- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

Last fall, a stunning artifact suddenly surfaced in the archaeological world: an ossuary, or stone box designed to hold human bones, that some said once had contained the remains of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. The ossuary bears a right-to-left carved inscription in ancient Aramaic, the Semitic language Jesus spoke: "Ya'akov, bar Yosef, akhui di Yeshua," or "Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." (Ya'akov is the Aramaic spelling of Jacob Iakobos in Greek, Jacobus in Latin, and James in English while Joseph the carpenter was Jesus' legal father.) Apparently discovered in one of the many ancient Jewish cave-tombs that honeycomb the rocky hills south of the Old City of Jerusalem, the trapezoid-shaped ossuary, about 20 inches long and a foot high, obviously was a major find.
The New Testament refers in several places to a James who is described as Jesus' "brother" and as "brother of the Lord." Did the ossuary really hold the bones, now long gone, of this man who might have shared Jesus' DNA? Is its stone carving really, as its proponents claim, the first archaeological evidence that Jesus existed?
These are the two questions raised in director Simcha Jacobovici's "James: Brother of Jesus," an original, hourlong Discovery Channel documentary premiering tomorrow night at 9. Because the Discovery Channel obviously wants to maximize the drama (and the number of viewers), its commentators suggest fairly strongly that the answer to both questions is yes. "Some call this the greatest archaeological find of all time," intones a voice-over as the camera pans a gorgeous Jerusalem landscape at sunset.
Backing up this claim, as the Discovery producers point out, is the fact that geologists have concluded that the 45-pound ossuary is a legitimate first-century Jewish artifact, carved out of limestone from a quarry near Jerusalem that was in use in A.D. 62, the year that tradition holds James died a violent death. The inscription, or at least part of it, appears to many experts to be a genuine sample of first-century Aramaic cursive writing on stone.
Furthermore, the use of ossuaries was a custom that flourished among the Jews of Jerusalem for just a short time: from about 10 years before Jesus' birth until A.D. 70, the year the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem and wreaked havoc on the Jewish community.
The bones of Jesus himself apparently were destined for an ossuary before Easter. The custom was to lay out the body after death in a rock-hewn tomb (as was Jesus' body after his Crucifixion, according to the Gospels, which tell of the corpse being "wrapped in a linen cloth"). The body would remain in the tomb for several years, until the flesh decomposed. Then the relatives would transfer the bones to a small stone box carved with the decedent's name and store the box in a family tomb. At least 1,000 stone ossuaries, all dating to that brief 80-year period in which Jesus and James lived, have been found in or near Jerusalem.
Thus, right time, right materials, right culture. Right inscription? Maybe, although a number of scholars dissent. Among them is Rochelle Altman, an expert in ancient writing systems interviewed by the Discovery producers. Judging the carving of that part of the inscription reading "brother of Jesus" to be of a much lower quality than the rest, she concludes it is a recent forgery designed to fool the archaeologists.
This segues right into another mystery surrounding the ossuary that is at least as interesting as that of the identity of its occupant: How was it that the stone box emerged into the public limelight only last fall?
It turns out that the ossuary has a private owner, a Tel Aviv engineer and antiquities collector named Oded Golan, who says he bought the box in the early 1970s, from a Jerusalem dealer whose name he cannot remember, before Israel enacted a 1978 law deeming all archaeological finds to be government property.
Mr. Golan (interviewed for the special) says he did not realize the ossuary's significance until he mentioned the carving to French epigrapher Andre Lemaire (also interviewed), who was visiting him last spring.
Mr. Golan is now in a wrangle with the Israel Antiquities Authority, which contends that the ossuary actually was dug up and sold to Mr. Golan quite recently, probably by one of the many tomb looters and black marketeers who haunt Jerusalem's hills.
In any event, Mr. Golan, Mr. Lemaire and Hershel Shanks, who broke the story of the ossuary's existence in the November-December 2002 issue of his Washington, D.C.-based Biblical Archaeology Review, obviously have as much of an interest as does Discovery in promoting the box as a genuine link to Jesus.
So does the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, whose recent exhibit of the ossuary resulted, embarrassingly for the museum, in its accidentally breaking into several pieces during the Tel Aviv-to-Toronto transit. (It has since been expertly repaired.)
Mr. Shanks and the skeptical Miss Altman, each backed by academic allies, are in a war of insinuations against each other's scholarly credibility.
Even if the entire inscription is genuine, however, how much does it or the box really tell us about the Jesus and James of the New Testament? This is where the Discovery special runs thin, with its commentators pointing out the statistical improbability that more than one man named James in Jerusalem would have had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus. Not necessarily so. The three names, belonging to patriarchs and leaders in the Hebrew Bible, were among the most popular in first-century Judea.
The Jewish historian Josephus (a Joseph himself) mentions at least 31 men named Jesus in his chronicles of the Jewish-Roman war. Furthermore, only the wealthy in Jerusalem could afford to pay for hand-carved ossuaries and attendant tombs, so where did a carpenter's family from Galilee find the money for such a luxury? The burial of Jesus himself was donated by the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea, the Gospels report.
Although it features interviews with numerous New Testament scholars, Mr. Jacobovici's documentary also pays scant attention to James himself, who not only figures somewhat cryptically in the Gospels and the letters of Paul of Tarsus, but has a New Testament letter of his own attributed to him.
Greek and Eastern Christians, who believe in the lifelong virginity of Jesus' mother, Mary, regard James as a mere half-brother of Jesus (Joseph's son by a previous wife). Catholics, for the same reason, call him a more distant blood kinsman. Most Protestants, however, hold that James was Mary's son, born sometime after Jesus.
After the first Easter, James became leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and he is honored by Eastern Christians and Catholics as Jerusalem's first bishop. They also honor him as a Christian martyr. Josephus reports that the priestly class in Jerusalem, which was militantly anti-Christian, had James stoned with the approval of the Roman governor, while the second-century Christian chronicler Hegesippus wrote that James also had been thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple.
Eliding this material, the Discovery special focuses on a theory, surely not held by many reputable scholars, that a jealous James and his followers tried to have Paul killed. As apparent filler, there also are many Monty Python-esque re-enactment shots of bearded extras wearing Bedouin-style headdress and eating pita bread who presumably represent members of James' Jerusalem community.
All this suggests that even if you could prove that the ossuary actually once held the bones of the New Testament's James, you still wouldn't have enough material to fill an hourlong special. The real story, it seems to me, is that of the Jerusalem tomb looters. In the shadow of snipers and suicide bombers, these bandits continue their grisly trade, stripping ancient graves and selling their contents, the patrimony of the Holy Land, to eager buyers.

Charlotte Allen is author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."

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