The Story Thus Far...

A Review Essay of The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family, Hershel Shanks & Ben Witherington III, HarperSanFrancisco, New York, 2003.

By Paul V. M. Flesher
Religious Studies Program
University of Wyoming
January 2004

When a limestone bone box with the inscription "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" was announced to the world in the fall of 2002, it was an immediate international sensation. Encouraged by the announcement's hyperbole, the press trumpeted that after all these centuries, here was an actual, tangible artifact related to Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity.[1] Suddenly Jesus' time on earth seemed to be more real, more approachable, more accessible to the average believer. When the bone box, more accurately termed an "ossuary," was displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in November, several hundred thousand people paid to view it.

The display was timed to coincide with the annual conferences of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research (an association of archaeologists who study the ancient Middle East), attended by thousands of scholars from North America and around the world. Perhaps more experts on the ancient world viewed the ossuary that one week than have seen any other ancient artifact in such a short time. In addition, two sessions were held during the conferences, each attracting an audience of hundreds. At these, selected scholars spoke about the ossuary and issues relevant to it.[2]

Despite this scholarly exposure, few analyses have yet appeared in peer-reviewed, academic journals.[3] The academic debate that accompanies major finds has yet to begin. When it does begin, may now be subdued and short, for the Israel Antiquities Authority (=IAA) released a report in June 2003 in which fourteen experts unanimously determined that the inscription is a forgery.[4] For many scholars this report closes the question. Some have withdrawn articles accepted for publication. Journals that had planned special issues on the ossuary have cancelled them. And so on.

It is in this context that I review the book, The Brother of Jesus, by Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, which was written in the heady weeks after the ossuary's announcement and which appeared in Spring 2003, months before the IAA report.[5] The ongoing developments concerning the ossuary require the review to evaluate the book not just in terms of scholarly knowledge, but also in light of continuing events.

The Brother of Jesus is not a scholarly analysis for experts but a popularized account for the general public. The book focuses on two questions, dealt with in two sections, each written by a different author. In his section, Mr. Shanks describes the ossuary and its inscription, as well as its discovery, identification and early publicization, and addresses the question of whether it is real or fake. In his part of the book, Professor Witherington discusses who James was, asking regularly what the ossuary adds to our knowledge of him. Indeed, this work appears to be two books in one, with the two sections having been composed without reference to each other. I will therefore review them separately.

Part I. The Story of a Remarkable Discovery

The section by Hershel Shanks constitutes the story of the ossuary's discovery, identification, and the early events following its announcement to the world. This is a story told as only Shanks can tell it. His prose brings drama and excitement to the find, reveals how the inscription's significance gradually dawned on the discoverers, and unveils the disappointment at the box's damage when unpacked in Toronto. It is also a story that only Shanks can tell, for it involves shadowy individuals whose identity Shanks must keep secret, and private conversations with experts related only by Shanks.

The story's drama begins with the revelation of the damage incurred by the ossuary during its shipment to the Royal Ontario Museum (known as the ROM). It then jumps back to the inscription's discovery, decipherment, and initial publication by Professor André Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris, and to Shanks' checking of the geological characteristics of the stone box. This is followed by the press announcement, its international coverage, and the arrangements for the Discovery Channel documentary. After this, Shanks returns to the events at the Royal Ontario Museum, the ossuary's presentation to the scholarly world, and its early examination by selected experts in the field. Shanks' section concludes by introducing the ossuary's owner, Oded Golan, and discussing various rumors that had surfaced in the first few months after the announcement of the ossuary. Interspersed within this story are discussions of the possible relationships between James and Jesus (accompanied by helpful genealogical charts), debates with scholars critical of the ossuary's identification, statistical analyses of names in ancient Israel, and helpful introductions to paleography and ossilegium (the practice of burial in stone ossuaries). Unfortunately, little new information appears here that would help the reader judge the key question of whether the ossuary is real or not. There is no advance beyond Lemaire's essay, published six months earlier, which announced the ossuary and its inscription to the world.

No doubt about it, Hershel Shanks tells a great story. But do his story, evidence, and arguments demonstrate that this ossuary and its inscription were those of James the brother of Jesus Christ? Even setting aside, for the moment, the IAA's determination, I think not. To understand why, we must resist the temptation to reduce this question to the binary opposition of, is this the ossuary of James Jesus' brother or is it a forgery? Instead, there are four general possibilities for the ossuary's identification. First, it could be what Shanks and Lemaire claim it is, namely, the ossuary was created for James the brother of Jesus Christ at the time of his burial. Second, it could be real—i.e., both box and inscription were created in antiquity for someone named James—but that person was not James the brother of Jesus Christ. Third, it could be an ancient forgery; someone—perhaps a pious monk who wished to attract pilgrims to his shrine—created a fake in antiquity by adding the inscription (in whole or in part), most likely in the fourth or fifth century when increasing numbers of pilgrims were traveling to the Holy Land. Fourth, it could be a modern forgery.

In order to prove the first possibility, namely, that this is the ossuary of James Jesus' brother, at least four points need demonstration. If even one of the points cannot be verified, then the proof fails and the ossuary falls into one of the other three possibilities. First, the ossuary's inscription must refer to James, the brother of Jesus Christ. Second, the ossuary must be from Jerusalem. Third, the language of the ossuary's inscription and the character of its writing (paleography) must be from the first century. Fourth, the ossuary and its inscription need to be shown to be old, that is, that many centuries have passed since the ossuary was carved from its stone, and the inscription was carved into it. Shanks admits up front that he cannot show any of these points with 100% certainty, but, he argues, a strong case can be made for them.

The argument that the ossuary's inscription refers to James the brother of Jesus Christ, the first point, is based largely on statistical calculations about the frequency of names.[6] Drawing upon the work of Lemaire and expert statisticians, Shanks argues that in Jerusalem during the nine decades in which ossilegium was practiced there, only 20 people would be named James, have a brother named Jesus and a father named Joseph.[7] Despite the fact that this makes it only a 5% chance that the inscription refers to the James, Shanks concludes that it is likely.[8]

Two key numbers need to be calculated in order to work out this percentage. One is the likelihood that the three names of James, Jesus and Joseph would be joined together as two brothers and their father.[9] The other is the population of males in the period under investigation.[10] The two numbers are then multiplied together to arrive at the number of times this combination would be statistically likely to have occurred.

While the statistical procedures used to calculate these figures are sophisticated and expertly done, the problem is that they based on created data, not on real data. They are subject to what computer scientists call the GIGO factor, that is, "garbage in equals garbage out." The data for the statistics was manufactured by a series of hypotheses, some of them quite reasonable in and of themselves, which together helped statisticians make an educated—but untestable—guess at the population to be used in this test. Let us examine some of these assumptions.

To create a data figure for the population of Jerusalem, the following assumptions were made: adult males only, living in Jerusalem, between 20 BCE and 70 CE (the period in which ossilegium was practiced in Jerusalem), assuming a constant population density of 160-200 people per square acre.

While these are reasonable assumptions, other reasonable assumptions could, or even should, be included. Shanks himself points out that Jerusalem was a burial center for the Jewish diaspora (Shanks & Witherington, p.61). Jews from across the Mediterranean and Levant brought their dead to be interred in this holy city. He also mentions the many villages in the Jerusalem area whose citizens may have buried their dead in caves near Jerusalem. Including both of these would increase the population figure used in the statistics (and thus increase the number of men named James who had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus). Other considerations would also increase this figure: for example, Galilee is not factored in. James, Jesus and their father Joseph were all Galileans; they were not natives of Jerusalem. Perhaps the population of Galilee needs to be incorporated into the calculations.

The assumptions for computing the probability of the three names occurring together also have shortcomings. One issue not taken into account is how many children, particularly brothers, were in the average family. If there were six children in the average family, and we assume that there were an equal number of boys and girls, then every boy named James would have two brothers, one of whom could be named Jesus. If, however, there were only 2 children per family then there would be only a fifty percent chance that a James would have a brother, significantly reducing the chances of the sibling being named Jesus.

An even more devastating problem is that no one knows the relationship between the frequency of names in inscriptions and the frequency of names in the population. It is unlikely that there is a direct link. The list of inscribed names is not the equivalent of a modern phone book, which at least lists family phone numbers used during the same year in the same town or city. The list of inscribed names comes from a period of decades, and may be affected by class, income, and accident of modern discovery. So the list of inscribed names is completely unreliable as a basis for this calculation.

These few considerations indicate the data for the statistics come from imagined assumptions—reasonably imagined to be sure—but imaginary nonetheless. Even if only one assumption is incorrect, it could affect the results by a factor of ten or more. But this comment reveals a further problem with this approach. There is no way to test it for accuracy. Which assumptions and considerations are correct and which are not cannot be determined. So in the end it is just guesswork, making this point unable to support the claim that the ossuary belonged to James the brother of Jesus Christ.

The second point that needs to be demonstrated to indicate that this is James' ossuary is that it needs to come from Jerusalem. Shanks seems to assume this without much consideration, largely because the shop of the antiquities dealer from which it was purchased was located in Jerusalem. The only piece of evidence indicating Jerusalem comes from the geological report Shanks had done which states that the stone is a [limestone] chalk belonging to "the Menuha Formation of Mount Scopus Group" (sic, Shanks & Witherington, p.18), which is found in the Jerusalem area. The more recent geological studies commissioned by the Israel Antiquities Authority indicate that Mt. Scopus limestone is found at many locations in Israel and is not restricted to the Jerusalem area.[11] The evidence of the stone type therefore indicates that the ossuary could be from Jerusalem, but it could just as likely be from elsewhere in Israel. If the ossuary was buried anywhere other than the immediate Jerusalem area, then this would not be James the brother of Jesus Christ because James supposedly was buried in Jerusalem. Since the ossuary is unprovenanced, no evidence exists one way or another. So the second point cannot be verified, making it even more unlikely that the ossuary held the bones of James, the head of the Jerusalem church.

The third point that must be demonstrated in order for the claim of Shanks and Lemaire to be proven is that the dialectal and writing characteristics of the inscription fit best into pre-70 CE Jerusalem, or at least Judea. The dialectal problem is this: Aramaic represents as a single word the two-word English translation "his brother." The word is, in Shanks' transliteration, achui, which consists of two parts: ach-, "brother," and "-ui," which is an attached suffix meaning "his."[12] The problem lies in the "-ui" spelling of the suffix, which constitutes the common spelling in Galilean Aramaic of the third to seventh centuries CE. It is not the expected spelling for the Aramaic of Judea in the first century; that would be "-uhi." Indeed, there is only one certain example of the -ui suffix used in texts of this dialect, and that appears in the Genesis Apocryphon (21:34).

Shanks argues on p.16 that there are two other first century examples of this ending. These two, if correctly identified, plus the one in the Genesis Apocryphon, plus the one on the inscription would make four examples and it would move this usage from being rare to merely uncommon. It is here that Shanks' lack of scholarly training, which he readily admits, causes problems.[13] The first example Shanks cites comes from ossuary published in Rahmani's extensive catalogue (#570).[14] However, Shanks seems unaware of the scholarship on this inscription, for Ada Yardeni's Textbook of Aramaic, Hebrew and Nabataean Documentary Texts from the Judaean Desert, provides another reading of the same inscription.[15] Yardeni studied the inscription carefully and found that the letters of the suffix were doubtful, and those which followed this word were indecipherable—casting doubt on whether this inscription even identifies the deceased as a brother of someone else. So this inscription fails to provide a supporting example of the use of this form in the first century. Shanks' second example comes from Umm el-Amed (p.16 and footnote 3). Although Shanks cites it as an example supporting the linguistic usage of first-century Jerusalem, it actually comes from third or fourth century Galilee.[16] So in the end, there remains only one certain instance of this form from first century source, the Genesis Apocryphon.[17] And as the text's best-known analyst—Joseph Fitzmyer—wrote about that passage, it seems to be a spelling error.[18] Thus the dialectal characteristics of the Aramaic used in this inscription more likely belong to Galilee of the third century or later than to Judea of the first century.

The writing characteristics of this inscription—its paleography—have received extensive scholarly analysis. The most significant critique has to do with the claim that, against Lemaire's view that the inscription was written in a single hand, it was actually done by two different hands. This was put forward by Professor Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University in his presentation at the Royal Ontario Museum, as noted by Shanks, and independently by other scholars. Having the second part of the inscription, "brother of Jesus," added by a second hand makes the inscription look like an forgery. That is, perhaps someone found an ossuary of "James the son of Joseph" and decided that by adding "brother of Jesus" they could enhance its sacred character in the eyes of pilgrims, if done in antiquity, or it value in the eyes of collectors, if done in the modern period. Although it is true the second person could have done their work within an hour of the first hand, in the same workshop, the presence of two distinguishable hands is suspicious.

To allay the implication of forgery brought by the two-hands analysis, Shanks mounts a vigorous case against the analyses of two scholars. First, Dr. Rochelle Altman, an Israeli analyst of writing systems, brings to the inscriptions a methodology that looks at not just the forms of letters a scribe/carver chose in creating an inscription, but also at the social and cultural meaning inherent in those choices. She put forward a strong case based on the use of formal lettering in the inscription's first part and informal cursive lettering in its second part, arguing that the formal characters indicate an official or noble status, while the cursive derives from a rather low-class merchant context—two cultural contexts that do not go well together.[19] Rather than refute her arguments, which Shanks admits he is ill-equipped to do, he puts down her credentials.[20] Second, Dr. Jeffrey R. Chadwick, a professor at Brigham Young University, also put forward a two-hand theory, which Shanks takes two pages to refute, mostly by suggesting that he is an "amateur."[21] Interestingly, when Shanks mentions McCarter's views, he does not argue so stridently against them, even though McCarter points out many of the same phenomena discussed by the other two analysts (p.46).[22]

The report on the ossuary released by the Israel Antiquities Authority on June 18, 2003, provides further support for the two-hand analysis. The independent judgment of Esther Eshel, the expert on Second-Temple period Hebrew and Aramaic scripts appointed to the expert committee, is that the inscription was cut by two different "chisels."[23] She also emphasizes that the two parts of the inscription contain two different types of "handwritings," which suggests to her that the inscription in not authentic. Her conclusion is that the inscription is a modern forgery, done by the forger in two stages. Indeed, she argues that the forger copied letters of the inscription's second part from the inscription #570 in Rahmani's Catalogue. Ironically, this is the very inscription Shanks cites as corroborating evidence (see above). This means that neither the character of the Aramaic used in the inscription nor its paleographic character provide solid support that the inscription as a whole was carved in the first century.

The possibility of the ossuary and its inscription being a modern forgery brings us to the fourth point that needs to be demonstrated in order for the ossuary to be that of James, namely, that it was created in antiquity. This is an issue to which Shanks has shown particular sensitivity even from his first knowledge of the ossuary. Before he published Lemaire's article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Shanks had the ossuary examined by experts from the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI) to ensure that it exhibited the one feature that would ensure that it was created in antiquity and not a modern forgery, namely, patina.[24] To his credit, it was only after two GSI experts certified that the ossuary had patina that Shanks decided to go ahead with publication. Later, when the ossuary was exhibited in Toronto, experts for the Royal Ontario Museum studied the ossuary and determined that patina adheres on both the ossuary and the inscription's letters (Shanks & Witherington, p.48). This seems to indicate that the ossuary was ancient and thus provides a strong argument against anyone claiming it is a modern forgery.

Nonetheless, practicing a more detailed analysis, the IAA's experts determined otherwise. Part of the reason for the opposing outcomes is that there are different definitions of patina. Yuval Goren's report provides the basis for clarifying these definitions. Patina is formed in two steps. First, water dissolves the calcite from the limestone. Second, water evaporation leaves the calcite on the rock's surface. This is patina. This geological process is similar to that which forms stalactites in limestone caves. In both processes, the precipitated calcite forms a hard, crystalline material that bonds tightly to the stone. A second type of coating can form on limestone ossuaries kept in caves, which Goren terms "rock varnish." This is created by the "biological activity of bacteria or algae."

All experts agree that "patina" covers the ossuary's surface. Indeed, they agree that the ossuary itself is ancient. The disagreement lies in the area surrounding the inscription. It is here that the analyses of Goren and Avner Ayalon independently indicate that the inscription constitutes a modern forgery.

Several members of the IAA committee indicate that the inscription cuts through the patina (or rock varnish). But the ROM experts and IAA committee members also found patina in the inscription's letters. So how can these two features be reconciled?

Goren and Ayalon provide the answer. It turns out the that patina in the area surrounding the inscription differs significantly from that on the remainder of the ossuary. Ayalon tested the oxygen isotopes of the patina. After a series of tests that established the baseline values of oxygen isotopes of patina from ossuaries from the Judean Hills at -6 to -4, Ayalon then tested samples from the James ossuary in general and from the inscription's letters in particular. Those from the ossuary's surface were all in the range of -5 to -4, as would be expected. Six of the seven samples from the letters, however, fell into the range of -10.2 to -7.5, indicating a completely different source for this patina.[25] Ayalon concluded that the patina within the letters could not have been produced through natural processes occurring in the Judean hills, whether in a cave or on a balcony.

Goren's analysis indicated that the coating (he does not call it patina) around the inscription differed from the patina on the rest of the box. While the patina on the box is hard, adheres solidly to the stone, and clearly has different sizes of crystals (as would be expected from patina formed over many centuries), the inscription coating is so soft it can be removed with a wooden toothpick and consists of a gray, gritty material rather than being crystalline. In addition, this coating contains micro-fossils. None of these characteristics appear on the patina of any other ossuary known from the Judean Hills. Goren concludes that the inscription coating is not natural and was created through man-made means. Thus, the inscription is a modern forgery.

The IAA case was strengthened a month later, when on July 21, 2003, police raided the property of the ossuary's owner, Oded Golan, and found, along with his collection of antiquities, a workshop for creating fake antiquities. They discovered tools, stencils, and fake antiquities in different stages of creation.[26] Golan was arrested and spent four days in jail until released on bail. The supposedly priceless ossuary was found sitting on a dirty toilet.

Did the ossuary once contain the remains of James the brother of Jesus Christ? It seems not. The first three necessary points that needed to be demonstrated in order for the ossuary to be that of James the brother of Jesus failed to provide any solid support. The fourth point, that of the antiquity of the ossuary's inscription, demonstrates conclusively that the inscription constitutes a modern forgery. If Shanks, Lemaire and others still wish to demonstrate their claim, these are serious obstacles to overcome.

Part II. The story of James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus

We come now to the second section of the book, that composed by Ben Witherington. The contrast with the first section is quite striking. Witherington is a New Testament scholar with an international reputation as a solid and careful worker. He has published over a dozen books on aspects of the New Testament, including the gospels, Paul's letters, and Acts. Whereas Hershel Shanks is a master of excited and breathless rhetoric, Professor Witherington creates prose that is smooth and elegant.

Witherington's section of the book consists of an introduction and eight chapters, taking up slightly more than half the volume. Each chapter is well-organized and well-written. In tone and content, he has taken great care to write for the book's intended audience, which is seen as the interested lay person.

The main question Witherington addresses is: Who was James, the brother of Jesus? He makes it clear that James was one of the three main leaders of the early church, along with Peter and Paul. The reason James is not as well known as the other two lies in the different branches of Christianity with which they are associated. James led the Jerusalem Church and hence Jewish Christianity, while Paul and Peter played key roles in reaching out to Gentiles and in creating a branch of the Church primarily consisting of Gentiles. In the centuries following the deaths of these leaders, Gentile Christianity became the dominant form of Christianity, while Jewish Christianity ultimately disappeared. Since the modern church descends from the Gentile church, it is not surprising that it has placed less emphasis on the importance of James.

In Chapter Seven, Witherington looks at the picture of James found in the four canonical gospels. His first point is that James was the brother of Jesus, born of the same mother. Although Witherington is sensitive to the doctrinal differences on this question found among the various churches and denominations of the world, he unequivocally argues that there is no evidence in the gospels for any conclusion other than that James was the physical brother of Jesus; the doctrine of the perpetual virginity receives no support.

Witherington argues that James rejected Jesus' ministry during the latter's life. Indeed, following the norms of society, James and his family felt shamed by Jesus' public behavior and tried to stop him. Jesus forestalled them by rejecting membership in that family (Mark 3:20, 31-35). Furthermore, James was never among Jesus' followers or disciples, nor was he at the crucifixion or the burial. It was only after Jesus' resurrection that James became a follower of Jesus. This was most likely due to Jesus' separate appearance to James "probably in Jerusalem at the Passover in the year 30" (Shanks & Witherington, p.108).

The character of this chapter makes it clear how Witherington envisions his audience. They are interested lay people, but not necessarily educated ones. There is no discussion of the synoptic problem, although he occasionally makes implicit observations that educated readers would understand as referring to synoptic issues. More subtly, Witherington never discusses historical method or even applies historical principles to the text. He treats all statements found in the gospels as equally valid, historically reliable facts. The notions that the early church may have altered or created some of the statements, or that Mark is closer in time to the events than John and perhaps more reliable, are never raised.

Chapter Eight introduces James as a leader of the early church. Specifically, James led the Jerusalem church, which in the first decades after Jesus' death served as the center of Christianity. Drawing primarily from the canonical sources of the Acts of the Apostles and the Letter to Galatians, as well as Josephus and the Gospel of the Hebrews, Witherington portrays James as having ascetic tendencies, at least with regard to food and drink. Witherington also makes it clear that his moniker, James the Just, came from a life of deep-seated piety, rooted in James' reverence for the Jewish Law as well as Jesus' teaching. Indeed, the Jerusalem Church, under James' leadership, considered themselves to be part of Judaism, and not a separate religion. They believed in following Judaism's religious practices along with those introduced by Jesus and the early church.

While Chapter Eight ends by describing the incident at Antioch where representatives from James cause a division between the Jewish and Gentile Christians in that city, it is not until Chapter Nine that Witherington treats the Jerusalem council that was called to address the underlying issue of Gentiles in the Church. In Witherington's analysis, James plays the role of mediator between opposing positions: Paul, who argues that Gentile Christians need not follow Jewish Law, and the Pharisaic Christians of Jerusalem, who hold that Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to be Christians and follow the Jewish Laws. James' compromise position, adopted by the council, was that Gentile Christians did not need to convert to Judaism, but that they needed to completely separate themselves from paganism. The list of behaviors from which they should abstain are all part of pagan worship.

Witherington argues that James and Paul actually agreed about the place of Gentile Christians in the movement. Their disagreement lay in the expected behavior of Jewish Christians. While James held that Jews needed to follow the Law as well as Jesus' teachings, Paul felt that adherence to the Law was optional for Jewish Christians.

This chapter also contains a discussion of the language used by James. Bolstered by the evidence of the ossuary inscription, Witherington argues that James was a native speaker of Aramaic. Despite this, the evidence from the debate reported in Acts 15 indicates that James knew Greek and even was familiar enough with the Septuagint to argue from it, rather than the Hebrew Text of Scripture. This discussion again indicates how far Witherington goes to keep his prose at the level of his envisioned audience, for none of the scholarly issues and caveats for either conclusion receive even a hint.

Chapter Ten focuses on the canonical Letter of James and begins with the question of whether James wrote it. Witherington's answer is yes, probably around 52 CE. Witherington presents James as a sage who is steeped in both Jewish Law and Wisdom. James reshapes this knowledge in line with the teachings of Jesus, as Witherington demonstrated by several pages of parallels between the teachings of Jesus and of James.

Witherington ends the chapter with a contrast between the teachings of James and Paul. On the one hand, Witherington argues that little in James' beliefs about "obedience to God's Word and charity" would have been objectionable to Paul (Shanks & Witherington, p.157). On the other hand, James emphasized the continuity between Judaism and Jesus, while Paul emphasized Christianity's break with the past and Christianity's "new eschatological situation" (Shanks & Witherington, p.158).

In Chapter Eleven, Witherington focuses on James' death and burial. Here Witherington follows Josephus' rather unadorned story, placing the death in 63 or 64 CE, while viewing later versions as rather legendary. The evidence of the ossuary enables Witherington to conclude that James, like Jesus, was not buried at home in the family plot in Nazareth, but in Jerusalem, where there was no family context.

Chapter Twelve contains Witherington's discussion of James in the writings of the church in its first few centuries. The discussion begins with the Gnostic Writings found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Several of these are attributed to James, and they all share the tendency to emphasize the importance of James' leadership role in the early church. The Gospel of Thomas even has Jesus appoint James as the leader of the Church in a passage that could be seen as parallel to Jesus' designation of Peter in Matthew 16:18.

The Proto-Evangelium of James is mentioned next. This apocryphal text provides the initial basis for the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity. The book was highly popular in the Christian Church for a few centuries, but went out of favor in the West after Jerome's disapproval. Witherington ends this chapter with an extended discussion of James in the Orthodox writers Hegesippus and Eusebius.

In Chapter Thirteen, Witherington provides an analysis of how the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity developed, which in turn moved James from Jesus' brother to a half-brother or cousin. The story begins in the Proto-Evangelium of James, mentioned in the previous chapter, which states that the midwives saw that even after Jesus' birth Mary remained an intact virgin (p.182). From that basis, Jerome argued that James was Jesus' cousin, while Epiphanius and others interpreted him as being Jesus' half-brother.

Witherington is clearly an excellent writer. He adheres consistently to the level of discussion he has decided upon. He writes interestingly and confidently, bringing his audience along through enticing prose and engaging rhetoric. His discussion by and large sticks to the scholarly mainstream. He is familiar with the scholarly work on James and readily acknowledges his dependence on it through footnotes and appreciations.

One must be careful to realize, however, that Witherington speaks with more certitude than other scholars. As part of the way he addresses his audience, Witherington often leaves out scholarly debates about various points and just states a position. This is most evident in dating. Witherington, for instance, assigns the Letter of James to the year 52 CE, without any discussion of why that date and not some other.

Witherington's main innovation is to incorporate the ossuary as evidence into the analysis of James' life. Taking as a given that the ossuary contained the remains of James the brother of Jesus--without even an argument for that assumption--Witherington brings it into the discussion of several issues, including burial practices, James' relationship to his family vs. the Christian movement, and so on. Unfortunately, given the inability of the ossuary to bear the weight of the claims placed upon it shown above, this one contribution has been rendered essentially worthless.

In the end, this experience reminds one of the Cold-Fusion debacle of 1989, when two researchers, Professors S. Pons and M. Fleischmann, claimed that they had been able to produce nuclear fusion in a test-tube. Their announcement was greeted with great fanfare, and the international press spread the story across their front pages. But when other scientists tried to duplicate the experiment, they could not. The scientific requirement that experiments be reproducible failed. This gave the press another field day, during which they trumpeted that Cold Fusion was a lie.

The first part of the Cold Fusion story parallels that of the ossuary, but the second part does not. Apart from studies of the patina, the ossuary is not subject to the test of reproducible results. Paleography, linguistics, and even the statistics cannot be verified in the way that scientific tests can be. Instead those of us in these fields must hold ourselves to an even higher standard. We must do our work right the first time, and not rush to publication without due consideration.

Why? Because something like the James ossuary matters to people in a way that Cold Fusion cannot. The claim about the ossuary touches on people's faith, it can change their beliefs, it is evidence that demands a verdict from the Christian church. The sensationalism surrounding the James ossuary may have served its promoters well, but it has done a disservice to the believing community. The fanfare that greeted its announcement has not been repeated for the events that seem to have discredited the find, namely, the IAA report and Golan's arrest. As Bruce Chilton observes in the Fall 2003 issue of the newsletter of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College, "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. . . . 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." The ossuary's announcement was news because it impacted the faith of members of the world's largest religion, Christianity. The media's failure to continue its coverage will impact it none the less. Scholars will be answering for the false leads of the "James" ossuary for generations to come, since because of scholarly incaution it will probably become part of the discourse for sincere but ill-informed believers.

Perhaps, finally, the question of the authenticity of the ossuary and its inscription will be addressed by the forum to which it should have come first, that of scholarly knowledge and analysis. Only there can the competing judgments of the ossuary's proponents and its critiques receive a proper evaluation. And that, finally, seems likely.



*This essay consists of adapted extracts from my book, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Ethics of Biblical Scholarship (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

[1] The basis of the announcement was the essay by André Lemaire, "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus," Biblical Archaeology Review (Nov-Dec, 2002), pp. 24-33, 70.

[2] For a description of the talks, see my report, "The Experts and the Ossuary: A Report on the Toronto Sessions about the James Ossuary," on the website Bible and Interpretation. This website has a reputation for making biblical and archaeological scholarship accessible to the general public. A number of essays about the ossuary may be found there.

[3] Even though Lemaire himself is an internationally known epigrapher, his essay appeared in the Biblical Archaeology Review, which is a popular magazine rather than a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

[4] The final report of the Israel Archaeological Authority and the individual preliminary reports by the experts can be found in English at the website Bible and Interpretation. The committee was charged with reviewing the possibility of forgery with regard to two items, the James ossuary and the Yehoash inscription. Some scholars studied both objects, while others analyzed only one.

[5] For a view of Shanks written before the IAA report, see R. Altman, "Updates on the Ossuary of Ya'acob bar Yosef and the Temple Tablet," on the website Bible and Interpretation.

[6] Shanks & Witherington, pp. 54-63.

[7] Ossilegium ended in Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city in 70 CE. However the practice continued into the third century in southern Judea and in Galilee. See Levi Yizhaq Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994), pp. 21-25 [hereinafter cited as Rahmani, Catalogue].

[8] Shanks cites the work of Dr. Camil Fuchs (Shanks & Witherington, pp. 62-3), a statistician at Tel Aviv University, who brought several further assumptions to the computation of Jerusalem's population. These assumptions have the effect of reducing the relevant population of Jerusalem and thus reducing the number of times this combination of three names could take place. He estimates that the combination would occur only 2-4 times, making it much more likely that this is the ossuary of James, Jesus' brother.

[9] Shanks & Witherington, pp. 55-57. Oddly, although the final number of 20 is the correct result of the calculations described, Shanks (following Lemaire) gives the statistical probability of the three-name combination incorrectly. On p. 57 he writes, "The chance that all three names will appear in this order is only 1/4 of 1 percent (…=0.00252)." This is off by a factor of 10. It should be one quarter of one tenth of one percent, or 0.000252.

[10] Shanks & Witherington, pp. 57-59.

[11] See the report by Y. Goren.

[12] Shanks' discussion on p. 16 reveals his lack of knowledge of Aramaic. He assigns a quote to Professor Joseph Fitzmyer, one of the world's foremost experts in Aramaic, which contains a mistake in Aramaic that a second-year student would not make. "The form achui doesn't appear in Aramaic until a couple of centuries later," Fitzmyer said, "and when it does, it is plural, 'brothers,' not singular." While the first part of Fitzmyer's quote is correct, the second part is not; the word is not plural. The word ach, "brother," is irregular. Like the word for father, ab, its singular form takes suffixes that are formally plural. But, this does not mean that the noun is plural. It remains "brother," not "brothers." This irregularity appears not only in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic from "a couple centuries later" (i.e., third through seventh centuries CE), but also in Jewish Literary Aramaic of the first and second centuries BCE and CE, and in the Official Aramaic of earlier centuries. It even seems to be true for Biblical Aramaic, given the limited evidence available.

[13] Several times Shanks makes statements to the effect of "I am not competent to judge" (p. 43). This honesty on Shanks' part is to his credit.

[14] Rahmani, Catalogue, #570. The inscription as given by Rahmani was deciphered by J. Naveh.

[15] A. Yardeni, Textbook of Aramaic, Hebrew and Nabataean Documentary Texts from the Judaean Desert, 2 vols. (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 2000), vol. A, p. 236; vol. B, p. 82.

[16] The inscription is #20, from Umm el-Amed, appears in J. Naveh, On Mosaic and Stone (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1978), pp. 40-42, in Hebrew. Fitzmyer and Harrington provide the text and the scholarly bibliography in Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Daniel J. Harrington, A Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1978), pp. 268-9, 298.

[17] The evidentiary basis upon which Fitzmyer concluded that this was "popular way of writing the patronymic (sic)" on p. 10 of his America essay (Joseph A. Fitzmyer, "Whose Name is This?" America [November 18, 2002] vol. 187, no. 16, pp. 9-13) has disappeared as fast as it appeared. Shanks cites Fitzmyer's remark on pp. 22 and 48 of Shanks & Witherington.

[18] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Genesis Apocryphon of Qumran Cave I: A Commentary, 2nd revised edition (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1971), pp. 70-71 167.

[19] Although Shanks quotes her explicitly, he fails give a proper bibliographical citation. Altman's report is titled, "Official Report on the James Ossuary" and can be found on the Bible and Interpretation website.

[20] Shanks & Witherington, pp. 41-42. In violation of proper netiquette, Shanks also attacks an email Altman wrote during a discussion on a private email list in the first days following the announcement when the only photographs of the inscription available were poor ones gleaned from the press.

[21] When Shanks argues against J. R. Chadwick, he is actually criticizing a manuscript submitted for publication in his magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review, one which the magazine decided not to publish. This might be judged a breach of editorial confidentiality. Chadwick's essay can now be found on the Bible and Interpretation website.

Oddly, Shanks seems to find it difficult to give proper bibliographical citations for the work of his critics. In addition to Altman and Chadwick, Shanks also fails to cite Eric Meyers' first book—on ossuaries no less—when he criticizes it. Meyers' book is Jewish Ossuaries: Reburial and Rebirth (Rome, 1971). Robert Eisenman, whom Shanks appears to criticize on pp. 40-41, even goes unnamed.

[22] Shanks indicates that Lemaire and others do not agree with the two-hand theory, but none have yet published their analyses in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Indeed, that is the problem with the treatment of this find; to date no analyses, not even Lemaire's initial article, have appeared in proper scholarly publications.

[23] See my earlier, independent remarks concerning chisel use in "Observing the Ossuary" on the Bible and Interpretation website.

[24] Shanks & Witherington, pp. 16-21.

[25] Ayalon suggests that the seventh sample gave the proper reading because some of the ossuary's stone contaminated the sample during collection.

[26] Interestingly, in her report to the IAA, Orna Cohen admits that, as a professional courtesy, she gave Oded Golan articles about faking patina. At the time, he claimed he was interested in the process for an architectural project he was working on.

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