Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret

The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science
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The aramaic inscription on the ancient limestone burial box says simply, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Unveiled a year ago, those few words on a prosaic 2,000-year-old ossuary launched a media frenzy and ignited a political row among archaeologists and Bible scholars. They've also made the ossuary's owner, a self-described collector of antiquities, into a polarizing international figure.

Owner Oded Golan, 52, is a quiet engineer from Tel Aviv. He says he bought the ossuary from an antiquities dealer in the 1970s for a few hundred dollars. Last year, Golan invited one of the world's leading experts on ancient inscriptions to examine the ossuary.

The scholar, André Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris, quickly became convinced that the ossuary—21 inches by 12 inches by 10 inches—was a fixture from the grave of James, "the Lord's brother," the leader of the Christian movement in first-century Jerusalem after the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington asked the Geological Survey of Israel to analyze the ossuary. The GSI found no reason to doubt its authenticity. Last October, the BAS presented the bone box as authentic. It published the findings of Lemaire and the GSI in its flagship publication, Biblical Archaeology Review. Hershel Shanks, BAR's editor, called the ossuary "the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology."

But some archaeologists immediately questioned the bone box because it was reportedly bought from an antiquities dealer and not excavated by professional archaeologists under controlled conditions. In June the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), with a history of hostility toward collectors such as Golan, called the inscription a fabrication. Director ...

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