Happenings, News

‘Jesus bone box’ inscription: Authenticity questioned

THE excitement over the discovery of the bone box which may have contained the bones of James, a brother of Jesus, suggesting that it may be the earliest surviving archaeological link to Jesus (Methodist Message, December 2002, Page 19) has given way to scepticism among a number of experts.

According to an article by John Noble Wilford in the Dec 3 issue of The New York Times, what is being questioned is not the antiquity of the bone box itself, but the inscription, all or part of which may be a forgery. Apparent differences in the handwriting suggested that the Jesus phrase in particular could have been added by a forger, say the experts.

Dr Eric M. Meyers, an archaeologist and a scholar of Judaic studies at Duke University, said recently that he had serious questions about its authenticity, largely because the origin of the bone box was clouded in mystery. It had apparently been found by looters at an undisclosed site and purchased on the antiquities market in Israel. Professional archaeologists have certain reservations about such artefacts of dubious provenance.

Others who have examined the bone box, on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, were most concerned that the inscription appeared to be written by two different hands: the first part referring to James, son of Joseph, seemed to be written in formal script; the second, about Jesus, is in a more free-flowing cursive style.

The New York Times article quoted Dr P. Kyle McCarter Jr, a specialist in Middle East languages at Johns Hopkins University, as saying: “The fact that the cursive and the formal types of letters appear in the two parts of the inscription suggests to me at least the possibility of a second hand.”

French scholar in Aramaic, Dr André Lemaire, who had earlier proposed that the inscription was connected to Jesus, stoutly defended his interpretation at a conference of the Society of Biblical Literature held in Toronto. A researcher at the Sorbonne in Paris, and a respected specialist on inscriptions of the biblical period, he published his findings in the current issue of the American magazine Biblical Archaeology Review.

He repeated his contention that “it is very probable” that the burial box had held the bones of James, a leader of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem, while Mr Hershel Shanks, Editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, gave at least two reasons to doubt the accusations of forgery.

For one thing, if it was a modern forger, he could have a blank ossuary starting from scratch so that the writing would be consistent. The other is the patina, the surface coating from ageing and weathering, examined by Israeli geologists. They judged it consistent with estimates that the box is about 2,000 years old, and detected no signs of later tampering with the inscription.

The newspaper article said that other critical comments came from Rochelle I. Altman, one of the first to note the apparent discrepancy in script styles: “There are two hands of clearly different levels of literacy and two different scripts. The second part of the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition and is questionable, to say the least.”

Dr Daniel Eylon, an Israeli professor of engineering at the University of Dayton in Ohio, applying aerospace failure analysis to determine if airplane malfunctioning occurred before or after an accident, said: “The inscription would be underneath these scratches if it had been on the box at the time of burial, but the majority of this inscription is on top of the scratches, and the sharpness of some of the letters doesn’t look right – sharp edges do not last 2,000 years.”

It is unlikely that the controversy will die down quickly. It is believed that the authorities in Israel were continuing with the investigation when the bone box was returned to Israel at the end of December 2002 when the exhibition ended in Toronto.