Friday, January 14, 2005

What do I think about the James Ossuary?

On Deinde Danny Zacharias asks where the bibliobloggers stand on the James ossuary. I don't think I've taken a stance on it here in the past since archaeology, inscriptions etc. are not my area of expertise and in general I like to listen to the experts on a given topic. Having listened to the experts on this one, my view is that it would be unlikely in the extreme if this artifact (or, I should say, the inscription) turned out to be genuine. I did not take the trouble of going to look at it when it was on display in the museum in Toronto during the 2002 SBL, even though I walked right past the museum (the latest Bond film was out, Die Another Day, and that, of course, had priority). I don't have a lot more to say except that I will continue to watch the development of the story with interest. For what it's worth, here are a couple of reflections on things that I haven't seen said by anyone else yet:

(1) I couldn't help being suspicious about the timing of the emergence of this unprovenanced artifact. That something focusing on James the brother of Jesus should just happen to emerge at the very moment that both scholarly and popular interest had been awakened on this figure was curious. What I mean is that on the scholarly level, decades with very little on James were followed by awakening of interest illustrated in the books by Pierre Antoine Bernheim in 1997 and John Painter in 1998. On the more sensationalist level, Robert Eisenman's book on James also appeared in 1997. And then his ossuary appeared. That bothered me in a way that the presentation of Thaddeus's ossuary would not have done. It'd be like if Mary Magdalene's ossuary were to appear now. In retrospect, it surprises me that the timing itself did not encourage more scepticism.

(2) If the ossuary inscription were genuine, I am still not sure what it adds to our historical knowledge. No one serious doubts the existence of James the brother of Jesus; no one doubts that he died; it makes sense to imagine that his bones would have been placed in an ossuary. At best the ossuary would have been useful for legitimising, and not for informing. It would have provided a possible external corroboration of the existence of a character who appears in the Biblical account about whose existence no one was in doubt anyway. And even there there is an inevitable circularity about the enterprise -- how do we know that "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" is our James? Because the New Testament and early Christian literature tells us that there was someone called James who was Joseph's son and Jesus' brother. And how do we know that that James was an historical figure? Because the name appears on an ossuary. And so on.

One final note. The desire to use archaeology for legitimising the Biblical record concerns me. When Ben Witherington III listed his Top Ten New Testament Archaeological finds of the last 150 years (see the Prolific Ben Witherington III), key finds like the Nag Hammadi codices which fill out and inform our picture of early Christianity do not get a look in but the Turin Shroud and the James Ossuary are there, items whose authenticity is very strongly in doubt, and which if genuine only corroborate the Biblical text, so are being used to legitimise and not to challenge, inform or get us engaging. Both faith and history are too important for this.

No comments: