Israel allows scholars to take relic abroad

Inscription on bone box may be first mention of Jesus of Nazareth
AP, Oct. 27, 2002

JERUSALEM (AP) –Israel said Sunday it has granted a four-month export license for an ancient burial box that may be the oldest archaeological link to Jesus.

The limestone box, or ossuary, bears the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” in Aramaic.

The ossuary, whose existence was revealed last week, is in the hands of a private Israeli collector and is expected to be exhibited in Toronto, Canada this fall, at a gathering of religious scholars.

The export license was granted before Israeli officials understood the nature of the find, and to examine it they will now have to wait until the ossuary returns to Israel by the end of February.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) will then examine it for up to 90 days and, if deemed authentic, may try to buy it from the collector, Uzi Dahari, an IAA official, told The Associated Press.

Scholars have been divided over the importance of the tool box-sized ossuary.

If it indeed refers to Jesus of Nazareth, it would be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of our time.

The inscription would fit a New Testament account that Jesus had a brother, James, and the tradition that James was the son of Joseph, husband of Jesus’ mother Mary.

However, the names James, Joseph and Jesus were common in the first century, and it is possible the inscription refers to someone other than Jesus of Nazareth.

The existence of the ossuary was announced last week in the United States by the Biblical Archaeology Review, which presented findings by Andre Lemaire, an expert on ancient inscriptions at France’s Practical School of Higher Studies.

The magazine said two scientists from Israel’s Geological Survey also examined the ossuary and determined that it was from the first century and that the inscription had not been tampered with.

However, the ossuary’s history remains murky.

Dahari said Sunday that the collector, who does not want to be named, told him he bought the burial box about 30 years ago from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer.

Last week, Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks told a news conference that the collector bought the box about 15 years ago, and that it had been unearthed south of the Mount of Olives. Dahari had no immediate explanation for the different dates on when the collector bought the ossuary.

Shanks said last week that the owner never realized the ossuary’s potential importance until Lemaire examined it last spring.

Dahari said the Israel Antiquities Authority issued the limited export permit three weeks ago, without being aware at the time of what the ossuary might mean for Christians around the world.

The practice of digging up graves about a year after burial and depositing the bones in stone boxes was common in the Holy Land from about 20 B.C. to 70 A.D., and hundreds of ossuaries have been uncovered from that period.

Despite a thriving private trade in antiquities in Jerusalem, Dahari said he believed more than half the ossuaries unearthed so far were handled by archaelogists, not grave robbers.

Dahari said Israeli law was not clear-cut on the acquisition of antiquities. “It is a bit problematic,” he said. “All antiquities in Israel are declared a national asset. On the other hand, it is legal to sell antiquities and buy them, and to be a collector.”

After the ossuary is examined by IAA experts, “we will return it to him (the collector) or will try to buy it in order that it will be in public hands,” Dahari said.

Until now, the oldest surviving artifact that mentions Jesus is a fragment of chapter 18 in John’s Gospel from a manuscript dated around A.D. 125. It was discovered in Egypt in 1920.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday October 28, 2002.
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