James Ossuary

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Mark Goodacre or NT Gateway (which I highly recommend as a great New Testament studies blog) has some insights into what now seems to have been the James Ossuary hoax. For anyone unfamiliar with the story here, someone had found what was apparently an ossuary containing the remains of someone who had a good chance, given the information recorded on the box, of being James, the half-brother of Jesus, the author of the epistle of James, and the most prominent elder in the congregation at Jerusalem during the time much of the New Testament was being written. It turned out that the part of the inscription that most supported such an identification had too many suspicious elements, and most scholars now think it a fraud.

Goodacre's thoughts on this were interesting. Two of his points had occurred to me before. The ossuary didn't really add to our knowledge in any substantial way. I wasn't even sure why people were making a big deal about it. Also, there wasn't an incredibly strong argument that it was even James's ossuary to begin with. As I recall, Ben Witherington, the scholar who had defended its authenticity the most after the suspicious elements were made clear, thought that there were probably at least three men in that general area who could have fit the characteristics described by the inscription. That's not exactly a conclusive connection, even if the inscription was authentic. So why was this making all the headlines as if it established something important?

7 Comments

I don't really have a dog in this hunt, but I have been following this for sometime and it isn't clear to me that the ossuary is a forgery. Taking a look at Biblical Archaeology Review's Finds or Fakes page only muddies the water more. When you say "most scholars now think it a fraud" do you mean most scholars who have examined the object, most scholars who are familiar with the case, or some other set of scholars? Of course simple consensus is not truth making process. Perhaps though I am missing some important bit of news.

I think the first piece of evidence was that the particular script of the part identifying him by name and family members was in a script normally thought to have been used in a different period, and it didn't seem to be the same handwriting anyway. They did some dating of it, and it looked much newer. I remember hearing something about someone finding a photograph of it from a while back that ddn't have those letters there, but that might have been a joke. There's been a lot on it at the NT Gateway site. I don't have the time at the moment to search for it, but he links to the main information.

I don't think there are very many scholars involved with it who supported its authenticity. Witherington wasn't directly involved, but he looked at all the evidence and thought a case could be made still. I'm not sure if something else was found after that or not. The sense I get from NT Gateway is that virtually no scholar with any credentials related to the field holds it to be authentic. A court of law even found it to be a fraud.

Hey J., I thought it was making headlines mostly b/c of Catholic's claims of Mary's perpetual virginity. This would seem to be evidence against that. Catholics claim that most parts of the Bible where Jesus' brothers or brother are mentioned that the 'brother' in question should be understood figuratively (although I don't think this makes sense either, remembering Jesus' stating "who are my mother my brothers and sisters..." This wouldn't make any sense if the first use, where an apostle says "Jesus, your Mother and Brothers are waiting outside" were figurative). Of course, here, on the ossuary, the figurative use wouldn't make much sense.

I guess people have used it that way, but one unsubstantiated find that has a 1/3 chance of being about the person we think it might be about even if it's authentic doesn't go very far toward confirming a Protestant view over a Catholic one.

I think maybe you should read the stuff over at Finds or Fakes. The Geological Survey of Israel and the Royal Ontario Museum dated the inscriptions and reported �it is clear that the inscription is not a modern forgery.� To my knowledge of the scholars who have examined the ossuary only the IAA committee that declared the James ossuary inscription a modern forgery. Based on the IAA ruling one shouldn't be surprised that an Israeli court found the ossuary to be a fraud. The court is simply making a judgment based on the states experts. I should also note that it has become clear that IAA scholars did not stick to their own guidelines to only offer judgments within their area of expertise. Epigrapher Andr� Lemaire, a Northwest Semitic epigrapher at the Sorbonne, thought that the inscription was probably authentic. In his paper some 18 months after his original opinion he said:

"I see much confusion between a scientific - I mean an epigraphic and historical - problem, and a political problem;"

"Against the Israel Antiquities Authority � specific guidelines �, I see much discussion about the collector;"

"Again, against the IAA guidelines, I see many, many, many gossips, rumors or prejudices;"

"Again, against the IAA guidelines, I see also many scholars taking position outside of their own discipline;"

"There is something which I do not see: I do not see any paper against the authenticity of the inscription published by a Northwest Semitic epigrapher;"

"Finally I do not see any scientific reason to change my mind."

Considering the vested interest of the BAR in the ossuary's authenticity, and the reprehensible, unprofessional and indefensible behavior of Hershel Shanks in this matter, that publication cannot be cited as a reliable source for any information on this topic. Indeed, I wouldn't cite it as a reliable source for ANY information on ANY matter. It has lost all credibility after this fiasco.

Vested interest is no sign of bad arguments. I'll look at the arguments, thank you very much. The arguments, as far as I've been able to see, are inconclusive. Lawyers in any criminal or civil trial clearly have a vested interest in their clients' winning, but that doesn't mean we should ignore their arguments.

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