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A Discovery That's Just Too Perfect

Claims that stone box held remains of Jesus' brother may be suspect.

October 29, 2002|Robert Eisenman | Robert Eisenman is the author of "James the Brother of Jesus" (Penguin, 1998) and a professor of Middle East religions and archeology at Cal State Long Beach.

James, the brother of Jesus, was so well known and important as a Jerusalem religious leader, according to 1st century sources, that taking the brother relationship seriously was perhaps the best confirmation that there ever was a 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 shape) -- 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 is to no avail, nor particularly is the paleography. The Sorbonne paleographer Andre Lemaire authenticated the Aramaic inscription as from the year AD 63. What precision; but why 63? Because he knew from the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus that James died in AD 62.

The only really strong point the arguers for authenticity have is the so-called patina, 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. But this box is just too pat, too perfect. In issues of antiquities verification, this is always a warning sign.

This inscription seems pointed not at an ancient audience, who would have known who James (or Jacob, his Hebrew/Aramaic name) was, but at a modern one. If this box had simply said "Jacob the son of Joseph," 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" (all three probably being interchangeable), I would have jumped for joy. But 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 2nd century and Eusebius from the 4th, 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 seems 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 4th or 5th century might have described James in this way, but this is not 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 4th century and Jerome in the 5th say the burial site with its marker was still there in their times.

No source, however, mentions an ossuary. Our creative artificers presumably never read any of these sources (nor beyond the first few chapters of my book) or they would have known better.

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