The Bonebox of James: Is It Physical Evidence of the Historicity of Jesus?
The Bonebox of James: Is It Physical Evidence of the Historicity of Jesus? Richard Carrier A recent find, an ossuary (or bonebox) may be evidence that Jesus existed. Carrier compares the facts and arguments, pro and con, and offers his expert opinion. -----------
A recent find has hit the press which might be evidence that Jesus existed. Since I recently reviewed a strong case against the historicity of Jesus (Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity) and have expertise in ancient history and early Christianity (including a B.A. from Berkeley, and an M.A. and M.Phil. from Columbia), I have been asked by several people to state my opinion on the matter. This brief essay summarizes the case. Relevant to this subject is my discussion of the five types of evidence for historical facts in Geivett's Exercise in Hyperbole. Of the five kinds, this ossuary represents an example of physical evidence. The whole affair reminds me of the acclaimed movie The Body starring Antonio Banderas, which dramatically considers the possibility of finding the body of Jesus (naturally, controversy and chaos ensue).
So much for fiction. The real discovery is this: a 1st century ossuary (or bonebox) has turned up in a private collection with the inscription: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" (which identifies the bones that would have been in the box but were at some point discarded, probably by looters). This could be construed as evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Personally, I am undecided about its usefulness. But it is not dismissed lightly. I will summarize the pros and cons of using this object as such an evidence. There may be other pros or cons mentioned in other articles about it, and this is by no means the last word on the matter. The list below is simply what guides my own conclusion, based on my experience and a detailed and positive article by the scholar who studied the box, Andr' Lemaire, in Biblical Archaeology Review ("Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Jesus Found in Jerusalem," 28:6, Nov/Dec 2002, pp. 25-33, 70). All the following facts derive from that article.
Comparing all the facts and arguments above I was of the opinion that this find is probably genuine. The odds seemed stacked against forgery here. However, new evidence has come to light that makes forgery seem much more likely (see below). But even putting that aside what still troubles me is the frequency of the names, and the evident odds that a family could just by chance have a father Joseph and two brothers James and Jesus. If the names were rarer, or other details were added (like a mother Mary--mothers not uncommonly being used for identification in Egyptian papyri, but apparently never on Jewish ossuaries'-or James' epithet "the Just," or some reference to the special reverence or status for Jesus, etc.) we would be on safer ground. But as it is, it is already within the realm of probability (a small but nevertheless significant probability) that such a bonebox would be recovered even if Jesus never existed. And that makes this object a frustratingly unpersuasive piece of evidence for historicity. It can certainly stand as part of and add weight to a larger argument, but it isn't the Holy Grail.
Professor Rachel Hachlili, "widely recognized as one of the leading experts on Jewish names in the Second Temple period" concurs with this conclusion in a letter to Biblical Archaeology Review (29:2, Mar/Apr 2003: p. 12), for all the same reasons, adding also that the addition of a brother to an ossuary inscription is found in some Aramaic and Greek ossuary inscriptions, too, so it is not as rare as thought, and it clearly did not imply the brother was famous. Another letter, from Gershon Hepner (p. 14) offers another plausible reason for mentioning a brother: levirate marriage, accordinq to Deut. 25:5-10, by which the named James would have legally carried on the name of his deceased brother Jesus by marrying his widow.
A Final Observation
If we accept this object as evidence that Jesus existed, it still presents a problem for Christians. For if Christianity is true, then James is a man who preached unto his death that his brother was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, harbinger of the End Times, possibly even the Son of God Himself, key to every human being's eternal salvation. We are left to wonder, then, why no mention of this appears on the ossuary of James. Instead, Jesus is simply listed as a mere brother, with no hint of anything special at all. This can be explained away, of course (maybe the inscriber for some reason wasn't a sympathizer). But it remains odd. It is more easily explained by the theory that Jesus wasn't anything special, or at least nothing so special as Christians need him to have been. So even if we accept historicity on this evidence, we are left with as good a case for secular theories of historicity (e.g. Jesus was just a popular, maybe controversial, Jewish teacher), possibly even a slightly stronger case, than for the truth of Christianity (i.e. that Jesus was the Son of God, a great miracle worker, belief in whom secures eternal salvation).
New Evidence Offered: Since the above essay was published, several things have happened that essentially confirm that the inscription is a forgery:
(1) According to an official, peer-reviewed report by scripts expert Rochelle Altman to The Bible and Interpretation ("Official Report on the James Ossuary"), there is positive evidence that part of the inscription, the part saying "the brother of Jesus," is a later forgery, and only the rest of the artifact is genuine. Though I am not qualified to judge her assessment of the evidence, that it has been accepted by several leading scholars in the field leads me to suspect she may be right. According to her analysis, not only does that portion of the inscription appear to be by a different and significantly less competent scribe, but it uses letter forms from wildly different centuries, and has somehow erased a standard end-of-sentence mark. She hypothesizes that the forgery was committed (I suppose by a zealous Christian or profiteer) in the 3rd or 4th century. This controversy has grown heated according to "The Experts and the Ossuary: A Report on the Toronto Sessions about the James Ossuary" by Paul Flesher.
(2) Further evidence and argument in favor of forgery can be found in Joe Nickell, "Bone (Box) of Contention: The James Ossuary," The Skeptical Inquirer 27:2 (March/April 2003): 19-22. Nickell is a world renowned forgery expert and in this article he offers the best case for forgery I have yet seen. He casts a great deal of plausible suspicion on the added "brother of Jesus" above and beyond Altman's analysis.
(3) The Israel Antiquities Authority then arrived at its own official and unqualified conclusion that the relevant part of the inscription was forged. See the AP Press account on BeliefNet. Also see: "Summary Report of the Examining Committees for the James Ossuary and Yehoash Inscription," Biblical Archaeology Review Sep/Oct 2003, 29(5): 26-31, (which BAR is critical of in several following articles, pp. 32-39, 83). Also see the BAR webpage devoted to the developing story, with many related links: James Bone Box--A Fake?.
(4) Finally, the inscription's owner, Oden Golan, has been arrested and charged with forging this inscription, as well as another artifact (the Jehoash tablet). The Israeli police found the equipment and materials he used to make the forgeries, as well as other unfinished forgeries. It seems like an open and shut case now. See the AP press account on CNN and "Is Oded Golan a Forger?" Biblical Archaeology Review Sep/Oct 2003, 29(5): 34-37.
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