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Bone Box Creates a Stir
The James ossuary may be a significant reinforcement to the credibility of the New Testament.


Andre Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions at the Sorbonne in Paris, stunned the world in the fall of 2002 with his discovery of a small coffin that may have held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus.

Lemaire wrote the lead article for the November-December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. The cover reads: "World Exclusive: Evidence of Jesus Set in Stone." The Review's web site proclaims: "After nearly 2,000 years, historical evidence for the existence of Jesus has come to light literally written in stone."

Hershel Shanks, the Review editor, held a major press conference in Washington on Monday, Nov. 21 to announce the discovery. The small coffin, known as an ossuary, is literally a "bone box," used in first-century Palestine for second burials. About a year after a loved one's death, the bones of the deceased would be moved to a smaller container that would remain in a family burial cave.

Jack Meinhardt, who works with Shanks, gave Faith Today a description of the response at the press conference as reporters caught on to the potential significance of the ossuary. Their first reaction, he said, was "stunned silence" and then …

"The result was a whirlwind, with radio and television interviews and people calling from all over the world. Then the detractors came forth, saying that the ossuary was too perfect or too flawed to be genuine. Then the ossuary was damaged in transit to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum—and the story hit the headlines again. More interviews, more calls. Then an Israeli newspaper released the name of the bone box's owner, who told a slightly different story about the box's provenance from what had been released earlier—setting the winds blowing again."

Time magazine's David Van Biema gave a dramatic introduction to the ossuary discovered by Lemaire. "It is smooth to the touch, cool and solid. It is worn, but not so much that its extraordinary message cannot be read. Its inscription (in Aramaic), as with most Semitic writing, starts on the right. 'Ya'akov, bar Yosef,' it begins, carved strong and deep in the stone. James, son of Joseph. Then, slightly more eroded, 'akhui di … ' Brother of. And at the end, clearly visible from only close up, 'Yeshua.' Jesus."

The ossuary belongs to Oded Golan, a 51-year-old engineer from Tel Aviv. He claims that he bought it in the mid-70s for a few hundred dollars. He had no idea of its importance since he did not even know that the Jesus of Christian faith had a brother. He casually mentioned the James ossuary to Lemaire when the French scholar was visiting him last spring. After initial inspection convinced Lemaire that it was no ordinary ossuary, he contacted Shanks at the Review and together they began the detailed testing for dating and authenticity, working in conjunction with Israeli experts in the relevant sciences.

Lemaire concluded that the ossuary dates from the first century and that its inscription is genuine. He also believes that the most credible interpretation of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" (three ordinary names in first-century Jewish society) is that the inscription refers to the figures mentioned in the New Testament. It is unusual for ossuary inscriptions to have a reference to a brother. Why the mention of "Jesus" unless he had unusual significance?

The Review's announcement in October led to an instant scramble for facts and instant debate over the credibility of Lemaire's views. Some leading scholars in archaeology support his conclusions; others are far less certain that the ossuary is from the James, Joseph, and Jesus of New Testament fame. Professor Robert Eisanman of California State University in Long Beach, and an expert on James, wrote in The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 29 that the ossuary story was "too good to be true."

The most significant attack on Lemaire and Shanks has come from Rochelle Altman, an expert in the study of inscriptions and writing techniques. She argues that the ossuary itself should be dated from the time of King Herod, decades before the death of James in 62 A.D. Furthermore, she contends that the words "brother of Jesus" are in a different handwriting, added to the inscription some time in the third or fourth century.

Altman is so certain that the words about Jesus are forged that she wrote that a person would have to be "as blind as a bat" not to notice the two different writing styles on the inscription. Her critics have dismissed her as an "unknown" scholar, suggesting that she is writing outside her area of expertise and has the audacity to make dogmatic comments when she has not even examined the ossuary directly.

Some Christians issued very nasty threats against her and she was a target of a smear campaign on the Internet.

What does this mean for Christians? On one hand, the credibility of the gospel is not at stake. If part of the inscription is forged, it is a commentary only on the authenticity of the ossuary, not on the historical integrity of the Gospels. On the other hand, if Lemaire's interpretation is correct, we have a very significant addition to the archaeological data that reinforce the credibility of the New Testament.

… Christians should care about history and the connection between facts and faith.

Certainly Christians should care about history and the connection between facts and faith. Luke said he was following "eyewitness" testimony in writing his Gospel and the Book of Acts. Paul said that the story of Jesus "was not done in a corner." Peter wrote that the first disciples of Jesus did not follow "cunningly devised fables." John states "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." It is no wonder that the Apostles' Creed ties the gospel to history in the simple affirmation that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate."

So the ossuary is an important and amazing discovery. However, compared to the ancient eyewitness reports that a certain tomb was empty on a famous Sunday morning, the ossuary is more of a curiosity than a faith-building discovery. Certainly, an old limestone box is nowhere nearly as important as the ancient witness that Jesus appeared to many of His disciples, including His own brother James.

James A. Beverley is professor of theology and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2003.
www.faithtoday.ca


 

 
 
 
 

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