Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

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Articles in this issue

The South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


James in the Box
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 Washington Times.

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 audiences.

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 unprovenanced finds.

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 they be?

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 story.

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.


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