Uproar over damage to stone box linked to Jesus’s brother

Artifact cracked en route to Toronto
National Post (Canada), Nov. 2, 2002
Joseph Brean and Anne Marie Owens
National Post

TORONTO – Biblical scholars were outraged yesterday to hear that an ancient stone box that could be one of the greatest archeological discoveries of our time shattered into several pieces while being shipped from Israel to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The box is believed to have contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, and could be the first archeological evidence of Jesus’s existence

“Here, when we know the value, know how precious it is, this terrible thing happens,” said Hershel Shanks, editor of the journal that announced the discovery of the box last month. Called an ossuary, the box is inscribed: “Ya’akov [James], son of Yosef [Joseph], brother of Yeshua [Jesus].”

A deep, diagonal crack through the inscription now cleaves the word “Jesus” in two.

The pale brown, solid limestone artifact was discovered near Jerusalem by a local Arab man about 16 years ago, emptied of the bones and sold to a collector, who showed it to a French scholar earlier this year.

It has been scientifically proven to be made of limestone quarried from Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, and has been dated to approximately the time of James’ martyrdom around the year 63. Analysis of the flowing script, and the fact that ossuaries went out of fashion in 70, further suggest its authenticity.

The ROM acknowledged yesterday that existing superficial cracks had worsened and new ones appeared during transit, but said the ossuary remains structurally sound.

“I don’t think you could slip a dime into the crack,” said Dan Rahimi, the ROM’s director of collections management. “It hasn’t broken. But we’re very, very concerned about the cracks in the box, which make the piece itself unstable.”

According to the museum workers who unpacked the shipment, however, the cracks go clean through the inch-thick rock and the pieces had started to fall away from each other.

For shipment, the ossuary was not packed in a double wooden crate as is usually done with such fragile and irreplaceable artifacts, but rather in a cardboard box lined with plastic bubble wrap, the National Post has learned. Packaging and transport were arranged by the owner through Peltransport, a major Israeli shipping company.

“We wouldn’t have packed it that way,” Mr. Rahimi said.

Yesterday, the ossuary lay on a table in a cluttered basement workshop, near the loading dock where it arrived and still surrounded by bubble wrap and a base of cardboard. Flecks of rock and dust had fallen on to the wrapping from the cracks that are visible on three of four sides. The cover is undamaged.

The major crack extends horizontally around three sides, each of which has also been broken vertically.

The ossuary is now held together by a band of white paper, which obscures the famed inscription, written in Aramaic, “Yaqob bar Joseph ahiade Yeshua.” A crack runs through the word “Jesus.”

A source who has seen the damaged ossuary said he and other biblical scholars are worried that doomsday Christian sects will think this accident is a metaphysical recollection of Jesus’s death, as recorded in the gospel of Mark, when the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem “was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

“The mystics will take this as spiritually significant, as the second cleaving,” the source said.

Andy O’Mara, the ROM’s manager of technical services for collections, said the flimsy packing technique came as a surprise to his team, who opened the package yesterday morning after allowing it to acclimatize for 12 hours.

“Not a happy moment,” he said, adding that the cardboard box is being stored in the museum vault for insurance inspectors.

The box is insured by its owner for US$2-million. He purchased it for less than US$700 during the late 1980s.

The owner has seen pictures of the damage and given permission for the ROM to repair the box with special adhesives, museum CEO William Thorsell said.

Mr. Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archeology Review, which broke the news of the discovery in its November issue, said the terrible irony of this accident is that the ossuary was in such good condition even after many years of shabby treatment.

“This is very discouraging to hear and very alarming,” said Kyle McCarter, an expert in ancient writing and chair of the Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies department at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

He said the accident illustrates and justifies the reluctance of museums to ship their artifacts around the world. “It’s terribly regrettable,” he said.

Israel granted a four-month export licence for the ancient burial box early this week. Mr. Thorsell said yesterday the public exhibition will go ahead as planned in two weeks.

Roger Pigeau, general manager of special services for Brinks Canada, the security company that transported the box from Hamilton International Airport to Toronto on Thursday, after it arrived from Tel Aviv via New York, would not divulge details of the shipment. “We may have the need to transport it again,” he said.

Asked whether special arrangements were made for the artifact, he said: “We don’t treat any valuables different than others.”

Robert Eisenman, a biblical scholar who wrote the book James, the Brother of Jesus, said the reports about the ossuary’s journey add to the skepticism he has had about it from the beginning.

“Now that this has happened, now that this individual appears to have packed it in such a slapdash manner, just adds to my worries,” said Dr. Eisenman, professor of Middle East Religions and Archeology at California State University, who has questioned the authenticity of the artifact. “There are lots of questions one would like to ask the owner of this ossuary.”

Simcha Jacobovici, a Toronto filmmaker who is shooting a documentary on the ossuary for the Discovery channel, said: “As a human being, I’m sorry that it got damaged, but as a filmmaker my story just got bigger. My star is about to go into surgery. That’s dramatic.”

The ROM plans to exhibit the ossuary from Nov. 16 to Dec. 29.


Tel Aviv to New York

– Packaged by the owner and shipped using Peltransport Ltd., a company based in Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. The company is an agent of ATE Group, an international freight company that says its aim is to provide “the best available service through commitment, dedication and quality.” The package was flown on El Al, the Israeli airlines renowned for its tight security measures.

New York to Hamilton

– Flown on an unknown airline from John F. Kennedy Airport to Hamilton International Airport. The Hamilton airport calls itself “Toronto’s hassle-free alternative airport,” specializing in courier and cargo business and says it is “Canada’s No. 1 airport in terms of freighter aircraft.”

Hamilton to Toronto

– Transported by road on a Brink’s Inc. armoured truck. The international security company has as its logo, “Protecting our people and customers’ assets since 1859.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 4, 2002.
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