The museum’s third level is dedicated to the Mediterranean World, extending from Mesopotamia and Egypt through Nubia and the Levant, and from Greece and Rome through Byzantium and Islam. Room 9 is reserved for Mediterranean World Features Exhibitions and there, in a few weeks of prodigious work, the museum’s staff managed to mount a world premiere exhibit that would normally have taken a year to prepare. The room’s entrance and exit were shielded with semi-transparent gauze-like screens, the walls were bright red with white lettering, and in the center, under plexiglass, was a first-century Jewish bone box or ossuary with a small twenty-letter Aramaic inscription: James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. That inscription was enlarged graphically and dominated the back-wall with an English translation above it and a French one below.
We were there for about two hours, watching the exhibit, watching ourselves respond, but also watching others react to what the media had called the most important archaeological discovery of Christianity. The room could hold about 50 to 75 people and there was a steady flow through it that whole afternoon. People moved in a clockwise circle reading the quotations and explanations on the walls before spiraling inward towards the ossuary itself. The exhibit’s designers chose, most appropriately, to emphasize texts over images and it worked brilliantly. Visitors read from the New Testament and ancient authors like Josephus, Hegesippus, and Eusebius. They read about Jewish reburial, Aramaic scripts, and Christian interpretations of Jesus as “brother” of James and “son” of Joseph. Some viewers may already have known all that information but, lurking and listening, it was impossible not to be deeply impressed by the Royal Ontario Museum’s most successful exercise in public education.
The first edition of this book established a dialectic of stone and text, an interaction of ground and gospel, an integration of archaeology and exegesis in which each discipline maintained its own full validity. Neither approach was reduced to footnote or background for the other. This revised edition changes nothing in that reciprocity. But the recently discovered ossuary, with possibly the oldest tangible evidence for Jesus, calls for a second edition using the discovery as a concentrated example or focused symbol for that process of integration. It is both a positive and a negative example.
There are five questions. Is the ossuary authentic? Is the inscription original? Is the family identifiable? Is the discovery important? Is the process ethical? Our responses to those first three questions will appear in an added chapter and at other places throughout this revised edition but we answer those last two immediately even if only provisionally. And these two answers will remain valid no matter what we, other scholars, or the press and public eventually decide on the first three questions.
The Discovery’s Importance. The discovery is profoundly important simply because it gives a suddenly but properly high profile to James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. He was once well-known as James the Just but has since become almost unknown in importance even if not in name. Maybe we should call him James the Lost. It is therefore about time to reconsider one who lived for over 30 years in early first-century Jerusalem accepted alike by both Christian Jews and non-Christian Jews, who disagreed with Paul and yet had Peter on his side, and whose death toppled the Jewish high priest Ananus II who had him executed in 62 CE. Second, when devout Jews, probably including Pharisees, protested that action, it was the Jewish ruler Agrippa II who dismissed Ananus II from office after only three months. The James ossuary reminds us how much of earliest “Christian” history involved Jewish groups in accord or discord with other Jewish groups, Christian Jews, for example, in interaction with Pharisaic Jews and Sadducean Jews. Third, there was a time when James was far more important than Paul, and when James not Paul represented an ecumenical hope that ultimately failed but should be lamented none the less for that fact. Think counter-factually for a moment and mourn for what might have been. There was once a place where at least some Christian Jews and at least some Pharisaic Jew combined in opposing at least some Sadducean Jews. Once upon a time at least some might have been enough to change the future.
The Discovery’s Ethics. The James ossuary has come to us through the sale of antiquities rather than the excavation of archaeologists. We do not know, therefore, whether its original discovery was originally an unplanned finding or a planned looting, and the possibility of forgery will always haunt it. When such an artifact eventually surfaces to public awareness individual scholars, learned societies, and museum authorities are caught in a double bind. To accept and discuss it may encourage paralegal searching, illegal looting, and unethical destruction of heritage. To avoid and ignore it may be impossible since even a refusal to discuss it is inevitably a comment upon it. We deliberately use the ossuary in this book to emphasize the difference between archaeological study and cultural looting.
Anyone can understand that the answer to our third question, the identity of the family, may never get better than an historical possibility or a statistical probability. Imagine then a different scenario. A construction crew breaks into an ancient burial caved by accident. It observes the law, stops work, and calls in the Israel Antiquities Authority. Its archaeologists find a burial site undisturbed for nineteen hundred years and in the beam of their lights are three ossuaries, one named for Stephen, another named for James, son of Zebedee, brother of John, and a third named for James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. In that case we would know for certain that we had the mausoleum of three Christian-Jewish saints martyred respectively in the early30s, 40s, and 60s.
That never happened and we now have the James ossuary without context, provenance, or history. It is almost a poster-warning about the destructive effects of paralegal artifact collecting, about the potential criminal sanctions for selling and buying on the illegal antiquities market, and about the moral difference between scientific archaeology and cultural looting. The James ossuary bears on its limestone sides the shadow of cultural looting rather than the patina of scientific research. Its casing was cracked in transit from Israel to Canada. But it was already cracked in transit from past to present. This discovery was cracked from the start.
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