Experts Question Authenticity of Bone Box for ‘Brother of Jesus’

The New York Times, Dec. 3, 3003

Skeptics in growing number are weighing in with doubts about the authenticity of the inscription on a Jesus Christ.

When the existence of the limestone bone box, or ossuary, was announced five weeks ago, a French scholar asserted that the inscription — “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” — most probably referred to the Jesus of the New Testament. The script, he said, was in the style of the Aramaic language of the first century A.D.

Now that more experts have studied photographs of the inscription or seen it on display at a Toronto museum, they generally accept the antiquity of the ossuary itself, but some of them suspect that all or part of the script is a forgery. Apparent differences in the handwriting, they said, suggested that the Jesus phrase in particular could have been added by a forger, either in ancient or modern times.

“To say the least, I have a very bad feeling about the matter,” Dr. Eric M. Meyers, an archaeologist and a scholar of Judaic studies at Duke University, said recently at a conference of biblical and archaeological researchers in Toronto.

Dr. Meyers said he had “serious questions about authenticity,” in no small part because the origin of the ossuary is clouded in mystery. It was apparently found by looters at an undisclosed site and bought on the antiquities market in Israel. Professional archaeologists are not comfortable with artifacts of such dubious provenance.

Others who had just examined the ossuary at the Royal Ontario Museum were most concerned that the inscription appeared to be written by two different hands. The first part, about James, son of Joseph, seemed to be written in a formal script, while the second, about Jesus, is in a more free-flowing cursive style.

“The fact that the cursive and the formal types of letters appear in the two parts of the inscription suggests to me at least the possibility of a second hand,” said Dr. P. Kyle McCarter Jr., a specialist in Middle East languages at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. André Lemaire, the French scholar in Aramaic who proposed the inscription’s connection to Jesus, stoutly defended his interpretation at a conference of the Society of Biblical Literature, also held in Toronto. A researcher at the Sorbonne in Paris and a respected specialist on inscriptions of the biblical period, he published his findings in the current issue of the American magazine Biblical Archaeology Review.

Dr. Lemaire repeated his contention that “it is very probable” that the burial box had held the bones of James, a leader of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem, and that the inscription referred to Jesus of Nazareth. It was extremely rare to name a brother on one’s ossuary, he said, and so this particular Jesus must have been someone of prominence.

In an interview, Hershel Shanks, the magazine editor who published the report, said there were at least two reasons to doubt the accusations of forgery.

“If a modern forger did it, for a couple of hundred dollars he could get a blank ossuary, and it would be a dumb forger who doesn’t start from scratch so the writing is consistent,” Mr. Shanks said. “Also, you’ve got to assume the forger knows how to forge patina — something not known by others. All these things are possible, but extraordinarily unlikely.”

Geologists in Israel who examined the ossuary judged its patina, the surface coating from aging and weathering, to be consistent with estimates that the box is about 2,000 years old. They also said they detected no signs of later tampering with the inscription. Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century, recorded that James was executed in A.D. 62.

Mr. Shanks is co-author of a book, “The Brother of Jesus,” to be published in March by HarperSanFrancisco. He will describe the discovery and interpretation of the James ossuary, and his collaborator, Ben Witherington III, who is an author and lecturer on the New Testament, will discuss its implications for understanding Jesus.

But the controversy is not likely to die down any time soon.

The owner of the ossuary, whose identity was not disclosed in the magazine article, has now come forward. He is Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv engineer and ardent collector of artifacts from biblical times. Called in for questioning by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Mr. Golan said he bought the ossuary 35 years ago but could not remember from whom, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported recently. Mr. Shanks said Mr. Golan had no understanding of the ossuary’s possible importance until Dr. Lemaire saw it on a visit last year.

Israeli authorities said they were continuing the investigation. The ossuary is to be returned to Israel at the conclusion of its exhibition in Toronto, which continues until the end of this month. Other researchers have entered the fray, calling more attention to signs of possible forgery.

Rochelle I. Altman, who moderates an Internet bulletin board for scholars of ancient Judaism and describes herself as an expert on scripts, was one of the first to note the apparent discrepancy in script styles in the inscription. “There are two hands of clearly different levels of literacy and two different scripts,” Ms. Altman wrote. “The second part of the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition and is questionable to say the least.”

Dr. Daniel Eylon, an Israeli engineering professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, approached the problem from his experience in failure analysis investigations for the aerospace industry. Applying a technique used in determining if a malfunction of an airplane part occurred before or after an accident, he examined photographs of the inscription for scratches caused by moving the box against other boxes in the cave or in the final excavation.

“The inscription would be underneath these scratches if it had been on the box at the time of burial, but the majority of this inscription is on top of the scratches,” Dr. Eylon said. “And the sharpness of some of the letters doesn’t look right — sharp edges do not last 2,000 years.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday December 3, 2002.
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