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Interpreting ossuary boxes

Roughly seven years ago the discovery of a 2000-year old bone box (or, ossuary) which is engraved with the words James, Son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, was announced, setting in motion a media, scholarly, and now judicial frenzy.  There is not much doubt that the 20-inch long box is about the right age to be from the period when Jesus lived; the controversy has to do with whether the inscription was added later.  The editor of the Biblical Archeological Review (BAR first headlined the find in 2002 in an essay written by the Sarbonne scholar André Lemaire) has written a book defending the authenticity of the find, which he says makes this one of the greatest archeological finds of all time since it would be the only contemporaneous evidence that Jesus lived and that the New Testament naming of his (step-)father and brother is accurate.  By contrast, Nina Burleigh has a new book out (Unholy Business:  A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land, Harper Collins) arguing the whole thing is, as the title implies, a gigantic hoax.

The antiquities collector who sprang the find on the world is Oded Golan, who says he was sold the box by an Arab antiquities dealer; he can’t remember who the man was.  An investigation was subsequently undertaken by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which pronounced the inscriptions a fraud (their Final Report is available on their main website); soon thereafter Golan and three others were arrested and, for the last almost four years, have been on trial for taking valuable historical artifacts and adding fake lettering in a scheme to make them massively more valuable.  Golan denies the charges.

The case is obviously complicated, and pretty interesting.  Golan is accused of also faking a tablet he claims came from the first Solomon Temple.  The ossuary, if confirmed, might rock the world of Christian scholarship (more on that in a moment); the Jehoash tablet, if confirmed, might rock the world of Judaism by proving the existence of Solomon’s Temple on the historically contested Al Aqsa Temple Mount.

A lot of the skepticism derives from the fact that the finds just seem too good to be true.  The tablet contains sixteen full lines of text, when similar finds from the right period are lucky to include a smattering of textual fragments.  Burleigh note that when the authorities searched Golan’s house, they found little baggies of ancient dirt and charcoal, along with carving tools one would use to fake age an object.  During one search, as the Toronto Star reported it, “the James Ossuary was found sitting atop a disused toilet, an odd place, police felt, for a box purported to have once contained the DNA of Jesus’ family.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority sees the case as open and shut.  While some have argued that scientifically valid tests of the stone patina verify the authenticity of the engraved lettering, the panel of experts convened by IAA judged the inscription a fraud.  In part their argument was based on a finding that the inscription cut through the old patina (implying it was of recent origin).  Parts of the inscription, they argued, were recently baked on; in that more recently applied inscription patina (the part that seems to connect the box to someone named Jesus), they found trace elements that wouldn’t have existed in ancient Jerusalem but are found today in chemically treated tap water.

But under intensive question-and-answer in the lawsuit, the case has weakened – one expert from Germany said the IAA had contaminated the key evidence and another (Ada Yardeni) said she would leave her profession if the ossuary turned out to be a fake.  Opponents of the IAA conclusions argue that their objectivity cannot be trusted given IAA’s strong opposition to artifacts brought to light via the commercial antiquities trade.  The testimony has been so conflicted that two months ago the judge actually suggested the prosecution drop the charges against Golan; he said it seemed unlikely to him a conviction could be achieved (which in turn led Hershel Shenks, the BAR editor, to issue a report that the find had been “vindicated” – this month writing, the “forgery case collapses”).  Burleigh is frustrated because a possible key witness is an Egyptian who says he used to forge for Golan.  But Egypt won’t extradite the man and he doesn’t seem interested in testifying, and so his story likely won’t be heard.  Defenders of the box’s authenticity argue Burleigh is just trying to sell her book, and the book’s thesis blows up if the find proves genuine (and so, they insinuate, she’ll say anything to discredit it).

The whole thing got even wilder earlier this year when a documentary film produced by James Cameron (yes, the Titanic guy) was released.  Directed by Simcha Jacobovici, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which has by now screened around the world (Jacobovici has also co-authored a book on the subject called The Jesus Tomb and the documentary aired under the title The Jesus Family Tomb on the Discovery Channel), argues that the James ossuary and others found nearby establish (at a high level, they say, of statistical probability) that what had been found was the final burial grounds of Jesus’ family.  The statistical part is interesting – the expert quoted in the film did calculations given a series of contingencies laid out by the film’s director.  The statistician is credible (Andre Feuerverger, from the University of Toronto) and the calculations have been judged serious and methodologically sophisticated by a peer-reviewed forum in a leading statistics journal, but the original parameters are highly disputed (especially given how common the names Mary, Jesus, Joseph, and James were back then).

Stephen Pfann, from the University of the Holy Land, isn’t buying it:  “What database serves as the basis for establishing the probability of this claim?  There are no surviving genealogies or records of family names in Judea and Galilee to make any statement concerning frequency of various personal names in families there.”  Joe Zias, former curator of archeology at the Rockefellar Museum in Jerusalem, quoted in a March 2007 Newsweek article, was even blunter: “Simcha has no credibility whatsoever.  He’s pimping off the Bible…  Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”

Smart people got involved in the film (among them Princeton’s James Charlesworth and the University of North Carolina [Charlotte]’s James Tabor), but the film still reaches pretty far.  Based on a fourth ossuary from the same tomb (which some now aim to turn into a mega-tourist site), (here quoting a summary by David Horovitz in the Jerusalem Post) the filmmakers:

 …point to Ossuary 701… inscribed “Mariamne,” who they say is identified as Mary Magdelene in the 4th century text, The Acts of Philip.  And since Mary Magdalene is in the Jesus family tomb, and ultra-modern testing has established, astoundingly, that her bone-box and Jesus’ contained DNA of non-blood relatives, she must have been Jesus’ partner, they reason.  And since there’s a “Judah son of Jesus” in the tomb too (Ossuary 702) they dare to suggest he was most likely their son.  

Why, it’s the Da Vinci Code, all over again!  Burleigh half jokingly predicts we’ll soon see Solomon’s crown and Abraham’s sandals appearing on the antiquities market.

The case, beyond its intrinsic interest, has implications for how knowledge is created and distorted and popularized.  Some believers eager for evidence confirming their faith prove gullible to media mythmakers who popularize (and sometimes grotesquely distort) the scientific basis for their claims.  And the scientists get hauled into courts, where the standards of evidence vary dramatically from the tests of the laboratory or the peer review publication process.  Two sides get ginned up, science goes on trial, and (as Burleigh puts it) “the subjective underbelly of the science is… exposed…, big time” (qtd. by Laidlaw, Toronto Star, 11/4/08).  In cases of ambiguity, either fraud is perpetuated or doubt cast on potentially astonishing discoveries.  The debate rages on forever, creating cottage industries of scholarly blood feud.  It is this very cycle that accounts for the fact that Holy Family tombs have now been “authenticated” (as the Newsweek report put it) beneath the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and at another site in Ephesus (the Catholic Church says Mary was buried both places), the rock on which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected in Jerusalem (Constantine said that was where Jesus was laid to rest), and a tomb in Safed (where last year Tabor said he found a Jesus tomb).

Stay tuned.  The Golan trial gets going again later this month.

SOURCES:  “’Jesus box’ may not be a fake after all,” Daily Mail (London), 30 October 2008, pg. 11; Stuart Laidlaw, “Forgery of antiquities is big business,” Toronto Star, 4 November 208, pg. L01; David Horovitz, “Giving ‘Jesus’ the silent treatment,” Jerusalem Post, 2 March 2007, pg. 24; Nina Burleigh, “Faith and fraud,” Los Angeles Times, 29 November 2008, pg. A21; “Forgery case collapses,” Biblical Archeology Review, January/February 2009, pgs. 12-13; Lisa Miller and Joanna Chen, “Raiders of the lost tomb,” Newsweek, 5 March 2007, pg. 60; Nicole Gaouette, “What ‘Jesus hoax’ could mean for Mideast antiquities,” Christian Science Monitor, 19 June 2003, pg. 7.


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