Poof! There goes one of the few pieces of evidence that Jesus actually existed, a two thousand year-old box inscribed with "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." A few days ago Israel indicted four antiquities collectors for forging artifacts, among them this ossuary that supposedly contained the bones of Jesus’ brother.
What intrigues me most about this story is what it says about Christianity. The discovery of this box a few years ago was big news. Not so much for its archaeological significance, as a “60 Minutes” piece about the ossuary that we saw recently said that these burial boxes are commonplace. Rows of them were shown stacked in some museum storage area.
Rather, interest in the “James, brother of Jesus” ossuary was extreme because it would have been the earliest evidence outside of the Bible of Jesus’ existence. Christianity is nothing without Jesus, so if the ossuary were real, this would have offered indirect proof of the reality of the religion whose core is Christ. But the inscription on the box wasn’t real. So Christianity remains resting on a shaky foundation of gospel accounts whose veracity never can be proven.
Is this any way to run a religion? The Western religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism—are dependent on revelations. If people—Jesus, Muhammad, Moses—hadn’t revealed the nature of God to the faithful there wouldn’t be any substance to those faiths. So the historical existence of these founders is central to the theology of each religion. Imagine Christianity without Jesus, Islam without Muhammad, Judaism without Moses. Would you still have a vital religion?
On the other hand, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism are pleasingly complete without the presence of any particular human revelation. Though bearing the name of the Buddha, even Buddhism can stand comfortably on its own without leaning on the person once known as Siddhartha Gautama. Buddhists say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him?” Can Christians say the same about Jesus?
A religion should be able to provide universal answers to universal questions. What is the nature of God or ultimate reality? How can this highest truth be known? What is the relation of human beings, us, to existence as a whole, the cosmos? If answers to such queries can only come through the unique experience of particular people, then they aren’t real answers.
Science is much wiser in this regard. Physicists don’t worship Einstein because he revealed the theory of relativity. The laws of nature are independent of anyone’s knowledge about them. If Einstein hadn’t discovered the relativistic nature of space and time, someone else would have.
Similarly, a true spiritual science doesn’t focus on the “professor” who teaches about divine truth. This prophet, master, guru, saint, guide—whatever you want to call him or her—is separate from the truth being taught. Reality exists whether or not someone is speaking or writing about it.
Christianity, if it is true, should be independent of Jesus Christ. That statement will sound strange to most Christians, which indicates how shaky is the foundation of Christianity. If the rock-bottom truth of the cosmos is considered to depend on whether a particular person really lived and died two thousand years ago, then we haven’t gotten down to the heart of reality.
Here’s an article from the New York Times about the hoax:
Israel Indicts 4 in 'Brother of Jesus' Hoax and Other Forgeries
December 30, 2004
By GREG MYRE
JERUSALEM, Dec. 29 - The Israeli police filed criminal
indictments on Wednesday against four antiquities
collectors, accusing them of forging biblical artifacts,
many so skillfully that they fooled experts. Some were even
celebrated briefly as being among the most significant
Christian and Jewish relics ever unearthed.
The police and the Israel Antiquities Authority said their
investigation had focused on several major forgeries,
including a limestone burial box, or ossuary, bearing an
inscription that suggested that it held the remains of
Jesus' brother James. The Antiquities Authority declared
the ossuary a forgery last year.
The authorities also described as counterfeit a small ivory
pomegranate and a tablet known as the Yoash stone, both
bearing inscriptions referring to the First Temple in
Jerusalem. The tablet had been hailed by some as the first
archaeological proof of the Temple's existence.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," Shuka Dorfman, head of
the Antiquities Authority, told a news conference. "We
believe this is happening worldwide and has generated
millions of dollars."
The indictment alleges that Oded Golan, a major Israeli
collector and dealer, was the leader of a forgery ring that
operated for more than two decades and included at least
three other men: Robert Deutsch, Shlomo Cohen and Faiz
al-Amaleh. Jonathan Pagis, a member of the police
department's Jerusalem fraud division, said he expected
additional indictments to follow.
Mr. Golan firmly denied the accusations against him, saying
in a statement, "There is not one grain of truth in the
fantastic allegations related to me."
The suspects produced their counterfeits using a single,
well-honed method, the Israeli authorities said.
First, the authorities said, the ring obtained genuine
artifacts. For instance, the ossuary was indeed ancient, of
a kind commonly used in Jewish burial ceremonies 2,000
years ago. Then they painstakingly engraved markings on the
relics that linked people or places of great significance,
the authorities said, adding a coating to match the patina
that would accumulate over the centuries.
The suspects presented their counterfeits to antiquities
experts for authentication. It is not clear whether any of
the experts knew that they were examining forgeries, the
Eventually the items were circulated on the international
market, accompanied by forged paperwork intended to dispel
any doubts about their murky origins, the authorities said.
The doctored artifacts sold for tens of thousands of
dollars or, sometimes, hundreds of thousands, according to
the authorities. In some cases the suspects asked for
millions, though the authorities did not cite any instances
in which they received such sums for a single item.
Word of the supposed burial box of James caused a big stir
in archaeological circles two years ago, with some experts
giving credence to its authenticity and others expressing
doubts. The ossuary - bearing, in Aramaic, the inscription
"James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" - was tremendously
popular when it exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum in
At the time, Mr. Golan said that he bought the ossuary in
the mid-1970's in Jerusalem's Old City but that he did not
know the name of the seller, the place where the box was
excavated or, until later, the significance of the piece.
The Yoash stone, named after a ruler of the ancient Hebrew
kingdom of Judah, was cited as possibly the strongest
historical evidence of the biblical account of the First
Temple, built by King Solomon in the 10th century B.C. and
destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C. The
stone's inscription gives instructions in ancient Hebrew
for maintaining the Temple.
The Israeli authorities said Wednesday that Mr. Golan,
working through intermediaries, had been behind both the
burial box and the Yoash stone.
Israeli officials received a tip questioning the
authenticity of the Yoash stone two years ago and began an
investigation that kept expanding, according to Mr.
Dorfman, the Antiquities Authority head. The authority
announced in June 2003 that James's burial box and the
Yoash stone were forgeries.
The criminal charges filed Wednesday were the first in the
case, and they came just days after the Israel Museum said
an independent panel had concluded that the ivory
pomegranate, which it bought in 1988 from an unknown seller
by depositing half a million dollars in a Swiss bank
account, was not authentic.
The pomegranate is believed to date back 3,400 years, but
its inscription was added recently, the museum said. The
Wednesday indictments cited the pomegranate as an example
of a high-profile forgery, but did not charge any of the
four suspects with counterfeiting it.
The Israeli authorities have been in contact with law
enforcement in other countries and with Interpol, but they
would give no details of any cooperation.
Asked about the four who were charged, Mr. Pagis, of the
fraud division, said, "They helped us, but they did not
Aren Maeir, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Bar-Ilan
University, said that "due to the astronomical prices that
collectors are willing to pay, a huge industry of fraud has
developed over the past 20 years, and it is getting more
and more sophisticated."
Another growing problem in Israel and elsewhere in the
Middle East is illegal digging at archaeological sites.
"It's time to realize that collecting antiquities is
destroying our archaeological heritage and is driving a
market for fraud," Dr. Maeir said. "This is a game where we
are all losing."