- The Washington Times - Monday, November 11, 2002

JERUSALEM In a souvenir shop on the Via Dolorosa, an antiquities dealer studied a photo of what may just may be the oldest archaeological link to Jesus. Then he shrugged.
It's quite possible, he said, that he handled the limestone burial box with the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." But he couldn't remember. Over the past 40 years, the Palestinian dealer said, he and his late father sold hundreds of these ossuaries (bone containers) that were snatched from burial caves in the slopes near Jerusalem's Old City.
Israeli archaeologists say the truth about the James ossuary, whose discovery was announced last month by the U.S.-based Biblical Archaeology Review, will never be known because of its murky origins in the Holy Land's antiquities trade a world of grave robbers, unscrupulous dealers and collectors operating on the fringes of the law.
The ossuary has sparked passionate debate, with some saying it could well be that of Christ's brother, and others suspecting the inscriptions are forged.
"This is an excellent case study to show the damage done by illegal excavations," said Gideon Avni, former chief archaeologist of Jerusalem, who estimates that 98 percent of the hundreds of burial caves uncovered in the city had been looted.
In a further twist, the James ossuary, which is to go on display next Friday in Toronto, was damaged in transit, with a crack running upward from one corner through the inscription.
Back in the Holy Land, the Israel Antiquities Authority is trying to retrace the ossuary's path from its current owner, a private Israeli collector, to the cave where it was entombed in the first century A.D.
The collector was identified a week ago by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz as Oded Golan, 51, an engineer from Tel Aviv. Antiquities Authority officials questioned him last week, trying to determine if there had been a violation of Israel's 1978 antiquities law.
According to Israeli antiquity authorities, Mr. Golan said he bought the box about 30 years ago from an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem whose name he can't remember.
The collector was quoted as saying that he was only recently made aware of the possible importance of the inscription, and that at the time of purchase, he was told the ossuary came from Silwan, an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem. Silwan is near where tradition says James, leader of the Jerusalem church after the Resurrection, was killed and buried in A.D. 62.
Mr. Avni, the former chief archeologist of Jerusalem, said there are hundreds of manmade caves in Silwan, which overlies what was Jerusalem's main cemetery in Biblical times. He said any one of about 30 antiquities dealers in the Old City could have handled the ossuary.
The dealer on the Via Dolorosa, a popular tourist street in the Old City, insisted on anonymity and is one of several questioned by antiquities inspectors.
He said he probably would have sold the ossuary for just a few hundred dollars because it is so plain. Boxes with ornaments sell better, he said, pointing as proof to four unadorned ossuaries gathering dust on his shop floor, stuffed with bric-a-brac and a garden hose.
Ossuaries are among the most common artifacts from the biblical period. Several thousand have been uncovered in Jerusalem, about a quarter of them with inscriptions. Burial in stone boxes was a widespread Jewish custom in the holy city from about 30 B.C. to about A.D. 70, when the Romans sacked the Jewish Temple.
A family would carve a multichambered burial cave into one of the limestone hills outside the city walls. Exactly a year after burial, the bones would be dug up, placed in an ossuary and returned to the cave.
The name of the deceased would be scratched into the side of the ossuary sometimes also that of the father and grandfather. On only three ossuaries that have been found was a brother mentioned.
In 1989, in a salvage dig before road construction in Silwan, Mr. Avni excavated a rare, intact cave with 40 ossuaries, including one with the inscription "Ariston Apami."
An ancient Jewish text refers to an Ariston from Apamia, a city in northern Syria, who brought gifts to the Temple.
Mr. Avni said he found strong evidence that it was the same person as the one mentioned in the text some of the artifacts in the cave came from Syria, and several names on other ossuaries at the site could be traced to Lebanon and Syria.
Such supporting evidence is lacking in the case of the James ossuary. Even if the burial cave were found, it would probably have been wrecked by looters, Mr. Avni said.
Tradition says James became a believer when Jesus appeared to him after the Crucifixion. Called "the Just" because of his austere lifestyle and devotion to Jewish law, James became leader of the fledgling Jerusalem church. "Those who did believe, believed because of James," wrote early Christian chronicler Hegesippus.
Tradition says James was killed on the orders of the high priest Ananus. He is said to have been pushed off the southeastern corner of the Temple wall and tumbled into the Kidron Valley, just north of Silwan. Having survived the fall, he was killed by a bystander who struck him on the head. "They buried him on the spot," Hegesippus wrote.
An older account says he was stoned to death as a heretic.
In the fifth century, a chapel was built by Armenian Christians over James' purported burial site in the valley. Armenians believe that James was interred in a Kidron cave where he hid during Jesus' trial. The chapel was destroyed in the eighth century, but its apse, hewn into the rock face, is still visible today.
Bishop Shirvanian of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem says that after the chapel was destroyed, James' remains were moved to the Cathedral of St. James in the Old City and are still buried there.
"The discovery of the ossuary complements our tradition," said Bishop Shirvanian, adding that he believes the burial box was discarded when the relics were moved to the cathedral.
French scholar Andre Lemaire said it is "very probable" the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth, and two scientists from the Israel Geological Survey said that tests of the ossuary's patina date it to the first century and that the inscription had not been tampered with.
But Mr. Avni said that patina could be faked, and that he has come across two skilled forgeries of inscriptions, intended to boost the value of ossuaries.
James, Joseph and Jesus were common names in the first century. In biblical Jerusalem, which had a population of about 80,000, about 20 men named James would have had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus, Mr. Lemaire calculates.
David Mevorah, a curator at Israel Museum, said he knew of several ossuary inscriptions from Jerusalem that had a variation of the name Jesus Yehoshua, Yoshua, Yeshu. Two are on display at the museum.
Stephen Pfann, an American expert on early Christianity based in Jerusalem, said reference to the "brother of Jesus" immediately narrowed the field. Observant Jews at the time would have wanted to avoid any link to the followers of Jesus, while ordinary Christians would not have used the term "brother of Jesus" unless they were referring to the man later called Jesus Christ.
However, U.S. scholar Robert Eisenmann, author of a book on James, wrote that "this box is too pat, too perfect."
Mr. Eisenmann said "brother of Jesus" appeared aimed at modern ears, noting that ancient sources called him "James, the brother of the Lord," or "James the Just."
The Israeli Antiquities Authority says it granted the export permit without being aware of the potential importance of the find, and plans to test the ossuary more rigorously when it is returned from abroad.
Scientists should eventually be able to say with about 95 percent certainty whether it is authentic, but will never know with certainty whether it contained the remains of the brother of Jesus.
"If such an ossuary had been found in a clean context, many questions would have been answered on the spot," Mr. Avni said. "But we don't have this evidence, unfortunately."

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