UW Religion Today Column for March 25

March 21, 2012

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

By Paul V.M. Flesher

The supposedly ancient inscription on the Jewish burial box was only five Aramaic words long, "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus," and even Bob Simon on "60 Minutes" could see that the last two words, "brother of Jesus," had been added by a different hand. How hard could it be to prove in court of law that those two words were a modern fake?

Too hard. That was the view of an Israeli judge when he released his 475-page verdict last week after a seven-year long trial. Judge Aharon Farkash concluded "the prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt . that the ossuary is a forgery." 

So what does this mean? Is the inscription authentic? Is it the only physical evidence of the first-century church led by James, the brother of Jesus, until his death in 62 A.D.?

Again, the judge's response was a resounding negative. "This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic, and was written 2,000 years ago."

What happened?

The limestone burial box, known as the James Ossuary, became an international sensation in 2002 when it appeared in a highly attended exhibit at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. The international media flashed the story around the world overnight. Here, at last, was a physical object linked to Jesus himself!

The exhibit and its media hype had purposely bypassed careful analysis by scholars. But they began to catch up. Apart from the few promoting the ossuary, most either argued it was a fake or tried to slow the rush to judgment. (Many of the questioning studies appear at the website Bible and Interpretation, while Biblical Archaeology Review published essays promoting the inscription's authenticity.)

In 2005, after several years of study, scholars and scientists at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) decided to prosecute the owner of the James Ossuary, an Israeli businessman named Oded Golan, not only for the inscription's forgery, but also for running an international criminal ring dealing in looted and forged antiquities.

In the criminal court, the IAA's case did not stand up well. Some key witnesses concerning the trade in looted and forged antiquities failed to appear. In particular, Egypt refused to extradite the Egyptian artist suspected of actually creating the forgery.

Furthermore, the many specialists brought in by the prosecution were matched expert-for-expert by the defense. The ensuing scholarly debates were so technical and covered such a broad range of fields, from epigraphy and archaeology to geology and chemistry, that it became impossible for non-specialists to follow the debates, let alone decide the truth. The judge's verdict came as no surprise in the end.

So what do we now know about the ossuary and its inscription?

The ossuary itself, the limestone burial box, is ancient, perhaps from the first century. Because the ossuary was looted from its buried location and sold on the black market, we know nothing else about it. Any date comes from knowledge of ossuary use, not from the box itself.

That the inscription was composed by two hands remains obvious. But the prosecution did not demonstrate that Golan forged it. So that leaves the question open on a whether it constitutes a modern forgery that cannot be proven (i.e., forgery techniques outpace scientific tests) or that it is an old forgery. The Aramaic word for James, "Jacob," is quite a common one, and some Christian could certainly have made an unknown Jacob's ossuary more religiously relevant by adding the name of a "famous brother" Jesus.

Finally, even if the inscription is authentic, it cannot be linked to the apostle James, the brother of Jesus Christ and Christianity's first bishop. If it had been archaeologically excavated in situ, in the location where it had been buried, then a great deal more information about the ossuary and its inscription would be known. Who knows, perhaps the bones would still have been in it! But as a looted item acquired on the black market, it tells us nothing. Not even whether it is real. Only human belief gives it any significance at all.

The trial's verdict of "not proven" changed few experts' views on the inscription's authenticity. The adversarial character of the legal process shed little light on the scholarly and scientific evaluation of the inscription and its supposed antiquity, just as the trial gained little clarity from the academic debate that took place on its stand. Law and scholarship work by such different standards that neither informed the other.

Note: The "60 Minutes" episode mentioned above aired 3/3/08. The URL for Bible and Interpretation is www.bibleinterp.com and that for BAR is www.biblicalarchaeology.org/.

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.

Find us on Instagram (Link opens a new window)Find us on Facebook (Link opens a new window)Find us on Twitter (Link opens a new window)Find us on LinkedIn (Link opens a new window)Find us on YouTube (Link opens a new window)