THE STORY THUS FAR…
The possibility of the ossuary and its inscription being a modern forgery brings us to the fourth point that needs to be demonstrated in order for the ossuary to be that of James, namely, that it was created in antiquity. This is an issue to which Shanks has shown particular sensitivity even from his first knowledge of the ossuary. Before he published Lemaire’s article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Shanks had the ossuary examined by experts from the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI) to ensure that it exhibited the one feature that would ensure that it was created in antiquity and not a modern forgery, namely, patina.24 To his credit, it was only after two GSI experts certified that the ossuary had patina that Shanks decided to go ahead with publication. Later, when the ossuary was exhibited in Toronto, experts for the Royal Ontario Museum studied the ossuary and determined that patina adheres on both the ossuary and the inscription’s letters (Shanks & Witherington, p.48). This seems to indicate that the ossuary was ancient and thus provides a strong argument against anyone claiming it is a modern forgery.
Nonetheless, practicing a more detailed analysis, the IAA’s experts determined otherwise. Part of the reason for the opposing outcomes is that there are different definitions of patina. Yuval Goren’s report provides the basis for clarifying these definitions. Patina is formed in two steps. First, water dissolves the calcite from the limestone. Second, water evaporation leaves the calcite on the rock’s surface. This is patina. This geological process is similar to that which forms stalactites in limestone caves. In both processes, the precipitated calcite forms a hard, crystalline material that bonds tightly to the stone. A second type of coating can form on limestone ossuaries kept in caves, which Goren terms “rock varnish.” This is created by the “biological activity of bacteria or algae.”
All experts agree that “patina” covers the ossuary’s surface. Indeed, they agree that the ossuary itself is ancient. The disagreement lies in the area surrounding the inscription. It is here that the analyses of Goren and Avner Ayalon independently indicate that the inscription constitutes a modern forgery.
Several members of the IAA committee indicate that the inscription cuts through the patina (or rock varnish). But the ROM experts and IAA committee members also found patina in the inscription’s letters. So how can these two features be reconciled?
Goren and Ayalon provide the answer. It turns out the that patina in the area surrounding the inscription differs significantly from that on the remainder of the ossuary. Ayalon tested the oxygen isotopes of the patina. After a series of tests that established the baseline values of oxygen isotopes of patina from ossuaries from the Judean Hills at -6 to -4, Ayalon then tested samples from the James ossuary in general and from the inscription’s letters in particular. Those from the ossuary’s surface were all in the range of -5 to -4, as would be expected. Six of the seven samples from the letters, however, fell into the range of -10.2 to -7.5, indicating a completely different source for this patina.25 Ayalon concluded that the patina within the letters could not have been produced through natural processes occurring in the Judean hills, whether in a cave or on a balcony.
Goren’s analysis indicated that the coating (he does not call it patina) around the inscription differed from the patina on the rest of the box. While the patina on the box is hard, adheres solidly to the stone, and clearly has different sizes of crystals (as would be expected from patina formed over many centuries), the inscription coating is so soft it can be removed with a wooden toothpick and consists of a gray, gritty material rather than being crystalline. In addition, this coating contains micro-fossils. None of these characteristics appear on the patina of any other ossuary known from the Judean Hills. Goren concludes that the inscription coating is not natural and was created through man-made means. Thus, the inscription is a modern forgery.
The IAA case was strengthened a month later, when on July 21, 2003, police raided the property of the ossuary’s owner, Oded Golan, and found, along with his collection of antiquities, a workshop for creating fake antiquities. They discovered tools, stencils, and fake antiquities in different stages of creation.26 Golan was arrested and spent four days in jail until released on bail. The supposedly priceless ossuary was found sitting on a dirty toilet.
Did the ossuary once contain the remains of James the brother of Jesus Christ? It seems not. The first three necessary points that needed to be demonstrated in order for the ossuary to be that of James the brother of Jesus failed to provide any solid support. The fourth point, that of the antiquity of the ossuary’s inscription, demonstrates conclusively that the inscription constitutes a modern forgery. If Shanks, Lemaire and others still wish to demonstrate their claim, these are serious obstacles to overcome.
Part II. The story of James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus
We come now to the second section of the book, that composed by Ben Witherington. The contrast with the first section is quite striking. Witherington is a New Testament scholar with an international reputation as a solid and careful worker. He has published over a dozen books on aspects of the New Testament, including the gospels, Paul’s letters, and Acts. Whereas Hershel Shanks is a master of excited and breathless rhetoric, Professor Witherington creates prose that is smooth and elegant.
Witherington’s section of the book consists of an introduction and eight chapters, taking up slightly more than half the volume. Each chapter is well-organized and well-written. In tone and content, he has taken great care to write for the book’s intended audience, which is seen as the interested lay person.
The main question Witherington addresses is: Who was James, the brother of Jesus? He makes it clear that James was one of the three main leaders of the early church, along with Peter and Paul. The reason James is not as well known as the other two lies in the different branches of Christianity with which they are associated. James led the Jerusalem Church and hence Jewish Christianity, while Paul and Peter played key roles in reaching out to Gentiles and in creating a branch of the Church primarily consisting of Gentiles. In the centuries following the deaths of these leaders, Gentile Christianity became the dominant form of Christianity, while Jewish Christianity ultimately disappeared. Since the modern church descends from the Gentile church, it is not surprising that it has placed less emphasis on the importance of James.
In Chapter Seven, Witherington looks at the picture of James found in the four canonical gospels. His first point is that James was the brother of Jesus, born of the same mother. Although Witherington is sensitive to the doctrinal differences on this question found among the various churches and denominations of the world, he unequivocally argues that there is no evidence in the gospels for any conclusion other than that James was the physical brother of Jesus; the doctrine of the perpetual virginity receives no support.
Witherington argues that James rejected Jesus’ ministry during the latter’s life. Indeed, following the norms of society, James and his family felt shamed by Jesus’ public behavior and tried to stop him. Jesus forestalled them by rejecting membership in that family (Mark 3:20, 31-35). Furthermore, James was never among Jesus’ followers or disciples, nor was he at the crucifixion or the burial. It was only after Jesus’ resurrection that James became a follower of Jesus. This was most likely due to Jesus’ separate appearance to James “probably in Jerusalem at the Passover in the year 30” (Shanks & Witherington, p.108).
The character of this chapter makes it clear how Witherington envisions his audience. They are interested lay people, but not necessarily educated ones. There is no discussion of the synoptic problem, although he occasionally makes implicit observations that educated readers would understand as referring to synoptic issues. More subtly, Witherington never discusses historical method or even applies historical principles to the text. He treats all statements found in the gospels as equally valid, historically reliable facts. The notions that the early church may have altered or created some of the statements, or that Mark is closer in time to the events than John and perhaps more reliable, are never raised.
Chapter Eight introduces James as a leader of the early church. Specifically, James led the Jerusalem church, which in the first decades after Jesus’ death served as the center of Christianity. Drawing primarily from the canonical sources of the Acts of the Apostles and the Letter to Galatians, as well as Josephus and the Gospel of the Hebrews, Witherington portrays James as having ascetic tendencies, at least with regard to food and drink. Witherington also makes it clear that his moniker, James the Just, came from a life of deep-seated piety, rooted in James’ reverence for the Jewish Law as well as Jesus’ teaching. Indeed, the Jerusalem Church, under James’ leadership, considered themselves to be part of Judaism, and not a separate religion. They believed in following Judaism’s religious practices along with those introduced by Jesus and the early church.