CHARLOTTE, N.C., Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Images found in a first-century tomb in Jerusalem may be the earliest archaeological evidence of Christianity from near the time of Jesus, archaeologists say.
A robotic camera used to examine the intact tomb has revealed a set of limestone Jewish ossuaries or "bone boxes" engraved with a rare Greek inscription and a unique iconographic image researchers say they consider to be distinctly Christian.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina said the Greek inscription refers to God "raising up" someone and a carved image on another ossuary shows a large fish with a human stick figure in its mouth, which they interpret as an image evoking the biblical story of Jonah.
"If anyone had claimed to find either a statement about resurrection or a Jonah image in a Jewish tomb of this period I would have said impossible -- until now," James D. Tabor, chair of the university's religious studies department, said in a release Tuesday. "Our team was in a kind of ecstatic disbelief, but the evidence was clearly before our eyes, causing us to revise our prior assumptions."
If the markings are Christian as the researches believe, the engravings represent -- by several centuries -- the earliest archaeological record of Christians ever found, dating to about 70 A.D.
The findings and their interpretation are certain to be controversial, experts said, since most scholars are skeptical of any Christian archaeological remains from so early a period.