Controversial Filmmaker Claims to Have Unearthed the World's Oldest Jesus Fish in a Jerusalem Tomb

Controversial Filmmaker Claims to Have Unearthed the World's Oldest Jesus Fish in a Jerusalem Tomb
Documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and Professor James D. Tabor stand beside a life-size replica of one of the ossuaries found in "Patio Tomb"
(Courtesy Getty Images)

In the past, crusading documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has gained international attention — and more than a little ire — for archeological projects that resemble a Dan Brown novel come to life. Working alongside Dr. James D. Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Jacobivici now says he's located a tomb in Jerusalem's Old City whose inscriptions suggest the earliest known reference to Jesus's resurrection. At stake in their argument is a decoration on an ossuary from the 1st century CE, a concave, hourglass-shaped engraving that they say resembles a fish. Citing the story of Jonah and the Whale, which Christians believe to have been a harbinger of Jesus's rising from the grave, Tabor and Jacobovici assert that they have found the earliest known symbol of the Resurrection. 

It doesn't hurt that the fish symbol is a well-known contemporary icon in Christian faith. Several of Jesus's Apostles were fishermen, and the miracle of the loaves and fishes is featured in all four canonical Gospels. As students of Medieval archeology know, the very word "icthys" ("fish" in Greek) is an acronym for the phrase "Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter" ("Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior"), a frequent inscription on early Christian burial sites. Without committing to what their findings meant, Tabor and Jacobovici insist that there is more than enough evidence to open a serious debate. 

Few experts outside of their circle agree. Describing the claims as "sensational," critics point to a pair of loops that appear on either side of the crucial engraving on the ossuary, arguing that the drawing of a fish could just as easily be something else. "When is a fish not a fish? When it has handles, matching handles," Mark Goodacre, an associate professor of religious studies at Duke University, told ABC News. "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."

Five years ago, Jacobovici garnered a similar reaction for his film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," in which he claimed to have located a tomb that once contained the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The tomb happens to be throwing distance from his more recent discovery. The involvement of "Terminator" director James Cameron as executive producer raised the movie's profile, but observant Christians were offended by the suggestion that Jesus had married, and detractors in the academic community weren't hard to find. Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard, described the project as "fantastic archaeology."