Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online reviews
Caveat Viewer April 17, 2003
by Mark Rose

Debuting on Easter, James: Brother of Jesus examines the controversial ossuary inscribed "James, brother of Jesus" that came into the public eye this past year (see Ossuary Tales). With predictable television hyperbole, the object is given great importance: some people (it isn't said who exactly) apparently believe it is the "greatest archaeological find of all time." Well, maybe not.

James: Brother of Jesus
Discovery Channel
April 20, 9:00 P.M. EST

The ossuary has a problem--it was looted and not properly excavated. Not everybody is willing to accept it as genuine. The show includes a number of scholars--some in favor and some doubtful of the authenticity of the inscription, or at least of the part mentioning Jesus.

Experts opine and scientific tests are conducted on the artifact. It isn't always clear what the relevance of the tests is (a geologists affirms that the ossuary itself is authentic, but nobody every really questioned that). Chemical analysis of the patina in the inscription is interesting, but does it prove the inscription isn't partially forged? All of this has a veneer of impartiality, but often discussion is cut off. The narrator at one point says simply "the science is done" and "the scholars have spoken." This suggests that everyone agrees or the tests have been definitive. Neither is the case.

The show follows the ossuary from Jerusalem to Toronto, where it was displayed last fall at the Royal Ontario Museum. Compelling footage shows that the ossuary more or less fell to pieces in shipment and the degree to which it had to be rebuilt before being put on display.

Some re-enacted sequences of an ancient burial showing how the ossuary might have been inscribed are okay, especially if it is authentic, but the film doesn't show a re-enactment of the alternative: the inscription being faked.

Considerable time is spent traipsing around with Oded Golan, the owner the the ossuary, as he canvasses antiquities dealers in an attempt to remember where he bought the thing--thirty years ago according to his story. (Amir Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority makes a briefer appearance in which he disputes this). Let the viewer beware, however, of events that took place after this show was filmed. The IAA is investigating Golan concerning another artifact in his possession, the "Jehoash inscription." Purportedly from the Temple Mount, it came to light in mid-January and describes repairs to the temple by the son of King Ahaz of Judah. Not only does the inscription have some bad errors in it, making it suspect to many scholars, the newspaper Ha'aretz reports that the investigators have found hundreds of possibly looted artifacts along with boxes of dirt from various locations, chemicals, and engraving tools.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America