A team of religion scholars ignited a firestorm of controversy this week with the release of a documentary film and book claiming to shed light on the burial practices of 1st-century Christians living near Jerusalem. Although there's a good deal of debate over what the researchers have actually discovered, it's interesting to note that this debate has been made possible by a high-definition camera setup enabling documentary filmmakers to capture images from inside a tomb buried beneath two meters of rock without entering the site or in any way disturbing its contents.

In December 2010, filmmaker Simcha Jacobivici and his crew snaked a high-definition camera down into what's come to be known as the "Patio tomb," discovered in 1981 about five kilometers south of the Old City in East Jerusalem and so named because it's now located beneath an apartment patio. Local religious groups and the Israel Antiquities Authority granted Jacobivici, James Tabor, a professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and several colleagues permission to study the tomb provided no one enter the tomb and nothing be retrieved from the tomb as part of the exploration.

This was remedied by drilling three 20-centimeter holes through the rock surrounding the tomb and sending in a pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camera made by GE's Measurement & Control division into the space. A second PTZ camera was inserted in one of the other holes to monitor the movement of the first camera. GE connected the cameras to a robotic arm normally used by engineers to remotely inspect pipes, jet engines and oil platform equipment in hard-to-reach areas for signs of corrosion and cracks. The arm features a light for illuminating dark spaces and is controlled on the other end by an operator using a video screen and keyboard.

The controversy arises from what these cameras captured in high definition for Jacobivici's new documentary, The Jesus Discovery. Jacobivici and Tabor claim to have found carvings and inscriptions on seven stone chests, or ossuaries, containing skeletal remains within the Patio tomb. One carving as having the "image of a fish, complete with tail, fins, and scales with a stick-like human figure with an oversized head coming out of its mouth," Tabor wrote In a research paper describing the tomb's inspection (pdf). This, he claims, could be the earliest known depiction of the biblical story "Jonah and the Whale." Another ossuary contains a four-line Greek inscription that Tabor interprets as making "some affirmation about either resurrection from the dead or lifting up to heaven."

Not surprisingly, Tabor's characterization of the tomb as containing archeological evidence of the earliest Christian community's beliefs pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus has drawn many critics, several of them posting their thoughts to a blog managed by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) at Boston University. For instance, Christopher Rollston, a professor of Old Testament and Semitic studies at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, wrote that he is "confident" that the "Jonah and the Whale" engraving is "simply a standard 'nephesh tower motif,' an ornamental motif that is fairly widely attested on the corpus of ossuaries." Tabor claims to have considered the possibility that the image was a nephesh but determined that the design was of an aquatic creature rather than a standard ornamental design.

Tabor and Jacobivici's disputed claims about the Patio tomb's significance come just five years after their even more incendiary documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus (produced by Titanic director James Cameron) tried to make the case that they may have uncovered the skeletal remains of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a tomb located about five kilometers south of the Old City in East Jerusalem. This "Jesus family tomb," as it is now called, sits less than 45 meters from the Patio tomb. The 2007 documentary was likewise filmed with the help of GE remote visual inspection equipment, although it was not shot in HD. Instead, The Lost Tomb of Jesus relied on a less sophisticated camera tethered to a cable and dropped down a vent leading down into the tomb.

Images courtesy of GE

First image (top to bottom): A robotic arm positions GE's XLG3 video probe to inspect the ossuaries.

Second image: GE's PTZ140 camera monitoring the robotic arm's entrance into the tomb.

Third image: First ever Image of the remote excavation of the Patio tomb as it was displayed on GE's Pendant, an integrated controller and monitor used by the research team.

Fourth image: Robot arm fitted with high-def pan-tilt-zoom video camera, developed by GE engineers for the filming of a documentary about the 2010 excavation of the Patio tomb.