Ten years ago, the Biblical Archaeology Society announced the oldest known object relating to the life of Jesus Christ. A 2,000 year old ossuary, or “bone box,” turned up in an antiquities shop on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. This “James Ossuary” carried these words, in ancient Aramaic, on its side:
James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.
The find led to a criminal investigation, charges of forgery, and a sensational trial in Israel. Last spring the verdict came down: “Not guilty.”
James Ossuary finding
The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003. Copyright 2005 by User Paradiso/Wikipedia (English).
The James Ossuary is about the right size for a box holding human bones. This was the custom for burial, two thousand years ago. The box is empty; someone long since took the bones out and buried them somewhere else. According to the antiquities dealer who had it, someone was using it to plant flowers in when he found it.
André Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne, translated the writing on the side. He gave his expert opinion that the writing was authentic. Ada Yardeni of Hebrew University also believes that the writing is as old as the box. Both said the box dates from 6 AD to 70 AD. (The second date is the date of the Sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of Herod’s Temple by Titus, future Emperor of Rome.)
Hershel Shanks, of Biblical Archaeology Review, published his own history of the James Ossuary. He announced it to the world on October 21, 2002. The problem: no one told the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Nevertheless, Shanks asked for and got the IAA’s permission to exhibit the object abroad. On November 15, 2002, the James Ossuary went on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. Perhaps a low-level functionary gave permission at first. But as January 5, 2003, the deadline to send the box back to Israel, approached, the higher-ups at the IAA heard about it. When Shanks asked their permission to extend the time, the IAA angrily refused.
Then on June 18, 2003, the IAA accused the antiquities dealer, Oded Golan, of forgery. Specifically they said that Golan added the writing himself, and dressed it in chalk to make it look as old as the box.
Thus began a nine-year ordeal for Golan and frustration for Shanks and other defenders of the box. In 2007, the IAA brought Golan to trial for forging the writing on the James Ossuary, and other writings like it on several other objects from the period. On March 14, 2012, a judge found that the IAA had failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Golan had forged anything. The only thing that Golan was guilty of, was trading in antique objects without a permit. The court sentenced him to about a month in jail. He has already spent more time than that in jail, so he probably will not serve another day. (See also this article in Wikipedia, hardly a friend to Christianity or Judaism.)
Is the James Ossuary the real thing?
The verdict does not say that the James Ossuary really held the bones of the brother of Jesus. It does say that a government tried and failed to prove that someone forged an ancient writing.
Shanks quotes Camil Fuchs at Tel Aviv University for the odds on the James Ossuary coming from a family other than that of Jesus of Nazareth. The box names three men:
Index man James (Yaacov or Jacob),
Father Joseph, and
Brother Yeshua (“Iesous” in Greek).
Fuchs suggests that at least one man named Yaacov,, maybe two, and three men at the outside, had the relatives that the James Ossuary names, in the dates that Lemaire and others have given.