by David Sisler

“Skeptics in growing number are weighing in with doubts about the authenticity of the inscription on a burial box that may have contained the bones of James, a brother of Jesus,” writes John Noble Wilford in the December 3 edition of The New York Times.

The November issue of Biblical Archaeological Review announced the uncovering of an ossuary which is inscribed with the words, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Biblical Archaeological Review reports, “This container provides the only New Testament-era mention of the central figure of Christianity.”

The Aramaic words etched on the limestone box’s side show a cursive form of writing used only from about 10 to 70 A.D., according to noted paleographer Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris, who verified the inscription’s authenticity. The ossuary has been dated to approximately 63 A.D.

In the first century A.D., Jews followed the custom of transferring the bones of their deceased from burial caves to ossuaries. The ossuary identified as holding the bones of James has been displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum and has been examined by additional experts who were concerned, Wilford writes, “that the inscription appeared to be written by two different hands. The first part, about James, son of Joseph, seemed to be written in a formal script, while the second, about Jesus, is in a more free-flowing cursive style.”

“When you look at the inscription, there are not two parts,” Lemaire counters. “Only two letters are cursive ... That mixture of cursive and formal script is well-known from other inscriptions.”

The patina – the surface coating from aging and weathering – on the ossuary is consistent with estimates that the box is about 2,000 years old, according to geologists in Israel who judged the patina. The geologists also said they detected no signs of later tampering with the inscription.

But the matter of the two different styles of writing bothers some experts, and so the debate continues about the authenticity of this relic, which Biblical Archaeological Review says “is the first-ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus.”

To some, this ossuary, like the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth with an image of a man, an image which some say is of the crucified Christ, is an object of faith. It is to be venerated for its religious implications, rather than for its archaeological significance. It proves, some say, the authenticity of Jesus. Others say the authenticity of Jesus is proven in the lives of those who have claimed his name.

This debate will rage on without a solution which will be universally accepted, I predict, because you cannot prove matters of faith. That – to state the obvious – is why it is called faith.

The New York Times says skeptics are growing in number, producing, they would have you believe, a veritable swarm of doubters. If that is so, two skeptics constitutes a swarm, because that is all Mr. Wilford could find to quote. The Biblical Archaeological Review quotes four experts who verify the authenticity of the inscription.

I’ll see your two skeptics and raise you four believers.

It was one of life’s little serendipities, an unexpected discovery, that the day I read that The New York Times (to the surprise of very few) is picking up the mantle of Doubting Thomas concerning the ossuary inscription, Iraq issued a statement saying that the United States has altered the text of the 12,000-page document which they delivered to the United Nations – a document which they say proves they have no weapons of mass destruction.

An Associated Press story by Charles J. Hanley, complete with verbal hand-wringing, gives potential support to Iraq’s claim of counterfeiting: “Around midnight Sunday the [security] council’s lone copy left the building in U.S. hands supposedly (emphasis mine) because only the U.S. government could photocopy thousands of pages in secure surroundings.”

Thomas, the disciple who missed the first post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, said he would not believe that the Teacher from Nazareth was alive until he touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands. When proof of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are revealed – and it won’t come from the just delivered document – many will believe Saddam Hussein’s pleas of innocence, and no proof will be sufficient.

One authoritative definition of faith says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

From another source comes another definition: “Folks are gonna believe what they wanna believe.” That applies to evidence of all sorts – religious and political.


Copyright 2002 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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