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The Experts and the Ossuary: A Report on the Toronto Sessions about the James Ossuary

Shanks was obviously not interested in engaging in scholarly analysis but rather wanted to win the point by innuendo and personal attack. 

By Paul Flesher, Director
Religious Studies Program
University of Wyoming

The annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature held in Toronto over the weekend of 22 November 2002 provided the impetus for two scholarly sessions on the James ossuary and its inscription. The first was hosted by the Royal Ontario Museum, and in it, several scholars actually shed some light on the questions surrounding the ossuary. The second event was sponsored by the SBL itself and, although better organized, actually shed more heat than light.

    The ossuary’s display and the two scholarly events were surrounded by an atmosphere of rumor and speculation. HarperSan Francisco announced that Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III would write a book about the inscription that would be published in March 2003. Rumor pinned a 6-figure price tag to the deal. It was also noted that such a fast publication meant that the authors would beat any scholarly analysis into print and thus could not be faulted for failing to discuss it. Another rumor that came to light was that the Discovery Channel had an exclusive deal to publicize the ossuary in its forthcoming documentary “Brother of Jesus.” This arrangement was so tight that other film companies were not allowed to take video pictures of the box. This was confirmed a couple days later when I talked to a cameraman for the History Channel’s documentary and found out that they had been prevented from taking pictures of the ossuary. Another remark given some credence was that the Museum had paid a quarter of a million dollars to display the ossuary. Other rumors were too vicious to repeat in print.

    The Museum event on Saturday afternoon was attended by over 500 people, many sitting in the aisles to hear the proceedings. Hosted by Ed Keall, the curator of the exhibit, the event began with some remarks by Oded Golan, the owner of the ossuary. Golan opened by saying that he had been collecting antiquities since he was 8 year old, and now owned the “largest” collection of such objects. He said that he purchased the ossuary 25 years ago from one of the four antiquities dealers in the Old City of Jerusalem. The dealer told him it was found in the village of Silwan.

    Golan then went on to describe some statistics by Kamil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University. Fuchs altered the assumptions that underlay Lemaire’s statistics. This change resulted in the conclusion that only three people in the 90 years between 20 BCE and 70 CE had the name James, a father named Joseph, and a brother named Jesus.

    Hershel Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, next came to the podium. He began by making a point about how the significance of the ossuary and its inscription kept being over looked. Not only did Golan not recognize its importance for several decades, but others failed as well. Golan had the item in storage and only showed Andre Lemaire a photograph of it; Lemaire had actually visited him to study “more important” objects. Lemaire’s first announcement of the discovery to fellow scholars had no lasting impact. According to Shanks, Lemaire had dinner in Jerusalem with Robert Deutsch, Dr. Porton, and Shanks shortly after discovering the inscription. Although Lemaire announced the find and they talked about it, neither Deutsch nor Porton remember doing so. Similarly, Oded Golan gave Israel’s export authority complete information about the ossuary and its inscription, but they failed to understand its significance.

    According to Shanks, the ossuary’s importance to people, especially Christians, is that it is tactile evidence of real life, of James’ real life, from the actual time.

    Next up was Professor Peter Richardson of the University of Toronto. A scholar of first-century Judaism, his most recent claim to fame is his excellent book on King Herod the Great. He made two important observations.

    First, he talked about the historical changes in James’ titles. In the first century and the second century, James was called the “Brother of Jesus,” as can be seen in Josephus and John. But by the fourth century, he was being called the “Brother of the Lord,” a respectful terminology already seen as early as Paul. So if the inscription were a Byzantine-period forgery, we would expect him to be called the latter title. The use of the former title argues in favor of authenticity. Also, a reference to Mary would be expected if the inscription was fourth century or later.

    Second, Richardson suggested that there was a graffito picture on the small end of the ossuary to the left of the inscription. Although there are random scratches all over the box, the end has a figure with a set of parallel scratches. There are several diagonal scratches to the left and vertical scratches to the right, with horizontal scratches underneath them. Richardson suggested this might have been intended as a picture of a tomb, similar to the graffito found at Yodfat and on a number of other ossuaries. [Note: I looked at the ossuary after the talk, and the scratches are indeed as Richardson described them.]

    Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, an internationally respected paleographer, spoke next. His main point was that the inscription was made by two hands. He observed that the first half of the inscription (“Yaakov son of Yosef”) was done in a formal script and included kerns (=wedges) on the beths, the resh, and the samekh. The script is similar to that found on the Qumran Copper Scroll, which is dated to the 60s CE.

    According to McCarter’s analysis, the inscription’s second half (“brother of Yeshua”) was predominantly written in cursive letters. The dalet and the aleph in particular are proper cursive forms, similar to those found in the second-century Wadi Murabbaat finds. (McCarter later said that he wanted to emphasize the distinction of formal vs. cursive, not the first-century vs. the second-century distinction. He would not say that the script was impossible for the first century.) He also observed that the shin was not made in a cursive style but had a more formal look. He concluded that the inscription was written by two different hands but emphasized that this was probably done in antiquity; he was not saying that the second hand was modern. [Note: McCarter’s analysis has a number of key similarities with Rochelle Altman’s (published on this website), even though it was done independently.]

    Benjamin Witherington was the final speaker, who will be co-authoring the book on the ossuary, and he focused more on the ossuary in its historical context. Acknowledging the rarity among ancient Jewish burials of identifying a person in relation to his brother, he went on to argue that if the inscription had said “brother of Jesus the Messiah,” it would more likely be a forgery. Witherington went on to discuss the theology of ossuary burial, arguing that it was indicative of belief in a bodily resurrection--i.e., it was in keeping with Pharisaic beliefs about life after death.

    Finally, Witherington tackled the theological question of James’ identification head-on. He began by saying that the word translated “brother of” means “brother” and not “cousin.” This raises questions for Catholic theology, which believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary and therefore Jesus could have no siblings. It not an issue for Protestant theology, which sees James as a son of Mary, and is less of an issue for Orthodox belief, which believes that James is the son of Joseph by a previous marriage. Witherington argued that the New Testament evidence suggests that James and other siblings are the children of Mary. He concluded that we would not expect mention of Mary in this inscription because of the patriarchal character of the society.

    In the discussion following these formal remarks, several interesting points were made. Oded Golan, the ossuary’s owner, made several comments. First, there are a few small remnants of bone fragments, the largest being about an inch in diameter. There is enough to do DNA analysis, he said, but this will not be done in the near future. Second, the ossuary sat on his parents’ porch for several years as a decoration. If there has been any cleaning, it was probably done by his mother with water. He also mentioned that he now has over 30 ossuaries in his collection.

    Peter Richardson commented on the rosette design on the opposite side of the ossuary from the inscription. Since the rosettes themselves cannot be seen, although the outer circles can be, Richardson suggested that the design was incomplete in antiquity. The ossuary was needed in a hurry and purchased unfinished off-the-shelf. This suggests, then, that the ossuary was in primary use and thus the inscription is a single piece, not done at two different times.

    The participants in the scholarly session on Sunday were Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne, who identified and published the ossuary and its inscription; Steve Mason of York University, a well-known Josephus scholar; Eric Meyers of Duke University, a former president of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and an internationally respected archaeologist; and John Painter of the University of Canberra (Australia) who has written a book analyzing the traditions concerning James. Hershel Shanks was given the last word. The session was attended by about 1800 people.

    Andre Lemaire opened the proceedings with some general remarks. He argued that the graphic character of the inscription indicates no break in the inscription. The final peh in Yosef is an indication of the end of the word, not the end of an inscription. He reiterated that the letters are formed in first-century script styles and that the dalet, yod, and aleph, although cursive, could still be pre-70.

    Lemaire admitted, as he did in his BAR article, that there is nothing in the inscription that confirms the person buried in the ossuary was the James the brother of Jesus the Messiah. For this, the statistical analysis of the three names provides the best indication. Lemaire’s analysis suggests that there could only be twenty people named Yaakov whose father was Yosef and whose brother was Yeshua in this period.

   Steve Mason continued Lemaire’s scholarly tone with a careful analysis and discussion of the passage in Flavius Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (20:173-203) in which James is mentioned. Mason first observed that the passage was about the High Priest Ananus and mentioned James only incidentally, a point which argues in favor of this being historically authentic information. Overall, according to Mason, Josephus’ point in the Antiquities is that Judaism is a priestly aristocracy, ruled justly by a High Priest. Unfortunately, a bad person is sometimes appointed as High Priest. Ananus was a bad priest, according to Josephus, because he was young, brash, and irresponsible (even though he was over 40). Ananus had a number of people executed out of hand, including James, the “brother of Jesus, the one who is known as the Messiah.”

    Eric Meyers’ comments shifted the session’s tone completely. He began by focusing not on the ossuary but on the manner in which it was acquired and subsequently came to international attention. He opened by saying that he did not have a good feeling about the whole business. He did not like the fact that the ossuary was acquired on the black market or that the owner was under criminal investigation by the Israeli authorities for illicit trade in antiquities. This all stands contrary to the policy of the American Schools of Oriental Research that forbids any and all publication of black market antiquities because it promotes looting of sites and robs items of their historical and archaeological context and meaning.

    After that, he made three main points. First, the illicit nature of the ossuary’s treatment impacts the certainty of its authenticity. The total lack of ancient context and clarity about the object’s recent past should raise a number of warning signals for anyone studying it. Second, the analyses of the inscription’s dialect of Aramaic by Joseph Fitzmyer and Paul Flesher suggest that the inscription and perhaps also the ossuary are later than Lemaire and others claim. This result indicates the necessity of approaching the question of the ossuary’s character with caution. Third, Meyers pointed to the paleographic analysis that indicates the inscription was composed by two hands, referring especially to the study by Rochelle Altman [published here on the Bible and Interpretation website].

    In addition to raising these doubts about the inscription’s “authenticity,” Meyers also made the following observations. Although he thought the terminology “brother of . . .” was “suspicious in the extreme” for ancient Jewish burial inscriptions, Meyers observed that the ossuary itself is fairly typical. It is made of soft Jerusalem limestone in a fairly standard form. Both the dirt covering the box and the patina need further scientific study, for both can be faked. Meyers also found it odd that the inscription was on the back of the ossuary and not on the front, i.e., the side decorated with rosettes.

    Prof. Meyers also commented on his study of the weathering found on the ossuary. The rosette side, he observed, was highly weathered. It clearly covered the rosettes and was responsible for the difficulty in seeing them. The rosettes, then, are clearly from antiquity, and the weathering on them suggests a significant elapse of time before any inscription was added on the opposite side. The weathering on the inscription side of the ossuary, however, does not appear in an even manner. While the left end of the inscription (i.e., the second part) of this “reused ossuary” has more obvious pitting, the right end seems to have been extensively cleaned up. Who did this and when?

    Meyers concluded with a comment about the supposed link between ossuary burial and Pharisaic belief in the resurrection of the dead. He pointed to the Caiaphas ossuary discovered a few years ago. Caiaphas was, of course, a Sadducee and did not believe in the resurrection. So perhaps the ossuary burial is not linked to a belief in life after death.

    Professor John Painter began by admitting that he would like the ossuary to be from THE James but warned us all to be aware of motives that were not scholarly. He noted that the date of 63 CE assigned to the ossuary comes from James’ supposed date of death and not from any evidence found on the ossuary itself. He also scoffed at the statistical studies of the names, arguing that there was an insufficient sample size on which to base any reliable statistical analysis. It is possible that this ossuary is that of James, but there is not enough evidence to indicate probability.

    Painter then briefly discussed the comments by the Christian writers Clement, Eusebius, and Hegisippus of James’ death, in which James is said to have been thrown down from the Temple, stoned, and then beaten to death. Eusebius says that he was buried where he fell and “you can see the monument to him there today.”

    Of course, Painter observes, the rules of Temple purity in the first century would have prevented him from being buried near the Temple or even in Jerusalem. However, there is a tradition that James was buried in the tomb of Zechariah and Bene Hazir on the Mt. of Olives.

    The Armenian Cathedral in the Old City of Jerusalem, which claims to have been founded in the fifth century, reveres James as an important saint. According to their stories, the cathedral’s founders took James’ remains from the tomb and reinterred them in the cathedral. In the cathedral’s inner sanctum lies James’ head, and they say the body is buried in the church as well. They also display James’ throne, and it forms the center of worship in the church. There are no traditions about any ossuary from which James’ bones were taken.

    Then Hershel Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, took the podium, and it was quite apparent immediately that the audience was in the hands of a master rhetorician. He began quietly and in a self-deprecating manner said he had not realized until just before the session that he was supposed to speak and so he had not prepared. He was weighed down by the burden previous speakers laid on him and by the heavy charges they had made. In reply to Professor Meyers, he said he wished there was an archaeological context with the ossuary, but there was not. So the choice is to do something with it as is or do nothing. The ASOR meeting (of which Meyers is a past president) was just in Toronto, Shanks observed, with his voice rising: they ignored it! Why? Because of the “bad man” who purchased it. But isn’t display and scholarly discussion better than the alternative, which is nothing? Shanks then called for a discussion of ASOR’s stand against dealing with black market antiquities. Indeed, he thundered, it is ASOR’s policy itself that encourages the looting of unexcavated sites.

    Shanks then addressed questions of authenticity by first observing that the ossuary itself is first century, as everyone agrees, [Note: Several scholars disagree.]; it is the inscription that is under debate. With regard to the question of whether the second half is original, let the paleographers decide. But after this reasonable beginning, Shanks went on the attack. I don’t understand the suggestion that part of the inscription is two or three hundred years later, he said. And just who is this Rochelle Altman anyway? Has anyone ever heard of her? Shanks was obviously not interested in engaging in scholarly analysis but rather wanted to win the point by innuendo and personal attack. After admitting he could not follow her analysis, he decided to imply that she had no right to participate in the scholarly discussion.

    After discussing the logical reasons why he thought the box and its inscription was not a modern forgery, Shanks then went on to say that there were two kinds of antiquities collectors: good ones and bad ones. The good ones were willing to share their possessions and let the scholarly world publish them, while the bad ones hoarded them in private and showed them to no one. The goal, Shanks claimed, was to turn bad collectors into good ones. He further when on to argue that there was a precedent in dealing with black market items out of archaeological context, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found by Bedouins and sold to Israeli authorities and others.

    To climax his remarks, Shanks paused dramatically and said in a calm yet forceful voice, “All questions are legitimate. What is not legitimate is to vilify and castigate those who attempt to learn.” This was an interesting way to conclude, I thought, given what he had just said about Dr. Altman.

    With the formal remarks over, the format then moved to exchanges among the panelists. Eric Meyers spoke first, reiterating his comments about dealing with the black market in antiquities. Shanks then went on the attack, trying to discredit ASOR’s policy on this matter.

    Andre Lemaire was by this time clearly angry. He attacked Altman’s work, again not dealing with her arguments, but wondering whether anyone had heard of her and saying that she dealt in rumors, not scholarly analysis. Following that, he turned to my dialect analysis without mentioning me by name, saying instead that he did not want to embarrass someone who was obviously a junior scholar whom he did not know. [Note: I helped found the journal Aramaic Studies and presently serve as the President of the International Organization for Targumic Studies.] He then made a few remarks about the evidence I discuss but not about the conclusions I have drawn from it.

    Steve Mason responded  to the invective from Shanks and Lemaire by saying that Altman has put forward carefully reasoned arguments based on the data, and he thought they deserved a hearing rather than an uninformed dismissal. Mason also said that he was puzzled by the continuing impression that ossuaries were limited to the pre-70 period. L.I. Rahmani’s catalogue indicates that their use continued into the third century. Mason further observed that in her study of Jewish names of the period, Rachel Hachlili herself cautioned against treating names as random occurrences (as do the statistical studies by Lemaire and others). Instead, names appear to be associated with particular family lines. This was supported by John Painter, who said that names appear in family constellations, a good example being Matthew’s genealogy. Lemaire responded by saying that this made the identification of THE James with this ossuary even more probable.

    Only two questions could fit into the question period. The first question was directed to the owner, who was in the audience, asking him to say when he purchased the ossuary. Oded Golan then came to the podium and said that he had been collecting since he was 8 and now had a collection of over 3000 items, including over 30 ossuaries. Yigael Yadin even published a find he made when he was 10 years old.

    With regard to the ossuary, he purchased it in the early 1970s from one of the four dealers who were then in the Old City. He did not understand the inscription or its significance because he could not decipher the “brother of” part.

    Golan then made the observation that most biblical materials are now in private hands and would probably remain private unless their owners felt more welcome to share the materials without censure. He himself was more than willing to cooperate.

    The last comment was a statement by noted Josephus scholar Louis Feldman. He explained that the Greek word translated as “aforementioned” in 20:200 of Josephus’ Antiquities was actually a present passive participle and should thus be translated as “the one who is called the messiah.

    Thinking back over the two sessions, most of the comments and observations had the sense of being preliminary, of being initial observations rather than crafted arguments. So they should be seen as the opening round of the debate over the inscription rather than the final word. Scholars, experts, and believers of all sorts will weigh in over the coming months and years, some with reasoned opinions and judgments and others with more emotion than thought. Over the next years, a consensus will develop over the likelihood of whether the remains of James the brother of Jesus the Messiah were originally contained in this ossuary.

    It seems to me that there are three directions of research to watch. The character of the ossuary itself has been identified as significant and research into its material, its wear and weathering, and its style of carving has already begun. The second half of the inscription has also been identified as requiring analysis, which has already gotten underway in terms of dialect and paleography. A third area of investigation still needs significant attention, that of the first part of the inscription. It will be interesting to see what develops over the next several years.