Keeping up with the James Ossuary Issues

Tabor, Shanks, Cross, Fitzmyer Discussing the Ossuary in Toronto

The not-guilty verdict in the Jerusalem forgery trial of Oded Golan and Robert Deutsch, announced Wednesday, has generated an incalculable number of news stories. I just did a Google search for “James ossuary Oded Golan trial” that yielded over 12,000 results. The basic facts are presented in any number of summary stories, for example Matthew Kalman’s piece that scooped the story in the Globe and Mail and the Huffington Post piece. The Israel Antiquities Authority, that brought the law suit against these defendants, has already issued a statement reasserting the position that the verdict establishes neither the innocence nor the authenticity of the objects under question. Various self-styled “bibliobloggers” have chimed in agreement, see Chris Rollston here, and Jim West here. Eric Myers has restated his doubts on the influential ASOR blog here.

Although there were a number of issues and artifacts involving a complex set of forgery charges against these two defendants, my own interest and that of many of my readers is focused more on two central questions about the “James ossuary,” first, whether its inscription is forged or authentic, in part or in whole, and second, if the inscription is authentic can we establish anything about the provenance of the ossuary itself?

Drawing by Shimon Gibson

The case for forgery has been well presented in the recent edited volume, Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics, edited by Ryan Bryne and Bernadette McNary-Zak (University of North Carolina Press, 2009). The case against has been ably argued by Oded Golan himself in a much overlooked and largely ignored piece posted at Bible & Interpretation. I also highly recommend what I consider to be a fair, comprehensive, and balanced summary of the entire controversy at the Biblical Archaeology Society. There are a number of articles at their web site but mostly recently see the free e-books Awaiting the James Ossuary Verdict, that gives lots of interesting background and most lately, with the announcement of the verdict, James, Brother of Jesus, The Forgery Trial of the Century.

On the question of the possible provenance of the James ossuary, assuming it is authentic, there are a number of new developments, none of which have been covered by the press so far, nor discussed by any of my academic colleagues who have had an interest in the James ossuary matter. See in particular: A. Rosenfeld, C.Pellegrino,

Bone Samples from the "Jesus" Tomb for DNA Analysis

H. R. Feldman, and W.E. Krumbein, “The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot (Jesus Family Tomb) Ossuaries.” M. Elliott and K. Kilty, “The James Ossuary in Talpiot.” In our new book, The Jesus Discovery, chapter 6, titled “The Mystery of the James Ossuary,” offers a summary of all we know with the new evidence linking the James ossuary to the Talpiot tombs included. So far, neither that aspect of our book, nor the DNA results from the “Jesus tomb: that we publish for the first time, have been discussed much at all with so much focus on the new discoveries of the Jonah image and the four-line Greek inscription. The new tests were done at the paleo-DNA anthrpology lab at the University of California at Davis. Our next step is an obvious one, now that Oded Golan will be the legal owner of the James ossuary again, namely comparative mitDNA tests of the bone fragments from the James ossuary (which were quite substantial prior to its confiscation for the trial and are in safe keeping) with those from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb. I will post more on this in the future as those tests are completed as well as the results of our comparisons of the mitDNA results from bones in the Talpiot tomb with those in the “Tomb of the Shroud,” that have already been published.