A Massive Hoax?

Deal W. Hudson is publisher and editor of CRISIS Magazine, a Catholic monthly published in Washington, DC. You can reach him at hudson@crisismagazine.com.

It turns out I didn't have to wait long — a recent report claims that part of the ossuary is an obvious fake. While many scholars who have studied the box are convinced of its authenticity, there are a growing number who are skeptical.

Robert Eisenman is one. He recently wrote a piece for the L.A. Times where he says that the discovery of the ossuary is just “too perfect” to convince him that it's real. For one thing, its sudden, mysterious appearance and lack of any record of its whereabouts for the past 2000 years makes him suspicious of its origins.

Another problem he has is with the nature of the inscription itself. Eisenman states that ancient sources never called James “the brother of Jesus” — this is strictly a Biblical reference. Instead, he would have been referred to as “James the Zaddik” or “Just One,” titles given him by other early Christians. He also says that ancient sources are unclear as to James's father, and probably would have called him “son of Cleophas” or “son of Alphaeus” (these names were often interchanged, according to Eisenman), but not “son of Joseph,” something a more modern reader would expect.

In the end, Eisenman thinks that the ossuary is a little too perfect to be convincing. It seems to please a modern audience, one that bases its knowledge of St. James on the Gospels, not at an ancient audience who would have known first-hand who James was.

Dr. Rochelle Altman is another critic of the recent findings. An historian of writing systems and an expert on scripts, Altman writes that while the ossuary itself is genuine, the second half of the inscription — “brother of Jesus” — is a poor imitation of the first half of the inscription, one that must have been added later. Her reasons sound pretty convincing (though I claim no expertise in that area).

According to Altman, inscriptions on ossuaries were covenants made by the dead person's family members, pledging that they would continue to revere their deceased loved one. As was the case with all such solemn vows, the covenant had to be written in the hand of the person making it. Thus, while professional masons might have “touched up” the inscription later, the original inscription had to be made by the family member.

Obviously, not all family members were literate, so their inscriptions might have been a little shaky. Either way, it would have all been done in the same hand. However, Altman argues that the inscription on this particular ossuary was written by two different people.

How does she know? Well, the first group of words — “Jacob son of Joseph” — was written by someone who was fully literate (she could tell by the consistency of the lettering and the formal script).

After the author carved the initial lettering, a professional excised the text (meaning that the stone around it was carved out to make the letters raised) and enclosed the words in a kind of frame — a common practice when excising an inscription.

All of this appears legitimate to Altman. But, she says, that's not true of the second half of the inscription — “brother of Jesus.” Apparently, there are a few strange misspellings in this second part, as if the person writing it had little grasp of either Hebrew or Aramaic, and was trying to copy a script and language unfamiliar to him. Altman also points out that the script is informal, as compared with the formal lettering of the first section.

But that's not all. She additionally notes that there's no excised frame around the words. Since it was a normal practice to excise both the words and a frame, she concluded that the second writer removed the original frame so he could add his own words.

Her final verdict? The box is real; the inscription is not. “If the entire inscription on the ossuary is genuine,” she says, “then somebody has to explain why there are two hands of clearly different levels of literacy and two different scripts. They also have to explain why the second hand did not know how to write 'brother of' in Aramaic or even spell 'Joshua' [the Hebrew form of Jesus]. Further, they had better explain where the frame has gone.”

Once again, there's really no way to know conclusively whether or not Altman is correct. Nevertheless, her points — and Eisenman's points — are significant and need to be addressed.

Click here to read Deal's October 28 article, “Ancient Link To Jesus.”

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