A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How wishful thinking and technology fooled some scholars--and made fools out of others.
The story first exploded into the headlines on October 21, 2002, with the beginning of a skillfully orchestrated publicity campaign. At a Washington press conference jointly sponsored by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society, Hershel Shanks, publisher and editor of the popular Biblical Archaeology Review, presented a large audience of reporters and TV crews with photographs and background supporting what he called "the first ever archaeological discovery to corroborate biblical references to Jesus." The discovery in question was a small chalk ossuary, or bone container, bearing the Aramaic inscription Yaakov bar Yoseph, Achui de Yeshua, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." According to Shanks, the ossuary belonged to an anonymous Tel Aviv antiquities collector who, having become aware of its significance, was now willing to allow news of its discovery be made public.
Authenticated as dating from the first century A.D. by renowned Semitic epigrapher André Lemaire of the Sorbonne and by some laboratory tests carried out by scientists at the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI), the ossuary caused a worldwide sensation. No previous artifacts had ever been found that could be directly connected to the gospel figures Jesus, Joseph, or James--yet here was one that might have held the very bones of Jesus' brother. In the following days, excited reports about the "James Ossuary" appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, and CNN and in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Time. Newsweek suggested that "Biblical archaeologists may have found their holy grail."
But the story that began with trumpet blasts of spiritual triumph was destined to end as an embarrassing farce. Indeed, the pious self-deception, shoddy scholarship, and commercial corruption that accompanied the relics' meteoric rise and fall as a media sensation offers an instructive Sunday school lesson to anyone who would, at any cost, try to mobilize archaeology to prove the Bible "true."
Neil Asher Silberman is a historian with the Ename Center for Public Archaeology in Belgium. His most recent book, with Israel Finkelstein, is The Bible Unearthed. Yuval Goren is professor of archaeology and ancient Near Eastern cultures at Tel-Aviv University.