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James and the Giant Reach

Combine science, politics, religion, and the Israeli antiquities market. Hit blend.

By 6.25.03

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"James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Those words, translated from Aramaic, lit a fire under the archaeological community, when Biblical Archaeology Review announced last year that it had found a limestone burial box in a private collection from the first century AD with just such an inscription.

Because it was exceedingly uncommon to carve a brother's name into a burial box, and because some fancy mathematical analysis showed that while James, Joseph, and Jesus were fairly common names in the first century, the lottery-like lineup of a James who was a son of Joseph and brother of Jesus was a rare occasion, many concluded that this was the final resting place of the brother of the Jesus.

In the follow-up book, BAR publisher Hershel Shanks wrote that the case for this belief was "not so clear that it would stand up in court in a criminal case; we have not proved it beyond a reasonable doubt. But I do think it would be enough to sustain an award in a civil suit, where the standard of proof is a preponderance of the evidence." That is, the likelihood -- and history and science are all about likelihood -- was that this was the genuine article. If so, it would be the first archaeological evidence of the man who Christians believe was the son of God.

That's a huge claim, with all kinds of discomforting ramifications, so it surprised no one that the ossuary inscription drew arched eyebrows from the beginning. Robert Eisenman, an eccentric scholar who had authored a book on "James the Just," questioned the authenticity of the find on the grounds that it was too perfect. The fact that it was found in the hands of a private collector rather then discovered as part of an archaeological dig fueled speculation that this was an elaborate hoax.

Speculation turned into accusation last Wednesday, as the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced, but did not release, the "unanimous conclusion" of a report by a committee of 15 scholars: The ossuary was from the first century, but the inscription was a very well done fake. The forgery angle quickly metastasized into a fact in the popular press (and was broadcast by not a few religion bloggers), but has turned into something rather different among scholars of antiquity.

Shanks, who has always been a lightning rod figure in the field of archaeology, responded by questioning both the motives and the methodology of the IAA. In a rebuttal posted on the BAR website, he charged that the not-yet-released findings of the committee were really the findings of one man, Tel Aviv University's Yuval Goren, and that Goren had gone into his investigation with a strong bias against the inscription's authenticity. Further, Shanks charged that the director of the IAA, one Shuka Dorfman, had a motive to help push this conclusion on the rest of the committee. That is, Dorfman hates the antiquities market and has a personal grudge with Shanks, for speaking up for the hated collectors of ancient artifacts.

And so it went (and did it ever). Goren charged Shanks with misleading readers and misrepresenting the data. Shanks said Goren had not proved his case and called the committee a bunch of media whores. Of the actual investigation, he charged the IAA with "bungl[ing] it from start to finish." It reminded me again why archaeology is my very favorite contact sport.

The sticking point is over the patina, the gunk that covered the ossuary's surface which can be used to date an object. Specifically, the patina inside the grooves of the letters does not always match the patina on the surface of the box. However, the owner's mother appears to have … done what mothers do when confronted with gunk and cleaned the inscription.

One person closely watching the blow-by-blow in all this was Acadia Divinity College's professor Craig A. Evans (full disclosure: I took classes under him before he left Trinity Western University), who has his own book on ossuary inscriptions due out in the fall. Though he initially expressed relief that had taken a neutral position with regard to the inscription's authenticity, and thought that Shanks had "tons of egg" on his face, Evans quickly changed his mind as the story developed. As things stand now, of those who have closely examined the patina:

"We have four geologists…who think it is genuine, and one…who thinks it isn't... Shanks still thinks the inscription is genuine; he is calling for further testing... Rochelle Altman and others who all along claimed the ossuary was a fake do not want further testing. Interesting, eh?"

Oh yeah. Now that the issue of the ossuary's antiquity, as well as the inscription's pitch perfect match with the grammar and script style of the first century, has been settled, we're left arguing about grime and cursing a mother's cleanliness. Those taking bets on the next round might want to avoid a bath by favoring Hershel Shanks.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.