James in the
By Maxine Grossman
“James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.”
When it was announced last fall that these words had
been found carved on an ancient ossuary (a funerary casket for bones),
dozens of newspapers, magazines, and television news programs leapt on the
story. Could this stone box really have held the mortal remains of the man
identified in the New Testament as brother of Jesus, author of the Epistle
of James, and an early leader of the church in Jerusalem?
The announcement took place last October 21 at a
Washington press conference sponsored by the Biblical Archaeology Review
(BAR) and organized by its editor, Hershel Shanks. The news itself
had been distributed to major media outlets several weeks earlier on an
embargo basis, according to Larry Witham, who covered the story for the
Shanks, a lawyer by training, is best known for the
successful campaign he waged in the late 1980s to “liberate” the Dead Sea
Scrolls from the small group of editors who were viewed as monopolizing
access to them. His Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS)—publisher of BAR as
well as Bible Review and Archaeology Odyssey—is the major
contemporary force in popularizing biblical archaeology for general
The spotlight, on this occasion, shone on a BAR
article by André Lemaire, an epigrapher at the École Pratique des Hautes
Études in Paris, who “discovered” the ossuary while visiting a private
collection. Lemaire said that the owner—later identified as Oded Golan of
Tel Aviv—had been in possession of the artifact for some time but had not
understood the significance of its inscription.
The Aramaic names on the side of the box—Ya’akov (Jacob
or James), Yosef, and Yeshua (Joshua or Jesus)—were common in ancient
Palestine and are regularly found in ossuary inscriptions. As Lemaire later
explained, he first saw a picture of the ossuary (then in storage) last
spring, while visiting Golan to evaluate some other pieces in his
collection. Lemaire said he then contacted Shanks and the two encouraged
Golan to have the box tested by the Geological Survey of Israel and the
inscription evaluated by additional experts.
Present at the press conference along with Shanks were
Joseph Fitzmyer of Catholic University, P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins,
and Ben Witherington III of the Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
Lemaire participated via conference call from France.
In the BAR article and his comments at the press
conference, Lemaire judged the ossuary to come from first century Jerusalem
and argued that it stood a good chance of belonging to the James of the New
Testament. Fitzmyer, McCarter, and Witherington agreed with Lemaire’s dating
and placing of the ossuary but contended that it might have held the remains
of some other ancient Judean.
The articles published during the first few days of
coverage (Oct. 21-24) relied heavily on the information provided by Shanks,
Lemaire, and the other scholars (whose presence at the press conference was
not mentioned in most reports). A few papers such as the Los Angeles
Times and the Deseret News went beyond the pre-packaged story and
solicited comments from additional academic experts in biblical studies. But
with nothing but reports of the press conference to go on, the outside
experts had a hard time offering specific responses to Lemaire’s claims.
In an enterprising front page story October 22,
Cleveland Plain Dealer religion reporter David Briggs not only quoted
local scholars and the Anchor Bible Dictionary (a standard reference
work), but on the basis of an interview with one of Shanks’ colleagues at
BAS reported that there were plans to exhibit the ossuary at Toronto’s Royal
Ontario Museum (ROM) the following month.
By Sunday, October 27, the news flow had shifted to the
exhibit, which was scheduled to coincide with the annual meetings of the
Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental
Research—two major scholarly associations—and BAS’ own fifth annual “Bible
and Archaeology Fest.” Several articles noted that the museum had been
offered the opportunity to exhibit the ossuary on a very short deadline, but
none pursued this line of inquiry. In fact, as Edward Keall, senior curator
in the museum’s West Asian department, told me, Shanks had called him one
week before the press conference with a “high stakes poker” offer: If the
ROM turned down the chance to exhibit the ossuary, he would offer it to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Smithsonian instead.
At this point the first notes of controversy were
sounded in the news coverage, when representatives of the Israel Antiquities
Authority were quoted as saying that the owner had not alerted them to the
possible significance of the ossuary when he applied for an export license.
The next phase of the story began with the shocking
news that the ossuary had arrived in Toronto (packed in bubble wrap and
cardboard instead of standard museum-style wood crating) with a number of
cracks, including a major fissure that cut into the final word of the
inscription (“Jesus”). As a result, the focus of coverage moved from the
historical and theological value of the artifact to an account of the crisis
associated with fixing the cracks.
The tone of coverage shifted further after Golan was
“outed” by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz November 8. Reports noted that
Golan, an engineer who has been collecting antiquities since he was a child
and has amassed a major collection (including 30 ossuaries), was asked by
the Israel Antiquities Authority to aid in their investigation into the
origins of the ossuary.
At this point, some articles began to use words like
“controversial” (rather than “ancient”) to describe the artifact and
“reclusive” (in place of “anonymous”) to describe its owner. Questions of
money and legality also came into the picture.
The first such question concerned the widely reported
statement (made by Shanks in the initial press conference) that Golan had
purchased the ossuary 15 years earlier for between $200 and $700. For the
trip to Toronto, it had been insured for anywhere from $1 million to $2
million (reports vary). It emerged that if the ossuary had been purchased
sometime in the mid-1980s it would be subject to a 1978 law permitting the
Antiquities Authority to confiscate it and possibly charge the purchaser
with a crime. Golan quickly explained that Shanks had misunderstood him: He
had purchased the ossuary sometime in the mid-1970s and merely moved it to
his apartment 15 years before.
By November 9, the Canadian press was reporting that
Golan had decided to travel to Toronto to participate in two public
lectures. (He was quoted as saying that he would never sell the ossuary, but
that he might be willing to have it exhibited in other museums.)
Coverage of the museum display and of the biblical
studies conferences in late November focused first on the successful repair
of the ossuary and then on reactions to it. “Well, it is no Shroud of
Turin,” remarked Mike Strobel in a November 15 column in the Toronto Sun.
“Frankly, it looks like a breadbox.”
There is a regular pattern in archaeological
discoveries: First, grand claims are made, then the critiques begin to come
in. But prior to the conferences, the flurry of international academic
skepticism that began almost immediately after the ossuary hit the news went
unnoticed by the media except for a couple of papers in the Mountain West.
On October 25, an unbylined story in the Rocky
Mountain News quoted Paul Flesher, a University of Wyoming Aramaic
scholar, to the effect that the ossuary could just as easily be dated to
second- or third-century Galilee (another context in which such bone-boxes
were used for secondary burial purposes). A November 15 article in the
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle picked up on Flesher’s claims as well as the more
damning argument of Rochelle Altman, an American epigrapher living in
Israel, that the second half of the inscription (“brother of Jesus”) was an
overt forgery. The claims of Flesher and Altman were discussed on several
electronic discussion lists, and essays by the two scholars were published
on a Bible interpretation Web site at Laramie County Community College.
Only after the two academic sessions on the ossuary
(which drew more than 500 people to the museum on November 23 and a
remarkable 1,800 to a session at a downtown hotel the next day) did media
coverage shift back to the central question of the ossuary’s authenticity.
By that time, a number of scholars besides Altman had supported the view
that the inscription (or at least its second half) was a forgery, if perhaps
an ancient “pious fraud.”
In response to the sessions, new attention was also
paid to the controversial subject of unprovenanced artifacts—those for which
all evidence of an original archaeological setting has been lost. Eric
Meyers of Duke University expressed the opinion of many scholars (and the
official policy of several archaeological societies) that such artifacts
should not be examined by scholars because doing so only encourages
archaeological looting and theft. Shanks’ position is that lack of
provenance should not inhibit study of an artifact.
In a month and a half of generally careful and
responsible coverage of the ossuary story, two articles in particular stand
out. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor November 14, Mark
Schulman made clear that the ossuary was only a small part of a much larger
industry in illegal digging, sales to black-market antiquities dealers, and
outright forgery of antiquities. Presenting the Israel Antiquities
Authority’s Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Theft as modern Indiana
Joneses, he was able to show why the archaeologists and historians might
have real problems with Shanks’ decision to publish and publicize
A few weeks after the Toronto meetings, New York
Times science writer John Noble Wilford spelled out the problems that
scholars have had with the inscription. In addition to reporting Altman’s
claim that the script reflects two different hands, Wilford discussed an
assessment by University of Dayton engineering professor Daniel Eylon, who
concluded from an analysis of the surface of the ossuary that scratches in
the stone, which should have been above the inscription if it dated from
ancient times, were actually, in some cases, below it.
The press did, however, fail to pursue at least a
couple of aspects of the story. One is the money trail. The ossuary
skyrocketed in value overnight, and the ROM paid $25,000 to display it (and
netted a profit of $175,000 on visits by some 95,000 viewers, according to
Keall)—but no one reported who received the payment. A museum in Houston has
reportedly asked permission to mount its own exhibit of the ossuary during
the Easter holiday, contingent on permission from the Israel Antiquities
Authority. How much money will change hands this time, and whose hands will
More importantly, there is the story of Shanks’ role in
shepherding the ossuary from discovery to exhibition to publication.
Articles noted his presence at various stages of the story, mentioned that
he would co-author a book on the ossuary with Witherington (available in
time for the Easter/Passover rush, with a first printing by HarperCollins of
a remarkable 75,000 copies), and reported that he helped the Discovery
Channel obtain exclusive rights to a documentary on the find. But only an
October 25 article in the Jerusalem Post by Ellit Jager recognized
Shanks (and BAR) as a major force behind the story. “Shanks,” wrote
Jager, “is often at the forefront of breaking archeological news.”
Shanks’ prepackaging of the story, with just the right
amount of academic skepticism, enabled many reporters to avoid consulting
additional outside sources. Doing so would have made clear that every one of
Lemaire’s assertions was grounded in more speculation than the in-house
critics at the initial press conference indicated.
In January, Shanks was quoted in an AP story announcing
news of another major unprovenanced biblical artifact—this one an
inscription alleged to refer to repairs made to Solomon’s Temple. Not to
explore Shanks’ unique role as the impresario of biblical archaeology is to
miss what may turn out to be the long-term significance of the ossuary
Where will the story go in the future? At this writing,
the Israel Antiquities Authority is conducting its own tests on the ossuary,
and its conclusions will be important. Whether a scholarly consensus will
ultimately decide that the ossuary is an authentic ancient artifact with
potential religious significance or a fraud (ancient or modern, pious or
otherwise) remains to be seen, but don’t bet the house on authenticity.