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Did a robot discover Jesus' tomb?

Did a robot discover Jesus' tomb?

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A controversial documentary filmmaker, using a robotic arm, claims to have uncovered Jesus Christ's final resting place.

It's either one of the most significant archaeological findings of all time or... just a really bad case of mistaken identity.

A team of archaeologists, led by controversial documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, claims to have uncovered an ancient underground site in Jerusalem that serves as the final resting place for Jesus Christ -- and that they have the artifacts to prove it. The latest piece of evidence, found inside the tomb, is a 2,000 year old engraving on the side of a coffin known as an ossuary, which they believe alludes to the resurrection of Christ.

The artwork depicts what seems to resemble a fish with a human figure inside it's mouth. In the Old Testament, the Book of Jonah tells the story of a prophet named Jonah who was saved after being thrown overboard when he was swallowed by a whale that was sent by God. After spending three days and three nights in the fish's belly, God orders it to vomit to set Jonah free. For Christians, the tale symbolizes Jesus' crucifixtion, death and subsequent rebirth three days later.

Five years ago, Jacobovici suffered the wrath of skeptics in the field when he made the controversial claim that he had discovered Jesus' family tomb -- complete with human remains. The grave site, which is located about 200 feet away from the where the engraved ossuary was found, bore names such as "Jesus, son of Joseph."

At the time, many archaeologists and theologians dismissed Jacobovici's assessment as nothing more than speculation since it's more likely that the purported connection to the holy Jesus can be merely coincidental, especially considering that such names were actually quite common during that time period.

The team, which had been hoping to unearth more supporting evidence, also suffered a setback when Isreali officials decided to end the excavation and seal the tomb at the behest of orthodox Jews who weren't comfortable with the idea of scientists poking around a site dedicated to safeguarding the deceased. However, the researchers remained undeterred and eventually obtained permission from the government to drill holes and use a robotic arm instead to explore the surrounding area.

Jacobovici believes that both sites are part of an ancient estate belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, who, according to the Gospels donated his tomb for Jesus' burial. He recently published his research in a book entitled "The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity" and will present the evidence in the documentary "The Resurrection Tomb Mystery", which airs tonight at 10 PM ET on the discovery channel.

In a report by the Daily Mail, Jacobovici and his collaborator, Biblical historian James Tabor, point out a number of historical facts that they feel bolsters their argument:

Among the approximately 2000 ossuaries that have been recovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority, only 650 have any inscriptions on them, and none have inscriptions comparable to the team's finds.

Less than a dozen ossuaries from the period have epitaphs but, according to Tabor, these inscribed messages usually have to do with warnings not to disturb the bones of the dead. In contrast, the four-line Greek inscription contains some kind of statement of resurrection faith.

Tabor noted that the epitaph's complete and final translation is uncertain. The first three lines are clear, but the last line, consisting of three Greek letters, is less sure, yielding several possible translations: 'O Divine Jehovah, raise up, raise up,' or 'The Divine Jehovah raises up to the Holy Place,' or 'The Divine Jehovah raises up from.'

'This inscription has something to do with resurrection of the dead, either of the deceased in the ossuary, or perhaps, given the Jonah image nearby, an expression of faith in Jesus' resurrection,' Tabor said.

The ossuary with the image that Tabor and his team understand to be representing Jonah also has other interesting engravings. These also may be connected to resurrection, Tabor notes. On one side is the tail of a fish disappearing off the edge of the box, as if it is diving into the water.

There are small fish images around its border on the front facing, and on the other side is the image of a cross-like gate or entrance—which Tabor interprets as the notion of entering the 'bars' of death, which are mentioned in the Jonah story in the Bible.

But several archaeologists, theologians and bible scholars still don't buy it. Some experts, such as Duke University religious studies professor Mark Goodacre, have even suggested that the engraving isn't even a fish and that any such efforts to connect the dots don't amount to anything more than wishful thinking.

Here's an excerpt of interviews with skeptics conducted ABC News:

"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."

Whether Jacobovici's conclusions holds up to scrutiny or not (right now it's not looking too good), what's perhaps really intriguing is the innovative use of robots to conduct archaeological excavation. Similar to how infrared satellites and Google Earth were utilized to probe some of the most mysterious spots on earth, the technology has enabled them to circumvent political, military, and yes, even religious sanctions that have prevented scientists from digging into sites of interest.

Here's a video which provides an inside look at the technology that Indiana Jones only wishes he had:

Photos: University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure