Friday, January 21, 2011

Robert Eisenman on the James Ossuary inscription

ROBERT EISENMAN has an essay on the James Ossuary inscription in the Huffington Post:
'The James Ossuary' and Its Authenticity

Now that the extended 'trial' over "the James Ossuary" or "James Bone Box" in Israel is nearing its conclusion and all that remains to be announced is the verdict -- which in the present writer's mind is a foregone conclusion, no evaluation of data having had to take this long without basically a verdict of "unproven" as regards forgery being the outcome -- it is time to take stock of where we stand with regard to this "Box"; so that such a 'verdict' will not come as too much of a shock to those convinced of some suspiciousness connected with it and its sudden seemingly almost miraculous appearance or willy-nilly 'surfacing,' just when one might have expected it to.

I am highly skeptical of most of Professor Eisenman's theories, but I share his reservations about the authenticity of the "brother of Jesus" part of the James Ossuary inscription. And I like his hermeneutic of suspicion toward discoveries that are "too perfect":
My main objection to the ossuary, however as I said, is the nature of the inscription itself. I say this as someone who would be happy if an artifact of this type were true -- someone willing to be convinced, as I would like the burial place of James to be found. Afterall, being the author of a book on this 'James,' I would stand more to gain by its authenticity than many others. But this "Bone Box" is just too pat -- too perfect. In issues of antiquities verification, this is usually a clear warning sign.


Then there is 'the brother of Jesus' part, which was seemingly added and written in another, different hand. Almost no ancient source calls 'James' this. This is what we moderns have come to know him as or call him. Even Paul, our primary New Testament witness and source, refers to him 'James the brother of the Lord.' If the ossuary had said something like 'James the Zaddik' or 'James the Just One,' which is how all ancient sources referred to him -- including Hegesippus from the Second Century CE, Eusebius from the Fourth, and Jerome and Epiphanius in the Fifth -- then I would have more willingly credited it.

But to call him, not only by his paternal but also his fraternal name -- and this in an obvious addition -- this, I am unfamiliar with on any ossuary and, again, it appears to me to be directly pointed at us a later audience primarily composed of believers. This is what I mean by the formulation being 'too Perfect.' It is too pointed and just doesn't ring true -- to the modern ear, particularly that of the believer's, perhaps; but to the ancient? Perhaps a later pilgrim from the Fourth or Fifth Century CE might have described 'James' in this manner, but probably no one would have done so in his lifetime. Moreover, this is not what our paleographers are saying. As we saw above, they are dating it in 63 CE (sic)!
Larry Schiffman once articulated the "too perfect" principle as "The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged."

The James Ossuary has been discussed endlessly on PaleoJudaica. My most recent update on the Israel forgery trial is here.