The Stone Box

Did An Ossuary Once Contain The Bones Of Jesus' Brother?

Archaeologists agree that the box is genuine and that it dates from the time of James and Jesus. Statisticians say the odds against it being anyone other than James and Jesus are enormous. Two Israeli geologists gave it their stamp of approval. But some experts felt they couldn't render a definitive verdict because it was put on public display so quickly they didn't have time to study it.

"The ossuary was kept more or less secret by a small group of scholars who knew about it," says Neil Silberman, a historian of archaeology who believes the box was presented to the public by people more interested in showmanship than science.

"It was thrust on the world, in a combination of public relations campaign and huge exhibition, that really didn't allow people to think about it."

But isn't that how the world operates if something as spectacular as an ossuary with the name of Jesus is found?

"Well, maybe that's part of the problem," says Silberman. "In studying the history of archaeology, I'd have to say that this is perhaps the most outrageous case of tabloid archaeology, and the most singular celebrity artifact I've ever seen."

But the problem with the artifact, according to Silberman and others, is not the box itself, but the inscription.

A prominent historian said the language of the inscription was "too perfect, too pat." Some epigraphers (script experts) said the two halves of the inscription don't match. The beginning, "James son of Joseph," is straight, the letters formal. But the end, "brother of Jesus," is uneven, and the letters are different.

In other words, "brother of Jesus" may have been added by a forger.

The question comes up because the ossuary was not dug up at an authorized excavation, where every shard is scrutinized by scholars. Like most so-called antiquities, it just turned up in the shop of an antiques dealer, which is another way of saying it was looted.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has a special unit of archaeological detectives trying to stop this trade. They spend their nights burrowing underground on the trail of tomb-raiders, like those who may have stolen the ossuary from the tomb of James. The trouble is, no one has any idea when that happened, or where.

But 60 Minutes knows where it turned up: in the Tel Aviv apartment of Oded Golan, an Israeli entrepreneur, amateur pianist and one of the world's biggest collectors of biblical antiquities.

He says he bought the ossuary from an Arab dealer in the '70s and never thought twice about the inscription, because as a Jew, he knew nothing about Jesus.

"I didn't know at the time at all the Jesus had any siblings," says Golan, who had this ossuary for more than 20 or 25 years, never knowing what he had.

Golan says it was in 2002 when an eminent scholar happened to see the ossuary at his home, and told him what the writing could mean. Golan sprung into action. He had the box scrutinized by specialists in different fields. They were impressed. So, Golan shipped it off to Toronto for its unveiling before a colloquium of archaeologists who gave it their undivided attention.

After they'd had their fill, the Israel Antiquities Authority demanded that it be brought back to Israel so they could have a look. They appointed two committees to decide whether that inscription was cut 2,000 years ago, or much more recently.

"The letter is freshly cut from the varnish into the rock," says Professor Yuval Goren, director of Tel Aviv University's archaeology department, and one of the committee members.

He's been checking the ossuary's patina, the residue that gathered on the surface of the stone box over the past 2,000 years. And he's been comparing it to the patina inside the letters of the inscription.

"Inside the inscription, there was another type of patina-like material that seemed through the microscope, it seemed to be completely different," says Goren, who believes the inscription had been added later. "Whether all of it is a fake, or only part of it is a fake, this I don't know. The patina, coating it, all of it is a fake."

"And frankly, if all of it, or part of it is a fake, it doesn't make any difference, does it?" asks Simon.

"I don't think so," says Goren.