Inscription Ripe for Debate
Richard N. Ostling
-- WASHINGTON (AP) - Archaeologists are expecting a long-running debate
over the reported discovery of a first-century inscription naming Jesus of Nazareth.
Writing in the new issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Andre Lemaire
of France's Practical School of Higher Studies says it's ``very probable'' that
an inscription on a burial box for bones refers to Jesus of Nazareth and was written
around A.D. 63. The inscription reads, ``James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.''
That would fit the New Testament account that Jesus had a brother named James,
and the tradition that James was the son of Joseph, the husband of Jesus' mother
Mary. The sensational claim, if true, could become one of the great archaeological
discoveries in modern times.
But there's this major question: Did this
box name Jesus of Nazareth or some other Jesus? After all, that name was common
in the first century, as were James and Joseph.
Lemaire pins his circumstantial
case on the unusual naming of both the father and brother on a burial box, known
as an ossuary. There's only one other known example with three names, so he figures
something about the brother must have stood out. Jesus would certainly qualify.
However, archaeologist Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University noted
at a news conference Monday that the brother might have been named because he
conducted the burial or owned the tomb.
Under Christian teaching that would
rule out Jesus of Nazareth, who rose from the grave and ascended into heaven decades
before James was stoned to death as a Jewish heretic in A.D. 62.
of reaction quickly emerged Monday.
Rev. Ben Witherington III of Asbury
Theological Seminary in Kentucky, another news conference speaker, sided fully
with Lemaire's claim. He's a conservative evangelical who takes the New Testament
as reliable history.
But Robert Eisenman of California State University,
Long Beach, attacked Lemaire's claim, calling it ``too perfect.'' He figures some
``extremely clever'' forger must have produced the box. That fits Eisenman's skeptical
belief that the New Testament is highly fictional. He even thinks ``Jesus' existence
is a very shaky thing'' -- something few other scholars would agree with.
Jesus of Nazareth is the person named, Lemaire and the archaeology magazine offered
a detailed case against forgery.
The magazine said two Israeli government
scientists did a microscopic examination of the artifact's inscription and surface
patina. They concluded the box is ancient and there's no evidence of modern tampering.
Lemaire said the handwriting is clearly in the style of the first century
A.D. and another specialist, the Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer of Catholic University of
America, agrees. Moreover, Lemaire notes that ossuaries were only in use from
20 B.C. to A.D. 70, fixing the time frame.
Another issue: The owner required
Lemaire to shield his identity, so the box's location was not revealed. Nor is
anything known about its history over the past 19 centuries.
Review editor Hershel Shanks said the owner bought the box about 15 years ago
from an Arab antiquities dealer in Jerusalem who said it was unearthed south of
the Mount of Olives. The owner never realized its potential importance until Lemaire
examined it last spring.
``Something so startling, so earth-shattering,
raises questions about its authenticity,'' Shanks acknowledged.
who was raised Roman Catholic, said his faith did not affect his judgment, since
he studies inscriptions only ``as a historian -- that is, comparing them critically
with other sources.''
The archaeology magazine is negotiating to display
the box in Toronto during a major convention of religion scholars in late November,
and possibly in the United States.
James is depicted as Jesus' brother
in the Gospels and head of the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts and Paul's
Until now, the oldest surviving artifact that mentions Jesus
is a fragment of chapter 18 in John's Gospel from a manuscript dated around A.D.
125. It was discovered in Egypt in 1920.
There are numerous surviving manuscripts
of New Testament portions from later in that century. Jesus was mentioned by three
pagan authors in Rome in the early second century and by the Jewish historian
Josephus in the late first century.
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