Scholars And the James Ossuary: A Reply to Bruce Chilton

 The failure lies squarely on the shoulders of those who are in the guild who remained silent or who supported the authenticity of the inscription before it was fully evaluated.

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
September 2003

    Bruce Chilton has recently expressed his dismay about the failure of scholars to respond to the “James Ossuary” fiasco.1 He says, “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 embracing the genuineness of the piece. Only the Antiquities Authority seems to have done its job.”2

    I think it is very unfortunate that Professor Chilton seems to believe that “religious organizations” and “professional societies” should have spoken to the issue of the Ossuary inscription’s inauthenticity. I set aside his comments regarding the press, for, in my view, it is the nature of the press to sensationalize; they cannot be expected to do otherwise.

    So, first of all, and most importantly, professional societies cannot and do not speak. Individual scholars speak or spokesmen (women) speak, but societies and groups do not. This is not merely nitpicking on my part. Indeed, my interest here is in nothing but the facts of the case. For Professor Chilton to say that the SBL or some other learned group should have had something to say in the matter is for him to say that some individual speaking on behalf of the SBL or other group should have said something. This, of course, implies that such has not been the case.

    Is Professor Chilton unfamiliar with the whole series of essays, particularly here in this venue?3 Eric Meyers, Zdzislaw J. Kapera, Yuval Goren, Paul Flesher, and Rochelle Altman4 all addressed the find with extraordinary clarity and insight. Or is Professor Chilton simply dismayed that he wasn’t warned about the fraudulent nature of the inscription? Could he have then avoided saying: “… 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.”5 Evidently the only problem Professor Chilton had with the Ossuary inscription prior to its being exposed as a fraud was its lack of provenance. If it is the responsibility of learned societies to warn the public regarding fraud and Professor Chilton is a member of such a society, then is it not his responsibility as well?

    But, one wonders, how is it possible that he was uninformed of the fraudulent nature of the relevant text when Rochelle Altman had already written: “The ossuary itself is undoubtedly genuine; the well-executed and formal first part of the inscription is a holographic original by a literate (and wealthy) survivor of Jacob bar Yosef, probably sometime during the Herodian period. The second part of the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition, probably around the 3rd or 4th centuries, and is questionable to say the least.”6 To be sure, Professor Altman is not an official spokeswoman for the SBL or some other group; but she is a well-known and recognized scholar whose voice surely can and should be heard.

    In any event, the notion that the SBL or some other organization should have said something about the Ossuary is a red herring. It is the responsibility of individual scholars to speak out on issues such as this. It is also the responsibility of scholars to thoroughly research such finds before publishing about them. Professor Chilton, too, as a well-known and highly respected scholar is obliged to research such findings; this means gaining a familiarity with the relevant discussions on that finding. The failure, then, isn’t with the SBL or any other society or organization. The failure lies squarely on the shoulders of those who are in the guild who remained silent or who supported the authenticity of the inscription before it was fully evaluated.

    However, the most significant aspect which all of us can take from this is that even our field is not exempt from inclinations to profit taking. This, to me, is far more disturbing a fact than the supposed silence of the SBL (which, again, cannot speak anyway- institutions don’t speak, people do). A box is found with an inscription purported to be ancient and authentic, and before the ink is dry on the magazine page announcing it, a book is published!7 The subtitle of the book, at its writing and printing, makes an unsupported, misleading, and now falsified claim. The box is displayed (with a charge of course) at a meeting in Toronto, and many thousands pay to see it. All this was done quite swiftly.

    Scholars should take heed from this disaster and take a couple of steps to insure their integrity as professionals: 1) research archaeological finds THOROUGHLY before publishing on them and 2) research what other scholars are saying about those finds before condemning them for not speaking out.


[1] In what follows, I am responding to Professor Chilton’s online essay on the Bible and Interpretation web site. I have the highest regard for Professor Chilton, and like everyone else, I have profited immensely from his research. It is with a great sense of dismay that I feel compelled to reply to him on this matter.

[2] Bible And Interpretation

[3] I.e., at this web site.

[4] Bible and Interpretation

[5] Bible and Interpretation

[6] Bible and Interpretation

[7] Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archeological Link to Jesus and His Family (March 2003: HarperSanFrancisco).

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