Monday, 4 November 2002
By DAVID VAN BIEMA
With reporting by Andrea Dorfman/Washington, Matt Rees and Matthew Kalman/Jerusalem and Tala Skari/Paris
Monday, Nov. 4, 2002
It is smooth to the touch, cool and solid. It is worn, but not so much that its extraordinary message cannot be read. The small limestone box, the color of sand, nearly 2,000 years old, sits on its Israeli owner's kitchen cabinet. Its inscription, as with most Semitic writing, starts on the right. "Ya'akov, bar Yosef," it begins, carved strong and deep in the stone. James, son of Joseph. Then, slightly more eroded, "akhui di..." Brother of. And at the end, clearly visible from only close up, "Yeshua." Jesus. The language is the Aramaic spoken by Jews in Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D., but the words are so simple that any Hebrew reader would know the meaning. Here, in this bone-box, or ossuary, once lay the earthly remains of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
Yes, James, the son of that Joseph and the brother of that Jesus, whom millions of believers know as the Christ. Or at any rate, such was the claim made on the box's behalf last week at a remarkable Washington press conference by the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. (The container stayed in Israel, where TIME was given a private showing.) In the publication's cover story, Andre Lemaire, one of the world's foremost scholars of ancient scripts, announced that "it seems very probable that this [box] is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament."
If the 10-in. by 20-in. by 12-in. receptacle is authentic--and scholars have no reason to believe it's not--and if the inscription refers to the right James--a somewhat dicier proposition--this would be the most important discovery in the history of New Testament archaeology. It would also underscore the fact that early Christians still thought of themselves as essentially Jewish (the use of ossuaries at the time was a Jewish custom) and would pose something of a theological problem for the Roman Catholic Church (see box).
More significant, James' ossuary, if real, could become a kind of trans-denominational, scientifically approved relic. The Roman Catholic and various Orthodox churches, all of which regard James as a saint, would venerate it as a relic. Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson, while warning against "building faith on archaeological discovery," predicts that even conservative Protestants would probably find it " fascinating" and "enormously useful in evangelizing and shedding light on our understanding of the Scriptures."
Almost no educated person these days doubts that Jesus lived. Some accept it on faith, others on the testimony of a brace of ancient chroniclers, both Christian and Roman. Yet there is something uniquely compelling about an attestation in stone. As Lemaire explained to TIME, "The written word is a bit airy. Listen, you can talk about Egyptian civilization, but the day you visit the pyramids, it speaks to you in a different way." Or as Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, says of the ossuary, "It is something tactile and visible reaching back to the single most important personage ever to walk the earth."
But all these assessments are based on two suppositions: that the box is not a forged item and that the James, Joseph and Jesus inscribed on it are the ones in the Bible. Neither is a foregone conclusion. The history of the ossuary is murky. It was probably looted from a burial cave decades ago. The Biblical Archaeology article includes testimony by geologists and experts in ancient writing with sufficient credibility to convince scholars that the box is not a fake and probably does date to within four decades of A.D. 62, the accepted year for James' martyrdom at the temple. Many academics, however, have expressed reservations about Lemaire's claim to somehow be able to eliminate virtually all the other Jameses roaming Jerusalem during that period. Thus what might otherwise have been a kind of archaeological/religious coronation turns into something slightly different: a scientific detective story with extremely high religious stakes.
The owner of the ossuary claims to be stunned by the entire experience. He says he bought it for a few hundred dollars "in the 1970s" as representative of its particular period. He claims he had no idea at the time of its possible significance ("I didn't know that Jesus had a brother.") And he pleads with TIME not to divulge his name or location. "I don't want my apartment turned into a church," he explains.
His hope to avoid being overwhelmed by pilgrims seems a bit forlorn, however, especially when a reporter notes that the soil at the bottom of the now famous ossuary is littered with bone chips.
"YOUR BRAIN GOES, TICK!"
The town of Silwan, nestled below the southern wall of the Old City, is a fairly typical Jerusalem-area Arab village--densely settled, tense and poor. But it does possess one distinction: numerous 1st century subterranean Jewish burial caves, some of which now double as basements for Silwan's rough cinder-block houses. Unofficial excavations by residents and by professional looters, although illegal, have long supplied the antiquities market with pots, lamps and other artifacts. According to the ossuary's owner, the dealer who sold it to him told him it was found in the Silwan area. The owner says it is highly unlikely that anyone will be able locate the cave from which it came.
For years the ossuary sat in obscurity. Jews in Jerusalem in the hundred years before and after Jesus' birth practiced secondary burial--the transfer of bones of the deceased from a first grave into a container that was then deposited in the family burial cave. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of such boxes, ranging from ornately carved and painted chests to utilitarian containers devoid of any inscription. The James ossuary fell somewhere in the middle. Its owner says he was familiar with its inscription but, as a Jew, was unaware that the names were special. One day last spring he invited Lemaire--in Jerusalem on a scholar's break from his job as head of the Hebrew and Aramaic philology and epigraphy department at the Sorbonne in Paris--to examine some inscriptions in his collection. As an afterthought, the owner mentioned the names on the James box and showed Lemaire a photo.
"Suddenly, your brain goes, 'tick!'" says Lemaire, now back in France. "My first thought was, 'Is it James, the brother of the Lord?'" A former priest, he knew well that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew credit Jesus with siblings, of whom James was the most distinguished. Several weeks later, at Lemaire's request, the owner produced the ossuary. Weighing about 45 lbs., it was irregularly shaped, longer on its top than at the bottom and just long enough to accommodate the longest human bone, the femur. Lemaire examined the inscription with a photographer's loupe. "My impression was that it was genuine," he says. He contacted Shanks, and together with the collector, they set about testing it more thoroughly.
A 90% CHANCE
science approaches the study of an object like the ossuary from a number of angles, including its physical context, the condition of the stone from which it is made and its style, ornamentation and inscriptions. The James ossuary's undocumented history eliminated the use of context. To assess the box's composition, Shanks sent it to the Geological Survey of Israel. Survey scientists determined that it was made of a limestone quarried intensively from the Mount Scopus ridge (which includes the Bible's Mount of Olives) in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. and that the cauliflower-shaped structure of its patina--a mineral sheen that develops with age--indicated that it had spent centuries in a cave. Citing the absence of any modern chemicals or telltale disruptions in the patina and any marks in the stone by modern tools, they confirmed its antiquity and ruled out forgery. Independent scholars have almost unanimously accepted their judgment.
Lemaire, of course, wanted to ascertain the date more exactly than a 200-year window. He points out that Jews in Jerusalem, primarily Pharisees, used ossuaries only from roughly 20 B.C. to A.D. 70. The style of the inscription conforms to the same period. Moreover, Lemaire, one of whose specialties is Aramaic writing, contends that three characters written in cursive, a script developed only around A.D. 25, date the box to within 40 years of James' death in A.D. 62. With the exception of his countryman Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, other epigraphers, working from photographs, have agreed.
At this point Lemaire's proof shifts from the letters to the words. Yosef, Yeshua and Ya'akov (which can be translated as either Jacob or James) are very common names in a study of 1st century Jewish inscriptions. They represent 14%, 9% and 2%, respectively, of the total. But, as in a horse-racing trifecta, the odds favoring a combination of three names are drastically lower. Lemaire's formula for determining exactly how low takes into account the frequencies of the names, the estimated male population of Jerusalem over two generations (80,000) and the estimated number of brothers each man would have had (two). His ensuing calculations, he wrote, indicated that "there were probably about 20 people who could be called 'James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.'"
He believes that the Jerusalemites who would have inscribed a burial box that way were actually far fewer. In the article, he points out that any mention of a brother on an ossuary was extremely rare and speculates that when it occurred it may have been because that brother was "known" in his own right, as the biblical Jesus was to his circle. Privately, Lemaire adds that the number of James/Joseph/Jesus families who utilized an ossuary is perhaps further reduced when one eliminates those belonging to the Sadducee sect, which did not believe in bodily resurrection and would have been less likely to preserve bones. (Others disagree: the high priest Caiaphas was a Sadducee, and his ossuary turned up in 1990.) One might also subtract the trios who used uninscribed ossuaries, and those whose survivors could afford no ossuary at all. When one is done subtracting, Lemaire believes, there is a 90% chance that the James on the ossuary was the biblical brother of Jesus. "I don't use the 90% figure in the article because there are too many unknowns," he says somewhat apologetically. He settled for "very probably" instead.
"SOME SEMBLANCE OF CAUTION"
By this point, however, many other scholars had parted ways with Lemaire. P. Kyle McCarter, chair of the Near Eastern studies department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., notes that the log of inscription names from which the Sorbonne professor derives his percentages may not actually reflect their frequency in Jerusalem as a whole, contaminating his calculations. He comments, "It wouldn't be my inclination to quantify it in that way." (Meanwhile, Camil Fuchs, head of Tel Aviv University's statistics department, running numbers from the article, claims that Lemaire overestimated the final tally. Fuchs claims that there would have been only five possible Jameses.) Rather than focusing on the numbers, McCarter and other specialists with whom TIME talked seemed obsessed with two facts. All were horrified that the artifact had been ripped out of context, partly because looting is immoral but, more important, because, as McCarter says, it "compromises everything. We don't know where [the box] came from, so there will always be nagging doubts. Extraordinary finds need extraordinary evidence to support them."
At the same time, however, he and his colleagues are, like Lemaire, fascinated by the appearance of a brother's name on an ossuary, which has been documented only once before in an Aramaic inscription. "It immediately suggests [this Jesus] was somebody important," says Ben Witherington III, a New Testament specialist at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky who is co-authoring, with Shanks, a book on the ossuary. Granted, there needs to be "some semblance of caution," says Eric Meyers, professor of Judaic studies at Duke University who has published on ossuaries. The combination of the three names could be simply a coincidence. "But there is a strong possibility that the artifact is what Lemaire says it is: the oldest extra-biblical archaeological evidence of Jesus."
Concedes Biblical Archaeology's Shanks, "It's a question of judgment, not scholarly expertise. It is possible that the brother was simply responsible for the burial. Or that the brother was prominent in real estate. But frankly, to me, the chances [that he wasn't the biblical Jesus] are slender."
A TUPPERWARE FULL OF BONES
The bone fragments lie in the dirt at the bottom of the box like the dots and dashes of some infuriating code. They were there, says the owner, when he bought it. Whoever sold it to his dealer would have removed anything larger, since Israeli collectors and looters alike know that the rabbinical authorities are sensitive about human remains. What is left is these off-white bits. The largest is half an inch wide and three inches long, its inner surface an intricate honeycomb. A reporter holds it gently--who knows whose DNA it might contain?
It need not have belonged to James. Ossuaries often held the bones of several family members. Looters could have used the box as a handy receptacle while emptying others. Radiocarbon dating might be able to determine whether the chips date to the same approximate period as the box. As for genetic tests, James Chatters, a Seattle-based archaeologist with forensic expertise, says it is "entirely possible" that DNA could be extracted from such fragments. Most likely to be recovered would be the mitochondrial variety, which can provide a catalog of maternal traits. Of course, if the ossuary was biblical, the mother (by the Gospels' most literal interpretation) would be Mary.
Soon the bone-box will leave Israel for the first time to go on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. But the bone fragments will not go with it, nor will the owner allow them to be displayed or analyzed. He brandishes a Tupperware container. They will stay right here. Who needs trouble with the rabbis or with Israeli customs? The ossuary has delivered enough mystery into the world for now. --With reporting by Andrea Dorfman/Washington, Matt Rees and Matthew Kalman/Jerusalem and Tala Skari/Paris