The James Ossuary Exhibition in Toronto

Biblical Archaeology Review cover above the James Ossuary.The existence of an ossuary bearing an Aramaic inscription, “Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua” [James the son of Joseph the brother of Jesus] was announced at a press conference conducted by Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, October 21, 2002. In the feature article of the November-December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Professor Andre Lemairé gives details about the ossuary and its inscription. An ossuary was used to house the bones of the deceased after the decay of the body. An ossuary need be only as large as the longest bones. The ossuary under consideration is about 20 inches long, 12 inches high, and 10 inches wide. They were commonly used by the Jews for secondary burial in the first century A.D.

The James Ossuary was placed on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, from November 15th through December 29, 2002. It was displayed in a third floor room by itself in a well-lighted case. The walls of the room were filled with information about James, ossuaries, Jewish burial customs, and the James ossuary. The ossuary was cracked in transit from Israel to Canada but was been restored by the museum staff. The ROM has a good selection of material from the ancient Mediterranean world. The exhibition of the James Ossuary was arranged to coincide with the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the American Academy of Religion, and the Society of Biblical Literature. About eight thousand professors of religion and Biblical studies from around the world attend these meetings.

“No Ordinary Box of Bones”

The Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) planned a special session under the title “No Ordinary Box of Bones” for a learned discussion about the ossuary. The panel included the following scholars:

André Lemairé, the epigrapher from the Sorbonne who recently published the ossuary inscription in the Biblical Archaeology Review.

John Painter, author of a book on James, from Charles Stuart University in Australia.

Steve Mason, a Josephus scholar, from York University, Toronto. He put the quotation about James in Josephus in its proper context.

Eric Meyers, an archaeologist and scholar of Judaism at Duke University.

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Adele Reinhartz, of Wilfred Laurier University, served as chair of the panel.

Lemairé summarized the material from his BAR article. He responded to some recent charges that the second half of the inscription [brother of Jesus] is different from the first part [James the son of Joseph]. Evidence from paleography places the Aramaic inscription near the middle of the first century AD, prior to AD 70.

Eric Myers, a former president of ASOR, stated that he had concern about the existence of such a panel in light of the fact that the ossuary was “looted” and sold on the illegal antiquities market. He said the owner had been questioned by the police in Israel about the ossuary.

Herschel Shanks at SBL in Toronto, 2002.

Herschel Shanks in Toronto, 2002.

Herschel Shanks took exception to several statements made by Myers. Shanks publishes artifact which belong to private collectors. Both Shanks and Lemairé emphasized that the Dead Sea Scrolls fall into the same category. Shanks said there are good collectors and bad collectors. Good collectors allow their material to be published and share it with the world. Bad collectors keep their artifacts in their basements for personal enjoyment.

Mason put the quotation about James from Josephus in proper historical context. Josephus was dealing with the character of High Priests and mentioned, incidentally, that one of the people put to death was the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ.

The quotation from Josephus, perhaps written in the last decade of the first century A.D., reads this way:

…when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or some of his companions]; and, when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: (Ant 20:200)

Painter mentioned the tradition that the throne of James (as Bishop of Jerusalem) and his burial in the Church of Saint James, an Armenian church in Jerusalem. He also cited other traditions about the death and burial of James from Clement of Alexandria, Hegesippus, and Eusebius.

A portion of the quotation from Eusebius, from the early 4th century A.D., reads,

These things are related at length by Hegesippus, who is in agreement with Clement. James was so admirable a man and so celebrated among all for his justice, that the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them immediately after his martyrdom for no other reason than their daring act against him.

Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says, “These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.” (Ecclesiastical History 2 23:19-20)

Entrance to St. James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Entrance to St. James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

When the panelists finished their presentations, time was allowed for only two or three questions from the audience of about 800 persons. I was seated directly in front of the podium about 4 or 5 rows from the front and rose to ask the first question. The owner of the ossuary, Mr. Oded Golan, was present for the session. I stated that we would like to hear him say how long the ossuary had been in his possession and whether the inscription was on it when he obtained it. Mr. Golan went to the platform and stated that he obtained the ossuary in the 1970s and that the inscription was on it when he obtained it. He is 51 years of age, and has been collecting ossuaries and other antiquities since he was 8 years old. He stated that one item from his collection had been published by the late Yigael Yadin.

Oden Golan and Ferrell Jenkins at SBL, Toronoto, 2002.

Oden Golan and Ferrell Jenkins at SBL, Toronoto, 2002.

It may sound strange to Americans that a young boy would be collecting ossuaries and other antiquities. We must remember that ancient artifacts are everywhere in Israel (and the West Bank) and that archaeology is a sort of past-time for many people who live there. As a boy growing up in north Alabama I picked up Indian arrowheads from the cotton fields. I have visited several homes in which the host would bring out numerous boxes of artifacts that they had collected from Indian mounds.

Well, I trust this will give our readers a little perspective on the initial presentation of the James Ossuary. You may read more about the trial which has been going on since December, 2004, here.

One response to “The James Ossuary Exhibition in Toronto

  1. Pingback: The Talpiot Mysteries: Featuring the Biblioblog Detectives and the Case of the Ichthyomorphic Ossuary Unguentaria/Amphora « Exploring Our Matrix

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