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American Academy of Religion Discusses "James Ossuary" - Purported Burial Box of Jesus' Brother Exhibited at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum

Massimo Introvigne

Although Christianity is hardly a new religious movement, both I and several colleagues attending the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Toronto this November did not miss a pilgrimage to the Rotyal Ontario Museum to see the "James Ossuary", the purported burial box of James, the brother of Jesus, and some of us attended the conference session where André Lemaire, the French scholar who discovered the box, defended its authenticity as at least "very probable" and other related sessions (I am not attending all of them and am reconstructing their content with the help of AP dispatches by religious reporter Richard N. Ostling) . The ossuary has an inscription reading ``James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.'' Ossuaries were not used after 70 A.D. and this would be the most ancient artifact referring to Jesus Christ, a seminal archeological discovery.

The ossuary does not appear to be a modern forgery. Two specialists with Israel's Geological Survey have certified that the surface patina indicates all the letters were inscribed in ancient times with no sign they were tampered with. However, some scholars believe that the inscription was added in ancient times by unknow hands in orderto create an early Christian "relic".

Eric Meyers of Duke University told the AAR audience he has ``serious questions about authenticity'' and urged caution, among other reasons because the ``brother of Jesus'' part could have been added.

University of Toronto archaeologist Peter Richardson argued that the inscription shows two different writing styles, but the ``character of the letters changes gradually'' from one end to the other, making forgery less likely.

On the other hand, Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University responded that the existence of two writing styles ``suggests the possibility of a second hand.''

Lemaire said the more fundamental question is whether the inscription refers to the biblical James. On that, he estimated that in 1st century Jerusalem only 20 males named James might have had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus.

John Painter, an Australian historian who has written on James, questioned the statistical basis for Lemaire's estimate.

But Oded Golan, the Israeli collector who owns the box, told the museum session that Tel Aviv University statistician Camil Fuchs has narrowed the odds to three people or, by less cautious reckoning, ``down to almost one person of the period.''

Golan said Fuchs' calculations, not yet published, eliminate Jerusalem's non-Jews, children, the 85 percent who were illiterate and the 50 percent who could not afford ossuary burial.

Fuchs' conclusion would cover a span of 90 years. But the museum's display says the letter shapes narrow the time of the inscription to roughly A.D. 50-70. Josephus, the most important Jewish historian in the 1st century, recorded that James was executed as a heretic in A.D. 62.

Hershel Shanks, who is co-authoring a book and advising a television documentary about the box, said of all the questions being posed, ``There's a kind of resistance. We don't want to believe it.'' Some conservative theologians attending AAR believe there is a liberal resistance to any hard historical evidence about Jesus. Other contend forgeries in this field have been all to common. At any rate, few did hide their emotion in looking at the artificat in the beatiful exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, and for any of us it was also an opportunity to discover rich religion-related collections in the Museum, particularly the rich session on China.

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