Friday, June 27, 2003

BEN WITHERINGTON makes his case for the authenticity of the "James Ossuary."

AUTHENTICITY IN QUESTION (Lexington Herald-Leader)


But Witherington, 51, co-author of The Brother of Jesus, a book about the burial box, said scientific tests performed by two independent sources indicate the inscription is genuinely ancient and not a fake.

"Any high stakes artifact is going to be subject to controversy and an amazing amount of rhetoric and debate," said Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore.

The fact the box was sold to a collector by an antiquities dealer is part of the reason the Israelis wish to discredit the find, Witherington said. The argument is that anything bought from an antiquities dealer is suspect because it may have been looted from an ancient site, or, worse, it may be a forgery.

"The problem with that is, a large amount of the biggest finds in modern history have come to light through the antiquities market and not through some approved archaeological dig," Witherington said.


Well, okay, maybe. But this is an ad hominem argument and doesn't lead us anywhere useful. Whatever anyone's agenda, either the inscription is a fake or it isn't.

Then there is the film or patina on the box that the Israelis said could have been created only in modern times. The implication is that this was an attempt to make the inscription look old.

But the box's owner said the film is the result of his well-meaning mother attempting to clean the inscription and make it clearer, Witherington said.

"She took out some kind of hot water and cleansing solution and started scrubbing away," Witherington said. Neither he nor The Brother of Jesus co-author Hershel Shanks dispute that there might be a modern film on the box.

"But as far as we're concerned, that proves nothing about the antiquity of the inscription," Witherington said. "It's not an attempt to make it look like a forgery. It was an attempt to clean the thing."

This argument is more interesting. Surely it would be possible to distinguish modern cleaning from a modern deliberately-faked patina. The Archaeology Magazine article says "Strangest of all was the "James Bond," the chalky material that coated the letters. It contained numerous microfossils called coccoliths, naturally occurring as foreign particles in chalk, but not dissolved by water. Hence it was clear that this was not a true patina formed by the surface crystallization of calcite, but rather powdered chalk--microfossils and all--that was dissolved in water and daubed over the entire inscription." Does a modern household cleaner have chalk in it? With microfossils? I don't know.

[Authority Deputy Director Uzi] Dahari said the Authority decided to examine the ossuary's authenticity "because the whole world was talking about this, and a lot of innocent people could be hurt if you're trying to fool them to make money." Experts have estimated the value of an authentic James ossuary at $1 million to $2 million.

Witherington argues such speculation doesn't make sense.

"Nobody has made any money on this James Box," he said. "The antiquities dealer in Jerusalem who bought it in the mid-70s from a private person paid $200 for it" and the present owner paid perhaps $500.

"If either one of those persons had known what they were getting, it would have cost a whole lot more money," Witherington said.

Fair point, although Altman thinks the forgery was done in the last couple of years and would presumably call the whole story of its discovery in the 70s into question.

Witherington suggests there may be theological agenda for the attempt to discredit the inscription, which he calls "an indirect testimony to the resurrection of Jesus."

He said it's unusual for burial boxes to bear the names of deceased brothers, so this brother must have been someone extremely important.

"The fact that Jesus is mentioned on the box in a laudatory way -- that's the only reason to put a brother on an ossuary, because he is more notable and honorable than the deceased," Witherington said.

"If crucifixion had been the end of Jesus' life -- that's the most humiliating and shameful way to die in antiquity, right? If that had been the end of the story of Jesus, there's no reason on God's green earth why anybody would be bragging about being related to Jesus. You don't brag about the black sheep in the family who was executed. So what it reflects is that those who buried James strongly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead."


Besides being ad hominem again, this is a very indirect argument and I really can't see the Israeli authorities being worried about it.

The article says that the IAA report is coming out this week and I assume it will be online as well. I'll be very busy for the next few days and then in Venice next week and I probably won't have time to worry about it. But I'm reserving judgment until I see the report and have time to digest it.

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