Religion Today

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Bone Box of James the Brother of Jesus: Ten Years On

After six years of testimony and two years of deliberation in the court case concerning the coffin of James the brother of Jesus, the judge will soon issue his ruling. Already the two sides are lining up, trying to sway public opinion. This activity appears in articles recently posted on the Bible and Interpretation website, a semi-popular, semi-scholarly web magazine for people interested in the Bible and the ancient Near East.
It began with Dr. Gideon Avni, director of excavations for the Israel Antiquities Authority, the government body that brought the case that the inscription on the coffin, known more accurately as an ossuary or "bone box," was a modern forgery by its owner. His article reiterated the argument that the ossuary was a forgery and would "probably be recorded as an insignificant footnote in the history of the archaeological research of the Holy Land."
This was soon followed by a long essay by the ossuary's owner, Mr. Oded Golan, who defends his position that the ossuary's inscription constitutes authentic writing from the ancient world.
In a reasoned yet emotion-laden essay, Golan provides perhaps the most extensive single piece of reporting in English concerning the trial, citing the statements of more than a dozen expert witnesses and providing copies of several photos and graphs used in the trial. The article is clearly self-serving, citing only witnesses who support Golan's position, but it provides a window into the trial that has been sadly lacking attention in the English-speaking world.
The ossuary in question was purchased by Mr. Golan in the 1970s and sat on his family's patio for many years. In 2002, he announced that he had suddenly noticed it had an inscription which read in Aramaic, "Jacob son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. "Jacob" is the Hebrew and Aramaic equivalent of the Greek name, "James."
The claim by Golan and his supporters, including several academic experts, is that the James referred to here is the brother of Jesus mentioned in the gospels and the leader of Christianity's central institution, the Jerusalem Church. This would make it the only non-literary evidence for Jesus and the earliest Christians.
The sensationalism with which the find was announced attracted media attention around the world. When it went on display in Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum in 2002, tens of thousands of people viewed it.
But from the beginning charges of forgery swirled around the ossuary. Although the ossuary itself seemed real, the inscription was suspected of being fake. How could Golan not have noticed if the ossuary had sat around in plain view for years?  Israeli authorities raided his apartment and found a "laboratory" (a toilet actually) with tools and chemicals that could have been used to create a fake inscription.
In 2004, the Israel Antiquities Authority brought charges against Golan for forging antiquities. But all did not go as planned. Some expert witnesses changed their evaluations, and others could say little more than they could not make a determination. The trial dragged on for years: 138 witnesses testified, with 52 of them being experts in some area of antiquity or archaeology. The trial ended and the judge has been considering his ruling ever since. Indications are that he will announce a verdict soon.
If the judge determines Golan is not guilty of forging the inscription, does that mean the inscription refers to James the head of the Jerusalem church?  Not necessarily. Not only must the inscription be proven forged "beyond a reasonable doubt," but the charge is only that the forgery is modern. The inscription as a whole or the part of it saying "brother of Jesus" could have been added in antiquity, perhaps after Emperor Constantine and his successors transformed Palestine into the "Holy Land" after 324.
It is even probable that the Jacob/James mentioned in the inscription is not James the brother of Jesus. Jacob, Joseph and Yeshua (short for Joshua) were common Jewish names at the time.
Given the nature of belief, however, a verdict against forgery will strengthen many Christians' belief that the ossuary links to Jesus through his brother and thus "proves" the Bible. Indeed, many people will continue to believe in the inscription's authenticity even if it is declared a forgery.
The articles mentioned above appear at Bible and Interpretation: . Articles from the initial debate over the ossuary, including several by the author, appear at: .

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Future of Quran Burning

Pastor Terry Jones finally did it. His Florida church burned a copy of the Quran in March and led to riots in Afghanistan where 12 people died, mostly United Nations peacekeepers. He and his church members had the legal right to do it, but since last August, when they threatened to burn 200 copies of the Quran on Sept. 11, officials at the highest levels told Jones what the ramifications of this action would be. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained to him over the phone that such an action would endanger U.S. soldiers there. Well the incited mob could not find any U.S. soldiers or other Americans, so they attacked the United Nations instead.
Now that one Quran burning has taken place, others will follow. Then, just like the riots that engulfed the Muslim world following the anti-Muhammad cartoons in 2006, more unrest will occur and more westerners will be killed. Is there anything we can do to prevent this? Maybe. Here are some possible actions:
First, we could arrest Terry Jones and the members of his congregation. Well, no we can't. In the United States, our two centuries of practicing the separation of church and state means that there are no laws against religious hatred or intolerance and no laws about religious desecration, insult or blasphemy. Any individual or any religious group has the right to the free practice of their beliefs as long as they are not harming other people.
Second, maybe our vaunted freedom of religion is too much for this age of the Internet, where someone with a cell phone can video any activity and post it on the web for anyone, anywhere to see. Since the video of the Quran burning "went viral" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is not surprising that there was a lot of anger there.
Professor Dena Davis of the Cleveland-Marshall School of Law gives some insight from teaching in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. She states that in countries where religious dominance is protected by law, our concept of individual religious freedom is incomprehensible. Concerning her Indonesian students, an observation applicable to Afghanistan as well, she writes, "To them, if a man gives plenty of warning that he is going to commit a [religious] outrage, and is not stopped, then the regime in power must be tacitly supporting him."
So maybe we should follow the lead of the Irish government last year. In the wake of the revealing by a national commission of widespread abuse of children by priests and employees of the Catholic Church, they passed an anti-defamation law. The reason was laudable, namely, to prevent the anger over a comparatively few evil doers from spilling over into public denigration of priests in general and the church at large. But it is a significant limitation of the freedom of speech.
That would never work in America. Our belief in the freedom of speech and religion is just too strong. Just witness the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing hate-filled protests at military burials.
Third, how about a different approach? Americans could burn Bibles to show that we are not prejudiced about the Quran. There could be a big bonfire into which we could throw all the different Bible translations, just for emphasis.
Or, as long as we are at it, we could burn some Buddhist Sutras, copies of the Hindu Mahabharata, and the Jewish Talmud. That would be extreme, and extremely disrespectful. But it would make the point that it is the words, the ideas and the beliefs which these books contain that are holy and important, not physical copies of the books themselves.
This approach would be legal, but I don't think it would actually convey the message. Many people, in this country and abroad, would simply interpret it as an anti-religious, atheistic act. And that interpretation would lead to reprisals of some sort. It certainly would inflame our own cultural debates here in America.
In the end, we need to remember that in many religions, the holy book itself is a sacred object and all copies of scripture are sacred. Believers in many religions have died to protect their sacred writings during times of attack and conflict. There is simply no way to avoid the reality that burning a sacred text is insulting and provocative. The term "sacred" itself indicates that, for it signifies a status higher than "important" and even higher than "revered."
Perhaps our only hope to prevent future conflagrations is to remember, paraphrasing a certain webslinger, "With great freedom comes great responsibility"- responsibility for the welfare of ourselves and others.
Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at .