By Sara Fawley
What is an Ossuary?
Before we talk about the specifics of this artifact, let’s first talk a little bit about what an ossuary is. Ossuaries are small stone (usually limestone) chests in which the bones of the dead were placed after the flesh had decayed. They were very popular in the Jewish community during the Second Temple perior (40 BCE – 135 CE.) These “bone boxes” are generally 2 ½ feet long in order to accommodate the longest bone in the human body ( the adult leg bone.) They taper slightly at the bottom, have flat or vaulted lids and have designs chip-carved or chisled on the outsides. Some do have a red of yellow wash of paint but most decorations ( plants, buildings, animals) were carved. Many contain inscriptions carved on the side in either Hebrew, Aramic or Greek. The incription generally consisted of the name and status in the family of the person whose bones were interred. .
The emergence of the James Ossuary
In 2001 Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv antiquities collector, announced that he had possesion of a stone ossuary which bore the Aramic inscription “Yaakov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua” which translates in English to “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. Many biblical scholars and archeaologists went wild. Finally there was solid proof (albiet circumstancial) of the existence of Jesus of Nazereth’s existence. If then inscription held true, then this was the “bone box” of “James the Just” Apostle and brother to Jesus.
The inscription was validated by two of the world’s leading paleographers (experts in authenticating and dating inscriptions based on the shape and stance of the letters) Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of the Hebrew University. The ossuary and inscription were also examined and authenticated by the Geological Survey of Isreal(GSI) and Father Joseph Fitzmyer ( the world’s leading expert in Aramic).
In October of 2002 the ossuary was displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. Thousands of sholars and the general public flocked to the museum to see it.
In 2003, Oded Golan and four other gentlemen were arrested and charged with fraud and forgery of antiquities including the James Ossuary. The ossuary was seized by the Israel Antiquities Authority and tested by a panel of experts appointed by the authority. This panel included Professor Yuval Goren clay expert at the University of Tel Aviv. Goren reported that he had found fake patina added to the “brother of Jesus” portion of the inscription and that it had been added to the ossuary at a later date than the original portion of the inscription. This was disputed by Mr Golan’s supporters.
In 2005 the trial of Oded Golan for fraud and forgery of many antiquites including the James Ossuary began. The trial 138 witnesses, more than 400 exhibits and over 12,000 pages of testimony. Both sides provided many experts for and against the authenticity of inscription. In 2012, after 7 years of trial, Oded Golan was aquitted of all forgery charges. He was convicted and fined for some lesser charges such as selling antiquities without a license.
What Does This All Mean?
So does this mean the James Ossuary is without a doubt the “bone box” of James the Just? Not necessarily. In the judgement handed down it was made clear that the judgement was in no way authenticating any of the artifacts in question. The judgement simply provides that the prosecution did not prove by a preponderance of evidence that Oded Golan participated or was aware of any forgery or fraud in connection with the named antiquities. Both sides of the issue still have their experts and scholars who stand firmly behind their argreement or objection to the aunthenticity of the artifact.
The bottom line is even if the inscription were proven to be 100 % authentic this does not necessarily mean that the James inscribed on the box is actually James the Just. James, Joseph and Jesus were all very common names in that time period. Many argue that the odds of there being another James who had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus in the same time period are astronomical but the fact remains that it is still a very real possibility. Without a provenance of where the box came from (Golan aquired it in the 1970’s but has always been evasive as to from where) we may never know.