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A mystery of biblical heft

The (now discredited) story of the first archaeological link to Jesus

By Leigh E. Rich

The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Significance of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family
By Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III
April 2003
254 pages

Physicist Saul Perlmutter, upon discovering in 1998 that the universe is not only expanding but also accelerating in its expansion, deemed the scientific method that of perpetual optimism and skepticism—optimism in the scientist’s willingness to persevere on problems that seem impossible and skepticism in his willingness to doubt his findings every step of the way.

This appears to be true, whether one looks ahead to the stars above or behind to the fading footsteps of history. And it was just this mix of hope and doubt that marked what might be called the mother of all biblical archaeological finds, when in June 2002, André Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris happened upon an ossuary—a “bone box” used for burial of the dead in first-century Jerusalem—with the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

Called upon by a collector of antiquities in Tel Aviv to decipher the inscription of another ossuary he owned, Lemaire was also shown a picture of the “James” ossuary which the collector, referred to as “Joe” to protect his anonymity, had in storage.

Understanding the potential significance of the find as the first archaeological link to Jesus, Lemaire turned to Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, who began the journey of authenticating the discovery. It is this story, told by Shanks, that makes up the first six chapters of The Brother of Jesus, with the remaining eight written by Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, about the biblical debate of the life of James.

Shanks’ half of the book, though probably better suited as a feature article in National Geographic or Time, is a quick, fun read, more about the politics of being an archaeologist than the actual ossuary itself. Scientifically there isn’t much to be said of the ossuary, as it was removed from its original context by non-archaeologists and sold in the antiquities market perhaps several decades ago.

Instead, Shanks replays his role in bringing the ossuary to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto after overseeing a battery of tests to determine its authenticity, including a statistical analysis of how many men named James in the first century could have had both a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus—then all widely popular names.

According to Shanks and other reputable scholars from the Catholic University of America, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Geological Survey of Israel, the ossuary passed its tests with flying colors: The “inscription is authentic and can be dated to the first century C.E.,” and the patina, “a film formed from chemicals that seep out of the stone over hundreds of years as it lies in a damp cave,” matches that of other limestone of the same period found in Jerusalem.

“Most tellingly,” Shanks writes, “the patina found inside the incised letters of the inscription was the same as the patina on the side of the ossuary. This eliminated the possibility that the inscription was a modern forgery on a genuine ancient ossuary.”

This is not to say that there also aren’t some scholarly doubters. Shanks mentions a few by name, but quickly dismisses them—though experts in biblical studies or the practice of ossilegium (placing a decedent’s bones in an ossuary after the flesh has decayed away)—as lacking any authority in paleography and ancient Aramaic, the language of the Jews of Jerusalem in which the inscription is written.

What is more interesting in Shanks’ story is the tension within the field of archaeology of what to do with “looted” finds that show up in the antiquities market. Both the Archaeological Institute of America and the American Schools of Oriental Research have policies against publishing articles in their journals on any unprovenanced artifact because it has been “ripped from its context.”

“Yet what should we do?” Shanks asks. “Ignore it?”

And though Israel has had a law against the buying and selling of such antiquities since 1978, Shanks admits “many important finds come from the antiquities market.”

Though himself convinced of the ossuary’s legitimacy, Shanks concedes—albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek—that nothing can ever be proven 100 percent true in science, only that it’s “very, very, very, very improbable that (the ossuary) is a fake. … In the real world, we make the leap: we say that it is genuine, even though we can think of myriad theoretical scenarios (like a conspiracy of leading epigraphers who have a secret plan to profit from their false certifications) in which somehow a forger … fooled us.”

What Shanks thinks is more incredulous is that “there is no evidence that either the buyer or the seller (of the James ossuary) realized the value of what was being bought and sold.” And here is where Witherington picks up the story.

The remainder of The Brother of Jesus might work better as its own tome, for the first and second halves of the Shanks/Witherington collaboration lack connection and continuity. Witherington provides a well-conceived review of the two-millennia-old debate concerning who was James, often referred to in biblical texts as “the brother of the Lord,” but his most gripping chapters are his very last.

Witherington confronts the problem of whether James was a blood brother, a half brother, a stepbrother or a cousin of Jesus, and the implications of this on the concept of the Virgin Mary. Witherington asserts the James ossuary, since it uses an Aramaic word for “brother” found on other stone inscriptions, provides strong archaeological evidence in relation to passages in the New Testament to suggest that James was indeed the younger brother of Jesus and the son of Mary and Joseph.

“The discovery of the James’s ossuary,” Witherington concludes, “should reopen the debate about James’s relationship to Jesus and reassert the importance of James and of Jewish Christianity, and both Jews and Christians may recover a part of their Jewish heritage that has been neglected.”

Needless to say, the conversation is far from over, but The Brother of Jesus provides an introductory read for those who wish to dig deeper at the roots of James’ role as “the leader of the community of Christian Jews in Jerusalem”—what Witherington calls the “Jesus movement.”

After all, as Perlmutter said when speaking about particle physics at a retreat in Aspen in 2001, “In some sense, we’re all scientists. We all have to figure out the world together.” 

Rich, L. E. (2003, May 23). A mystery of biblical heft. [Review of the book The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family by Hershel Shanks, Ph.D., and Ben Witherington, III, Ph.D.] Rocky Mountain News.

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