Huffington Post, January 20, 2011.
Now that the extended ‘trial’ over “the James Ossuary” or “James Bone Box” in Israel is nearing its conclusion and all that remains to be announced is the verdict — which in the present writer’s mind is a foregone conclusion, no evaluation of data having had to take this long without basically a verdict of “unproven” as regards forgery being the outcome — it is time to take stock of where we stand with regard to this “Box”; so that such a ‘verdict’ will not come as too much of a shock to those convinced of some suspiciousness connected with it and its sudden seemingly almost miraculous appearance or willy-nilly ‘surfacing,’ just when one might have expected it to.
I have always insisted that the appearance of this “Box” in 2002 was intimately connected with the publication of my 1,000-page blockbuster, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Viking/Penguin/ Faber & Faber, 1997-98). That book put this “James the Brother of Jesus” ‘on the map,’ so to speak — meaning the fact of his existence and his importance, as his ‘brother’s successor and closest living relative, to the question of “the Historical Jesus” (the last sentence of the Book being: “Who and whatever James was, so was ‘Jesus’); not to mention his leadership of the “Early Church in Palestine” (“the Bishop of Bishops,” as it were or, in the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls, “the Mebakker” or “Overseer”) and the real “Leader” of so-called “Christianity” everywhere not “Peter.”
In my work, I have always insisted on the importance of “internal data,” if it can be interpreted correctly, over “external data.” By this, I have always meant, as at “Qumran” (the name scholars give to the subject of “the Dead Sea Scrolls” — being the location of the River Wadi emptying into the Dead Sea where the Scrolls were found — to avoid having constantly to repeat the latter terminology), what the documents themselves say and not the more imprecise conclusions of paleography, archaeology, and even AMS carbon dating. These, as in the case of “Qumran,” are often at odds with the conclusions of what the texts themselves say rendering them, in the end, mute and impossible to interpret — this, still the issue in Qumran Studies today. Given the questionable nature, precision-wise, of these “external dating tools” such as they are — often with a margin of error of + or – 100-200 years (even more), they cannot stand in the face of “internal data” to the contrary (see my sections on this subject in Chapter 2 of my follow-up, also 1000-page: The New Testament Code: The Cup of the Lord, the Damascus Covenant, and the Blood of Christ (Watkins/Baird/Sterling/Barnes & Noble, 2006)).
The same can be said for this so-called “James Ossuary” or “Bone Box”; and I did this on the very first day it appeared — knowing that it was not accidental that it ‘surfaced’ just two or three years after my work introducing this subject the world, a work which had been glowingly reviewed in The Jerusalem Post Literary Supplement by Alex Auswaks on 4/24/97 (James vs. Paul: Robert Eisenman’s James the Brother of Jesus); so the issue was already known to aficionados in Israel — on the basis of “the Internal data,” i.e., what the inscription on the “ossuary” itself said and not on the basis of scientific or pseudo-scientific tools, such as patina analysis (a “science” still in its infancy and apparently easily faked), paleography (anyone who was going to “forge” an inscription or add something to an existing one would be sure not to get this wrong and get the hand-writing right), and finally archaeology — the ossuary is doubtlessly “authentic” as artifacts from this period are plentiful; that is not the question. The question is what the inscription itself says and how likely it is.
I summarized these points in an op-ed I was invited to do two weeks after the artifact appeared for the Los Angeles Times on 10/29/02: “Commentary: A Discovery That’s Just Too Perfect: Claims that stone box held remains of Jesus’ brother may be suspect.” This article was obviously almost completely done on the basis of “the Internal evidence,” i.e., what the inscription itself said, as there was little “external evidence” yet available at the time, except for paleography (and here, the second part of the inscription was patently fraudulent as it was obviously different and added by a second hand).
However, it is just this “internal evidence” that the Israeli Court hardly or does not seem to have considered at all; for, had it done so to any extent, the ‘verdict’ would have been a closed and shut case almost from the beginning. Therefore, it is worth reproducing the arguments and analyses of this op-ed piece in total now that we are on the verge of ‘a verdict’ in this case — every word of which is still true some nine years later, almost nothing having changed in the meantime.
So here it is: “James, the brother of Jesus, was so well known and important as a Jerusalem Religious Leader in his day, according to First Century sources, that taking this ‘brother’ relationship seriously (as I have said in all my published work) is perhaps the best confirmation that there ever was an ‘Historical Jesus.’ Put another way, it is not whether ‘Jesus’ had a ‘brother,’ but rather whether ‘the brother’ had a ‘Jesus.’ Now, we are suddenly presented with this very ‘proof’ – the discovery, allegedly near Jerusalem, of an ossuary inscribed with ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,’ in the Aramaic used at that time.
An ‘ossuary’ is a stone box, in which bones previously laid out in rock-cut tombs — such as the one pictured in the Gospels — were placed after they were retrieved by relatives or followers. Why do I find this discovery suspicious? Aside from its sudden miraculous appearance, no confirmed provenance — that is, where it was found and where it has been all these years (from the photographic evidence it seems in remarkably well-preserved condition) — no authenticated chain of custody or transmission, and the suspicious nature of the addition of a second part in a different hand in the inscription; there is the nature of the inscription itself and what it says.
There is no problem getting hold of ossuaries from this period. They are plentiful enough in the Jerusalem area, many not inscribed and some never even used; so confirmation of the Jerusalem origin of the stone avails nothing, nor particularly does its paleography. The Sorbonne paleographer, Andre Lemaire, authenticated the Aramaic inscription as from the year 63 CE. What precision — but why 63? Because he knew from the First Century Jewish historian, Josephus, that James died in 62 CE — how brilliant!
Actually, the only really strong point the arguers for its authenticity have is the so-called ‘patina analysis,’ which was measured at an Israeli laboratory and the appearance of which seems homogeneous. As this is a new science, it is hard for me to gauge its value or its accuracy — still, its letters do seem unusually clear and incised and do not, at least in the photographs, show a significant amount of damage caused by the vicissitudes of time.
My main objection to the ossuary, however as I said, is the nature of the inscription itself. I say this as someone who would be happy if an artifact of this type were true — someone willing to be convinced, as I would like the burial place of James to be found. Afterall, being the author of a book on this ‘James,’ I would stand more to gain by its authenticity than many others. But this “Bone Box” is just too pat — too perfect. In issues of antiquities verification, this is usually a clear warning sign.
This inscription appears too pointed, not at an ancient audience who would have known who ‘James’ (or ‘Jacob’/ ‘Ya’akov’ — his Hebrew/Aramaic name) was, but at a modern one. If this box had simply said ‘Jacob the son of Joseph’ (which it probably said originally anyhow), it might have passed muster. But ancient sources are not clear on who this ‘Jacob”s father really was. If the inscription had said ‘James the son of Cleophas,’ ‘Clopas’ or even ‘Alphaeus’ (as in the Gospels) – all three probably being interchangeable — I would have been really excited. But ‘son of Joseph’? This is what a modern audience, schooled in the Gospels, would have expected to see — not an ancient one.
Then there is ‘the brother of Jesus’ part, which was seemingly added and written in another, different hand. Almost no ancient source calls ‘James’ this. This is what we moderns have come to know him as or call him. Even Paul, our primary New Testament witness and source, refers to him ‘James the brother of the Lord.’ If the ossuary had said something like ‘James the Zaddik’ or ‘James the Just One,’ which is how all ancient sources referred to him — including Hegesippus from the Second Century CE, Eusebius from the Fourth, and Jerome and Epiphanius in the Fifth — then I would have more willingly credited it.
But to call him, not only by his paternal but also his fraternal name — and this in an obvious addition — this, I am unfamiliar with on any ossuary and, again, it appears to me to be directly pointed at us a later audience primarily composed of believers. This is what I mean by the formulation being ‘too Perfect.’ It is too pointed and just doesn’t ring true — to the modern ear, particularly that of the believer’s, perhaps; but to the ancient? Perhaps a later pilgrim from the Fourth or Fifth Century CE might have described ‘James’ in this manner, but probably no one would have done so in his lifetime. Moreover, this is not what our paleographers are saying. As we saw above, they are dating it in 63 CE (sic)!
Finally, the numerous contemporary sources, I have already referred to above, know the location of James’ burial site. Hegesippus, a Palestinian native who lived perhaps 50 or 100 years after the events in question, tells us that James was buried where he was stoned in Jerusalem — beneath ‘the Pinnacle of the Temple.’ Eusebius in the Fourth Century CE and Jerome in the Fifth say the burial site with its marker was still extant in their time and both, having visited Jerusalem, appear to have actually seen it!
No source, however, mentions James’ bones being dug up and put in an ossuary. They say he was buried in the ground. Our creative artificers presumably never read any of these sources — nor beyond the first few Chapters of my book, James the Brother of Jesus (Penguin, 1998) — or they would have known better.”
This is what “the Internal evidence” would say and it does not appear as if evidence of this kind was ever even placed to any extent before the Israeli Court, since I for one was never called as a witness and I am supposed to be an ‘expert’ on the subject, having theoretically ‘written the book on it.’ No matter what the final ‘verdict’ of the Court turns out to be, this kind of evidence is still valid, real, and applicable today as nothing has changed in the interim, because a ‘Court’ cannot and does not measure these things.
A ‘Court’ generally measures “external evidence” and whether it is sufficient enough; and, in this case as we noted at the beginning of this piece, it probably cannot and will not be. But “Internal evidence” is measured by one’s intelligence and one expects and hopes this is still intact, functioning, and applicable.