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Jerusalem Bone Box Update

The jury is in; and it doesn't look good


In late 2002, epigrapher Andre LeMaire reported in the Biblical Archaeology Review the discovery of a limestone burial box, of the kind used by the Jewish and early Christian communities between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. The box, at the time in the possession of art collector Oded Golan, made international news because of its inscription, which said, in ancient Aramaic, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. The inscription was interpreted by LeMaire, not to mention the world press, as possibly representing the stone coffin of the early Christian bishop, James the Just. James the Just, an extremely important figure in early Christian religion, was stoned to death in the first century AD. More to the point, James is, by tradition at least, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, founder of the Christian religion. If authentic, this would be a very early mention of Jesus, if not the earliest.

The box was shipped to Toronto, Ontario, in time for the American Academy of Religion meetings in November of that year. Despite being severely damaged during shipment, the box was made available for the scrutiny of several scholars. After much intensive investigation, scholars today generally agree that the box itself is likely authentically dated between the 2nd century BC and the first century AD. However, the inscription appears to have been at least partially forged. According to a recent article in the magazine Minerva, and other news stories in the press all over the world, there are several problems with the inscription.

For example, scriptologist Rochelle I. Altman argues that the inscription has clearly been carved by two different people; that the “James son of Joseph” is in one hand, and the “brother of Jesus” is in another. The last part is, in fact, according to Altman, “a poorly executed fake”. John Lupin, editor of the Roman Catholic News, notes that age patina, which was discussed as support of the box’s authenticity, is missing from the grooves of several of the letters. If the patina were genuine, Lupin argues, it should have been thickest in the grooves, and patina typical of the period is not easily removed under the most strenuous of cleaning.

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