Scholars, Journalists and the Ossuary

For the time being, “the Ossuary of James” can no more feature in discussion of the New Testament than the skull of Piltdown Man” can be cited in a course on human evolution.

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

    This summer saw a sad chapter unfold in the story of “the Ossuary of James.” Events disappointed not only those who had hoped this artifact might be authenticated, but everyone who wants to see public scholarship in the field of religion pursued at an appropriate standard.

    Because the owner of the ossuary never specified where it was discovered and how precisely he acquired it, the possibility of forgery could not be excluded when the publicity campaign on behalf of the inscription’s authenticity was launched last autumn. The Biblical Archaeology Society and several prominent scholars, some of them expert in epigraphy and some not, tried to talk their way around this problem. Their enthusiasm got to the point, as I have mentioned before, that a few of them tried to deny that there were inconsistencies in the style of the inscription, that the patina on the ossuary seemed thick, and that for a Christian ossuary to call James “the brother of Jesus” and not “brother of the Lord Jesus” seemed odd. But the principal problem remained that any object whose provenience is unknown can’t be authenticated. The damage to the ossuary inflicted en route between Israel and the Royal Ontario Museum did nothing to encourage confidence in the professionalism of those concerned. Still, advocates of the ossuary enjoyed prominent media coverage. Perhaps that made them incautious in their judgments.

    In any case, an investigating panel of the Israel Antiquities Authority reported in June that the patina inside the inscription itself did not correspond to the patina around the inscription. In effect, it appeared that the lettering had been cut through the weathering of the stone. In July the owner was arrested for fraud. Under the legal powers of the Israel Antiquities Authority, his residence and storage facility had been searched, and several ossuaries were discovered, as well as equipment for engraving, stencils of ancient letters, and dirt from excavations. In a bizarre twist, the “Ossuary of James” was found on a board atop a toilet. One headline writer could not resist referring to its being “de-throned.”

    The story of this piece as told by its owner and its apologists has been baroque since the first day. Now it has become sordid. There is no more reason to pre-judge a legal matter than there was to pre-judge the question of authenticity before the necessary data were in. But for the time being, “the Ossuary of James” can no more feature in discussion of the New Testament than the skull of “Piltdown Man” can be cited in a course on human evolution.

    The arrest of the owner was reported at the time by the Associated Press, but the popular media in this country – the same media that beat the drum for the authenticity of the piece – mostly let the story pass. How convenient for them. Their new-found reticence permits them to evade the issue of their own credibility in being taken over by a publicity campaign.

    Major organizations for reporting news have left a huge misimpression in the minds of the majority of their readers and viewers. Would they do the same if a politician they had backed was shown to have lied about his qualifications? Why is it acceptable to let suspect information stand in regard to religion, but not politics? This is where I am especially disappointed: the fourth estate still tends to treat religion as a matter of whatever people feel like believing.

    In this, journalists understand neither religion nor their own function. A story that is not followed up is just gossip, not news, and unsubstantiated rumor is the stuff of superstition, not faith. Until we can speak about religion openly, clearly, and on the basis of specifiable and specified evidence, our culture will remain at an immature stage where it concerns dealing with impulses and actions that derive from faith.

    Because that is the case, I am disappointed most of all by the silence of religions organizations -- and of professional societies dedicated to the study of the New Testament. Could they find no words to protest the ethical and scholarly and journalistic sloppiness involved in this fiasco? The Society of Biblical Literature sponsored discussions about the ossuary that claimed its authenticity, but never took a stand. The Royal Ontario Museum has prevaricated over the findings of the Israel Antiquities Authority, evidently embarrassed by its own haste in the embracing the genuineness of the piece. Only the Antiquities Authority seems to have done its job.

    Just after the arrest of the owner, I was dining in Cologne at a conference of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas, at the invitation of the Archbishop of Cologne. During his speech before dinner, the Archbishop mentioned that the medieval cathedral had been dedicated to house the remains of the three wise men of Matthew’s Gospel. In his formal reply, the president of our society, not normally known to joke a great deal, observed that, while many of our members might dispute the identity of the bones in the cathedral, at least they had a better claim to authenticity than “the Ossuary of James.”

    It is good when scholars can laugh a controversy into a healthy perspective, but I hope to see a time when that is not the preserve of scholars alone. One function of the Institute of Advanced Theology is to enable all those interested mining the sources of religion to distinguish fool’s gold from the real thing. Then we will all have the last laugh.

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