It "may be the most astonishing find in the history of archaeology," says Hershel Shanks, enthusiastic editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.
"It's certainly the find of the millennium, not just the century" if authentic, says Robert Eisenman of California State University, Long Beach, but he thinks it's a hoax.
The ongoing debate concerns the discovery in Jerusalem of an ancient ossuary (stone burial box for bones), 20 inches long, that is inscribed with Aramaic words meaning "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
That's electrifying because in the New Testament, James is one of Jesus' brothers and the first head of the Jerusalem church. He was executed in A.D. 62 and experts say the box and style of inscription fit that period. Though there were many people named James, proponents argue that the James-Joseph-Jesus combination fits few men and, more important, that this Jesus was special because ossuaries rarely named brothers.
Is this empty box the first ancient artifact directly linked to Jesus Christ?
Eisenman's comment occurred in a recent TV documentary on the History Channel (scheduled to be rerun April 16) that carefully balanced competing opinions.
Shanks, who first published the discovery and has much at stake, likewise offers both pros and cons in "The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Significance of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family" (Harper San Francisco). He co-wrote the new book with New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.
Shanks writes six chapters about the discovery in the breezy style of an adventure tale. Witherington provides eight clear-headed chapters about who James was.
There's a good scientific case here for first-century authenticity, and a statistical argument for identifying the biblical James.
But neither the book nor TV program treats a problem raised by Daniel Eylon, materials science professor at the University of Dayton, Ohio, a Roman Catholic school.
When the box was displayed at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, Eylon noted rosette decorations inscribed on the back of the box, a common feature of ancient ossuaries. To Eylon's eyes, the rosettes are eroded and barely visible, whereas the words carved into the opposite side are sharp-edged. Thus he suspects the words are a modern forgery.
But Shanks insists that the experts on inscriptions agree these letters were carved in ancient times.
Also, Israeli geologists using an electron microscope found ancient surface film (patina) on both the flat surfaces and in the inscription, though it was cleaned off some letter surfaces. There was no patina glue or other evidence of tampering. The inscription is ancient, they concluded.
Some analysts see two forms of handwriting and say "brother of Jesus" was added later. Shanks cites Harvard patriarch Frank Moore Cross as among those who think one person wrote the entire inscription.
Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore says that if a second writer added "brother of Jesus," this occurred in ancient times. Rather than forgery, he suggests, the writer wanted to specify that these were the bones of Jesus' biblical brother, or express the hope that they were.
Witherington notes that Hegesippus, a Christian historian in the second century, wrote that James was buried near Jerusalem's Temple Mount and his "stele" was still located there.
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