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 Vol. 7, No. 4 

April 2005


~ Page 2 ~

Bone Boxes

By Louis Rushmore

Image Anciently, the Jews buried their dead in a number of ways in Palestine. Nomads, such as the Patriarchs, sometimes buried their dead along their route of travel (Genesis 35:19-20). Otherwise, natural caves or rock-carved tombs were often used as family burial sites (Genesis 23:1-20), especially by the wealthy. These rock tombs were used to bury several family members (Genesis 49:33--50:13). This custom of burying the dead was practiced in the time of Christ (Matthew 27:58-60). The poor were buried in shallow graves, the marking of which did not stand through time (Luke 11:44) or in a potter's field (Matthew 27:1-10). "The poorest Jerusalemites, who could not afford family cave-tombs, were buried in fields, about a foot below the surface" (Zissu). Another type of internment less often used and usually attributed to the ascetic sect of the Essenes was the shaft grave. These shafts were from four to six feet deep, unadorned, anonymous, boasting little to no items associated with the deceased and contained a single body (with rare exception).

Ossuaries or bone boxes, briefly introduced in the preceding chapter, were employed in burial caves or rock-hewn tombs. The use of ossuaries predated and postdated the time of Jesus Christ: "The archaeological evidence from Jerusalem dates the use of ossuaries from c. 30 BC to AD 135" (Douglas). Bill Humble states, "Ossuaries were used for about a century, from the reign of Herod the Great (37 B.C.) until the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and on rare occasions in the early second century. Thus, when archaeologists discover a tomb with ossuaries, they know it is about 2,000 years old" ("Soul-Stirring" 36).

An ossuary is a "bone box," usually about two feet long and made of limestone or marble, which was used in a distinctive Jewish burial custom. After a body had been in a tomb long enough for the flesh to decay and disappear, the bones would be collected and given a permanent burial in the same tomb in an ossuary. This allowed the tomb to be used generation after generation. The custom of secondary burial began during the time of Herod the Great and continued for about 200 years. (Humble, Archaeology 67-68)

Several ossuaries (of the many hundreds recovered) provide valuable, extra-biblical information that corroborates the biblical text, as well as sometimes expands biblical knowledge with previously unknown details. For instance, a depiction of Herod's Temple is inscribed on a limestone ossuary. "The ossuary with the depiction of the Temple is typical. It is a little over 2 feet long, 1 foot wide, and slightly more than 1 foot high… This ossuary, like a number of others, rests on four simple pedestals. Its barrel-vaulted lid is also common, as are both flat and peaked lids" (Grossberg 47). This picture inscribed in stone corresponds to descriptions of the Temple provided by Josephus.

One of the most thought-provoking ossuaries discovered is the one belonging to the high priest who condemned Jesus Christ and persecuted the early church (Matt. 26:3-4, 57-66; Acts 4:6). Interestingly, the physical remains of Caiaphas who caused Jesus Christ to be crucified by the Romans are yet with us, but the resurrected Christ Ascended back to heaven. Caiaphas' ossuary, on which his name appears twice, is among the most ornate of bone boxes. There is a shrieking irony between the bone-filled ossuary of Caiaphas and the empty tomb of Jesus Christ (Feldman and Roth 37)!

Caiaphas "reigned from A.D. 18 to 36." The occasion of the discovery of his ossuary "is the only time the actual physical remains of a biblical person have been found. The bones of Caiaphas…were reburied on the Mount of Olives" (Humble, "Soul-Stirring" 37).

One of the most controversial archaeological artifacts is an ossuary attributed to "James the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus;" this particular bone box is 20 inches long (at the bottom but 22 inches long at the top), 10 inches wide and 12 inches high (Lemaire "Burial" 27-28). The primary reason that anyone views this ossuary and many other artifacts with critical suspicion is that they are unprovenanced. That simply means that mystery surrounds their origin, because they were not properly documented as recovered in strata (where they lay in the earth and associated with surrounding objects).

The historical appearance of artifacts that may have been unearthed illegally and without scientific oversight for sale on the antiquities market must be questioned, primarily because such an artifact must be discerned from possible forgeries. Second, there is a great reluctance among archaeologists and the organizations or governments with which they are associated to approve unprovenanced artifacts, even if genuine, for fear of encouraging more, future illegal disturbance of archaeological artifacts for sale on the antiquities market. Third, ideological, religious and political biases motivate various persons, organizations and governments to brand as forgeries, when they can, archaeological artifacts that may invalidate their belief systems or politics. These ardent critics are panic-stricken because: "The inscription provides the earliest attestation of three key New Testament figures and the first-ever reference to Jesus in the archaeological record" (Shanks 21).

Does the fact that the inscription on this ossuary mentions not only the father of the person whose bones are enclosed but also the brother help us in our identification? It is common to mention the father in this context, but mention of the brother is very unusual, although it does happen (we have only one other example in Aramaic, in a similar formula). The mention of the brother probably means that the brother had a particular role, either in taking responsibility for the burial, or more generally  because the brother was known, and the deceased had a special connection with him. When we take into account that this "James/Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" had a brother who was by this time well known and that the "James/Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" had a special relationship with this brother as the leader of the Jerusalem church, it seems very probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament. If so, this would also mean that we have here the first epigraphic mention--from about 63 C.E.--of Jesus of Nazareth. (Lemaire "Burial" 33)

Before the James ossuary came to light, the earliest mention of Jesus was in the Rylands Papyrus--the earliest known Gospel fragment. Dating to 125 C.E.--about 100 years after Jesus' death--measuring only 3.4 inches high, the fragment bears the Greek text of John 18:31-33 and 18:37-38. (Feldman and Roth 34)

The James Ossuary suffers the three-fold complaint of (1) being unprovenanced, (2) if authenticated, promoting future illegal disruption of archaeological beds, and (3) agitating ideological, religious and political biases. However, in the next place, an unprovenanced artifact may be a forgery, but a legitimate and supervised archaeological site can be salted with forgeries as well. Hence, irrespective of the origin of an artifact, it must be examined carefully and as honestly as possible to validate it as authentic.

The popular press, liberal news organizations and the Israeli government dismiss the James Ossuary as a forgery. The Christian's faith is not the least damaged if the James Ossuary is not authentic--a fake. However, if the James Ossuary is genuine, it merely provides extra-biblical confirmation of the biblical text (and secular history) respecting the historical Jesus. The James Ossuary and every other potential archaeological artifact deserve a fair, unbiased analysis. Following is some of the evidence for the authenticity of the James Ossuary.

(1) World-renown paleographer (student of ancient writings and inscriptions) Andre Lemaire, as well as other paleographers, deemed the inscription to be authentic. (2) State of Israel Ministry of National Infrastructures Geological Survey concluded the inscription is authentic (Lemaire "Burial" 28-29). (3) The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada studied the inscription, likewise concluding that it is authentic. (4) Professor Roni Reich of the Israeli Antiquities Authority's (IAA) "Ossuary Inscription Committee" deemed the James Ossuary inscription as authentic, until capitulating on his assessment to concur with findings of the "Materials Committee." (5) "Strangely enough, the subcommittee on the ossuary inscription did not include any paleographer or epigrapher [a student of engraved inscriptions]" (Lemaire "Flawed" 51). (6) Jacques Neguer of the IAA's "Materials Committee" asserted that the ossuary is authentic but that the inscription (not his field) was a forgery ("Storm" 26-31; "Paleography" 37-38). (7) It is commonly acknowledged by all parties that the ossuary (and particularly its inscription) was cleaned in modern times with contemporary solvents that disturbed the patina (ages old film that develops on antiquities), making examination of the patina inconclusive rather than evidence of forgery ("Observations" 32-33). (8) The IAA did not realize the potential significance of the James Ossuary, because it did not realize that the inscription might refer to Jesus of Nazareth, when the IAA granted an export permit for the ossuary to be displayed in Canada. Only after the James Ossuary was published regarding its inscription did the IAA have any interest in or complaint about the James Ossuary (Shanks 21-22).

"All agree that the ossuary itself is authentic and dates to the time of Jesus" ("Alleged" 61). The only question regarding the authenticity of the James Ossuary is whether the inscription is authentic or a forgery. Despite critics who decry the inscription as a forgery, numerous scholars and scholarly organizations, many of which are secular rather than potentially biased by ideologies, religion and politics, firmly assert that the James Ossuary inscription is genuine. I conclude by my preponderance of the published arguments respecting the James Ossuary that there is no reason to doubt its authenticity, and there is more reason to consider it simply one more of numerous extra-biblical, archaeological witnesses to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Incidentally, both the secular historical record and the biblical text concur respecting the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.Image

Works Cited

"Alleged Forgeries." Biblical Archaeology Review. Mar.-Apr. 2005: 61-65.

Douglas, J. New Bible Dictionary. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1982. CD-ROM. Seattle: Logos, 1996.

Feldman, Steven and Nancy E. Roth. "The Short List." Biblical Archaeology Review. Nov.-Dec. 2002: 34-37.

Grossberg, Asher. "Behold the Temple." Biblical Archaeology Review. May-Jun. 1996: 47.

Humble, Bill. Archaeology and the Bible. Nashville: Christian Communications, 1990.

- - -. "Soul-Stirring Exhibit." Gospel Advocate, Nashville. Sep. 2000:36-38.

Lemaire, Andre. "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus." Biblical Archaeology Review. Nov.-Dec. 2002: 24-33.

"Observations on the IAA's Summary Report." Biblical Archaeology Review. Sep.-Oct. 2003: 32-33.

 "Paleography--an Uncertain Tool in Forgery Detection." Biblical Archaeology Review. Sep.-Oct. 2003: 37-38.

Shanks, Hershel. "Cracks in James Bone Box Repaired." Biblical Archaeology. Jan.-Feb. 2003: 20-25.

"Storm over the Bone Box." Biblical Archaeology Review. Sep.-Oct. 2003: 26-31.

Zissu, Boaz "Odd Tomb Out." Biblical Archaeology Review. Mar.-Apr. 1999: 52.

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