The Bonebox of James: Is It Physical Evidence of the Historicity of Jesus?
A recent find, an ossuary (or bonebox) may be evidence that Jesus existed. Carrier compares the facts and arguments, pro and con, and offers his expert opinion.
A recent find has hit the press which might be evidence that Jesus existed. Since I recently reviewed a strong case against the historicity of Jesus (Did Jesus Exist? Earl Doherty and the Argument to Ahistoricity) and have expertise in ancient history and early Christianity (including a B.A. from Berkeley, and an M.A. and M.Phil. from Columbia), I have been asked by several people to state my opinion on the matter. This brief essay summarizes the case. Relevant to this subject is my discussion of the five types of evidence for historical facts in Geivett’s Exercise in Hyperbole. Of the five kinds, this ossuary represents an example of physical evidence. The whole affair reminds me of the acclaimed movie The Body starring Antonio Banderas, which dramatically considers the possibility of finding the body of Jesus (naturally, controversy and chaos ensue).
So much for fiction. The real discovery is this: a 1st century ossuary (or bonebox) has turned up in a private collection with the inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” (which identifies the bones that would have been in the box but were at some point discarded, probably by looters). This could be construed as evidence for the historicity of Jesus. Personally, I am undecided about its usefulness. But it is not dismissed lightly. I will summarize the pros and cons of using this object as such an evidence. There may be other pros or cons mentioned in other articles about it, and this is by no means the last word on the matter. The list below is simply what guides my own conclusion, based on my experience and a detailed and positive article by the scholar who studied the box, Andr’ Lemaire, in Biblical Archaeology Review (“Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Jesus Found in Jerusalem,” 28:6, Nov/Dec 2002, pp. 25-33, 70). All the following facts derive from that article.
- (1) If the box (or at least the inscription) is a forgery, it is a very good one, carried out by a very clever antiquities expert. That isn’t impossible, but it thins the odds a bit, making this is an argument in favor of authenticity. The script is very accurate for the period and was not worked with modern tools (a common mistake made by forgers), and the modification was kept surprisingly simple (one imagines it would have been hard for a devout Christian forger to resist embellishing the box or inscription in some way). Moreover, it contains the next detail, which is more telling.
- (2) The spelling of “brother” is a late form, appearing first in extant sources centuries after the fact. A scholar who knew enough to mimic a script would not likely make such a spelling mistake. This inspired an investigation that discovered two instances of that actual spelling in the mid-1st century A.D.: once in a Dead Sea Scroll (the Genesis Apocryphon), which could suggest an Essene inscriber, a curious coincidence given early Christianity’s similarities to Jewish Essenism, and once on another ossuary, in fact the only other known instance of a brother being so named on a bonebox. Since it is unlikely (though not impossible) that a forger would have known of either of these early instances of the word, and using a late form is likewise unlikely for our would-be forger, one can argue from this that the inscription is authentic.
- (3) It is fairly confidently datable by its script (which has characteristics limited to a very small time frame, 50-70 A.D., an unusual bit of luck given that script characteristics usually persist longer than that) and the fact that this type of ossuary was popular only in the 1st century A.D. Neither point counts against forgery (an authentic box could have been doctored by someone who knew 1st century scripts). But forgery aside, it is an impressive coincidence that such a family tree should turn up exactly where early Christian tradition says it would.
- (4) Though the inscription was foolishly cleaned by an unknown party before the ossuary was brought to light, some patina remains firmly attached inside the inscribed letters. This means that, if the box is a forgery, it must have been an old one. One supposes it had to have been inscribed at least several decades ago, and then deliberately left in the peculiar conditions that allow a patina to accumulate (i.e. a damp, dark cave).
- (5) Mentions of brothers in ossuary inscriptions are rare (we have only one other example out of over two hundred extant ossuary inscriptions). It is thus probable that there was a special reason to mention a brother, and a brother who was well known would be one such reason, which fits but does not entail the theory that it is “the” Jesus (though see concluding observation below). That is not the only reason possible (a brother who commissioned the inscription or burial might include his name, or the known existence of another James ben Joseph could encourage the inscribers to attain greater specificity). But the possibility that this peculiarity creates adds to any argument for authenticity.
- (1) The box has no provenance. Bought illegally on the antiquities market, no one can show a chain of custody from the find to the collector. This opens up a little wider the possibility of forgery. It also means we don’t even know where it was found, which makes dating the item a bit more uncertain. Lack of provenance further exacerbates the next problem: the box could come from any family anywhere in all of Judaea. It is very unfortunate that this evidence came to us illegally rather than at the hands of scientific archaeologists.
- (2) All three names on the box were among the most common of Jewish names, attested dozens if not hundreds of times in extant sources, documents, and inscriptions (on ossuaries alone, Joseph appears on 8%, Jesus on 4%, James on 2%; a survey of all kinds of inscriptions also puts their frequency at 14%, 9%, and 2%, respectively). So it is not too improbable that there were many Josephs with sons named James (Jacob) and Jesus (Joshua). The odds, in fact, are better than 1 in 16,000. Given that the population of Jerusalem was around fifty to a hundred thousand, for about ten to twenty thousand families, there would likely have been at least two such family triads living there at any given time (Lamaire estimates twenty over the span of two generations). And we can’t even be sure this family lived there: not knowing where the box came from, or whether it was deposited by natives or pilgrims (many Jews who lived outside Judaea procured burial in the holy land, believing only those interred in Israel would rise at the End Times), it follows that this could well be the ossuary of another family living anywhere in Judaea, or beyond, leaving us with a pool of well over a million candidate families. So even if Jesus really existed and had a Joseph as father and a James as brother, this ossuary might still not be theirs. Since people will pay extra attention to such a find, selection bias already explains why it has been thrust into the limelight. It would still be worthwhile to ascertain the frequency of redundant family triads on co-temporary ossuaries in Judaea: as a general rule, how often do we find family trios with all the same names?
- (3) It appears that there was not enough patina inside the inscribed letters to conduct the same tests on it as were done on the patina found over the rest of the ossuary (at least, no such test was done’only the patina outside the inscription was tested). A perfect match would secure a strong argument for authenticity. A failed match would secure a strong argument for forgery. Despite the importance of such a test, it was probably impossible due to the unfortunate cleaning of the inscription. This may have been known by the forger, who deliberately cleaned the inscription to make checking his work difficult.
Comparing all the facts and arguments above I was of the opinion that this find is probably genuine. The odds seemed stacked against forgery here. However, new evidence has come to light that makes forgery seem much more likely (see below). But even putting that aside what still troubles me is the frequency of the names, and the evident odds that a family could just by chance have a father Joseph and two brothers James and Jesus. If the names were rarer, or other details were added (like a mother Mary–mothers not uncommonly being used for identification in Egyptian papyri, but apparently never on Jewish ossuaries’-or James’ epithet “the Just,” or some reference to the special reverence or status for Jesus, etc.) we would be on safer ground. But as it is, it is already within the realm of probability (a small but nevertheless significant probability) that such a bonebox would be recovered even if Jesus never existed. And that makes this object a frustratingly unpersuasive piece of evidence for historicity. It can certainly stand as part of and add weight to a larger argument, but it isn’t the Holy Grail.
Professor Rachel Hachlili, “widely recognized as one of the leading experts on Jewish names in the Second Temple period” concurs with this conclusion in a letter to Biblical Archaeology Review (29:2, Mar/Apr 2003: p. 12), for all the same reasons, adding also that the addition of a brother to an ossuary inscription is found in some Aramaic and Greek ossuary inscriptions, too, so it is not as rare as thought, and it clearly did not imply the brother was famous. Another letter, from Gershon Hepner (p. 14) offers another plausible reason for mentioning a brother: levirate marriage, accordinq to Deut. 25:5-10, by which the named James would have legally carried on the name of his deceased brother Jesus by marrying his widow.
A Final Observation
If we accept this object as evidence that Jesus existed, it still presents a problem for Christians. For if Christianity is true, then James is a man who preached unto his death that his brother was the Messiah, the Savior of Israel, harbinger of the End Times, possibly even the Son of God Himself, key to every human being’s eternal salvation. We are left to wonder, then, why no mention of this appears on the ossuary of James. Instead, Jesus is simply listed as a mere brother, with no hint of anything special at all. This can be explained away, of course (maybe the inscriber for some reason wasn’t a sympathizer). But it remains odd. It is more easily explained by the theory that Jesus wasn’t anything special, or at least nothing so special as Christians need him to have been. So even if we accept historicity on this evidence, we are left with as good a case for secular theories of historicity (e.g. Jesus was just a popular, maybe controversial, Jewish teacher), possibly even a slightly stronger case, than for the truth of Christianity (i.e. that Jesus was the Son of God, a great miracle worker, belief in whom secures eternal salvation).
New Evidence Offered: Since the above essay was published, several things have happened that essentially confirm that the inscription is a forgery:
(1) According to an official, peer-reviewed report by scripts expert Rochelle Altman to The Bible and Interpretation (“Official Report on the James Ossuary“), there is positive evidence that part of the inscription, the part saying “the brother of Jesus,” is a later forgery, and only the rest of the artifact is genuine. Though I am not qualified to judge her assessment of the evidence, that it has been accepted by several leading scholars in the field leads me to suspect she may be right. According to her analysis, not only does that portion of the inscription appear to be by a different and significantly less competent scribe, but it uses letter forms from wildly different centuries, and has somehow erased a standard end-of-sentence mark. She hypothesizes that the forgery was committed (I suppose by a zealous Christian or profiteer) in the 3rd or 4th century. This controversy has grown heated according to “The Experts and the Ossuary: A Report on the Toronto Sessions about the James Ossuary” by Paul Flesher.
(2) Further evidence and argument in favor of forgery can be found in Joe Nickell, “Bone (Box) of Contention: The James Ossuary,” The Skeptical Inquirer 27:2 (March/April 2003): 19-22. Nickell is a world renowned forgery expert and in this article he offers the best case for forgery I have yet seen. He casts a great deal of plausible suspicion on the added “brother of Jesus” above and beyond Altman’s analysis.
(3) The Israel Antiquities Authority then arrived at its own official and unqualified conclusion that the relevant part of the inscription was forged. See the AP Press account on BeliefNet. Also see: “Summary Report of the Examining Committees for the James Ossuary and Yehoash Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review Sep/Oct 2003, 29(5): 26-31, (which BAR is critical of in several following articles, pp. 32-39, 83). Also see the BAR webpage devoted to the developing story, with many related links: James Bone Box–A Fake?.
(4) Finally, the inscription’s owner, Oden Golan, has been arrested and charged with forging this inscription, as well as another artifact (the Jehoash tablet). The Israeli police found the equipment and materials he used to make the forgeries, as well as other unfinished forgeries. It seems like an open and shut case now. See the AP press account on CNN and “Is Oded Golan a Forger?” Biblical Archaeology Review Sep/Oct 2003, 29(5): 34-37.