Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Here we go again. Hershel Shanks Declares "James Brother of Jesus" Inscription Authentic . . . Sigh!

Picture is from July/August BAR
The July/August edition of Biblical Archaeology Review  (BAR) will carry an article in which Hershel Shanks declares that the inscription on the "James Ossuary" is authentic.

You may remember that the James ossuary has been the center of controversy for sometime. It first came to the attention of the media and scholars alike in 2002. It caused a sensation around the world because it bears an Aramaic inscription which reads James son of Joseph brother of Jesus. The story was picked up by major news outlets with the claim that the ossuary belonging to Jesus' martyred brother James had been discovered. Soon after BAR arranged to have the ossuary shipped to Toronto to be put on display during the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. Tragically, the ossuary was cracked in transit and had to be repaired.

It wasn't long before numerous questions about the ossuary began to surface. While no one doubts that the ossuary itself is authentic, there are many who question the inscription or at least part of it. Some have suggested the whole inscription is a fake others that the portion which reads "brother of Jesus" is a fake. Whether or not that is the case one must admit that the temptation to forge such an inscription is great for those who are looking to profit off  the discovery of biblical artifacts.

A related problem is that the ossuary was purchased in an antiquities shop in the Old City of Jerusalem. This means that while the ossuary is authentic, it is only interesting from the stand point of being yet another inscribed ossuary. Without the ability to survey and study the tomb in which it was found we cannot determine very much about it. It is like discovering a line written by Shakespeare without any context. We don't know if it is from a letter he wrote, an unpublished play or a grocery list written by Ann Hathaway. All we can truly say about the James ossuary is that it fits the evidence for first century, Jewish burial practices and that the inscription also fits the time period.

Eventually the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, was accused of forging the inscription and put on trial with others. After seven years of legal wrangling the judge in the trial declared Golan's acquittal since he determined that the prosecution did not prove their case against Golan. Please note, this does not mean that the inscription was declared to be authentic or that it refers to the same James of the New Testament known as Jesus' brother. It simply means that there was not enough conclusive evidence to convict Golan. All of the same questions, doubts and debates surround the ossaury.

Now Shanks is declaring victory. He has written a six page article under the headline  "Brother of Jesus Inscription is Authentic!"  I read the article seeking for a new piece of evidence that perhaps had come to light that would perhaps tip the debate in favor of the inscription's authenticity. I found nothing. In reality, most of the article is a rehash of the same story we have been reading for ten years now. Even Shanks admits in the beginning of the article that the judge did not rule the inscription authentic and he also admits that it is impossible to prove that it belonged to the brother of the Jesus of Nazareth.

 But Shanks has a magazine to sell, one to which I admit I have a subscription, so he closes it with some statistical information related to first century, Jewish, male, names in Jerusalem. In the end this how Shanks ends the article.
Fuchs concludes that the estimate for the relevant population includes 7,530 men, and the likelihood of someone named James with a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus in this population is 0.0227 percent. That is, the estimate of the number of individuals in that population who bear the three names with this relation is 1.71. Expressed another way, there is a 38 percent chance that only one individual had this combination, a 32 percent chance that two individuals had this combination, an 18 percent chance that three individuals had it and an 8 percent chance that four individuals had it. And Fuchs can state this with 95 percent confidence.

So does Shanks think this ossuary belongs to Jesus' brother? Well he is not saying, but he certainly wants his readers to keep buying magazines and I can't fault him for that. But some will now declare the significance of only an 18% chance that 3 individuals had this combination of names. For them this will be hard, archaeological evidence that Jesus existed. Perhaps. But whether it is 18%, 8% or even 1% there are other problems with this ossuary some of which I listed above. And buying an artifact in an antiquities shop is not archaeology. It is a form of looting.

In the end there are way to many variables in human history. One must be careful when using scientific theory to interpret history. It is helpful, but it can also be unreliable. History is not a controlled experiment in which we can observe everything that is happening and draw conclusions. We can only observe what happened with what meager evidence we have and then draw a very tentative conclusion. The fact is humans are wildly unpredictable and there are any number of possible variables that could distort our interpretation of history. There is too much that we simply don't know.

From a faith point of view, I am not bothered whether this inscription is authentic or not. From a historians perspective, I wish it had been handled better.


  1. FYI

  2. Many believe the KJV bible is god breathed,when in fact it was a politically motivated attempt by King James to create unity within his realm.In fact a committee produced that supposed holly book.
    The Ossuary is about as genuine as the KJV.
    Like E R. Thieves supposed solution of the Chronology of the Hebrew. Kings ,which gained much acclaim from ignoramuses.
    Thieves &Albright were nowhere near the truth,as they like almost everyone are challenged by simple. Arithmetic.
    The. Kingdom of. Israel fell in 720 BC (3280 AM) ..after a three year siege 722. Thru 720 BC.,while Hoshea was imprisoned in GILEAD.....He did not rule in Samaria!!!!!!!!.PEKAH & H OSHEA ruled over Israel in Gilead as an adjunct to Samaria?????. 749. Thru. 720 BC
    Pekah was ousted /usurped by Hoshea729/728. & managed to. Surface as a Captain to Pekahiah in Samaria 724BC,but slew him in order to reign in his room....BUT. Hoshea immediately slew him ,but was then besieged ,bound,& imprisoned by Shalmaneser v.,who then went up through the land to lay siege to Samaria three years & they""" took it...Sargon 2 ( Sharrukin) 720BC.
    Ergo....Pekah. Killed Pekahiah722 BC...UZZIAH died 722BC....thus his 52year reign was 744 BC...His 'RULE' however was 774. To 749 BC,

  3. I don't see the point of this whole controversy. After all the NT already mentions the brothers of Jesus. The question is what does this mean. The ossuary even if totally authentic adds no this to what the bible already states.