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UW Religion Today Column for April 24-30: The Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus: 10 Years On


April 20, 2011 — "Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and promote discussion of religious issues.

By Paul V.M. Flesher

After six years of testimony and two years of deliberation in the court case concerning the coffin of James the brother of Jesus, the judge will soon issue his ruling. Already the two sides are lining up, trying to sway public opinion. This activity appears in articles recently posted on the Bible and Interpretation website, a semi-popular, semi-scholarly web magazine for people interested in the Bible and the ancient Near East.

It began with Dr. Gideon Avni, director of excavations for the Israel Antiquities Authority, the government body that brought the case that the inscription on the coffin, known more accurately as an ossuary or "bone box," was a modern forgery by its owner. His article reiterated the argument that the ossuary was a forgery and would "probably be recorded as an insignificant footnote in the history of the archaeological research of the Holy Land."

This was soon followed by a long essay by the ossuary's owner, Mr. Oded Golan, who defends his position that the ossuary's inscription constitutes authentic writing from the ancient world.

In a reasoned yet emotion-laden essay, Golan provides perhaps the most extensive single piece of reporting in English concerning the trial, citing the statements of more than a dozen expert witnesses and providing copies of several photos and graphs used in the trial. The article is clearly self-serving, citing only witnesses who support Golan's position, but it provides a window into the trial that has been sadly lacking attention in the English-speaking world.

The ossuary in question was purchased by Mr. Golan in the 1970s and sat on his family's patio for many years. In 2002, he announced that he had suddenly noticed it had an inscription which read in Aramaic, "Jacob son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. "Jacob" is the Hebrew and Aramaic equivalent of the Greek name, "James."

The claim by Golan and his supporters, including several academic experts, is that the James referred to here is the brother of Jesus mentioned in the gospels and the leader of Christianity's central institution, the Jerusalem Church. This would make it the only non-literary evidence for Jesus and the earliest Christians.

The sensationalism with which the find was announced attracted media attention around the world. When it went on display in Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum in 2002, tens of thousands of people viewed it.

But from the beginning charges of forgery swirled around the ossuary. Although the ossuary itself seemed real, the inscription was suspected of being fake. How could Golan not have noticed if the ossuary had sat around in plain view for years?  Israeli authorities raided his apartment and found a "laboratory" (a toilet actually) with tools and chemicals that could have been used to create a fake inscription.

In 2004, the Israel Antiquities Authority brought charges against Golan for forging antiquities. But all did not go as planned. Some expert witnesses changed their evaluations, and others could say little more than they could not make a determination. The trial dragged on for years: 138 witnesses testified, with 52 of them being experts in some area of antiquity or archaeology. The trial ended and the judge has been considering his ruling ever since. Indications are that he will announce a verdict soon.

If the judge determines Golan is not guilty of forging the inscription, does that mean the inscription refers to James the head of the Jerusalem church?  Not necessarily. Not only must the inscription be proven forged "beyond a reasonable doubt," but the charge is only that the forgery is modern. The inscription as a whole or the part of it saying "brother of Jesus" could have been added in antiquity, perhaps after Emperor Constantine and his successors transformed Palestine into the "Holy Land" after 324.

It is even probable that the Jacob/James mentioned in the inscription is not James the brother of Jesus. Jacob, Joseph and Yeshua (short for Joshua) were common Jewish names at the time.

Given the nature of belief, however, a verdict against forgery will strengthen many Christians' belief that the ossuary links to Jesus through his brother and thus "proves" the Bible. Indeed, many people will continue to believe in the inscription's authenticity even if it is declared a forgery.

The articles mentioned above appear at Bible and Interpretation: http://bibleinterp.com. Articles from the initial debate over the ossuary, including several by the author, appear at: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/James_Ossuary_essays.shtml.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.

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