An Amazing Discovery

Book cover
The Brother of Jesusby By Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington IIIHarperSanFrancisco. 254p $24.95

Around Jesus’ time, roughly from 20 B.C. to A.D. 70, Jews, especially in Jerusalem, developed the practice of a two-stage burial. The corpse would first be laid out on a shelf cut into the wall of a burial cave and allowed to decompose. Then, a year later, the bones would be gathered up and placed in a stone ossuary or “bone-box.” Frequently the name of the deceased would be inscribed on the outside of the ossuary. This is the burial practice assumed in the Gospels’ accounts about the burial of Jesus.

The first sentence in the introduction to The Brother of Jesus promises that “this book is about what may be the most astonishing find in the history of archaeology.” The key words in my view are “may be.” The main topic of the book is the ossuary bearing the ancient Aramaic (a Semitic language like Hebrew) inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The ossuary and its inscription came to public attention in the fall of 2002 through André Lemaire’s article in Biblical Archaeology Review (Vol. 28, No. 6), in which he argued that the James ossuary is a first-century artifact and that the inscription refers to the James, Joseph and Jesus of the New Testament.

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As the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks embarked on a successful publicity campaign that got the James ossuary onto the front pages of influential newspapers and into several national news magazines. In their book, Shanks and Ben Witherington provide further information about the ossuary and more arguments for the authenticity and significance of the inscription. The authors’ “maximalist” interpretations should be read alongside the more cautious and sober analysis by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., “Whose Name Is This?” (Am., 11/18/02).

This volume is a work of popularization intended for the general public. Shanks is a master at this. He writes in an informative, vivid and engaging (sometimes gossipy) style. He is a lawyer, and knows how to make a persuasive and attractive argument. He contends that the James ossuary is ancient and that it is the ossuary of the brother of Jesus.

Shanks has a good story to tell, and he tells it well. While admitting that he has not proved his case beyond a reasonable doubt, Shanks maintains that there is a preponderance of evidence at least sufficient to sustain an award in a civil suit.

The evidence that Shanks brings forward involves paleography (analysis of the shape and form of letters), linguistics (ancient Aramaic usage), geological analysis (the chemical content of the patina of the ossuary), psychology (a forger would have tried to get money) and statistics (the small probability that these three names would have occurred in this order). The major problems are the uncertainty about the origin of the ossuary (it belongs to a private collector who bought it on the open market from a dealer whose name he does not remember) and the uncertainty as to whether the three persons named in its inscription really are the New Testament figures, since these were common names.

After Shanks’s account of what he terms “a remarkable discovery,” it is Witherington’s turn to tell “the story of James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Witherington is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky., and the author of many books on the New Testament and on the world in which it originated. He is generally regarded as a conservative exegete and historian, and in theological matters an evangelical.

He argues that the James mentioned on the ossuary was the blood brother of Jesus, a child of Joseph and Mary. He correctly distinguishes between the virginal conception of Jesus, which he seems to accept, and the perpetual virginity of Mary, which he rejects. He dismisses the patristic interpretations that James was Jesus’ cousin (Jerome) or stepbrother from Joseph’s previous marriage (Epiphanius).

Witherington performs a good service in gathering the ancient evidence pertaining to James the Lord’s brother and presenting it in a narrative form. He also introduces readers to a very Jewish form of Christianity represented by the early church in Jerusalem. The problems in his contribution to the book stem mainly from his somewhat credulous and uncritical historical methodology. He makes easy leaps from literary texts to historical reconstruction, and eagerly fills in gaps in the record by appealing to what he regards as common Jewish custom or practice. And his concluding reflections on the significance of the James ossuary aim much too high and wide.

While readers of America will learn much about archaeology and early Christianity from this good example of archaeological and biblical popularization, they should also take the occasion to reread Father Fitzmyer’s splendid essay to get a better sense of the critical issues involved in what only may be the most astonishing find in the history of archaeology.

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11 years 8 months ago
In the April 7 issue of America, Daniel Harrington, S.J., reviewed The Brother of Jesus. He quotes the authors, Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, saying that “this book is about what may be the most astonishing find in the history of archaeology.” Their statement leaves me with the question of why Jesus had to give the care of his mother to John and to her John as son. There is no report, no evidence, of a brother being on Calvary! Strange?

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