to arrive at the letters for the name of Jonah in this image, including ignoring lines that are clearly present but do not fit the desired inscription, joining together lines that are clearly not conjoined, reshaping letters, and eliminating any semblance of linear alignment," Cargill says on his blog.

If all those adjustments are permissible when interpreting ancient text, the lines in the inscription can be made to spell out anything from "Jesus" to "Yo Yo Ma," the scholars note. [Poll: Do You Believe in God?]

Random squiggles

On top of the fact that several lines must be ignored to read the inscription as YONAH, the second supposed letter in the series, which Charlesworth claims is the Hebrew letter nun (shaped like a backwards L), appears to be two unconnected lines rather than one unbroken line. "This is not a nun; it is two random lines," wrote Mark Goodacre, associate professor of New Testament at Duke University. On his academic blog, Goodacre explains that it was common for the bases of funerary monuments (which, he believes, this part of the engraving depicts, instead of a fish's head) to be decorated with geometric designs, which could easily be represented with the lines in the image.

The skeptics also point out that the discovery team's own photos, released before Charlesworth and Tabor began claiming the inscription says "YONAH," clearly show two unconnected lines rather than a backwards L-shape representing "nun." Tabor has since released a different picture of the inscription in which the "nun" appears to be unbroken, and has addressed the controversy thus: "The 'nun' is not broken. There are some white splotches on the ossuary surface in our close up photos and one of them is at the juncture, which might make it look like the line is broken, but it does intersect."

The discrepancy between the photos raises further skepticism about the discovery. "Each photograph of the supposed 'inscription' seems to paint a different picture, and since the beginning of this debacle a disconcerting number of photographs have been found to be filtered, altered, or mislabeled," Caruso told Life's Little Mysteries.

Charlesworth did not reply to requests for comment.

A year ago, during Easter season, another claim surfaced about the discovery of an early Christian artifact — that time, lead books containing references to Jesus — and Caruso and others also decisively proved those to be fakes. As Kimberley Bowes, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said at the time, "Modern people's urge to find material evidence from the first two centuries of Christianity is much stronger than the actual evidence itself. This is because the numbers of Christians from this period was incredibly small — probably less than 7,000 by 100 A.D. — and because they didn't distinguish themselves materially from their Jewish brethren."

"It does seem that every Easter there is some 'big discovery,'" Caruso added. "Mostly it's film makers or other sensationalists trying to strike while the iron is hot during the season where everyone is rather Jesus-focused. [The discovery of a] very early, relatively undisturbed tomb in and of itself is fascinating; however, a generic first century Jewish tomb doesn't quite sell.'"

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Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.