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Robert Eisenman

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The James Ossuary: Is It Authentic? (An Update)

Posted: 10/11/11 01:46 PM ET

The only trial in the world which seems to have taken longer than the Amanda Knox one in Italy is the extended "trial" over the so-called "James Ossuary" in Jerusalem. Like the former, which still gives promise of carrying on into several stages of appeal anyhow, the latter is largely concluded, though, unlike it, the only thing waiting to be announced is "the verdict."

This, in the writer's mind (as well as in that of the "defendant" and his well-known, rather "over-the-top" supporter, the Editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks), is a foregone conclusion. The latter two are probably correct in this evaluation as no consideration of "data" could possibly take this long (seven years and running) without a "finding" or "verdict" of "forgery unproven" (as actually in the Knox Trial) basically being the conclusion.

It is time, therefore, to take stock of where one stands with regard to this "Bone Box" -- as it is sometimes called (as we have done before, but with somewhat less information) -- so a verdict of "forgery unproven" will not come as too much of a shock to those who either know little or nothing about the situation or are sure some kind of unpleasantness was connected with it and its sudden, almost miraculous appearance (i.e., almost willy-nilly "surfacing," as it were), just seemingly when one would have expected it to. Those who have this uncomfortable feeling should be comforted because there is something certainly worrisome and probably even unpleasant connected with it.

I have always insisted the appearance of this "Ossuary," supposedly appertaining to "Jesus"' brother James, just when it did in 2002, was intimately connected with the publication of my (may I be so bold?) ground-breaking, 1,000-page "James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls" (Penguin/Faber & Faber/Watkins, 1997-98). That book put "Jesus"' brother "James" on the map so-to-speak.
I say "supposedly" and usually put "Jesus"' name in quotation marks because, first of all, one must be convinced there ever was a person resembling the Jesus we are all so confident we know so much about from the "picture" in the Gospels (I also use the word "picture" advisedly) before we can even start speaking about his putative successor and closest living relative, his brother James. In any case, as I have often expressed it, I find the latter more convincing, not so retrospectively enhanced (i.e., cf. below: It is not whether Jesus had a brother; it is whether the brother had a Jesus).

Before the publication of my James the Brother of Jesus (which was reviewed almost ecstatically on Apirl 24, 1997 in The Jerusalem Post), few had even heard of a "James" ("Jacob" of course being his Hebrew or Greek name) or, at least, spoken much about him -- as the "defendant" in this Jerusalem "trial" (the focus of which being on the "forging" or "enhancing" of biblical-era artifacts, including this so-called "James Ossuary") freely admits -- meaning the fact of his existence and his importance to the question of "the Historical Jesus" (cf. the last sentence of my James the Brother of Jesus: "Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus," or, put in another way: "Once we have found the Historical James we have found the Historical Jesus").

Of course, this "defendant" hadn't, but there were people who were also in the business of "antiquities collecting" (as it is sometimes euphemistically referred to) who had, namely the unnamed eminence grise behind Michael Baigent's most recent and rather untypically somewhat lightweight, "The Jesus Papers" (Harper Collins, 2006). This person too is/was an "antiquities collector" -- again, if that is the appropriate term for it -- one of the most successful and possibly richest, who for many years kept a "display store" in the lobby of one of London's poshest hotels in the Marble Arch area to "deal" with some of its most well-healed customers.
Yes, this "Jesus Papers"' entrepreneur knew all about "James the Brother of Jesus," including such things as his Leadership of the "Early Church in Palestine" ("the Bishop of Bishops," as he is referred to in Early Church texts, or, in the language widespread in the Dead Sea Scrolls, "the Mebakker," "Inspector," or "Overseer," and the real "Leader" of "Christianity" everywhere -- not just in Palestine and not "Peter"); because Michael Baigent, who had heard about him through me and had read all my books and heard many of my lectures, had and told him all about him as early as the mid-late '80s when the two first began their relationship and/or became intimate.

It was at this time, too, that the latter purportedly showed Baigent (and, collaterally, told me about) "the Jesus Papers," meaning a real "letter" supposedly written -- get that, if you will -- by "Jesus" to the Sanhedrin, that survived all the rain and inclement weather of Jerusalem and which this "antiquities collector" claimed to have found underneath the floor of a house he (just by chance) happened to buy in the Old Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Yes, believe that one and "I'll sell you another Bridge in Arizonab" as the popular song would put it.

Yes, this second individual knew all about James, as well as how important finding an ossuary in Jerusalem, with the name "Jacob the son of Joseph" on it, would or could be (real ossuaries of this kind are plentiful enough in Jerusalem and one can see stacks of them in the Israel Antiquities Authority's storerooms), even though "Joseph" probably wasn't even this "James'" actual father; he wasn't, in effect, even "Jesus'", whatever one might make of the latter's parentage.

In fact, add a few words like "brother of Jesus" to an extant inscription such as "James the son of Joseph" (that is, if the words had not already been added by some pious pilgrim from the third to fourth centuries C.E. onwards -- one possible explanation of the "Ossuary" upon which Santiago de Compostela in Spain derives its fame -- the two hands being clearly different (one, formal; the other, cursive) and said "Ossuary" goes up in value from $200 to perhaps $2 million (in this regard, its head cheerleader, Shanks, whom, when I first met him in the mid-'80s, too, seemed to me also to have hardly heard of James, having already opined, both on film and in his magazine, that this would be the only extant, really clear "physical proof" of "the Historical Jesus" (see "The Stone Box and Jesus' Brother's Bones").

Plus, the one Israeli "antiquities collector" probably "knew" or had "dealings" of one kind or another at some point with the other (everyone in Israel more or less "knowing each other" but it is my impression that in some context the former has already admitted this). The second "collector" the Israeli Court was investigating and the Antiquities Authority were accusing of having added this pivotal "brother of Jesus" to the original inscription (rare enough in its time and place on any ossuary). This, along with creating a number of other questionable "artifacts." This just goes to the point of the defendant's claim of never having even heard of "James" before (I believe him) or knowing "Jesus" ever had "a brother" (I believe this, too). But, as we can see, others did!

In the "60 Minutes" segment from 2008, mentioned above, this "defendant" actually admits to interviewer Bob Simon to being in the business of "collecting" for some 30 years or so. Moreover, he even adds to this admission, mentioning how he sometimes even "repaired" or upgraded such "artifacts," always "authentic," of course (again see "The Stone Box And Jesus' Brother's Bones").

It is not my place to comment on suspicious "artifacts" of this kind, nor the activities of these sometimes often nefarious and rather "underground" figures in the world of "antiquities collecting" or "dealing." The Court will do that and the Court's verdict, as much else in Israel, will probably come out, as I already said and as in most such things, to be "inconclusive" or "unproven" -- that being the safest decision or position to adopt.

I speak from experience, having already had my own encounters with the Courts in Israel. At the highest level, these "found" that I and a colleague were "the Editors" of "The Publisher's Forward" in the Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls (B.A.S., Washington D. C., 1992), when I had never even seen its appendix or displays until after the book was published (the "Forward" was written and the displays compiled also by Mr. Shanks). Apparently, my colleague had, but they were never sent to me -- I wonder why? -- but he didn't understand Hebrew that well, nor their significance, so he never forwarded these displays or appendices to me).

Despite the fact that I very carefully only characterized myself and this colleague (not wishing to claim too much credit) as "Arranged with an Introduction by." But in Hebrew, the difference between "arranged by" as applied to organizing and choosing photographs, as opposed to "edited by," as applied to something like a "Publisher's Forward," doesn't exist, it being a rather poverty-stricken language. We were "found" by the Court to be "the Editors" of the book and responsible, therefore, for this same "Publisher's Forward" -- the final proofs for which, as I say, I never even saw.

When I did see them (the appendices, not the actual "Forward," which I had protested against -- that is, which included private letters that, as its Adviser, the Huntington Library had shared with me, to say nothing even of final proofs for the Forward itself), I inveighed against them most vociferously, as even The New York Times correspondent and others at the New York Press Conference, called to dramatize its publication in 1992, could testify to (my actual words being: "Shanks has urinated in our book, like a dog marking a fire hydrant").

In any event, from the very first moment I heard about it, I never ceased protesting about the presence of this "Forward," amounting to some 30 some pages, when my colleague and I had purposefully limited ourselves to writing an "Introduction" of some two to three pages. But I did not have control of that publication; nor did we need a polish copy of MMT, which was the ostensible reason for the 1992 suit against us, as we already had all the relevant photographs anyhow. In the end, "the Publisher's Forward" was finally removed (or, shall we say, reduced in size), though after the fact, at my and the Court's insistence.

But to go back to "the Ossuary": If the two "antiquities collectors" worked together or simply just "knew each other" (it's pretty clear they did know each other, nor did they ever deny it), then all the former had to do was tell the latter to be on the look-out for an authentic ossuary with the inscription "James the son of Joseph" (i.e., "Ya'cov bar Yosef') and the rest would be history. Still, let's be categorical about it: This might not have been the way it happened; this might only be one of the ways it could have happened.

In any event, everyone knows that people like the ever-critical Joe Zias (whom Shanks criticized, along with others, in a piece entitled "Lying Scholars," B.A.R., May-June 3/30, 2004, pp. 48-62) claimed to have seen "the Ossuary" in an East Jerusalem antiquities store (this store, too, appears in Bob Simon's "60 Minutes" program), years after "the defendant" claims he or his family "bought" it there. Zias gave just such testimony to the Court when called as "a witness." But, according to the defendant's "take" on the story (which also appears in Bob Simon's "Report on the Mystery Surrounding the James Ossuary"), "the Ossuary" in question just sat unrecognized in a corner of his family apartment for years before a French epigrapher visited him and recognized the importance of the inscription.

Moreover, in the same program, in the presence of an investigator from the Israel Antiquities Authority, "the Ossuary" was shown to be kept in a lavatory somewhere above the defendant's apartment "on the toilet" (this, too, Zias proudly and derisively has on display on his website). To add to this, in the presence of said investigator, "the defendant" is shown in another part of the apartment complex (or "laboratory") to have various kinds of dental-type cutting or incising equipment and materials for doing just the kind enhancing, cleaning or upgrading activity he admits (with a straight face) to having occasionally done above to the interviewer.

But the most important part of the CBS program was the interview in Cairo, Bob Simon did following this, with an Egyptian craftsman/engraver/artificer, or what have you, named Marko Sammech. He not only admits to Simon that he has known and worked for said "defendant" (and, it would seem, other Israeli "antiquities collectors" as well) for 15 years and to having "inscribed several stone slabs just like" the Ossuary - -and also, by implication, perhaps "hundreds" of clay seals (for him or others?), Simon then shows him a picture of -- then complaining, he hadn't been paid very well. When told the value of these things, he is rather incredulous saying, "but these are just pieces of clay," querying why anyone "would pay that kind of money" for them, and concluding, rather triumphantly, "Tell them to call me. I'll make hundreds for them."

In response, again the Editor of The Biblical Archaeology Review -- to add to his 2004 article "Lying Scholars" -- during a trip to Cairo coinciding with "the Arab Spring" to interview Zahi Hawass (at the time a Government Minister), of course, took advantage of the occasion to go to "the suk" to interview this craftsman/artificer in his shop. The latter, by the looks of the interview, wasn't talking very much, never having either been allowed, called or wishing to go to Jerusalem to testify; and, by the looks of the encounter too, was for all intents and purposes brow-beaten into an unenthusiastic recantation (B.A.R., May/June, 20ll). Who wouldn't recant when faced with this redoubtable Editor on the warpath? I probably would, too. There, so far, is the "plot." It's up to the reader what to make of it.

For my part, 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" to avoid repeating this tedious phraseology -- it being the location of the River Wadi emptying into the Dead Sea where the Scrolls were found) what the documents themselves say and not the more imprecise conclusions of paleography, archaeology or even AMS carbon dating, such as these may be. In the case of "Qumran," they are often at odds with the conclusions of what the texts themselves might say rendering the latter, in the end, impossible to interpret and mute; and this is still the case today.

Given the rather questionable nature of the precision of these "external dating tools" -- often with a margin of error of + or - 100-200 years, even more -- it is my view that 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, 1,000-page study, "The New Testament Code: The Cup of the Lord, the Damascus Covenant, and the Blood of Christ," Watkins/Sterling/Barnes & Noble, 2006, pp. 40-64).

One can also apply this approach to "the James Ossuary" -- and I did this on the very first day it appeared in an AP article, feeling that it was not accidental that it appeared so short a time after my work introducing the world to the subject, not to mention, as noted above too, its having been glowingly reviewed in The Jerusalem Post Literary Supplement by A. Auswaks (cf. "James vs. Paul: Robert Eisenman's James the Brother of Jesus"). So the issue had to have been already well-known to aficionados in Israel.

Where "the internal data" is concerned, this would mean evaluating it by what the inscription on "the Ossuary" actually said and not simply on the basis of such "scientific" or "pseudo-scientific" tools as patina analysis (a "science" still completely in its infancy and, according to some, easily faked by would-be enhancers), paleography (anyone who was going to forge an inscription or add something to an existing inscription would be sure to get the hand-writing right! It's just surprising the person, whoever he was, did this in a second, more cursive hand-writing style. He probably couldn't or just didn't dare to try to imitate the first) and, finally, archaeology. As already conceded, the ossuary is doubtlessly authentic, meaning from this period and, as already signaled as well, these are legion. That is not the question.

The question is what the inscription itself says and how likely it is (I don't think AMS Carbon Dating has any application here though, as already noted as well, the "addition," if authentic, may have been added by a third or fourth century C.E. pilgrim or thereafter; that's how a similar ossuary might have gotten to Santiago de Compostela in Spain).

I summarized these points in a Oct. 29, 2002, op-ed I was invited to do for The Los Angeles Times about two weeks after "the James Ossuary" suddenly appeared ("A Discovery That's Just Too Perfect: Claims that Stone Box Held Remains of Jesus' Brother may be Suspect"). This article was completely done on the basis of "the internal evidence," i.e., what the inscription itself said, as there was really no "external evidence" available at the time, except for paleography (the second part of which was obviously by a different hand or a different handwriting style, as noted above, or fraudulent. But let's leave this aside for the moment). This "internal evidence" is just the area of analysis or expertise the Court in Israel did not consider at all; for, had it done so, the verdict would have been open-and-shut from the beginning.

Therefore, now that we are on the verge of just such a "verdict" in this matter, it is worth reproducing the arguments and analyses of this op-ed in their totality -- almost nothing having changed in the interim and almost every word of which still rings true almost a decade later. So here it is:

"James, the brother of Jesus, was so well known and important as a Jerusalem religious Leader, according to First Century sources, that taking this 'brother' relationship seriously (as I have said in my published work) is perhaps the best confirmation that there ever was an 'Historical Jesus.'

Put another way, it was 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 in the Aramaic language used at that time, with 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.'

An 'ossuary' is a stone box in which bones previously laid out in rock-cut tombs, such as those 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 good condition) -- and no authenticated chain of custody or transmission; there is the nature of the inscription itself.

There is no problem getting hold of ossuaries from this period. They are plentiful in the Jerusalem area, most not even inscribed and some never used. So confirmation of the Jerusalem origin of the stone avails nothing, nor particularly does the 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!

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 appears homogeneous. As this is a new science, it is hard for me to gauge its value. Still, the 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, is the nature of the inscription itself. I say this as someone who would like this artifact to be true, someone willing to be convinced. I would like the burial place of James to be found. Afterall, being the author of a book on the 'James,' I stand more to gain by its authenticity than most. But this box is just too pat, too perfect. In issues of antiquities verification, this is always a warning sign.

This inscription appears pointed not at an ancient audience -- who would have known who 'James' (or 'Jacob'/'Ya'kov,' his Hebrew/Aramaic name) was -- but at a modern one. If this box had simply said 'Jacob the son of Joseph,' I might have been willing to acknowledge it and it might pass 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 jumped perhaps for joy. But 'son of Joseph'? This is what a modern audience, schooled in the Gospels, would expect, not an ancient one.

Then there is 'the brother of Jesus' -- almost no ancient source calls James this. This is what we moderns call him. Even Paul, our primary New Testament witness, calls him 'James the brother of the Lord.' If the ossuary said something like 'James the Zaddik' or 'Just One,' which is how many referred to him -- including Hegesippus from the Second Century CE and Eusebius from the Fourth -- then I would have more willingly credited it. But to call him, not only by his paternal, but also his fraternal name; this I am unfamiliar with on any ossuary and, again, it appears to me to be directly pointed at us.

This is what I mean by the formulation being 'too Perfect.' It just doesn't ring true. To the modern ear, particularly the believer, perhaps. But to the ancient? Perhaps a later pilgrim from the Fourth or Fifth Century CE might have described James in this manner, but not during his lifetime. Nor is this what our paleographers are saying.

Finally, the numerous contemporary sources, I have already referred to, know the location of James' burial site. Hegesippus, a Palestinian native who lived perhaps 50 years after the events in question, tells us that James was buried where he was stoned beneath "the Pinnacle of the Temple" in Jerusalem. Eusebius in the Fourth Century CE and Jerome in the Fifth say the burial site with its marker was still extant in their times and they seem actually to have seen it.

No source, however, mentions his bones being dug up and put in an ossuary. 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 this evidence was ever much heard by the Court, since I, for one, can attest that I was never called to give evidence and I am supposed to be an "expert" on the subject. This evidence is still valid today, as nothing has changed in the interim, no matter what the final "verdict" of the Court turns out to be.

A "Court" cannot either measure or determine these things. A "Court" generally measures whether "the external evidence" is sufficient enough and, in this case, it more than likely will not be. But "internal evidence" is measured by one's insight and intelligence, and one hopes and expects, these are still intact.