25 June 2016

The Brother of Jesus

I was fortunate enough to be taking Archaeology in college when the “James Ossuary” was revealed to the public. It was an exciting event for the class to talk about, and, as I recall, it was a topic everyone wanted for their final term paper. Alas, our teacher made us all pick a different topic. I ended up writing about the bytdwd inscription found at Tel Dan, but that’s another story.

The ossuary (bone burial box) is engraved with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. If this inscription is authentic to the first century it might refer to the James in the New Testament, the head of the Jerusalem church. This would truly be an exciting find. Unfortunately, there were several problems with the ossuary when it was made public. First of all, it wasn’t found in situ. It was part of a private collection and purchased on the antiquities market in the 1970s. This automatically casts a shade of suspicion over the find in the minds of many professionals. When it was initially revealed, a number of professional epigraphers and paleographers concluded that it was authentic and from the latter half of the first century AD. However, other scholars registered skepticism about the possibility that the find could be authentic. And even if the ossuary proves to bear an authentic first century inscription, what is the likelihood that the Jesus, James, and Joseph in the inscription are identical with the Biblical characters.

Even now, over a decade later, the ossuary is a matter of controversy. In 2004, the Israeli Antiquities Authority released a statement saying that they had tested the box and that it was a late forgery. However, other independent studies seemed to confirm the first century date. The owner of the ossuary was put on trial by the Israeli government for forgery and was found not guilty, but this doesn’t settle the matter of whether the box is authentic.

This particular book,  The Brother of Jesus, written soon after the ossuary went public, is really two books in one. The first part of the book, written by Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, gives the archaeological background of the box. As one of the people responsible for the public unveiling of the ossuary, he gives the inside story of how the box came to the attention of Andre Lemaire, and how he recognized the possibility inherent in the inscription that the owner had never considered. Shanks tells the background story on the ossuary and goes on to explain the controversy surrounding it up to the time the book was written and the methods used to date the box.

The second part of the book, written by Ben Witherington III, turns to the character of James himself. He gives a background of who James was in the New Testament and how he is important to the history of the Christian church. Some of this is basic info that any Bible reader would know. However, the most interesting part of his section was the exploration of later legends that developed around James and the political and theological biases that led to them. Also he talks about the implications of the ossuary for various views of the brothers of Jesus in the New Testament, explaining how the authenticity of the ossuary would affect Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant theology. He gives a background and evaluation of the origin of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary doctrine as well. Finally he concludes with a plea for the significance of James as an equal to the more well known and understood Peter and Paul.

Overall this was a great book. Both parts were well written and informative. The second part has probably held up better than the first, as the debate on the authenticity of the ossuary has moved on since Shanks’s overview. However, it still stands as a fascinating account of how the ossuary was made public. If you’re interested in archaeology or New Testament backgrounds and theology, you’ll probably find this book interesting.

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