The Stone Box And Jesus' Brother's Bones

Bob Simon Reports On The Mystery Surrounding The James Ossuary

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This is a story about the Bible and truth. More precisely, it's about biblical antiquities and how they can be seen to prove that the stories told in the Bible really happened.

Five-and-a-half years ago the world of biblical archaeology was rocked to its foundations, and all because of a box. It was a stone box - called an "ossuary" - that had been discovered in Israel. Ossuaries were used to hold the bones of the dead some 2,000 years ago, in the time of Jesus. And this ossuary was said hold the bones of Jesus' brother, James.

As correspondent Bob Simon reports, the discovery created more excitement among Christian scholars than anything since the Shroud of Turin. And like the shroud, no sooner was it unveiled that charges of forgery surfaced. In fact, a trial has been underway in Jerusalem for almost three years.

The box is made of limestone. It's not terribly large, but it attracted a very large crowd, over a 100,000, when it was first exhibited. It made the New York Times and the cover of Biblical Archaeology Review.

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, who wrote a book about the box, was at that first exhibit. "There was a lot of excitement. There was, you know, the atmosphere was kind of palpable really. And there were various of us just sort of buzzing around this exhibit," he remembers.

Actually, ossuaries are quite common. The Israel Antiquities Authority keeps hundreds in its basement. What was so special about this one was the mysterious engraving on its side, sort of a Da Vinci Code in stone. It's written in ancient Aramaic and it reads "James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus."

The first question: could this box have contained the bones of the man the Gospels mention as Jesus' brother?

"If it can be proven it's probably one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the century," says Steve Pfann, who like his wife Claire, is a scholar of early Christianity, and based in the Holy Land.

The Pfanns believe the ossuary is the first firm archaeological evidence that Jesus once lived there. "That is really a great thing just to be able to confirm, from an extra-biblical source, that a man named Jesus existed," Claire Pfann explains.

The idea that Jesus had a brother at all is a bone of contention. Many Catholics believe Mary was a lifelong virgin, so James could not have been a blood brother. Either way, after the crucifixion, James became the first Bishop of Jerusalem. He died, it is written, in 62 A.D. when he was stoned by an angry mob and fell from the walls of the Holy Temple.

The way things were done back then, his body would have been put in a cave. And a year later, when the flesh was gone, his bones would have been placed in an ossuary.

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 THE 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," Silberman says.

"But that is how the world operates these days is it not, if you find something as spectacular as an ossuary with the name of Jesus on it?" Simon asks.

"Well maybe that's part of the problem 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," Silberman says.

And 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, the 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.