Is it the real thing? When scholars announced in October 2002 that they'd found an empty first-century bone box inscribed with the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," skeptics were sure the box--or 'ossuary'--would turn out to be a fake. But a battery of tests suggests that the box may be related to Jesus of Nazareth, according to the documentary "James, the Brother of Jesus," airing on the Discovery Channel on Easter Sunday.
The one-hour show lines up questions--Is the box itself really that old? Is its inscription a forgery? Could it really be the James?--and interviews supporters and critics alike in an attempt to get at the truth.
The show's sleuths follow the ossuary's owner, Israeli collector Oded Golan, to the Jerusalem dealer Golan claims to have bought the box from in the early 1970s. Even those who believe the bone box is probably genuine are less than thrilled that it came to light through the shady antiquities market, and not a professional archaeological dig. Modern-day tomb raiders often pillage the ancient burial caves that honeycomb parts of Israel, leaving the bones behind--and occasionally forging very realistic inscriptions on the boxes before bringing them to market.
We also meet a gun-toting representative of Israel's anti-looting patrol, who spelunks through the burial caves, snaking through crevices and demonstrating how the tomb raiders operate. By the time he's finished explaining the grave robbers' techniques, it seems pretty clear that the ossuary was illegally taken from its resting place. But does that mean it's a fake?
Not necessarily. The stone the box is made of, and its shape confirm it is from a likely region of first-century Palestine. A remaining bone of contention, however, is the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Patina tests from Israel's geological survey suggest that the inscription was carved at the time they believe James's bones would have placed in this type of container, according to burial customs of the time. But some scholars think the first part of the inscription--"James, son of Joseph"--was carved by a different hand than the one who incised the last phrase--"brother of Jesus," and that the second phrase was carved as much as a century later.
Dr. Frank Moore Cross, a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, claims that "if it's forged, it's by a genius." Cross believes that, forged or not, both sections are by the same hand. Other experts are less sure; as the show proceeds, viewers are left to put their faith in the Ph.D. they think has the best credentials. A final lab test on the inscription--saved for the end of the show--sheds more light on the forgery possibility.
The documentary briefly discusses religious issues such as Catholic and Orthodox views of Jesus' family and one Armenian Church's intriguing stake in the discovery. Most interesting is the speculation on what Christianity would have been like if James, rather than Peter or Paul, had become the most prominent leader of Jesus' first followers.
We'll never know every detail of the bone box's history, but the show makes a strong case for its authenticity. The ossuary research alone is a fascinating introduction to biblical archaeology. The debate will continue, but if scholars do find out more--especially about similar ossuaries and their inscriptions--it might support the claim that the bone box is, for Christians, the greatest archaeological find of our time.