On Sunday Matthew Kalman broke the story in the New York Daily News that the famous/infamous ossuary (bone box) of Jesus’ brother Jacob/James returned to its owner, Israeli collector Oded Golan. This is the end of a 10 year saga. During this decade, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Israeli police tried to prove that part of the inscription on the box – the part referring to Jesus – was forged. They failed. With all the resources available to the State of Israel, with all the people that had an interest in delegitimizing the artifact, with all the time, money and resources that were spent…at the end of the day, the naysayers failed miserably. Everyone who wants to know now knows what my colleagues and I reported a decade ago in the most comprehensive film ever made on the subject, “James, Brother of Jesus”; the artifact is genuine.
The inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”, was first identified as possibly linked to Jesus of Nazareth by the world famous epigrapher, Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne. It was then publicized by Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). A documentary on the subject that I directed was broadcast on the Discovery Channel. World headlines ensued, as this was the first hard archaeological evidence attesting to Jesus’ existence. At first, the army of Christian theologians who also double as scholars embraced the artifact. For example, the somewhat naïve evangelical scholar Dr. Ben Witherington co-wrote a book with Shanks. But most of the Christian scholars were more careful. They realized that authenticating an ossuary related to Jesus of Nazareth is a dangerous and slippery slope. If you’re ok with James’ ossuary, you might have to live with his brother Jesus’ ossuary as well. From their point of view, better to call everything a forgery. That way, you never have to deal with any archaeological challenges to your faith.
The above tactic worked hand in glove with the agenda of Israeli archaeology. For their part, the Israelis had no theological motives. What the IAA was miffed about was the fact that Shanks and Golan didn’t coordinate the James ossuary revelation with them. Basically, Israeli archaeologists felt caught with their pants down. Here was the most important archaeological find of the century and the Israeli archaeologists learned about it by reading the morning newspapers. “It is too good to be true” they said, “it has to be a fake”.
The most vocal Israeli on the subject was a former curator at the IAA by the name of Joseph Zias. Zias had emigrated to Israel from the United States some 30 years earlier. Zias claimed to have seen the ossuary in a Jerusalem antiquities shop owned by a local Arab. Zias also claimed to remember seeing the first part of the inscription, but not the second part. This would have been key testimony for the prosecutor, except that Zias fell apart on the witness stand. It turns out that he never saw the inscription and that even if he had his Hebrew wasn’t good enough to read his own name “Joseph” on the box. The other “star” witness was petrologist/archaeologist Yuval Goren who claimed that his “isotope test” proved that the inscription was a fake. Basically, he said that his so called isotope readings were not consistent with an ossuary that had been in a tomb environment for 2,000 years. Goren’s testimony, however, also fell apart in the courtroom. It turns out that the isotope readings were perfectly all right, according to a paper published by Goren. In any event, Golan had testified that his mother had cleaned the inscription so as to make it stand out. This is not unusual and it would have affected the isotope readings. Despite the cleaning, the last Hebrew letter in the word “Jesus” passed every isotope test in the world.
But truth does not really matter when it comes to the “James ossuary”. What matters is the convergence of theology (on the part of Christians), politics (on the part of Israelis) and egos (on the part of Zias and Goren). The combination was lethal for Golan and for James, the brother of Jesus. Golan was vilified and the ossuary was discredited, even though there isn’t a single world-class epigrapher (expert on ancient writing) that has ever questioned the authenticity of the inscription.
Now the bone box has been returned to its owner, who has withstood a decade long inquisition without wavering for a moment. The naysayers hope that the world has moved on to other things and that no one will notice that Golan and the controversial inscription have been vindicated. But I hope and pray that they’re wrong. I hope that slowly but surely this most famous of artifacts gets rehabilitated. I hope this rehabilitation opens a Pandora’s box of Jesus related archaeology. And once that happens, experts will have to validate all sorts of archaeology which challenges historical conventions and Pauline doctrine. In other words, once James is OK, the world will have to deal with the Jesus of history, instead of the “Christ” of theology.
As a last note on the topic; so as to launch the post-authentication phase of the inscription, here’s my two cents: if, indeed, there were two ancient hands that inscribed the ossuary, this means that when James was first buried what was scratched on his box was “James, son of Joseph”. Meaning, for those who venerated him, James didn’t have to be “Jesus’ brother” in order to be posthumously honored. But, within a couple of years, James was killed (62 CE) and Jerusalem was destroyed (70 CE). Sometime during those 8 years, someone added “brother of Jesus” to the inscription. It seems that by this point what was important about James was not his own status as a leader of the movement, but his relationship with Jesus. That’s what’s interesting about this inscription, and that’s what may be scaring so many people. It seems that Jesus, in his own lifetime, was not as famous as James.