The aramaic inscription on the ancient limestone burial box says simply, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Unveiled a year ago, those few words on a prosaic 2,000-year-old ossuary launched a media frenzy and ignited a political row among archaeologists and Bible scholars. They've also made the ossuary's owner, a self-described collector of antiquities, into a polarizing international figure.

Owner Oded Golan, 52, is a quiet engineer from Tel Aviv. He says he bought the ossuary from an antiquities dealer in the 1970s for a few hundred dollars. Last year, Golan invited one of the world's leading experts on ancient inscriptions to examine the ossuary.

The scholar, André Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris, quickly became convinced that the ossuary—21 inches by 12 inches by 10 inches—was a fixture from the grave of James, "the Lord's brother," the leader of the Christian movement in first-century Jerusalem after the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington asked the Geological Survey of Israel to analyze the ossuary. The GSI found no reason to doubt its authenticity. Last October, the BAS presented the bone box as authentic. It published the findings of Lemaire and the GSI in its flagship publication, Biblical Archaeology Review. Hershel Shanks, BAR's editor, called the ossuary "the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology."

But some archaeologists immediately questioned the bone box because it was reportedly bought from an antiquities dealer and not excavated by professional archaeologists under controlled conditions. In June the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), with a history of hostility toward collectors such as Golan, called the inscription a fabrication. Director Shuka Dorfman stated, "The inscription is a fake."

Police searched Golan's Tel Aviv home in July. They reported finding tools that could be used in forgeries. Authorities arrested Golan on July 21 on suspicion of forging ancient artifacts. Four days later, however, they released him without pressing charges. Golan, who was unavailable for comment, maintains his innocence.

Archaeologists and scholars remain divided about the James bone box. Shanks accuses Israeli authorities of trying to pressure Golan into confessing.

"I'm still not sure whether it's a forgery," Shanks told Christianity Today. "But I am sure that the Israeli authorities are handling it very badly."

Article continues below

The official IAA report hasn't been released yet. What has been released so far has "barn-door-wide holes in it," Shanks said.

Who's right about the mysterious bone box? No one involved in the dispute knows for sure, at least not yet. Unresolved tensions are not unusual in archaeology, but these days the field of biblical archaeology is straining under a profusion of pressures.

The discipline is not just about picks, brushes, shovels, and artifacts. It's not just about Israeli and Palestinian politics. It's also about private collectors versus professional standards; academic archaeologists versus amateurs; skeptics versus Bible believers seeking material confirmation of their faith; and about magazines with different audiences and agendas.

Archaeology is the only source of new facts about the world of the Bible. But the politics of archaeology, as much as the spadework, determines what is deemed authentic and what is not.

William Dever, the University of Arizona's professor emeritus of Near Eastern archaeology, is one of the foremost figures in the field. Dever told CT it all boils down to one question: "Who owns the past?"

Israel and Palestine

Biblical archaeology's sphere of interest centers on one of the world's most tense and torn landscapes. A half-century ago, archaeologists such as Yigael Yadin used excavations at sites like Masada to develop the ethos and traditions for the new Jewish state. At the site of the Herodian fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, Yadin excavated what he said were remains from the final battle of the first-century Jewish revolt against the Romans. Today, Israeli soldiers who are sworn in at the ruin hear these words: "Masada shall not fall again."

But the site most precious to Jews, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is off-limits to archaeologists. In 1998 the Muslims who control the area began constructing an underground mosque in the southeastern corner of the area they call Haram al-Sharif ("the noble sanctuary"). Trucks carried off and dumped the excavated dirt with no oversight from archaeologists.

Muslims, some of whom claim there is no evidence for any Jewish temples on that site, said no archaeological precautions were necessary. Many archaeologists, Jews, and Christians were outraged. Some Israelis are concerned that irreplaceable artifacts have been lost.

Some Jews, for their part, use findings from archaeology to buttress their own claims to the land. But so do Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority created its own department of tourism and archaeology after signing the Oslo Accord in 1993.

Article continues below

Dever says archaeologists, whether Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, or American, usually seek to avoid political disputes. "Archaeology is supposed to be a science, and it's simply perverted by introducing modern political issues," Dever says. "Archaeology cannot contribute anything directly to the solution of Middle East problems. And its abuse can only make it worse."

Skeptics and evangelicals

Conservative archaeologists are facing their own unique political pressures. The James ossuary has brought back into the open a long-running academic dispute about the historicity of the Bible.

Dever can't resist tweaking those he calls "fundamentalist Christians" regarding the ossuary. They "jumped on it, assuming that now we had proof that Jesus had lived," he says. "The ossuary doesn't add anything to what we already knew, even if it were genuine."

Dever, the son of a Protestant preacher, left his evangelical background in college and eventually converted to Judaism. Today he considers himself a secular humanist.

A colleague describes Dever as being planted at the "radical center" of archaeology. Dever—whose latest book is Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?—rejects the conservative dating used by many (though not all) evangelicals—such as a date of 1,400 B.C. for the Exodus. Like a number of secular scholars, however, he still sees value in using the Bible as an archaeological reference.

He reserves his harshest words for the minimalist revisionists. Members of this camp deny the historicity of the Bible and say the stories it contains are myths written for nationalistic reasons.

"I suggest that the revisionists are nihilist not only in the historical sense but also in the philosophical and moral sense," Dever writes in his earlier book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? "Here their basic approach to the texts of the Hebrew Bible gives them away as all-too-typical postmodernists."

In March 2002, Harper's published a cover story espousing this viewpoint ("False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History"). "Some twelve to fourteen centuries of 'Abrahamic' religious development, the cultural wellspring that has given us not only Judaism but Islam and Christianity, have … been erased," author Daniel Lazare wrote. "Judaism appears to have been the product not of some dark and nebulous period of early history but of a more modern age of big-power politics in which every nation aspired to the imperial greatness of a Babylon or an Egypt."

Article continues below

While evangelical archaeologists disagree with Lazare, more and more acknowledge that archaeology does not provide an open and shut case for the historicity of the Scriptures.

Archaeology is limited by its very nature in how much it can corroborate Scripture, says James Hoffmeier, a professor of Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern history and archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.

"Many evangelical archaeologists are beginning to realize the archaeological data may not be able to tell us what we hoped it would," Hoffmeier says. "But we can't marginalize the Bible. It must be treated with the same kind of respect that we would [give] other ancient Near Eastern texts."

The tension between evangelical and liberal scholars has been a part of biblical archaeology since Americans and Europeans first started digging up the Holy Land in the 19th century. Bryant Wood, director of Associates for Biblical Research, a research and teaching ministry headquartered in southeastern Pennsylvania, says the discipline emerged partly in response to liberal textual criticism.

But Wood believes the assertion by Dever and other scholars that "fundamentalists" are simply using archaeology as a means to prove the Bible is an overstatement.

"I've gone back and tried to find the reports or the articles that he's talking about where these pioneers and early archaeologists were trying to 'prove the Bible,' " Wood says. "I can't find that in the literature. I really don't know what they're talking about, because I don't say that myself."

Skepticism has grown over the last 30 years. Two of the most famous American figures in biblical archaeology were William F. Albright and G. Ernest Wright. Albright developed a system of dating pottery that is the foundation of modern archaeology. He directed the archaeological institute at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem early in the last century (it's now called the Albright Institute). Then he became a professor of Semitic languages at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Article continues below

Wright was one of Albright's top pupils. Wright went on to teach a new generation of archaeologists, including Dever, at Harvard. Albright and Wright made numerous discoveries they said confirmed the Bible, but such an approach is out of favor in today's archaeology.

"Albright and Wright led people to think that their work, and [that of] like-minded scholars, would be able to provide incontrovertible evidence for such events as the Israelite conquest under Joshua," Hoffmeier says. "But as their finds began to be scrutinized and other models of interpreting the data came forward, suddenly their theories began to be questioned. That raised the question in the minds of some, Should the Bible be dictating the agenda for all of the archaeology that goes on in the Levant?"

Dever says no. He has tried for decades to remove archaeological field research in the Near East from the shadow of biblical studies. Almost a quarter-century ago he led an unsuccessful effort to substitute the term Syro-Palestinian archaeology for biblical archaeology. He picked up the campaign again in the July/August issue of BAR, with an article titled "Whatchamacallit: Why It's So Hard to Name Our Field."

Biblical archaeology, the article said, is "full of contradictions [and] hopelessly compromised by biblical biases." The term "should be used, if at all, as a popular 'shorthand,' not the name of the larger discipline." He now favors using the name of each country to describe the work being done there.

Evangelical archaeologists say critics such as Dever could inadvertently undermine the support they need to work.

"Why would anybody be interested in that part of the world if it weren't for the Bible?" asks John Monson, director of the graduate program in archaeology at Wheaton College. "You know you're going to encounter the Bible, because it's the most robust text dealing with the ancient Near East."

Seeking respect

Evangelical archaeologists are seeking to win over their skeptical colleagues through the integrity of their work. Wood and his associates have sponsored several small excavations in Israel in attempts to identify the site of Ai, the city the Bible says Joshua and the Israelites destroyed shortly after taking Jericho. The results have been inconclusive to date.

Although Wood's methodology and approach may be little different from those of other archaeologists, his stance supporting the reliability of the Bible makes him suspect in the eyes of many in the profession.

Article continues below

In the mid-20th century, the distinguished British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon excavated at Jericho. Kenyon concluded that Jericho did not exist as a city during the time the Bible indicates the Israelites conquered Canaan.

In 1990 Wood wrote a BAR article titled "Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence." Wood says detailed analyses of Kenyon's excavation, and earlier digs at the site, contradict Kenyon's own conclusions, but no professional publication has published his research.

"I've been turned down by three different journals," Wood says. "It is difficult to get something published that in the eyes of editors of a secular journal would be 'proving the Bible.' That labels you as a fundamentalist or a religious fanatic."

Hoffmeier, an archaeologist from an evangelical seminary, is well aware of the pitfalls. Hoffmeier directs an excavation in northeastern Egypt that could potentially turn up new information on the Exodus, a biblical episode lacking direct archaeological attestation. Hoffmeier staffs the dig with competent excavators from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines—not just other evangelicals.

Hoffmeier stresses that he's not just looking for that biblical connection: "We're trying to uncover what is there that helps us understand a certain period of time."

Hoffmeier is excavating very carefully. Two years ago, he sponsored a conference for Christian and Jewish archaeologists to talk about methodological issues and the future of biblical archaeology. Last year he invited Dever to be an on-site consultant.

Amateurs and professionals

Without careful records of the context of each discovery at a dig, excavation becomes little more than looting. It's little wonder that looters are the archenemies of archaeologists.

Palestinian and Israeli archaeologists say antiquities theft is a growing problem, with hundreds of potentially illegal digs reported every year. Israel is home to 35,000 known archaeological sites, the West Bank and Gaza to 1,600 more. The IAA has an antitheft unit that watches shops, markets, and sites for signs of illegal activity. It also makes busts.

Israeli law forbids the trade and export of archaeological finds by those without a license. The IAA approves only about 300 licenses for excavations annually. It provides only about 70 licenses annually to antiquities sellers. Selling without a license can bring a three-year jail term, although most sentences are shorter.

Article continues below

Professional organizations such as the ASOR, focusing mainly on the ancient Near East, and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), focusing more broadly on ancient eras, have long held official policies condemning the antiquities trade.

Shanks and others maintain that some items from the antiquities markets are too significant to be overlooked. They cite the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in the winter of 1946-47 by Bedouins, who sold them to antiquities dealers. The scrolls are 2,000-year old manuscripts of biblical and extrabiblical writings found stored in caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.

Even though early tests publicized with the James ossuary's unveiling last fall seemed to support its authenticity, a growing chorus of caution emanated from the ranks of professional archaeologists. Not that the ossuary isn't 2,000 years old—that seems beyond question.

Ossuaries were common in first-century Jerusalem burials. In 1990 the ossuary of Caiaphas, the high priest during Jesus' crucifixion, was excavated when a tomb was accidentally uncovered in a park. Archaeologists accept its authenticity because they know where it came from and how it was discovered. The James ossuary's murky background makes them uncomfortable.

The IAA called a news conference in late June to announce the inscription was a forgery and suggested that Golan was lying.

But if members of the IAA thought that would put the matter to rest, they were wrong. Too many questions are still unanswered. Asbury Seminary professor Ben Witherington, who wrote a book on the ossuary with Shanks, is likewise unconvinced: "I am not impressed with the evidence they have presented." He says more tests need to be done on the inscription, independently, in an environment where there is no presumption of forgery.

Canadian-Jewish filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici made a documentary on the ossuary that the Discovery Channel aired in the spring.

"As far as I'm concerned, the Antiquities Authority is conducting a disinformation campaign against the ossuary," he told the Jerusalem Post. "It sees collectors as drug addicts and dealers as drug dealers, because it believes that antiquities should be found in their archaeological settings."

Professors and personalities

The ossuary saga also highlights the not infrequent clash between personalities in the world of biblical archaeology. Shanks, trained as an attorney rather than as an archaeologist, nevertheless lives in that world because of BAR. Not surprisingly, many archaeologists see him as a showman, not a scholar. They grumble about the ads he accepts from antiquities dealers.

Article continues below

Shanks admits he and IAA director Dorfman rub each other the wrong way. He told CT that Dorfman intensely dislikes antiquities dealers and collectors. Shanks also accuses Dorfman of turning down a request for an excavation in Jerusalem because Shanks's Biblical Archaeology Society was one of the sponsors.

Shanks also has few friends at Archaeology magazine, published by the AIA, "North America's oldest and largest organization devoted to the world of archaeology." The AIA was founded in 1879 and has nearly 9,000 members, including many archaeologists.

In contrast, fewer members of the Biblical Archaeology Society are professional archaeologists. The BAS was founded in 1975, "dedicated to the dissemination of information about archaeology in the Bible lands." The more than 200,000 subscribers to Shanks's three periodicals—BAR, Bible Review, and Archaeology Odyssey—are counted as BAS members.

Archaeology seemed to relish the opportunity to undermine BAR's discovery. Contributing editor Neil Asher Silberman collaborated with Tel Aviv University geologist Yuval Goren, a member of the IAA investigative team, on an article in the September/October issue.

"A number of people have been saying for many years that professionals should know better than to get involved in the antiquities market," Silberman told CT, noting the widespread government crackdown on fraudulent antiquities. "Relic worship got out of hand, and publicity made it even worse."

But even if the ossuary inscription is proven to be a fake, Shanks will sell even more magazines describing the developments. "It's pretty hard to embarrass Hershel," Dever says.


Archaeologists are also raising their profile to take on amateur pretenders who promote bizarre theories on websites or publicize adventures that are more akin to those of 19th-century treasure hunters than 21st-century scientists.

"They make fantastic and sensational claims, like finding chariot wheels in the Red Sea or finding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, or the Ark of the Covenant," says Wood, a member and former vice president of the evangelical Near East Archaeological Society. "They're just sensational claims with absolutely no evidence or basis. But these people get a very large and fanatical following. I encounter [their followers] all the time."

Article continues below

One of the most notorious is the late Ron Wyatt, who claimed to have found the Ark of the Covenant in a cave beneath modern Jerusalem.

Another, Bob Cornuke, wrote a book claiming to have identified the real Mt. Sinai in Saudi Arabia. In his latest book, he says he's discovered the real location where the apostle Paul shipwrecked off Malta.

Cornuke says he's only an investigator, not a real archaeologist. "I investigate the Bible as an investigator would," he says. "I try to find lost locations in the Bible because I really want to inspire people to look at the Word of God as historically true and get inspired to [read it]."

While Cornuke sets himself apart from Wyatt, evangelical archaeologists worry that their unsophisticated, faith-based approach casts a bad light on all who take a professional approach to archaeology and still have a biblical faith. Secular archaeologists tend to lump all literalists, including creation science advocates, with those who believe in ancient astronauts and similar theories.

And yet secular archaeologists sometimes cannot resist cashing in on "fundamentalism." This summer Robert Ballard, who discovered the remains of the Titanic under the waves of the Atlantic in 1985, set off on an underwater expedition to document evidence of Noah's flood in the Black Sea. Ballard received $5 million in funding and lots of publicity for the project.

The Black Sea was originally a freshwater lake that in ancient times became inundated by the salty Mediterranean. Ballard believes this was a cataclysmic event that occurred about 7,500 years ago, and was possibly the deluge described in the Bible and other ancient literature. Skeptics accuse Ballard of using Noah to hype his material for maximum publicity.

"It bugs me a little bit, because I like the Noah story as much as anybody," archaeologist Fredrik Hiebert told USA Today. "I think we shouldn't try and peg what we're doing to either prove or disprove it. We're never going to get there."

Lost momentum

With uncertainties in the public's mind about what biblical archaeology is all about, serious funding problems in the United States and in Israel, and continued fighting in the Middle East, archaeologists are seeing their profession with a new perspective.

Article continues below

"The political situation in the Middle East has just killed" archaeology by Americans, Dever says. "And frankly, I'm not sure American archaeology in Israel will ever regain its momentum." Archaeologists are realizing that they need to do a better job explaining what they do and how they do it.

In June, the University of California at Los Angeles held a public lecture, part of a new series sponsored by ASOR, featuring two top archaeologists. More than 300 people turned out to hear Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University face off against Lawrence Stager of Harvard University, on what archaeology has to say about the reigns of David and Solomon in the tenth century B.C.

"Exciting things are happening [in archaeology] but they're not being well publicized," says Tammi Schneider, an archaeologist who teaches at the Claremont Graduate University School of Religion. "Sometimes people get caught up in teaching and research and the audience is forgotten."

Discoveries like the James ossuary remind archaeologists that the audience is there, and the interest is genuine. But the audience wants to know, in black and white, whether it's real or a fraud. And archaeology can only go as far as the evidence will take it.

"These things do not carry the weight of scientific perfection," said John McRay, professor emeritus of New Testament and archaeology at Wheaton College. "They are judgments based on a majority of evidence and greater probabilities. Most of archaeology is in that realm, what the greater amount of evidence supports."

Wheaton College offers one of the few graduate archaeology programs at an American evangelical college. The goal, says director John Monson, is to promote a very high standard of scholarship while exploring the past.

"Our quest is really to enter into that world on its terms and understand it," Monson said. "And then, along the way [the goal is] to glean something about the Bible."

Monson doesn't believe American support for biblical archaeology is dead quite yet. Citing public excitement over the ossuary, Monson foresees a new era just ahead. "I think we're living in a time when there's a great resurgence [of interest] in biblical archaeology."

Gordon Govier is news director of WNWC AM/FM in Madison, Wisconsin, and executive producer of The Book and the Spade, a weekly radio program.

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's Archaeology Week continues Monday with "Bones of Contention: Why I still think the James bone box is likely to be authentic,":by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington.

Biblical Archaeology Review's September/October issue has the text of the IAA's summary report, along with a critique. Editor Hershel Shanks defends himself elsewhere in the issue.

Archaeology magazine takes a very dim view of the ossuary's origins.

The Royal Ontario Museum, which displayed and investigated the ossuary late last year, also has comment on the IAA's summary report.

Mark Elliott's Bible and Interpretation site compiles several other comments.

Andre Lemaire will defend the ossuary in a lecture Saturday at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the ossuary includes:

Weblog: James Ossuary Owner Arrested on Fraud and Forgery Charges (July 23, 2003)
Ossuary Questions Remain | Israel Antiquities Authority says "brother of Jesus" inscription is a forgery, but supporters say its report may be flawed (June 20, 2003)
Weblog: Israeli Officials Say James Ossuary, Joash Tablet are Fakes | Israel's Antiquities Authority unanimously calls James Ossuary inscription a forgery (June 18, 2003)
Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (Mar. 17, 2003)
Weblog: Israel Inspects James Ossuary, But Joash Tablet Has Disappeared (Mar. 6, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
Weblog: Experts Get a Closer Look at the James Ossuary (Nov. 26, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Goes on Display as New Findings Emerge (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Will Go to Toronto After All (Nov. 11, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Oded Golan Emerges to Defend Himself (Nov. 7, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Display Might Be Delayed (Nov. 6, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Owner Revealed, Under Fire from Israeli Government (Nov. 5, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary 'Badly Damaged' en Route to Toronto (Nov. 4, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Contains Bone Fragments (Oct. 29, 2002)
Weblog: What Does James Ossuary Say About Mary? (Oct. 23, 2002)
Weblog: More Details Emerge on History of James's Bone Box (Oct. 22, 2002)
Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived | Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus (Oct. 21, 2002)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.