The Burial Box of Jesus’ Brother James – Fact or Fake?

After seven years of trial, testimonies from a lineup of archaeological experts and a 475 page verdict, presiding Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court court not reach a decision supporting the fact the ossuary [a limestone burial box] of James, brother of Jesus, was a forgery. As a result the Jerusalem judge could not charge Israeli collector Oded Golan, the owner of the bones box of James, with forgery regarding the ossuary.

A Huffpost Religion article summed up the seven year controversy and what the final verdict implies:

Golan said the ruling put an end to what he portrayed as a 10-year smear campaign against him. Hershel Shanks, editor of the Washington-based Biblical Archaeology Review, said he was delighted, insisting the burial box, or ossuary, is authentic and a “prized artifact to the world of Christianity.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority, which believes Golan’s most high-profile items are forged, said the case shows the limits of science in proving forgeries, but it also prompted museums and universities around the world to be more suspicious of finds of uncertain origin.

In light of the ruling students of the Bible are left with the conclusion the ossuary may be authentic after all and that science could not debunk the veracity of the claim that the box once housed the bones of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

James, the brother of Jesus

The Questionable Issues Regarding the Ossuary of James

The trial focused mainly on the validity of the patina on the surface of the ossuary. The patina, a think layer of grime, is often used to prove the age of engravings.  According to Wednesday’s HuffPost article, the following exchange took place in determining the truthfulness of the acclaimed first century date ascribed to the ossuary:

At one point, the prosecutor brought a camp stove, chalk, beaker and other ingredients to show how easy it is to make fake patina, said journalist Matthew Kalman, a frequent trial observer. The defense then used the same technique to show that fake patina doesn’t stick to stone.

The ossuary episode began in 2002 when Golan sent the box with the Aramaic inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.  Noted archaeologist Hershel Shanks and editor of Biblical Archaeological Review published an enthusiastic report about the find. Golan claimed he had the ossuary in his possession since the ’70s.  He rarely paid it any attention until a French expert, Andre Lemaire, professor of Hebrew and Aramaic philology and epigraphy at the Sorbonne University in Paris, suggested the inscription may refer to James the brother of Jesus!

Soon the Israel Antiquities Authority became involved. Initially the IAA expressed concern Golan had sent the ossuary to Canada without obtaining a license. Next, IAA experts concluded the inscription on the burial box was a forgery and police started to investigate.

A National Post article further represents the concern of Israeli authorities:

The ossuary itself was undoubtedly authentic. But within months the Israel Antiquities Authority charged that the last part of the inscription, the portion mentioning Jesus, was fabricated. Scientific investigators reported that the patina, the aging of the surface, had been tampered with.

During the course of their investigation, the IAA charged Golan along with four other defendants with forging and trading in dozens of stolen items.  The trial brought up the necessity of antiquities trade in Israel to be regulated more closely.

Archaeologist Eric Myers of Duke University noted the questions about the origins of Golan’s ossuary.  The Duke University professor warned, “Israel is unique in the Middle East for allowing antiquities dealers to operate under official government licensing.” However, Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Review editor argues the finds should not automatically be dismissed due to uncertain origins.  Even an artifact that may have been looted can still have archaeological value.

After all is said and done, the ossuary remains a mystery, according to the Jerusalem court.

The Remaining Facts Concerning the Ossuary

According to the French expert Lemaire from Sorbonne University, it is still an amazing fact that this ossuary has surfaced in Israel – a box that may once have contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus.

James is believed to have been stoned to death in 62 A.D.  The brother of Jesus is mentioned in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as the brother of Jesus in Matthew 13:55, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” In addition, this is the same James who wrote the New Testament letter bearing the same name.

Some biblical scholars doubt the authenticity of the inscription because first century Jews would never have written “brother of Jesus” on the bone box. However, in the case of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, it would be quite expected for His followers to break tradition to give Him honor even by a fellow family member.

The Unexpected Twist Regarding the Ossuary

To some the name Simcha Jacobovici may not ring any bells.  The Israeli-born filmmaker has been a self-described “unwavering” supporter of both Oded Golan’s innocence and the authenticity of the James ossuary  and in 2004 made a documentary on the issue for Discovery Channel called James, Brother of Jesus.

However, this Toronto filmaker was an essential player in the making of another Discovery Channel documentary in 2007 called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”  The documentary claimed an ancient tomb found in Jerusalem may have held the bones of Jesus. The project’s producer, James Cameron, of Avatar and Titantic fame, claims the implications of such a find could drastically change the sacred faith of Christianity.

Cameron underplays the importance of the implications of his documentary. If Jesus’ bones are among those found in the tomb’s ossuraries, then the resurrection of Jesus would be proven to be false. Christianity would come to a dead stop.

Consequently, it is not surprising Jacobovici stated on Wednesday March 14th that the ossuary verdict marks “a turning point in the history of the archeology of the early Jesus movement.” However, his reason for rejoicing are different than most Christians.

Jacobovici is enthusiastic about the Golan verdict because he wants the James ossuary to be authentic since he believes the veracity of the bone box supports his belief the ossuaries found in the alleged “family tomb of Jesus” would also gain more reliability.  Let me make it clear that the James ossuary was not found among the bone boxes found in the “Jesus Family Tomb” located in the Talipot neighborhood of southern Jerusalem.

The Toronto filmmaker wants his “Jesus Family Tomb” theory to be proven not to authenticate the historicity of first century Christianity but to bolster his theory that Jesus was never resurrected and that Christianity as we know it is a “made up” faith that the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead bears little reliablity.

However, before Jacobovici receives any more press and is allowed to connect the James ossuary to his theories about the “Jesus Family Tomb”, it is important we gain further information about the 2007 Discovery channel documentary produced by the well-known James Cameron.

In my 30 page booklet Burying the Jesus Family Tomb Controversy I point out the errors and false conclusions found in Jacobovici and Cameron’s flawed film presentation.  As the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus or Easter is quickly approaching it is essential we use every resource available to understand the importance of the resurrection of Jesus and to respond to any attack on the veracity of the resurrection of Jesus.

I invite the readers of the ScriptureSolutions blog to purchase a copy of Burying the Jesus Tomb Controversy for $2.50 plus shipping and handling.  Perhaps you may want to share this written response to the Jesus Family Tomb theory with your friends who may be confused about the modern attempt to debunk the resurrection of Jesus.  Also, if you’re interested in ordering more than 10 copies of Burying the Jesus Tomb Controversy, please email ScriptureSolutions to discuss further discounts.

To purchase “Burying the Jesus Tomb Controversy” booklet go directly to Amazon.



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