The Ossuary of James… Bleh

James Tabor notes that he is still receiving questions regarding the ossuary which purportedly bears an ancient inscription reading “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” In a noble attempt to clear the considerably muddied waters, he provides links to Joseph Fitzmyer’s essay on the subject, as well as the report of a “Conference on Forgery” which met in Jerusalem in January 2007.

I’m sure that this matter is incredibly compelling to some, but not to me. The bitter debates between Hershel Shanks (editor of Biblical Archaeology Review) and the Israel Antiquities Authority–which often seemed to be driven by personal interests rather than objective scholarship–became especially wearisome. Moreover, I’m not entirely convinced of the stakes accompanying the controversy. The book which Shanks co-wrote with Ben Witherington shortly after the discovery proclaims that the ossuary is “the first archaeological link to Jesus and his family.” But if I may be blunt, so what? Only the most radical or the most naive scholars would deny Jesus’ existence, given the relatively large amount of extant testimony from both Christian and non-Christian sources. Even if it is authentic, the ossuary can make only four firm contributions to the historical record:

1) Both Jesus and James actually lived.
2) Jesus and James were brothers.
3) At some point, James died and was buried.
4) The early Christian community (to which James and those who buried him belonged) retained some Jewish practices.

Again, none of these facts–with the possible exception of the second, which is still occasionally challenged by Roman Catholic scholars–were seriously disputed prior to the recent discovery. So while I’m excited by the potentiality of a tangible link to Jesus of Nazareth, I’m not sure how much it adds to our understanding of Jesus and his world.

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October 2007


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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