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The James Bone Box: Hoax or History?

© Copyright 2003 by John Baskette

In October of 2002 the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) reported a major new archeological discovery. They announced that the burial box of James the Brother of Jesus was found in Jerusalem. This box had inscribed on it the words, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The inscription, if authentic, would be the earliest mention of Jesus outside the New Testament, and would confirm the reliability of the Bible. [1]

BAR compiled good evidence. They had two experts in 1st century Hebrew and Aramaic epigraphy certify the authenticity of the inscription -- i.e. it conformed well to first century Aramaic letter forms and word usage. [2] Two other scientists from the Geological Survey of Israel analyzed numerous samples from box and observed, "No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found." [3]

This box, however, did not come from an archeological dig, but from a private collector. The finding's history and origin -- where it was found and who has owned it over the years -- was unknown. This lack of "provenance" for such a sensational artifact immediately raised suspicions that it might not be authentic.

To resolve the controversy, In March of 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) appointed a committee of 14 scholars to examine this find plus the "Jehoash" inscription, both objects of unknown provenance which appeared on the antiquities market about the same time. On June 18, 2003, the IAA announced in a press conference that the "James Ossuary inscription" is a forgery. It should be noted, however, that one of the 14 scholars who signed the report has since decided that the inscription is genuine. [4]

Background

The burial box of James is a called a "bone box." First century Jews initially buried their dead on shelves in caves until the flesh desiccated away. After about a year the bones would be buried a second time inside carved limestone boxes call ossuaries -- hence the term "bone box."

Ossuaries captured the attention of much of the Christian world when in 1990, an ossuary inscribed with, "Yehosef bar Qayafa" was unearthed accidentally by Israeli construction workers. It was one of two ossuaries of the family of "Caiaphas," the same Caiaphas, the high priest, spoke of in the gospels. [5]

A private collector brought the James bone box, also called the James Ossuary, to André Lemaire. The collector's identity was not revealed in the original article, but the IAA fairly quickly determined that it was Oded Golan, known as a collector with of one of the most extensive set of ancient artifacts in Israel. In March of 2003, Israeli police searched Golan's property. In July of 2003, Golan was arrested and detained, then released by Israeli authorities under investigation for forgery. Israeli authorities claim that the search revealed a storage space rented by Golan in a Tel Aviv suburb that contained forged ancient seals and inscriptions in various stages of production, engraving tools, and labeled bags of soil from excavations sites around the country. In spite of the nature of these claims, the authorities did not hold Golan for trial, but released him pending further investigation. [6]

The IAA committee findings

BAR reprinted the IAA committee summary report available online. Notably, the committee has not yet released its full report, causing many authorities to withhold judgment pending further analysis of the data. Among these is the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada where conservators examined the ossuary in some detail and where it was displayed from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003. In fact, the ossuary broke in transit from Israel and was restored by conservators in Canada. [7]

The following quote from the materials subcommittee member Jacques Neguer suffices to give the essence of the IAA committee's findings:

The ossuary is authentic. Its inscription is a forgery. All the various scratches on the ossuary are coated in the original patina and only the inscription and its immediate surroundings are coated with an artificial "patina" - like [a] material of round crystalline granules. The inscription cuts through the original patina and appears to have been written by two different writers using different tools.

Forgery expert Joe Nickell, writing for the Skeptical Inquirer in an article published before the release of the IAA committee findings made similar observations. He also noted that the ossuary had unmistakable, but faint circular decorations on the front. He also points out that, while these decorations are blurred and nearly effaced, the inscription remains sharp and pristine.[8] Joe Nickell's most provocative claim is found in a later issue in response to a letter to the editor. There Nickell says, "Whether or not the James ossuary is an exception (to being a fake relic) must be decided on the evidence, not on a dismissal of evidence and ad hominem insinuations. Meanwhile, a "very prominent" Israeli collector has come forward to allege that the ossuary had been offered to him a year before the Biblical Archaeology Review article. The inscription at that time, he stated, bore only the words James son of Joseph" [9]

How Ought Christians To Respond to the James Ossuary Controversy?

The ossuary, if authentic, is certainly an exciting finding. It would be one more piece of evidence to add to the known extra-Biblical evidences for the Life of Christ. [10] The fact that some scholars, even after the release of the IAA committee summary, believe that it is authentic is sufficient grounds to at least remain open minded about the authenticity of the ossuary. As Christians, our community expects there to be some bias against our views--even hostility toward any evidence that could in any way verify the Biblical accounts. As such we are reluctant to accept any premature rejection of possible evidence like the ossuary.

Given all this, it is still prudent to be skeptical of this finding. The reason follows from normal skeptical principles regarding claims.

Now, skeptics like to encapsulate principles of skeptical thought by saying that "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence." This principle as stated, however, has always been misleading because "extraordinary" is never properly defined. For example, Science makes numerous extraordinary claims. One such claim is that there are objects in the universe -- black holes -- where gravity has compressed the mass of a star into a singularity of zero volume and infinity density. But is the evidence for the existence of black holes extraordinary? Not in the same sense as the black hole claim is extraordinary. The vast majority of people accept the existence of black holes solely on the reported testimony of scientists who are sure of their existence. Regardless, few would question the judgment of the majority in this case. Why? Because it is even more extraordinary that the whole scientific community would maintain that black holes exist if in fact black holes do not exist. In this sense the "extraordinary claims" dictum can be supported. Yet, atheistic skeptics do question the judgment of Christians based on Christian acceptance of the testimony of scripture, even when it can be shown how completely extraordinary the scriptural testimony would be if Christ did not in fact raise from the dead.

Here is more accurate way to apply skeptical principles for evaluating claims. Compare the probability of a claim with the probability that we would have the current evidence for a claim if it were not true. [11] Whichever alternative is more likely determines whether or not we should accept the claim.

A simplified statement of this principle is to ask of any claim: "What is more likely? That the claim is true or that the evidence for this claim is the result of accident or deception? Whichever alternative is more likely determines what we ought to accept.

Now, when we apply this understanding to the evidence for the James Ossuary, we are faced with the claim that this ossuary is the bone box of James, the brother of Jesus. There is little controversy over some parts of the claim. The ossuary is very old from the first century. This part of the claim is not extraordinary. A 1994 catalogue lists 895 of these ossuaries in the state of Israel, with many more likely to be found in private collections. [12] The initial analysis of the ossuary is reasonable grounds to accept that the ossuary is genuine.

There are also good grounds to believe that the evidence is not the result of accident. If the inscription is authentic, then it most certainly must refer James, the brother of Jesus, written about in the Bible. Lemaire argues this reasonably effectively in the original article.

But, the idea that this could be an act of forgery is, unfortunately, very credible. The estimated monetary value of this find, if shown to be authentic is $2 million. [13]

That plus the notoriety of such a find is sufficient grounds for anyone to be skeptical of this find and to require a high standard of proof before accepting the claim to be true. Add to that the object's unknown provenance, the apparently questionable character of Oded Golan, plus the IAA findings, then it is reasonable to regard the James ossuary as a forgery until better evidence is forthcoming.


[1] Lemaire, André. "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus." Biblical Archaeological Review, 28:6 (November/December 2002), pp. 24-33.

[2] Ibid. sidebar, p. 28. Aramaic is a language similar to Hebrew that was most widely spoken in first century Israel. Epigraphy is the study of ancient inscriptions. One of the two experts was Andre Lemaire, the author of the BAR article.

[3] Ibid. sidebar, p. 29. The Patina is the coating that forms over an object as it ages. Analysis of the patina of an ancient artifact may be used to determine its age.

[4] Shanks, Hershel. "Ossuary Update, The Storm Over The Bone Box." Biblical Archaeological Review, 29:5 (September/October 2004), sidebar p.26. The text of this article is available online at The Storm Over the Bone Box at BAR's web site.

[5] Fine, Steven. "Why Bone Boxes? Splendor of Herodian Jerusalem Reflected in Burial Practice." Biblical Archaeological Review, 27:5 (September/October 2001), p.41. The gospel passages that mention Caiaphas are Matthew 26, Luke 3, John 11, John 18, and Acts 4.

[6] Posner, Michael. "Forgery mystery creates a Pandora's Box" The globe and Mail online at http://www.globeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20030726.ossuary26/BNStory/Entertainment/. and Romey, Kristin M. "James Ossuary Owner Under Arrest" Archaeology online at http://www.archaeology.org/magazine.php?page=online/news/ossuary2.

[7]See the Royal Ontario Museum James Ossuary pages at http://www.rom.on.ca/ossuary/ for full details.

[8] Nickell, Joe. "Bone (Box) of Contention: The James Osssuary." Skeptical Inquirer, 27:2 (March/April 2003), pp. 19-22.

[9] nickell. Joe. Response to Letter to the Editor of Skeptical Inquirer 27:4 (July/August 2003), p. 65.

[10]For more information see Habermas, Gary R., The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ, (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Company) 1996.

[11] This is not an ad hoc or speculative reformulation. Rather it follows quite directly from an analysis of Bayes' Theorem. See Holder, Rodney D. "Hume on Miracles: Bayesian Interpretation, Multiple Testimony and the Existence of God", The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 49:1 (March, 1998), pp. 49-65.

[12] Fine. P. 40.

[13]See Ossuary Tales Archaeology online at http://www.archaeology.org/found.php?page=/0301/newsbriefs/ossuary.html. Also see Ossuary Dethroned Archaeology online at http://www.archaeology.org/found.php?page=online/news/ossuary3.html


The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26


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