CNN’s ‘Finding Jesus’: the ‘James Ossuary’

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology / Ming Hua Theological College
March 2015

Bible and Interpretation has previously lent space to the discussion of the so called ‘James Ossuary’ or ‘James, the Brother of Jesus Ossuary’. Exceptionally good and continuing to be relevant are Wily Scholars and Detectives, By Nina Burleigh; and More Evidence: Ossuary a Fraud?By Eric Meyers. Many more, representing many viewpoints, are also available from Bible and Interpretation at this URL - .

My purpose at present is not to rehash old arguments and discuss settled issues. Instead, I will offer my own observations on the recently aired CNN special series titled ‘Finding Jesus’ which was shown corresponding to the release of a book by the same title. The series included episodes, to this point, on John the Baptist, the so called ‘Gospel of Judas’, and of course the Shroud of Turin. It also included a segment titled ‘Did Jesus Really Have a Brother’ (which aired on 22 March, 2015). It is that particular segment which is under discussion here.

I need to offer a disclaimer at the very beginning of this opinion piece and that is, several of the scholars featured are personal friends of mine. Mark Goodacre and Candida Moss in particular are counted among those whose opinions and friendships I value. I will attempt to remain an unbiased observer but it is doubtless the case that my respect for them will color, at least in shades of gray (though not 50 of them), my ‘take’ on the program.

Previous episodes were neither exceptionally interesting nor firmly disappointing. On the scale of ‘Bible’ specials it is neither as bad as most nor as good as some. The talking heads know what they are talking about some of the time but not always. And the material is at times wrongly represented or viewpoints are discussed which have neither scholarly merit nor deserve public attention. I’m thinking in particular here of the program which discussed the Shroud of Turin. Not only did the program seem to imply that there were legitimate reasons to accept the Shroud’s authenticity (there are not) but it also failed to consult the leading expert on the Shroud, Antonio Lombatti. This failure left a gaping hole in the program and is, in my view, utterly unacceptable. CNN had time and place for the Shroud’s leading ‘supporter’ so journalistic integrity necessitates the appearance of the Shroud’s greatest foe. And that seems to be the modus operandi of the show’s producers. That is, present a notion held by the public and offer ‘both sides’ so that the audience can make up its own mind about the truthfulness of the claim being made, whether concerning the Shroud or an unprovenanced ‘Gospel’ or the life of a first century Jewish ‘prophet’. Yet the bias of the network’s producers is made plain by the very offer of that ‘equal time’ because, to be completely forthright, some ideas are so absurd that they shouldn’t be dignified by a response. That is certainly the case with the Shroud and the ‘Judas Gospel’. Featuring them results in a public perception that there is something to the claims that they are authentic. Yet what scholar believes the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus and what scholar believes the Gospel of Judas of any help at all in re-constructing the life of the Historical Jesus?

Those preliminaries mentioned, the ‘James Ossuary’ episode pursues a question only our Roman Catholic friends would ask- did Jesus have a brother? Of course he had a brother. Several of them, and at least one sister as well (as readers of the Gospel of Mark will know quite well and as even the special itself will admit). But that central question opens the door for a wider discussion of the ossuary which first came to light in Oded Golan’s apartment.

Mentioned was the Toronto exhibition of the ossuary in 2002, and the first section of the special featured as contributing ‘talking heads’ Matthew Kalman, David Gibson, Ben Witherington, Candida Moss, James Martin, Mark Goodacre, and Bruce Chilton. Described was a Noncanonical story of Jesus as a child healing his brother James and then the suggestion was made that James was essentially ‘lost’ to Church history until the discovery of the ossuary. Praiseworthy here were the descriptions offered by the various presenters (and Matthew Kalman has to be singled out as one of the more well-informed). Problematic was the pace of the presentation. Those unfamiliar with the nature and substance of the non-canonical gospels will not have learned those salient facts and would thus be left with the impression that stories of Jesus the child healer have as much weight in the reconstruction of his life and ministry as the canonical Gospels. More explanation was needed. More contextualization.

The ‘James Ossuary’ and Oded Golan’s story of the ossuary are then covered. Byron McCane explains the collecting of bones and their placement in ossuary and tomb. Andre Lemaire is said to have examined the ossuary in 2002 and deciphered the ‘mysterious inscription’. He decides that it belonged to James the Brother of Jesus Christ (and appears to be the first to make that claim). Camil Fuchs concludes that it was the very family ossuary of James the brother of Jesus based on a statistical analysis of the names. Witherington claims the same. Contrary statistical analysis is, however, left aside and those who disagree with the findings of Lemaire and Fuchs and Witherington are not mentioned. Here again, then, the bias of the producers is evident. An artifact, as was the case with the Turin Shroud, is claimed to be this or that and the claim of a minority of academics is left to stand without refutation.

Nicola Denzey Lewis next supposes that Jesus would have been the main family provider so that James is left to see to the family’s well being once Jesus leaves. Witherington and Moss also discuss the problem of Jesus’s departure for ministry and the tension with his family this provoked. Chilton presumes Jesus would have brought the family into dishonor. This is, of course, a common theme for Chilton who famously described Jesus as a chubby guy who liked to drink too much. Jesus, the redneck, may seem an intriguing concept but it’s more fanciful conjecture than historical reconstruction. This can, unfortunately, also be said of several of the special’s claims as we simply do not and cannot know the dynamic of Jesus’ family. There may well have been tension. But the Gospels are silent on the subject of ‘family tension’ (except for Mark who has Jesus’s family come looking for him because they fear he has lost his mind). So supposition has replaced exposition and historical reconstruction. It is simply going too far, based on what we know from a critical analysis of our sources, to suggest that Jesus prophetic perambulations would have brought the family into disgrace (a la Chilton). Were Chilton correct we would then need to suppose that John the Baptist also brought his family into disgrace. And that every Prophet of ancient Israel somehow disgraced his family by taking up the prophetic call and leaving home to fulfill it. But all of that supposition is, again, rank speculation and not historical reconstruction.

Jesus’ ministry in Galilee is next related and the conflict this would have caused with Rome (as he was a messianic figure) and the worry it would have caused his kinfolk. Kate Cooper and Mark Goodacre both describe the tension such events would have provoked in the family and Jesus’ refusal to see his family in Mark 3 is reintroduced. ‘It’s almost like he disses his family’ suggests Witherington. Ted Wright imagines that – like us if we had a member of our family who claimed to be a messiah – Jesus’s family may have doubted his claims. Jesus’s arrest and execution are replayed and ‘Jesus’s family failed to save him’ is claimed. The Gospel of the Hebrews is then drawn upon as a source for the notion that James fasted and prayed and then Jesus appeared to him. Once again, the program failed to show sufficient nuance in its treatment of late non-canonical texts and – in a sense – privileging those non-canonical sources above the canonical texts.

James has wondered who his brother is his whole life, says Goodacre. But once Jesus appears to him, James is transformed from doubting brother to Jesus’ most devoted follower.

At this juncture the program returns to news of the ossuary and its being spread worldwide and then the artifact itself being displayed in Toronto. It is returned to Israel after Golan is refused an extension on his export license and the IAA and the police went after Golan (according to Kalman, who implies that it is out of embarrassment). A raid was carried out at Golan’s apartment and many faked artifacts were claimed to have been found. The IAA takes him to court and in December 2004 Golan and four others are charged with forgery. The phrase ‘Brother of Jesus’ was added by Golan, the court is told by the prosecution. Chris Rollston insists that the inscription is by two hands. Rollston is correct. An examination of the patina is then ordered and after 5 years of careful study the experts concluded that Golan faked the patina. His defense team, naturally, disagreed. More than 120 witnesses were called during the course of the trial and the case lasted almost 8 years. Then, in March 2012, the Judge determined that Golan is guilty of two antiquities trade crimes but not of forgery. Whether or not the inscription is authentic is still debated (by some at least. For most, the issue is settled).

The Bible does describe the end of James’s life, we are informed. Indeed it does, but that’s all it describes. What the Bible does not say about James is that he was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, which nevertheless is offered as fact. Kate Cooper leads off the discussion of the relationship of Paul and James. And, more pointedly, what is the Church to do with Gentiles? This brings Witherington back into the discussion. Cooper rightly suggests that Paul doesn’t want Gentiles to convert to Judaism and Nicola Denzey Lewis goes on to suggest that James would be ‘hugely frustrated’ if he heard about Paul. She perhaps has too low a view of the spirit of James. And she bases her notion of James’s ‘frustration’ on no evidence whatsoever. Who’s to say that James wasn’t happy to leave the Gentiles to Paul while he would focus on the Jews? Once more, supposition has replaced exposition.

The Jerusalem Conference is described and James is described as a ‘Torah true Jew’ by Witherington. Christianity was revolutionized by Paul, we’re told and James then became a threat to the Jewish authorities. How he is a threat is, however, never explained. Nonetheless he is arrested by the priestly authorities in Jerusalem. James’ connection with Jesus means that he can’t survive, we’re told, but again we never are told exactly why that is so. Finally, James is pushed off the wall of the Temple but doesn’t die. So he is stoned to death by the crowd. This legendary telling of the death of James is, though, never admitted to be legendary. The producers have deemed legend fact and viewers are left, inappropriately, with the idea that this account of the death of James is historical fact.

It’s here that we come to the greatest problem of the program (and to this point, the greatest problem with the series): Its lack of clarity concerning the differences between history and legend and its continual ‘blurring of the lines’ between history and supposition. These ‘blurred lines’ are precisely the point where the Producers should have been at their sharpest; clearly delineating fact and guesswork. They do not. Consequently, they let their audience down and fall into the category of the mediocre ‘bible tv special’ genre. This is extremely disappointing precisely because given their consultants and their presenters they could have done better had they simply wished to do so.

The special ends with Kalman asserting that we will never quite know if the ossuary is the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus. Of course we will never know with absolute certainty, but we do know that 1) the ossuary is authentic. And we do know that 2) the first part of the inscription is authentic. We also have good reason to believe that the second part of the inscription is faked and that more has been made of the ossuary than it merits simply for the sake of monetary reward. It is an unprovenanced object and as such has no actual historical usefulness.

Chilton is the final voice and he in closing asserts that he believes that the controversy has brought deserved attention to James. Perhaps so. People are talking more about James than they used to but we still know virtually nothing about him and given the sources we have, it also remains true that there’s very little more we can know about him.

Having seen a number of these sorts of presentations I think I am justified in saying that it was better done than most. But still, in so many respects, the entire genre of ‘Bible specials on tv’ is bereft of accuracy. There’s so much nonsense believed by the public that it should be a source of embarrassment to biblical scholars. Word isn’t getting out. So such specials are the ideal platform because they reach so many people. And yet, instead of rising to the challenge, they instead tend to pander to the more outrageous fringe theories in order to make hay from their novelty and sensationalism.

Scholarship can be interesting. Unfortunately tv channels like CNN, and Discovery, and History would rather sensationalize than inform. And scholars, for whatever reason, will sometimes ‘go along with it’ because they truly believe that they are helping ‘get the word out’ concerning the real facts. But more often than not, their wisdom is eclipsed by the editing process and producers end up making it seem as though the sensationalized version is the truth.

Scholars involved in any such productions should insist, before agreeing to take part, to have the right to view the final product before it airs and correcting any misprision or misrepresentation of the facts and their viewpoints. Until they do, cable tv will determine what the populace at large understands about the Bible and Christianity. And that can only end badly for scholarship.


Comments (13)

Sorry - no.
And no, I'm not an atheist. I believe. But in my opinion, the ossuary of James is NOT "physical evidence of the existence of Jesus," as was claimed on the video on the CNN website and, I assume, on the related tv program. The reason why, is that "Jesus" was actually a common name back then. At least, in that part of the world.
Yes, Jesus was the brother of James. And yes there is an authentic ossuary that says on it, "James the brother of Jesus." But there is no ossuary that we are aware of that most-likely is the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus CHRIST.

#1 - Tim Rigney - 03/24/2015 - 07:04

Very nice summary of the program Jim. I wonder though if you are taking into account that during the trial it was confirmed by sworn testimony by Yuval Goren that the letters making up the last part of the inscription--"brother of Jesus," did in fact contain original patina. Also Krumbein concluded the same by examining the mirco-fossils that had formed in these letters over hundreds of years, a phenomenon that can not be faked by pouring hot water with dissolved ancient materials into a freshly forged inscription. His testimony was accepted as compelling by the judge and other corroborating witnesses. The best summary of the technical trial evidence I have seen including the detailed testimony of Goren, Krumbein, and other experts is here:

#2 - James D. Tabor - 03/24/2015 - 13:48

Hi James,

I confess that I read Krumbein a long time back (how long has it been... it seems a lifetime) but I don't recall his precise argument. I do, however, have a fairly firm memory of Yuval's assertion that the latter bit of the inscription was later than the first. But I'll look again at both. Thanks.

#3 - Jim West - 03/24/2015 - 16:01

"The Bible does describe the end of James’s life, we are informed. Indeed it does, but that’s all it describes." Really?

#4 - Richard Bauckham - 03/24/2015 - 21:42

2 Hesitations 4:5. (Sorry- sometimes sarcasm is hard to detect when sarcasm is intended). My point was exactly what you have so wisely detected. This is yet another spot where the special has completely conflated fact with legend and my cryptic swipe may have been missed. To be more forthright I should have written 'Indeed it "does"... but... that's all it "describes". Apologies for the lack of clarity in that point and thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

#5 - Jim West - 03/24/2015 - 22:47

Thank you Jim for your sensible review. Your subtle irony is appreciated in context of an otherwise over trod path.

#6 - stephanie fisher - 03/25/2015 - 08:08

Thanks for taking the time to write a review, Jim. Since you underline the question of accuracy, perhaps I may comment on just one element in the review. You say "The Bible does describe the end of James’s life, we are informed." Where in the documentary are we informed of this? I must admit that I don't really understand your response here to Richard. Could you further elaborate? Thanks and all best.

#7 - Mark Goodacre - 03/25/2015 - 14:25

Sure- the point being that there is not one snippet of reliable evidence that James was shoved off the Temple wall and, miracle of miracles, survived it. Then, he was stoned and succumbed. It was impossible to overlook the scene as it was presented with all historical seriousness. To be more forthright, again, I should have written 'Indeed it "does"... but... that's all it "describes". A well placed ellipse is a useful tool (along with the famed air quote). Apologies for the lack of clarity in that point and thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

#8 - Jim West - 03/25/2015 - 16:26

Scare quotes are surely the typographical equivalent of verbal forms like 'so called' and of a questioning inflection of the voice. There is no Bible passage which is by any standards even a so-called description of the death of James the Lord's brother. Someone was thinking of Acts 12 and its reference to the death of another James. I am certainly getting the impression that this series is a disgrace.

#9 - Martin Hughes - 03/25/2015 - 17:34

Ok, let's get this clear. It's really straightforward. Here is Jim's claim in the article:

"The Bible does describe the end of James’s life, we are informed."

My response: "Where in the documentary are we informed of this?"

My point: the documentary does not make this claim therefore it is not fair to criticize it on this point.

#10 - Mark Goodacre - 03/25/2015 - 20:24

Hi Jim
If we lay aside the Gospel of James and other mythological accounts of miraculous birth (e.g. the story in Mt and the radically different story in Lk) what is it that leads us to think that James is a younger brother of Jesus? Why younger and not older? Or at least, why don't we know only that Jesus had several brothers and sisters (plural) period? The assumption that Jesus was the oldest is a faith commitment more than a fact. Right?

#11 - Stevan Davies - 03/30/2015 - 17:45

Here are my thoughts on this series:

The Shroud of Turin (March 1).

The Bible describes Jesus’ body as being wrapped in “linen cloths” (Luke 24:12), not one single burial shroud. This fact alone, missed by the CNN program, would seem to discount The Shroud of Turin as being authentic. After carbon dating showed the shroud to have originated around the 14th century, the show proclaimed: “It’s a forgery.”

The bones of John the Baptist (March 8)

The show made a big deal about being able to link the DNA of John’s alleged finger bones with the DNA blood of Jesus. But any DNA comparison (if that was even possible) between John’s blood tainted with Original Sin, and Jesus’ untainted Divine blood (as a result of the Virgin Birth) could never produce a match. Carbon dating by scientists in the program also showed the bone to date from the 7th or 8th century.

The gospel of Judas (March 15)

Placing the gospel of Judas on par with the four biblical gospels, the show wants us to buy the theory that Judas was the preeminent disciple, given “secret” commands by Christ, and actually a hero for orchestrating Jesus’ death only after Christ begged him to do so (false, John 10:17-18). All this despite the fact the program admits this Gnostic third century Coptic text (not the original) has numerous missing sections and translators have given significant contradictory conclusions about what the text actually says.

James, the brother of Jesus (March 22)

A bone box bearing the inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is presented as dating back to the time of Jesus. Is it genuine? Once again the show doesn’t give us an answer, but we did hear wild and unbiblical speculation of who James was.

The True Cross (March 29)

We are made to believe that the cross, prior to Helena’s alleged find in the fourth century, was something that Christians were afraid to talk about, and the cross was not considered the central part of the Christian faith that it would become after Helena (not so, Gal. 6:14; 1 Cor. 2:2; 2 Tim. 1:8-10). But archaeologists have proved that speculation wrong with cross relics found from the first century. The Helena story is also likely nothing but a legend. The carbon dating of this cross also tested no earlier than 1100 A.D.

The gospel of Mary Magdalene (April 5)

The scholars make wild speculations about Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene and accompany that with scenes of Jesus holding Mary's hand and a suggestive kiss on the lips before they cutaway. Near the end of the show they all concede there's not enough evidence to conclude Jesus was married. We know the Bible says Christ's spouse has always been and will always be the church.

As far as I see it the show has taken us on numerous rabbit trails to find Jesus. Rabbit trails to everything but to where we can really find Jesus--in the Bible (John 5:39). But maybe it’s appropriate that this CNN program wrapped up on Easter Sunday with yet more rabbit trails. Because the criteria CNN has used to find Jesus has more to do with the Easter Bunny than it has to do with the real Easter Resurrection.

"I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture" (John 10:9).

“For the gate to salvation is narrow and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14).

Patrick Foss

#12 - Patrick Foss - 04/07/2015 - 07:19

I find it interesting that a handful of the leading Bible scholars on the planet have called out West for making a ridiculous statement about there being evidence for James' martyrdom in the Gospels, and he still refuses to answer why he brought it up in the first place considering the program never mentioned it. CRICKETS.

#13 - Greg Monette - 04/07/2015 - 15:11

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