An Archaeological Find Meets Open Minds
Archaeology made headlines around the world last fall when an ossuary, or burial box, surfaced in Israel that bore the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Now, a book is picking up where the headlines left off. It is called The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family.
The book is co-authored by Hershel Shanks, publisher of the Biblical Archaeology Review, and Ben Witherington III, a noted New Testament scholar.
Shanks is the man who first broke the news of the ossuary. In the book he details the scientific tests and scholarly examinations that preceded the announcement and the academic furor that followed it. Witherington describes the life and beliefs of James who was a leader of the early Church. James brokered the famous compromise in Acts 15 that allowed Gentile believers to join the early Church.
Now that the dust is settling and the critics have had their say, it appears that the early consensus is left intact. Although the burial box will always be controversial -- because it surfaced through an antiquities market, rather than a controlled dig -- leading experts agree that it is authentic. And it represents hard evidence to corroborate ancient Christian manuscripts.
It's refreshing to see objectivity at work through the story of the ossuary's discovery. André Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions and a former priest, was the first to authenticate the ossuary's inscription even though the word brother challenges the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Israeli experts confirmed the artifact's authenticity even though it backs up Christian, rather than Jewish, tradition. And Hershel Shanks broke the story, not because he believes in Christianity, but because he believes in good scholarship.
While I'm thrilled by the new evidence that demonstrates the Bible's historical accuracy, there is reason for some caution. Some Christians want to base their beliefs entirely on extra-biblical evidence, but the fact is that we must never downplay the Bible's inherent credibility.
We need to remember which witnesses are primary and which are secondary. Moses, the prophets, and others were "carried along by the Holy Spirit" to write holy Scripture. Some were eyewitnesses of the events they reported; through them the Scriptures were "God-breathed" to record every thought faultlessly.
If an ossuary or an ark corroborates a point the Bible has declared for thousands of years, we are thrilled. But that does not make the biblical facts more factual. It simply confirms, and as historian Paul Johnson says, the confirming evidence is mounting -- so much so that the skeptics, not the Christians, must fear the further course of scientific discovery.
But always remember the Bible stands on its own credible witness, regardless of whether secondary sources confirm or contradict it. It is the veracity of the Bible that forms the basis on which a Christian worldview is built.
That said, the James ossuary does give us a wonderful opening to share with our neighbors and to remind them that our faith holds up under scientific scrutiny -- thanks, in this case, to scientists and scholars who champion the free marketplace of ideas rather than their own private agendas.
For further information:
Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
On Easter Sunday, April 20, at 9:00 p.m. EST and Monday, April 21, at 12:00 a.m., the Discovery Channel will air "James: Brother of Jesus," the story behind the archaeological find.
Rossella Lorenzi, "First Proof of Jesus Found?", Discovery News, 21 October 2002.
"Cracks in James Bone Box Repaired: Crowds Flock to Toronto Exhibit," Biblical Archaeology Society, 10 January 2003.
Order the November/December 2002 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, featuring "Burial Box of James, The Brother of Jesus."
Ben Witherington III, "'The Most Important Extrabiblical Evidence of Its Kind,'" Beliefnet, 18 October 2002.
Jeordan Legon, "Scholars: Oldest Evidence of Jesus?", CNN, 22 October 2002.
Charles Page, "Biblical Archaeology and the James Ossuary, Part 1," Crosswalk.com. Also read Part 2 and Part 3.
Susan Weiner, "The Best Evidence We Have: The History of the Christian Scriptures," BreakPoint Online, 16 January 2003.
Also see "The Evidence for the Bible," the April 10 edition of "Worldview for Parents."
Jeffrey Sheler, Is the Bible True? (HarperCollins, 1999).
Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out: How Archaeology Confirms the Truth of the Bible (Harvest House, 1997).