Religion Today

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

James the Brother of Jesus: Trial and Truth?

The supposedly ancient inscription on the Jewish burial box was only five Aramaic words long, "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus," and even Bob Simon on "60 Minutes" could see that the last two words, "brother of Jesus," had been added by a different hand. How hard could it be to prove in court of law that those two words were a modern fake?
Too hard. That was the view of an Israeli judge when he released his 475-page verdict last week after a seven-year long trial. Judge Aharon Farkash concluded "the prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt ... that the ossuary is a forgery." 
So what does this mean? Is the inscription authentic? Is it the only physical evidence of the first-century church led by James, the brother of Jesus, until his death in 62 A.D.?
Again, the judge's response was a resounding negative. "This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic, and was written 2,000 years ago."
What happened?
The limestone burial box, known as the James Ossuary, became an international sensation in 2002 when it appeared in a highly attended exhibit at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum. The international media flashed the story around the world overnight. Here, at last, was a physical object linked to Jesus himself!
The exhibit and its media hype had purposely bypassed careful analysis by scholars. But they began to catch up. Apart from the few promoting the ossuary, most either argued it was a fake or tried to slow the rush to judgment. (Many of the questioning studies appear at the website Bible and Interpretation, while Biblical Archaeology Review published essays promoting the inscription's authenticity.)
In 2005, after several years of study, scholars and scientists at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) decided to prosecute the owner of the James Ossuary, an Israeli businessman named Oded Golan, not only for the inscription's forgery, but also for running an international criminal ring dealing in looted and forged antiquities.
In the criminal court, the IAA's case did not stand up well. Some key witnesses concerning the trade in looted and forged antiquities failed to appear. In particular, Egypt refused to extradite the Egyptian artist suspected of actually creating the forgery.
Furthermore, the many specialists brought in by the prosecution were matched expert-for-expert by the defense. The ensuing scholarly debates were so technical and covered such a broad range of fields, from epigraphy and archaeology to geology and chemistry, that it became impossible for non-specialists to follow the debates, let alone decide the truth. The judge's verdict came as no surprise in the end.
So what do we now know about the ossuary and its inscription?
The ossuary itself, the limestone burial box, is ancient, perhaps from the first century. Because the ossuary was looted from its buried location and sold on the black market, we know nothing else about it. Any date comes from knowledge of ossuary use, not from the box itself.
That the inscription was composed by two hands remains obvious. But the prosecution did not demonstrate that Golan forged it. So that leaves the question open on a whether it constitutes a modern forgery that cannot be proven (i.e., forgery techniques outpace scientific tests) or that it is an old forgery. The Aramaic word for James, "Jacob," is quite a common one, and some Christian could certainly have made an unknown Jacob's ossuary more religiously relevant by adding the name of a "famous brother" Jesus.
Finally, even if the inscription is authentic, it cannot be linked to the apostle James, the brother of Jesus Christ and Christianity's first bishop. If it had been archaeologically excavated in situ , in the location where it had been buried, then a great deal more information about the ossuary and its inscription would be known. Who knows, perhaps the bones would still have been in it! But as a looted item acquired on the black market, it tells us nothing. Not even whether it is real. Only human belief gives it any significance at all.
The trial's verdict of "not proven" changed few experts' views on the inscription's authenticity. The adversarial character of the legal process shed little light on the scholarly and scientific evaluation of the inscription and its supposed antiquity, just as the trial gained little clarity from the academic debate that took place on its stand. Law and scholarship work by such different standards that neither informed the other.
Note: The "60 Minutes" episode mentioned above aired 3/3/08. The URL for Bible and Interpretation is and that for BAR is .

For a longer version of this essay with more details about the trial, visit my new essay at Bible and Interpretation ( While there, view all the past essays on the James Ossuary controversy.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Biblical Marriage: Do We Approve?

March 7, 2012 — "Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.

One of the ideal goals of life held up by Christianity is that of a "biblical marriage." This is a monogamous marriage between one man and one woman, usually seen as a loving and caring union. It receives the adjective "biblical" to clarify that the Bible approves of this form of marriage. This is accurate, but not the entire story.
The Bible approves of many different forms of marriage, some of which our society would find abhorrent or even criminal. A few of these relationships meet our understanding of a formal marriage, but others are approved relationships short of formal marriage, but which include sexual congress. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which.
One of the most common forms of marriage in the Bible is polygyny, one man joined to two or more women. This may be a formal situation in which the man is legally wedded to each woman. Both King David and King Solomon had several formal marriages, sometimes to quite important women. For example, Solomon married a daughter of a Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the region.
Polygyny also takes place when one or more of the women are simply part of the household, often slaves. For example, Abraham's first son, Ishmael, was born from his wife's slave, Hagar, while Jacob had children with both Bilhah and Zilpah, the slaves of his two official wives.
Slavery is often the context for different types of marriage. Exodus 21 alone discusses four ways in which the slavery of women is the basis for union. An adult male who buys a female slave may enter into a relationship with her himself, either as his sole female partner or alongside an official wife. The master may also designate the woman as an official wife for his son, or as a partner for one of his male slaves.
Another widely known form of biblical marriage is the Levirate Marriage. In this case, if a married man dies childless, the widow is required to marry his brother (Deuteronomy 25) or a close relative (Ruth 4). The first son of the new union is treated as the dead man's heir. The surviving brother or relative may reject such a marriage, but the widow may not.
Then there is the case of a rapist in Deuteronomy 22:28-29. A man who rapes an unbetrothed virgin must marry his victim and is never allowed to divorce her. The woman has no choice in the matter.
Finally, a soldier who captures a "beautiful woman" while he is plundering an enemy's dwelling may bring her home and force her to marry him. Deuteronomy 21:10-14 puts a couple conditions on this marriage, including the right of the captive to mourn her parents, who presumably had been killed in the raid. Despite this caveat, this is essentially rape.
In modern America, Christianity, Judaism and our secular society view most of these unions as neither valid forms of marriage nor acceptable types of human relationships.
The rejection of these biblically approved types of marriage in favor of only monogamous marriage indicates that even Christians, who believe that the Bible is the basis for guiding their life, pick and choose which aspects of the Bible they will follow. In other words, all Scripture may be sacred, but not all Scripture is relevant, or even correct.
It is our modern sense of justice to both men and women that denies validity to these forms of marriage. We outlawed slavery more than a century and a half ago. We understand the trauma that rape brings upon a woman; permanently linking a woman to her rapist is just unthinkable.
The reason we view these ideas of marriage as invalid is that our society holds different concepts of men's and women's inherent nature, and we have different notions of what they need for successful and happy lives. Attempts to map our modern practices back onto the Bible fail, as shown here, because the social world imagined by the Bible has long disappeared.