Religion

RESURRECTING JAMES

A new book and film shed light on Jesus’s almost forgotten brother, leader of the earliest Christians

Brian Bethune April 21 2003
Religion

RESURRECTING JAMES

A new book and film shed light on Jesus’s almost forgotten brother, leader of the earliest Christians

Brian Bethune April 21 2003

RESURRECTING JAMES

Religion

BRIAN BETHUNE

A new book and film shed light on Jesus’s almost forgotten brother, leader of the earliest Christians

EVEN ITS ADVOCATES never thought it would be easy. From the day last October when owner Oded Golan and Biblical Archaeological Review editor Hershel Shanks announced the discovery of a 2,000-year-old limestone box that may once have borne the bones of Jesus Christ’s brother, the James ossuary has been a very large bone of contention. Within days, one scholar declared that an observer would have to be “blind as a bat” not to recognize the box’s inscription—“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”—as an obvious forgery. The following month, another academic described the rumours swirling about the ossuary as “too vicious to repeat in print.” By the feral standards of Biblical archaeology, though, such criticism passes as mild-mannered. And since the initial flurry of commentary, most experts have been holding fire, waiting for test results and a detailed scientific appraisal.

That hasn’t stopped U.S. lawyer Shanks and his collaborator, Ben Witherington, a professor of New Testament studies in Lexington, Ky., from publishing a layman’s book on the ossuary, The Brother of,Jesus (HarperCollins), or Emmy-winning Canadian documentary maker Simcha Jacobovici from filming James, Brother of Jesus (Discovery, April 20), which will air in 70 countries on Easter Sunday. The film and book are closely related—Shanks and Golan gave Jacobovici exclusive access to the ossuary—and both are absorbing accounts that make a plausible, if hardly certain, case for genuineness.

And both, almost in passing, focus attention on an issue that, in religious and historical terms, is more significant than the box itself. Press reports that trumpet the ossuary as the first “tangible” proof of Christ’s existence are true only in a literal sense—there is no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth lived. (When Newsweek wrote that there was no evidence of Christ’s existence “apart from texts,” it was ignoring the fact that the same holds true for thousands of historical figures.) No—whether it’s real or a fraud, the ossuary’s true significance is like-

ly to lie in its resurrection of James. For centuries the brother of the Lord, as St. Paul called him, has been virtually erased from the consciousness of Western Christianity. But in the decades following the Crucifixion, James was the most important Jesus adherent alive—and a human bridge between nascent Christianity and its Jewish roots.

As for the box itself, its story—like seemingly every dispute in Biblical archaeology—is riddled with legal and financial implications, tenaciously held sectarian positions and personal rivalries. The Jewish practice of reburying skeletal remains a year after death in ossuaries—small stone containers just large enough to hold a femur, the longest human bone—reached its peak in the century before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The first complicating factor in evaluating the James ossuary, a trapezoid-shaped box 30 cm wide at one side and 25 at the other, is that it was not unearthed by archaeologists but looted from a gravesite sometime in the past. Its loss of archaeological “context”—information gleaned from where and how an object is found—means many scholars consider it historically useless. Among scholars who were willing to examine the ossuary, the actual age of the box has raised little dispute, if only because ancient ossuaries are available on the antiquities market for a few hundred dollars. Most

doubters assume that buying one would be a reasonable investment for a high-stakes forger. And tests on the ossuary’s patina, the chemical film that forms over time, indicate the box is old enough to be genuine.

The Aramaic inscription is another matter entirely. There is a noticeable tailing off in engraving skill from start to finish. The key wording—“brother of Jesus”—is the most sloppily written. That’s enough for some observers to see two hands at work, one of whom later added that phrase, and deduce a forgery. But it would take, as Shanks reasonably points out, an exceptionally stupid forger to add to an existing inscription, rather than starting from scratch on a blank ossuary. Many others, like André Lemaire, the noted French scholar who discovered the inscription, see a single hand at work. In any event, Israeli scientists have found the patina within the inscribed letters too, which would not be the case in a modern fake.

Next up is the content of the inscriptionis it the James, the Joseph, the Jesus? The three Aramaic names—Ya’akov (Jacob or James), Yosef (Joseph) and Yeshua (Joshua or Jesus)—are the Tom, Dick and Harry of their era. Fully a quarter of known Jewish males in the time of Christ bore one of them. But statistical analysis of the possible frequency of the ossuary’s combination—father Joseph, sons James and Jesus—massively improves the odds of this being Christ’s family. For Jacobovici, “the science has spoken,” and the case is proved.

Quite a few may beg to differ, citing the two-hand theory, or the fact that patinas can be faked or that the statistical analysis of names drew on too small a sample. Or simply, that it’s too good to be true. The essential problem is that proponents are trying to prove a negative—that the box wasn’t faked—and assume from that a positive: that the ossuary therefore belonged to St. James. Both assertions are unprovable, an irony seemingly lost on Shanks, who uses the same argument—doubters can’t prove Old Testament stories aren’t true—in defence of the Bible’s historical accuracy.

At the end of his documentary, Jacobovici shows an image meant to be the final link in his chain of evidence. In Jerusalem’s Armenian Cathedral of St. James, there is a monumental 17th-century portrait of the saint with another painting framed within his bishop’s mitre. The miniature shows James’s soul ascending to heaven from a

trapezoid-shaped box. But where the filmmaker sees the ossuary, others are more likely to imagine they are looking at an Armenian forger’s source of inspiration. Faith, traditional Christian and Jewish theology teaches, precedes understanding. So does skepticism, and doubters and believers alike can find support for their positions in the same ambiguous evidence.

But who was this James, around whom the whole controversy turns? The New Testament mentions Christ’s “brethren” several times, notably in the Gospel of Matthew 13:55. Orthodox Christianity accepts the brethren—James, Joses, Simon, Judas and unnamed sisters—as step-siblings, the children of Joseph’s first marriage. For most Protestants they are half-siblings, the children of Mary and Joseph born after Jesus, the son of Mary and God. But for the Roman Catholic Church, mindful of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the brethren are cousins. Every time they appear in the

gospels, Jesus’s relatives are not among his followers: in Matthew, mention of their names prompts Christ to say, “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.” But something extraordinary happened to James after Jesus’s death—like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, James encountered the risen Christ.

Once he became a believer, James—Jesus’s oldest male relative in a family-dominated society—took precedence over the 12 Apostles and became leader of the Jerusalem church. Paul brought his teachings to James for vetting, and even St. Peter bowed to James’s authority when he mediated between Jewish and Gentile converts. He seems, in fact, to have been a Christian and a Jew, something that most adherents to both faiths would now deny was possible. And James is less admired by some later Chris-

tians than he was by contemporary Jews. For 16th-century Protestants, militantly committed to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, James’s call for good works was hopelessly papist. And for Roman Christianity, James’s early pre-eminence was at odds with its own Peter-based claims to ultimate authority.

But James’s influence could easily be put aside in later Christianity, because his Jerusalem church was caught up in the greatest cataclysm ever visited on the religious traditions of Ancient Israel. When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple complex eight years after James’s death in 62 CE, all the followers of Yahweh were left rudderless. Out of the debris, the adherents of Jesus created an increasingly Gentile Church, while Jews eventually coalesced under the umbrella of Rabbinic Judaism. James, the brother of the Lord, who moved so easily between the two camps in his lifetime, might now not recognize either. I?il