Of Politics and Patina: Is the Case Closed for the James Ossuary?

The 'James Bond,' squabbling geologists, a possible vendetta, and the uncertainties of biblical archaeology.

June 18, 2003--When the Israel Antiquities Authority announced today that the much-heralded "bone box of the brother of Jesus" was a fake, many believed the dispute over whether the ossuary was a forgery was finally settled.

But archeological experts in North America say the case of the ossuary, hailed in November as possibly the most important

archaeological discovery relating to the life of Jesus

, is far from closed.

"The ossuary is real. But the inscription is fake," Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority told Reuters at a Jerusalem press conference, referring to the Aramaic words on the bone box that read, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." "What this means is that somebody took a real box and forged the writing on it, probably to give it a religious significance."

American media latched on to the IAA's statement. The Christian Science Monitor said Wednesday's announcement "ended months of professional speculation about the veracity of the timeworn relics." And CNN declared, "'Jesus box' exposed as fake."

The IAA, however, has not yet released an official report. Some scholars say it is too early to determine what the authority's findings really mean, especially since they run counter to the results of studies on the ossuary done last year by the Israel Geological Survey and Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.


Hershel Shanks, head of the Biblical Archaeology Society, and biblical scholar Ben Witherington, Beliefnet columnist and professor at Auburn Theological Seminary, have been the most public proponents of the ossuary's authenticity. Today they issued a statement defending their position. Shanks, who co-authored the book "The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family" with Witherington last spring, said, "Some of the world's greatest paleographers, and two teams of rigorous scientists that have tested the inscription, have found nothing to question as to its authenticity."

No one doubts the authenticity of the actual ossuary, which archeologists agree dates from the first century A.D. and is typical of other bone boxes of the time period. But the inscription on the box, which led many to believe it could be linked to Jesus, had been contested by some scholars since the revelation of the ossuary's existence in the fall. With today's announcement, it is now being formally discredited.

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