for National Geographic News
There have been biblical scholars questioning the authenticity of the so-called Jesus box from the get-go. Yesterday the Israel Antiquities Authority issued a report calling the box a fake.
Others disagree, and the controversy is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
"I think what we have here is a case of dueling experts," said Steven Feldman, managing editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the journal which first reported the find. "I don't think we've heard the last of this story. So far three groups of specialists have examined this. The Geological Survey of Israel thought the inscription was ancient, as did the Royal Ontario museum, which did extensive testing. The group with the Antiquities Authority thought it an inscription in modern times. I think it needs more evaluation, and hopefully some kind of consensus will emerge about it."
From the first century B.C. to about A.D. 70, it was the Jewish burial custom to place their dead in a cave for a year, then retrieve the bones and put them in an ossuaryalso known as a bone box. Several hundred bone boxes from that era have been found; some ornately carved, some plain, some with feet, some not.
The box in question caused a sensation because it bears the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The find was first described in the November/December 2002 issue of the Biblical Archaeological Review by Andre Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne University in Paris, (École Pratique des Hautes Études). He dated the box, which was empty, to A.D. 63.
His report sparked a spate of controversy among biblical scholars and archaeologists. If the 2,000-year-old ossuary were genuine, it would be the first archaeological proof that Jesus existed. Up until now, all references to the three men have been found only in manuscripts.
The authenticity of the ossuary itself was generally accepted, but many scholars questioned whether all or part of the inscription was a forgery.
In April the Israel Antiquities Authority formed two committees to examine the evidence. One was assigned the task of examining "the scientific aspects in the writing and style [to be able to] confirm the authenticity of the writing;" the other was tasked with verifying the "originality of the patina" on the stone's engraving and the stone material itself.
The committees released their unanimous findings Wednesday: the box itself may be correctly dated, but the inscription was added at a later date.
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