Has the James Ossuary been Found to be a Forgery?

Those of us involved in apologetics are all familiar with the James Ossuary. For those who may be late-comers to the conversation, here's a brief description about the ossuary from an article published today on some website called News 24 entitled The Jesus Artifacts.
In 2002, the news that an ancient ossuary might be associated with James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, created great excitement in the world of biblical archaeology as well as among Christians and those of other religious faiths. The ossuary, or burial box, purportedly had an Aramaic inscription reading "Ya'akov, son of Yossef, brother of Yeshua," translated as "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"
This article, written by someone calling himself "VillageIdiot" puts a very negative spin on the James Ossuary because as his opening paragraph (reproduced below) makes clear, he has no faith that any of the evidence supporting Jesus is true.
The archeological evidence for the existence of Jesus is non existent. So many of the ancient artifacts that have been discovered through the years since the time of Jesus have been proven to be fake. Let’s look at a small selection of them.


However, this was also found to be a forgery. The ossuary was ancient, but the inscriptions were found to be fake. This further substantiates a number of theories. Firstly, Jesus never existed, as any other evidence to support his life is entirely absent. Secondly, the black market prices for ancient artifacts, particularly ones that play to the gullibility of religious fanaticism, ensures a higher price for items which refer to anything found within any of the religious scriptures of the three major religions, being the Bible, the Koran and the Torah. These people are eager to pounce onto anything that might support their respective scriptures, to the extent that they fail to do a thorough investigation.
Is that what we Christiana are? Are we are so dead set on supporting anything that hints of Jesus that we can't recognize something being an obvious fabrication? Is VillageIdiot right that we are just yahoos who will believe anything as long as it supports our belief in the sky-God? Well, there is at least one problem with VillageIdiot's views of the James Ossuary: when he says that the James Ossuary was found to be a forgery is wrong. There have not been any such findings. Did suspicions exist that it was a forgery? Yes and we gullible Christians here at the Christian Cadre (as only one among many places) published several stories about the trial of the alleged perpetrators. (If you don't believe me, please go to the search box and type in "ossuary" and you will see several articles about it.) So, Christians are aware that the ossuary was suspected of being fake, and we were commenting on it. But even more importantly, I came across the first article about the James Ossuary that I think is even more damaging to VillageIdiot's view. This article from The Los Angeles Times which has an incredible headline which reads, Archaeology journal says burial box of Jesus' brother is genuine. What? Say what? How can this be? After all, as the News 24 article points out, "Jesus never existed and and evidence to support his life is entirely absent." So, how can it be genuine? In reading the Los Angeles Times article, I learn that the headline is not misleading. It reads:
A limestone box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" in Aramaic appears to be genuine, the prestigious Biblical Archaeology Review said Wednesday in a long story written by editor Hershel Shanks. The ossuary, dating from AD 63, has been highly controversial, with Israeli authorities claiming it is a forgery and prosecuting antiquities dealer Oded Golan, who originally sold it. That trial ended in March when a judge acquitted him of forging the inscription on the ossuary, saying that the prosecutor had not proved claims that the ossuary was a fake.
So, I went to Biblical Archaeology Review to see for myself, and found the headline article to read “Brother of Jesus” Inscription Is Authentic! The main point of the article reads as follows: "My bottom line is simply this: There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the inscription on the James Ossuary. Whether it refers to Jesus of Nazareth remains a question." Wow! So according to Biblical Archaeology Review, the inscription that references Joseph, James and Jesus is authentic and not a forgery. So, paraphrasing the question posed by Hershel Shanks, does the fact that it refers to Jesus and James mean that it is necessarily the same Joseph, James and Jesus as in the Bible? Obviously, there is no way to know the answer to this questions with absolute certainty. But Editor Shanks does provide a very interesting analysis by using statistics. Editor Shanks reports that a prominent statistician from Tel Aviv University, Professor Camil Fuchs, has done the background work on answering this question. According to the article, Professor Fuchs used several factors in analyzing the probability that this inscription was genuine including the size of the population of Jerusalem, the period of time in which reinterment in ossuaries was practiced, the fact that the names were all male, the fact that the ossuary is intended to hold adult bones, the strong probability that someone in the family was literate and the rate of literacy (why else an inscription?), the family wealth to be able to afford the ossuary, and the percentage of ossuaries from the period which had inscriptions. He concludes with the following:
Fuchs’s computations also depend on the frequency of the three names in the inscriptions in Rahmani’s catalog. Among the 241 male names on the ossuaries in the catalog are 88 different names. “James” (Yaakov in Hebrew) appears 5 times or 2.15 percent of the time; “Joseph” (and variations) appears 19 times or 7.9 percent of the time; and “Jesus” (Yeshua in Hebrew) appears 10 times or 4.1 percent of the time. Based on the frequency of these names among the 241 male names on the ossuaries in the catalog, the statistical probability of the three names appearing together is 0.006787 percent.

Fuchs concludes that the estimate for the relevant population includes 7,530 men, and the likelihood of someone named James with a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus in this population is 0.0227 percent. That is, the estimate of the number of individuals in that population who bear the three names with this relation is 1.71. Expressed another way, there is a 38 percent chance that only one individual had this combination, a 32 percent chance that two individuals had this combination, an 18 percent chance that three individuals had it and an 8 percent chance that four individuals had it. And Fuchs can state this with 95 percent confidence.
So, does this necessarily mean it is the same Joseph, James and Jesus as described in the Bible? No, but at 0.0227 percent, it appears to be a fairly strong statistical case that it is. So, unless and until something else pops up, I think that the James Ossuary can be put into the category of evidences for Jesus and the truth of the Bible despite objections from village idiots to the contrary.


this is a good article BK. we shouldn't put too much stock in "artifacts" of this sort. It would be extremely unlikely that we are going to find somethign like the bib Jesus ate with when he was two or the comb he used when he was 14 or something of that nature. That's nearly impossible and finding the burial of some major Biblical person like James is just a little more probable than that.

Never the less all the village atheists are doing is putting us in a double bind. If you think we can prove things you are a fanatic. If you don't, you have no evidence.
I didn't mean for that to sound like a rebuttal to BK's article. I am just saying I don't base my arguments on such artifacts, but that doesn't mean it can't be.If the evidence supports it that's all that matters. evidence overturns probability.

as a rebuttal to the village atheist I don't base any arguments on such things.
we also need to learn to see texts as artifacts. So the NT texts the Gospels are artifacts even if they are proved wrong on serious points. Now that's hypothetical. That doesn't mean I think they are proved wrong on everything.
BK said…

I agree with you except for the suggestion that any portion of the NT texts may have been proven wrong. But that's a discussion for another day.
Jason Pratt said…
I feel as though there may have been a bit of irony implied by BK up there in the article somewhere, concerning people so desperate to believe something that they're willing to fabricate the opposite of the fact. {wry g}


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