Another look at the James Ossuary

"James, son of Joseph," might have been inscribed when James' bones were put in the box, and "the brother of Jesus" could have been added later.

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell, Professor of Religion
Bard College
April 2003

Last November, members of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College joined me in a discussion with Professor John Painter from John Sturt University College in Australia. We all saw detailed photographs of the ossuary recently claimed as that of James, Jesus' brother. A few days after our session in Annandale I traveled to Toronto to view the artifact with several other scholars who have been involved in the analysis of the piece. This consultation was facilitated by the generous hospitality of Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeology Society, who also gave the Institute access to the photographs.

Press coverage of the artifact up until November had been so enthusiastic that it sometimes appeared uncritical. As I said in November, if you do not know where an artifact has come from, it is not really an archaeological discovery at all -- but only an item on the collectors' market. Context alone can explain what precisely an artifact was used for, the conditions it has been submitted to, its meaning for the people who deposited it, and the chain of possession that reaches from its deposit to its possession by the current owner. All those considerations are involved in the issue of authenticity, and many of them are more interesting than whether or not a given object is a forgery.

That means that whoever took this piece from its cave (if that is where it was found) not only looted the ossuary itself but also looted our knowledge of what the ossuary really means. We cannot completely remove the possibility we are dealing with a forgery (however improbable that may seem) until we can say where it came from. I still believe that the best service any scholar can perform in this controversy is to convince the owner, Mr. Oded Golan, and the Israeli Antiquities Authority to work together to identify where precisely (in Jerusalem, presumably) this object comes from. Success may seem a remote prospect, but all the major players are apparently alive, and we must keep in mind that they can tell us things we will never know unless they divulge what they know.

During the meeting in Toronto, the skeptics had a very good run. They emphasized our lack of knowledge of the provenance of the piece in order to cast doubt on the integrity of the owner and of the whole Biblical Archaeology Society. Some press coverage turned around on a dime, making the transition from credulous to hypercritical from one day to the next. The damage the box has sustained has not helped anyone's cause: let's hope thoughtless handling that has scrubbed, gouged, and cracked the thing will finally cease.

One factor was open up by the controversy that might help future discussion. I mentioned during the talk with Professor Painter that the changing shapes of some of the letters, as you read through the inscription, disturbed me. Rochelle Altman has argued that the changes attest two completely different hands. That started the scholarly equivalent of a shouting match.

One side shouts "fraud." Meanwhile, some scholars in Toronto who had not noticed the alteration of the shapes of letters until it was pointed out to them still insisted the inscription is from a single hand. One senior epigraphist who just hates to change his mind kept repeating that the carver must have gotten tired. That argument is obviously lame, but both sides should take a deep breath. (Maybe that will make them sound less like Bill O'Reilly.) A change in style does not prove fraud. Grave markers are subject to emendation over time as you can see from visiting many family tombs from antiquity until today. "James, son of Joseph," might have been inscribed when James' bones were put in the box, and "the brother of Jesus" could have been added later. It is worth remembering that the first historian of Christianity, Hegesippus, refers to a monument being set up for James in Jerusalem. Was this bone box part of the memorial built-in above or below ground? That is the kind of question that should be asked alongside the obvious ones: is the ossuary genuine? Is it a fake?

And unless this is a fake, it is either the original ossuary of James or part of a monument to him. It could also be both. However you look at it, that makes this artifact evidence of the earliest identifiable Christian gravesite - and until we find out where the piece came from, we will be unable to say where that is. Anomalies remain, on any reading. Why is the reference simply to "Jesus," when the titles "Messiah, Son of Man," and "Lord" were applied to him in Aramaic from a very early period? There, too, we are up against a wall of uncertainty, until someone lets us into the place where the ossuary was found.

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