Thoughts on the James Ossuary
Many were suspicious of the IAA’s objectivity since both the head of the IAA and the geologist who took part in the IAA study had declared the ossuary to be a forgery, long before seeing it.
Jesus and the Ossuaries (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003)
Acadia Divinity College
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada B4P 2R6
The ongoing controversy surrounding the question of the authenticity of the inscription on the James Ossuary is frustrating. I recently spoke with Hershel Shanks, editor of the popular Biblical Archaeology Review and asked him if he has himself come to a firm conclusion. He told me that he has not. He, like most of us, awaits a final verdict from the geologists.
I have spoken to geologists who know something of limestone and the patina that slowly develops over its surface when it is carved. When limestone is quarried and then carved, it oozes water and chalk. As this oozing water and chalk mix dries, it forms microscopic “mushrooms.” This is what a geologist looks for when attempting to verify the age of a piece of carved, sculpted, or inscribed limestone. The geologist looks at the carved or inscribed surface with a microscope (forty-power is usually sufficient). If the mushrooms are present and the appropriate size, then the geologist can pronounce the relative age of the carving or inscription (and the size of the “mushrooms” usually gives some indication of the age, though there are variable factors).
What is frustrating is that the observation of the “mushrooms” is not difficult. No expensive or complicated testing is required. Even when much of the patina is effaced—thanks to rough handling or cleaning—the telltale mushrooms are still to be found in protected corners and recesses in the designs and inscribed letters. Evidently, this is just what the two Israeli geologists observed in the summer of 2002, when given a chance to study the James ossuary, and the geologists of the Royal Ontario Museum a couple of months later in Toronto, when the ossuary was for the first time put on public display. These geologists found no indication that the ossuary’s inscription was modern.
However, months later the geologist working with the team assembled by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) declared that the patina was modern and had been applied to the inscribed words. He concluded that the inscription, but not the ossuary itself, was a forgery. Almost immediately one of the Canadian geologists replied, saying this conclusion was ridiculous. Many were suspicious of the IAA’s objectivity since both the head of the IAA and the geologist who took part in the IAA study had declared the ossuary to be a forgery, long before seeing it. Accordingly, there have been more calls for testing. And now, even the IAA geologist himself has begun to back away from his findings, admitting that the inscription perhaps is authentic after all.
If authentic, then the identification of the inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” with James of early Jewish Christianity becomes plausible, perhaps even probable. If the identification with James is accepted, what do we learn? There are four important data potentially confirmed or clarified by the James Ossuary:
(1) James and family spoke Aramaic, which scholars have long recognized as Jesus’ first language. The James Ossuary lends an important measure of support to this hypothesis.
(2) James, originally of Galilee, continued to live in or near Jerusalem. We are left with this impression in the New Testament (particularly the book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia).
(3) The James Ossuary suggests that James probably died in or near Jerusalem, as early church traditions maintain. If the ossuary was discovered in a burial vault near the Temple Mount, perhaps in the Kidron Valley, as has been conjectured, this may offer a measure of support to the tradition that James was closely associated with the temple, even if at odds with the powerful priestly family of Annas (a.k.a. Hanin).
(4) And finally, secondary burial, according to Jewish burial custom, implies that James, though a follower of Jesus and part of a movement that was beginning to drift away from its Jewish heritage, continued to live as a Jew and so was buried as a Jew. The Christianity of James, we may infer, was not understood as something separate from or opposed to Jewish faith.
All of this supports, to a limited degree, what we know of James from the New Testament and from early patristic traditions. Because we do not know where it was found and what may have been in it and around it, we shall probably never know what other important clues this remarkable ossuary could have provided.
However, there is much more to the James Ossuary story. This ossuary is but one of hundreds of ossuaries that have come to light (sometimes just as mysteriously as the James Ossuary did). About one quarter of them are inscribed. We have an ossuary with the name “Alexander the Cyrene, son of Simon,” who may actually have been the son of the man who assisted Jesus in carrying the cross (cf. Mark 15:21). We may also have the ossuary of Josephus Caiaphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus to death. We have an ossuary of a man name Yehohanan, whose right ankle bone is transfixed with an iron spike, evidently from crucifixion. We have an ossuary of one “Simon, builder of the temple,” which lends color to Jesus’ remark to Simon Peter, upon whom he will build the church (Matt 16:18). We have an ossuary that speaks of the “qorban” tradition, which offers an exact conceptual parallel to Jesus’ comments on what really defiles (cf. Mark 7:11-12).
Study of Jewish ossuaries, tombs, inscriptions, and burial customs have clarified important aspects of Jesus’ teaching (e.g., Matt 8:22 “Let the dead bury the dead!”; Matt 23:27 “You are like whitewashed tombs!”) and his own burial. This is important to mention because many have lamented the loss of the James Ossuary’s context. The specific context of the James Ossuary may well be lost, but its broader context is not. There is much we can learn from it and the other ossuaries and tombs that have been excavated in the last century. In my opinion, this is an interesting sub-field in archaeology that requires careful study.