Skip to: Site Menu | Main content


The O. J. Verdicts and the Ossuary of James





Shortly after I saw the images, a representative of the Royal Ontario Museum asked me to join a panel to discuss the artifact while I was attending the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. I agreed, and the representative followed up by asking my view on the piece....The Royal Ontario Museum’s staff apparently did not like the reservations I expressed. A few minutes after I was invited to join the panel, a second phone call disinvited me. That was the quickest turnaround I have ever experienced, although excommunication by quasi-scholars is hardly an unusual event in my discipline.



See Also: Essays on the James Ossuary and the Temple Tablet



By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
April 2014


On October 3, 1995, a jury acquitted O. J. Simpson of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. A civil trial in 1997 went the other way.

The difference in results involved standards of proof in criminal and civil litigation. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” does not remove every sense of uncertainty, but it does confer a presumption of innocence on defendants. There is the civil standard of showing “preponderance of the evidence” factors in judgments of probability. Whatever the truth about the killings, the criminal and civil adjudications are not at odds.

A jury in Israel acquitted Oded Golan of forgery in the case of the ossuary of James and other artifacts on 14 March 2012. The ossuary is a humble box, designed for containing human bones. It is labeled, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” In delivering his decision, the judge found that the failure of the prosecution to overcome the presumption of innocence did not mean that the inscription was authentic.

The verdict controversy over the legal case has leaked over into discussion of the artifact and confused several issues. However, when we focus on the relevant historical questions, three old problems remain.

First, we do not know the origin of the ossuary. Absent that knowledge, we are in difficulty because “if you do not know where an artifact has come from, it is not really an archaeological discovery at all -- only an item on the collectors' market. Context alone can explain what precisely an artifact was used for, the conditions it has been submitted to, its meaning for the people who deposited it, and the chain of possession that reaches from its deposit to its possession by the current owner. All those considerations are involved in the issue of authenticity, and many of them are more interesting than whether or not a given object is a forgery. That means that whoever took this piece from its cave (if that is where it was found) not only looted the ossuary itself but also looted our knowledge of what the ossuary really means” (Chilton 2003). That quotation is from an article published by The Bible and Interpretation in April 2003.

Since then, the problem of provenance remains, joined by two others. The ossuary’s inscription reads, “Jakob, son of Joseph,” and then “brother of Jesus.” The writing is of a different kind in the latter phrase, making one wonder when it was added. And even more so, why “Jesus”? Paul calls James “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19), and Paul shows that Aramaic speakers used the term “Lord” of Jesus (1 Corinthians 16:22). Both of those usages come from a time before the death of James so that the bare use of “Jesus” in the inscription needs explaining if Jesus of Nazareth is really at issue.

The April 2003 article in The Bible and Interpretation appeared after I had consulted with photographs provided by the Biblical Archaeology Society. Shortly after I saw the images, a representative of the Royal Ontario Museum asked me to join a panel to discuss the artifact while I was attending the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. I agreed, and the representative followed up by asking my view on the piece.

It turned out he was aware of my role a decade earlier in authenticating the ossuary of Caiaphas. In that case, however, the artifact was unearthed in situ, the inscriptions showed no sign of additions, and the name was right. When The New York Times published Michael Specter’s front page article, titled “Tomb May Hold the Bones Of Priest Who Judged Jesus” (August 14, 1992), it incorporated an interview I gave the author as well as material in an article I had published.

The Royal Ontario Museum’s staff apparently did not like the reservations I expressed. A few minutes after I was invited to join the panel, a second phone call disinvited me. That was the quickest turnaround I have ever experienced, although excommunication by quasi-scholars is hardly an unusual event in my discipline.

I wrote a second piece for The Bible and Interpretation (September 2003) after Oded Golan’s arrest, in which I pointed out that the Royal Ontario Museum and the Society of Biblical Literature had not met their professional responsibility to exert scholarly standards and that journalists had not shown much investigatory skill, Jim West roundly criticized me for this position in a follow-up piece (September 2003). This is a curious essay which accuses me of not having read articles in The Bible and Interpretation, but curiously nor does it refer to my first article where I clearly refer to reservations that West himself repeats without attribution.

His gravamen, however, is that “it is the nature of the press to sensationalize; they cannot be expected to do otherwise.” Those who agree might consult Michael Specter’s coverage of the Caiaphas ossuary. But “most important,” West is sure, “professional organizations cannot and do not speak.” That, transparently, is untrue, because the Israel Antiquities Authority regularly involves itself in discussion and litigation; the Royal Ontario Museum touted the artifact -- and then fell silent.

The intervening years have not resolved the issues, but in some ways discussion has advanced.

First, the issue of provenance has been recognized more clearly. Eric Meyers of Duke University (July 2003) has been very clear about that; he was critical of the Society of Biblical Literature for offering itself as an event for – in effect – the purposes of advertising. West does not refer to this criticism, published months before mine; controversy over the ossuary has encouraged contributors to choose their opponents, as well as their evidence.

Yet the Israeli Antiquities Authority has also missed opportunities – especially to emphasize the issue of provenance by positive assertion. In the case of the Caiaphas ossuary, the IAA buried the bones in one place, displayed the ossuary in another, and covered over the original cave. I enjoy visiting the site when I visit Jerusalem, but it is past time for it to be indicated appropriately, and anyone interested in first century Judaism and Christianity would understand its value to global heritage.

Scientific methods have advanced discussion somewhat. Since the issue of patina was raised by Jeffrey R. Chadwick (November 2003), spectral analysis has been conducted and reported in The Bible and Interpretation (“The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot (Jesus Family Tomb) Ossuaries,” Rosenfeld, Pellegrino, Feldman, Krumbein). They link “the chemical fingerprints” of the ossuary to “the walls and ceiling patinas of the Talpiot tomb.”

Three of the same authors (with another contributor) also argue for the authenticity of the Jehoash Inscription (“The Jehoash Inscription – After the Verdict,” Rosenfeld, Feldman, Kronfeld, Krumbein). They acknowledge, however, that precise dating is impossible on this basis, and that provenance cannot actually be fixed by their method. Carbon particles in the Jehoash artifact, they say, puts it six centuries after Jehoash, and the related team of authors suggests the James ossuary had been removed from its location in the Talpiot site. In addition, virtually all investigators have observed that the ossuary has been subjected to cleaning and other procedures which must increase the uncertainty of findings.

The authors nonetheless use their association of the James ossuary with Talpiot to reinforce a statistical argument on the grouping of names. This argument overreaches. The hand that wrote the first phrase of the inscription is different from the second; the “grouping” may well be deliberate. Come to that, if we allow that -- patina or not -- ossuaries might be moved about (a prominent supposition in discussion of Talpiot), what would have prevented the collection of ossuaries with names reminiscent of New Testament figures in an ancient period? The variety of languages used in the inscriptions at Talpiot (Greek and Hebrew as well as Aramaic) in any case undercuts a Galilean family tomb argument and focuses interest on a more developed phase of fascination with Jesus. At that stage, was the phrase “brother of Jesus” added to an older inscription?

When an artifact is removed from its context, it necessarily becomes a topic of speculation. Until probable findings that take account of all evidence are offered (not only the evidence you like or only the data collected by fashionable methods), we can at least refrain from speculating in a financial sense.



Works Cited

Chadwick, Jeffrey R. "Indications that the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription is a Forgery." The Bible and Interpretation, April 2014. November 2003. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Chadwick_Indications.shtml.

Chilton, Bruce. "Another look at the James Ossuary." The Bible and Interpretation, April 2014. April 2003. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2003/04/Another_look.shtml.

---. "Scholars, Journalists and the Ossuary." The Bible and Interpretation, April 2014. September 2003. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Chilton_Scholars.shtml.

Meyers, Eric. "The James Ossuary Yet Again." The Bible and Interpretation, April 2014. July 2003. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Ossuary_Again.shtml.

Rosenfeld, Amnon, et al. "The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot (Jesus Family Tomb) Ossuaries." The Bible and Interpretation, April 2014. May 2011. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/JOT.shtml.

---. "The Jehoash Inscription Tablet-After the Verdict." The Bible and Interpretation, April 2014. May 2012. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/ros368027.shtml.

West, Jim. "Scholars And the James Ossuary: A Reply to Bruce Chilton." The Bible and Interpretation, April 2014. September 2003. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/West_reply.shtml.





Comments (3)


Will respond in the future. In the meantime, I cannot agree with his conclusions.
#1 - Jim West - 04/23/2014 - 15:14



I'm not quite sure what point is being made and whether epistemology or ethics is under discussion.
Jury decisions are indeed expressions of opinion which have a corporate nature and for which different standards (beyond doubt, reasonable certainty etc.) may be set. These things considered, the failure of a criminal prosecution against someone accused of forging something is not a very strong argument for regarding the thing in question as genuine. If it is being treated as a strong argument a serious mistake is being made.
On the ethical side, a society which is there to foster discussion and free speech ought to have as few corporate opinions as possible since their corporate nature may in the end force resignations on grounds of dissenting opinion, contrary to the aim of free speech. A preaching organisation by contrast may reasonably say that it needs to preach something identifiable and that dissenters should be required, however regretfully, to leave the tent.
An organisation which claims to deserve public trust behaves irresponsibly if it misrepresents, for public consumption, the balance of informed opinion.
None of which detracts from the obligations on individuals to form and express their personal opinions responsibly. Perhaps all this philosophical stuff is beside the point. Maybe Professor Chilton is saying that he was always agnostic about the artifacts in question and that this agnostic disposition has been more and more vindicated?
#2 - Martin Hughes - 04/24/2014 - 17:59



U-hauling that ossuary from unknown provenance, to Canada, then back to Jerusalem, in two different locations, depending on the book/film by the 'BAR Crowd' should raise questions at to what is involved here. Furthermore, word on the street here is that the heel of the Crucified Man from Giv'at Mivtar, is now being U-Hauled from its original provenance, to the Abba tomb a few hundred meters away. Why, well ask the BAR Crowd and film makers.

As far as OJ, one of his former lawyers,(before being dis-barred) defended a twice convicted criminal for financial fraud. After being released from prison, he later set up another 'non-prophet' The Jerusalem Historical Society which funded some of the current problems facing biblical archaeology today. As to where the money went, well, stay tuned.
#3 - Joe Zias - 04/29/2014 - 03:53






Use the form below to submit a new comment. Comments are moderated
and logged, and may be edited. You must provide your full name.
Inappropriate material will not be posted.

Name
E-mail (Will not appear online)
Comment