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    A Review Essay of The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family, Hershel Shanks & Ben Witherington III, HarperSanFrancisco, New York, 2003.

By Paul V. M. Flesher
University of Wyoming
January 2004

    When a limestone bone box with the inscription “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” was announced to the world in the fall of 2002, it was an immediate international sensation. Encouraged by the announcement’s hyperbole, the press trumpeted that after all these centuries, here was an actual, tangible artifact related to Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity.1 Suddenly Jesus’ time on earth seemed to be more real, more approachable, more accessible to the average believer. When the bone box, more accurately termed an “ossuary,” was displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in November, several hundred thousand people paid to view it.

    The display was timed to coincide with the annual conferences of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research (an association of archaeologists who study the ancient Middle East), attended by thousands of scholars from North America and around the world. Perhaps more experts on the ancient world viewed the ossuary that one week than have seen any other ancient artifact in such a short time. In addition, two sessions were held during the conferences, each attracting an audience of hundreds. At these, selected scholars spoke about the ossuary and issues relevant to it.2

    Despite this scholarly exposure, few analyses have yet appeared in peer-reviewed, academic journals.3 The academic debate that accompanies major finds has yet to begin. When it does begin, may now be subdued and short, for the Israel Antiquities Authority (=IAA) released a report in June 2003 in which fourteen experts unanimously determined that the inscription is a forgery.4 For many scholars this report closes the question. Some have withdrawn articles accepted for publication. Journals that had planned special issues on the ossuary have cancelled them. And so on.

    It is in this context that I review the book, The Brother of Jesus, by Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, which was written in the heady weeks after the ossuary’s announcement and which appeared in Spring 2003, months before the IAA report.5 The ongoing developments concerning the ossuary require the review to evaluate the book not just in terms of scholarly knowledge, but also in light of continuing events.

    The Brother of Jesus is not a scholarly analysis for experts but a popularized account for the general public. The book focuses on two questions, dealt with in two sections, each written by a different author. In his section, Mr. Shanks describes the ossuary and its inscription, as well as its discovery, identification and early publicization, and addresses the question of whether it is real or fake. In his part of the book, Professor Witherington discusses who James was, asking regularly what the ossuary adds to our knowledge of him. Indeed, this work appears to be two books in one, with the two sections having been composed without reference to each other. I will therefore review them separately.

Part I. The Story of a Remarkable Discovery

    The section by Hershel Shanks constitutes the story of the ossuary’s discovery, identification, and the early events following its announcement to the world. This is a story told as only Shanks can tell it. His prose brings drama and excitement to the find, reveals how the inscription’s significance gradually dawned on the discoverers, and unveils the disappointment at the box’s damage when unpacked in Toronto. It is also a story that only Shanks can tell, for it involves shadowy individuals whose identity Shanks must keep secret, and private conversations with experts related only by Shanks.

    The story’s drama begins with the revelation of the damage incurred by the ossuary during its shipment to the Royal Ontario Museum (known as the ROM). It then jumps back to the inscription’s discovery, decipherment, and initial publication by Professor André Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris, and to Shanks’ checking of the geological characteristics of the stone box. This is followed by the press announcement, its international coverage, and the arrangements for the Discovery Channel documentary. After this, Shanks returns to the events at the Royal Ontario Museum, the ossuary’s presentation to the scholarly world, and its early examination by selected experts in the field. Shanks’ section concludes by introducing the ossuary’s owner, Oded Golan, and discussing various rumors that had surfaced in the first few months after the announcement of the ossuary. Interspersed within this story are discussions of the possible relationships between James and Jesus (accompanied by helpful genealogical charts), debates with scholars critical of the ossuary’s identification, statistical analyses of names in ancient Israel, and helpful introductions to paleography and ossilegium (the practice of burial in stone ossuaries). Unfortunately, little new information appears here that would help the reader judge the key question of whether the ossuary is real or not. There is no advance beyond Lemaire’s essay, published six months earlier, which announced the ossuary and its inscription to the world.

    No doubt about it, Hershel Shanks tells a great story. But do his story, evidence, and arguments demonstrate that this ossuary and its inscription were those of James the brother of Jesus Christ? Even setting aside, for the moment, the IAA’s determination, I think not. To understand why, we must resist the temptation to reduce this question to the binary opposition of, is this the ossuary of James Jesus’ brother or is it a forgery? Instead, there are four general possibilities for the ossuary’s identification. First, it could be what Shanks and Lemaire claim it is, namely, the ossuary was created for James the brother of Jesus Christ at the time of his burial. Second, it could be real—i.e., both box and inscription were created in antiquity for someone named James—but that person was not James the brother of Jesus Christ. Third, it could be an ancient forgery; someone—perhaps a pious monk who wished to attract pilgrims to his shrine—created a fake in antiquity by adding the inscription (in whole or in part), most likely in the fourth or fifth century when increasing numbers of pilgrims were traveling to the Holy Land. Fourth, it could be a modern forgery.

    In order to prove the first possibility, namely, that this is the ossuary of James Jesus’ brother, at least four points need demonstration. If even one of the points cannot be verified, then the proof fails and the ossuary falls into one of the other three possibilities. First, the ossuary’s inscription must refer to James, the brother of Jesus Christ. Second, the ossuary must be from Jerusalem. Third, the language of the ossuary’s inscription and the character of its writing (paleography) must be from the first century. Fourth, the ossuary and its inscription need to be shown to be old, that is, that many centuries have passed since the ossuary was carved from its stone, and the inscription was carved into it. Shanks admits up front that he cannot show any of these points with 100% certainty, but, he argues, a strong case can be made for them.

    The argument that the ossuary’s inscription refers to James the brother of Jesus Christ, the first point, is based largely on statistical calculations about the frequency of names.6 Drawing upon the work of Lemaire and expert statisticians, Shanks argues that in Jerusalem during the nine decades in which ossilegium was practiced there, only 20 people would be named James, have a brother named Jesus and a father named Joseph.7 Despite the fact that this makes it only a 5% chance that the inscription refers to the James, Shanks concludes that it is likely.8

    Two key numbers need to be calculated in order to work out this percentage. One is the likelihood that the three names of James, Jesus and Joseph would be joined together as two brothers and their father.9 The other is the population of males in the period under investigation.10 The two numbers are then multiplied together to arrive at the number of times this combination would be statistically likely to have occurred.

    While the statistical procedures used to calculate these figures are sophisticated and expertly done, the problem is that they based on created data, not on real data. They are subject to what computer scientists call the GIGO factor, that is, “garbage in equals garbage out.” The data for the statistics was manufactured by a series of hypotheses, some of them quite reasonable in and of themselves, which together helped statisticians make an educated—but untestable—guess at the population to be used in this test. Let us examine some of these assumptions.

    To create a data figure for the population of Jerusalem, the following assumptions were made: adult males only, living in Jerusalem, between 20 BCE and 70 CE (the period in which ossilegium was practiced in Jerusalem), assuming a constant population density of 160-200 people per square acre.

    While these are reasonable assumptions, other reasonable assumptions could, or even should, be included. Shanks himself points out that Jerusalem was a burial center for the Jewish diaspora (Shanks & Witherington, p.61). Jews from across the Mediterranean and Levant brought their dead to be interred in this holy city. He also mentions the many villages in the Jerusalem area whose citizens may have buried their dead in caves near Jerusalem. Including both of these would increase the population figure used in the statistics (and thus increase the number of men named James who had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus). Other considerations would also increase this figure: for example, Galilee is not factored in. James, Jesus and their father Joseph were all Galileans; they were not natives of Jerusalem. Perhaps the population of Galilee needs to be incorporated into the calculations.

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