THE STORY THUS FAR…
While Chapter Eight ends by describing the incident at Antioch where representatives from James cause a division between the Jewish and Gentile Christians in that city, it is not until Chapter Nine that Witherington treats the Jerusalem council that was called to address the underlying issue of Gentiles in the Church. In Witherington’s analysis, James plays the role of mediator between opposing positions: Paul, who argues that Gentile Christians need not follow Jewish Law, and the Pharisaic Christians of Jerusalem, who hold that Gentiles must convert to Judaism in order to be Christians and follow the Jewish Laws. James’ compromise position, adopted by the council, was that Gentile Christians did not need to convert to Judaism, but that they needed to completely separate themselves from paganism. The list of behaviors from which they should abstain are all part of pagan worship.
Witherington argues that James and Paul actually agreed about the place of Gentile Christians in the movement. Their disagreement lay in the expected behavior of Jewish Christians. While James held that Jews needed to follow the Law as well as Jesus’ teachings, Paul felt that adherence to the Law was optional for Jewish Christians.
This chapter also contains a discussion of the language used by James. Bolstered by the evidence of the ossuary inscription, Witherington argues that James was a native speaker of Aramaic. Despite this, the evidence from the debate reported in Acts 15 indicates that James knew Greek and even was familiar enough with the Septuagint to argue from it, rather than the Hebrew Text of Scripture. This discussion again indicates how far Witherington goes to keep his prose at the level of his envisioned audience, for none of the scholarly issues and caveats for either conclusion receive even a hint.
Chapter Ten focuses on the canonical Letter of James and begins with the question of whether James wrote it. Witherington’s answer is yes, probably around 52 CE. Witherington presents James as a sage who is steeped in both Jewish Law and Wisdom. James reshapes this knowledge in line with the teachings of Jesus, as Witherington demonstrated by several pages of parallels between the teachings of Jesus and of James.
Witherington ends the chapter with a contrast between the teachings of James and Paul. On the one hand, Witherington argues that little in James’ beliefs about “obedience to God’s Word and charity” would have been objectionable to Paul (Shanks & Witherington, p.157). On the other hand, James emphasized the continuity between Judaism and Jesus, while Paul emphasized Christianity’s break with the past and Christianity’s “new eschatological situation” (Shanks & Witherington, p.158).
In Chapter Eleven, Witherington focuses on James’ death and burial. Here Witherington follows Josephus’ rather unadorned story, placing the death in 63 or 64 CE, while viewing later versions as rather legendary. The evidence of the ossuary enables Witherington to conclude that James, like Jesus, was not buried at home in the family plot in Nazareth, but in Jerusalem, where there was no family context.
Chapter Twelve contains Witherington’s discussion of James in the writings of the church in its first few centuries. The discussion begins with the Gnostic Writings found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Several of these are attributed to James, and they all share the tendency to emphasize the importance of James’ leadership role in the early church. The Gospel of Thomas even has Jesus appoint James as the leader of the Church in a passage that could be seen as parallel to Jesus’ designation of Peter in Matthew 16:18.
The Proto-Evangelium of James is mentioned next. This apocryphal text provides the initial basis for the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The book was highly popular in the Christian Church for a few centuries, but went out of favor in the West after Jerome’s disapproval. Witherington ends this chapter with an extended discussion of James in the Orthodox writers Hegesippus and Eusebius.
In Chapter Thirteen, Witherington provides an analysis of how the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity developed, which in turn moved James from Jesus’ brother to a half-brother or cousin. The story begins in the Proto-Evangelium of James, mentioned in the previous chapter, which states that the midwives saw that even after Jesus’ birth Mary remained an intact virgin (p.182). From that basis, Jerome argued that James was Jesus’ cousin, while Epiphanius and others interpreted him as being Jesus’ half-brother.
Witherington is clearly an excellent writer. He adheres consistently to the level of discussion he has decided upon. He writes interestingly and confidently, bringing his audience along through enticing prose and engaging rhetoric. His discussion by and large sticks to the scholarly mainstream. He is familiar with the scholarly work on James and readily acknowledges his dependence on it through footnotes and appreciations.
One must be careful to realize, however, that Witherington speaks with more certitude than other scholars. As part of the way he addresses his audience, Witherington often leaves out scholarly debates about various points and just states a position. This is most evident in dating. Witherington, for instance, assigns the Letter of James to the year 52 CE, without any discussion of why that date and not some other.
Witherington’s main innovation is to incorporate the ossuary as evidence into the analysis of James’ life. Taking as a given that the ossuary contained the remains of James the brother of Jesus--without even an argument for that assumption--Witherington brings it into the discussion of several issues, including burial practices, James’ relationship to his family vs. the Christian movement, and so on. Unfortunately, given the inability of the ossuary to bear the weight of the claims placed upon it shown above, this one contribution has been rendered essentially worthless.
In the end, this experience reminds one of the Cold-Fusion debacle of 1989, when two researchers, Professors S. Pons and M. Fleischmann, claimed that they had been able to produce nuclear fusion in a test-tube. Their announcement was greeted with great fanfare, and the international press spread the story across their front pages. But when other scientists tried to duplicate the experiment, they could not. The scientific requirement that experiments be reproducible failed. This gave the press another field day, during which they trumpeted that Cold Fusion was a lie.
The first part of the Cold Fusion story parallels that of the ossuary, but the second part does not. Apart from studies of the patina, the ossuary is not subject to the test of reproducible results. Paleography, linguistics, and even the statistics cannot be verified in the way that scientific tests can be. Instead those of us in these fields must hold ourselves to an even higher standard. We must do our work right the first time, and not rush to publication without due consideration.
Why? Because something like the James ossuary matters to people in a way that Cold Fusion cannot. The claim about the ossuary touches on people’s faith, it can change their beliefs, it is evidence that demands a verdict from the Christian church. The sensationalism surrounding the James ossuary may have served its promoters well, but it has done a disservice to the believing community. The fanfare that greeted its announcement has not been repeated for the events that seem to have discredited the find, namely, the IAA report and Golan’s arrest. As Bruce Chilton observes in the Fall 2003 issue of the newsletter of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College, “The arrest of the owner was reported at the time by the Associated Press, but the popular media in this country – the same media that beat the drum for the authenticity of the piece – mostly let the story pass. . . . In this, journalists understand neither religion nor their own function. A story that is not followed up is just gossip, not news, and unsubstantiated rumor is the stuff of superstition, not faith.” The ossuary’s announcement was news because it impacted the faith of members of the world’s largest religion, Christianity. The media’s failure to continue its coverage will impact it none the less. Scholars will be answering for the false leads of the “James” ossuary for generations to come, since because of scholarly incaution it will probably become part of the discourse for sincere but ill-informed believers.
Perhaps, finally, the question of the authenticity of the ossuary and its inscription will be addressed by the forum to which it should have come first, that of scholarly knowledge and analysis. Only there can the competing judgments of the ossuary’s proponents and its critiques receive a proper evaluation. And that, finally, seems likely.