JANUARY 23, 2003
Does the 'James Ossuary' Bring Us Closer to Jesus?
Margaret M. Mitchell
Even if the provenance and historicity of the much celebrated James Ossuary could be confirmed as on some level being actually the bone box dedicated for the physical remains of James the brother of Jesus, the religious significance of such a finding has been more precipitately assumed, than analytically engaged. The news-breaking Biblical Archeology Review article (November/December 2002) proclaimed: "After nearly 2,000 years, historical evidence for the existence of Jesus has come to light literally written in stone ... The container provides the only New Testament-era mention of the central figure of Christianity and is the first-ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus." The news media jumped on the story, feeding its popularity and presumed significance, and a Christianity Today headline soon followed triumphantly exclaiming "Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived."
The hullaballoo about this artifact's capacity to demonstrate that Jesus actually lived, and the rush to display and discuss the object in public (most recently at special sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature in Toronto), would seem to be justified only if his existence were seriously in doubt. But critical scholars of early Christianity and late antique history and religion in fact have not generally questioned whether an historical figure named Jesus actually lived, because of the not inconsiderable evidence provided by the disparaging or off-hand remarks of such Roman writers as Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, which confirm their unskeptical if uninterested acceptance of the existence of a figure such as is described in Christian documents from the first century.
Hence for Biblical Archaeology Review to trumpet this finding as securing the very existence of Jesus is disingenuous, given that his existence is not in doubt, except among fringe elements given as much credence as Holocaust deniers and Elvis eye-witnesses. Why then should the "remedy" to such radical skepticism that a figure named Jesus ever lived be readily embraced and enthusiastically promoted by a scholarly society? And, further, why would a journal like Christianity Today accept and promote this kind of presentation of the value of the putative evidence for Christian faith?
One can hardly avoid the impression that the excitement is due to a kind of modern semi-popular/semi-scholarly relic cult -- that we can actually touch an artifact "so close to Jesus." It testifies to there being something about "rocks" that strikes people as more "real." This is the impulse tapped by the headline on the Biblical Archaeology Review website: "Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone." But the fact is the ossuary's probative value is entirely due to the interpretive base for the linkage of the two names, Jesus and James (together with the name of the father, Joseph) which is the very literary sources it is said to historically usurp -- that is, the Gospels of Mark and either Matthew or Luke (since Jesus has no named father besides God in Mark), and Josephus' Antiquitates Judaicae. Ironically, therefore, the artifact in question is only of interest because it is the host for a text.
Nonetheless the official Royal Ontario Museum website promotes the superior value of the material object over the literary record when it states: "The James ossuary is a tangible object. Although we cannot be certain of the identity of the people named, the James ossuary does put us in contact with an age when there were still people alive who knew Jesus of Nazareth. Written accounts of Jesus may reflect eyewitness reports of his life, but most of the texts were composed decades after the Crucifixion, in Greek, and almost all of the hard copies that still exist were made centuries later." But the self-contradictions in this statement are obvious: the ossuary, like the written reports it is supposed to improve upon, is from "decades after the crucifixion" (in fact, it is later than important written testimonies), and one can hardly claim that, if it is not actually the repository of the bones of Jesus' brother, that nonetheless this otherwise not remarkable ossuary has some special power above and beyond the massive record of both archaeological and literary evidence from the first century Mediterranean world that "put[s] us in contact with an age when there were still people alive who knew Jesus of Nazareth."
To privilege box over codex on the simplistic grounds of chronological dating of the physical substance, while it appeals to a kneejerk historicism, actually subverts the self-conscious hermeneutical program of the earliest Christians, who did not, remarkably, root their religious lives in a tomb cult or fixed shrine to dedicated objects, but instead in telling and retelling a spoken message Paul called to euangelion, "the good news." Mark in turn enshrined this euangelion in a narrative form which, along with communal ritual practice for reenacting and personally entering that narrative, became the point of access to Jesus for believers, and hence ensured the missionary success of the cult in any territorial location. Even if the earliest extant full copies of that remarkable inaugural work of Christian biographic-Jesus-literature come from the fourth century, Mark's "gospel" itself was without a doubt composed around 70 C.E. (and Paul's letters almost two decades earlier).
Fervent attachment to a bone box or other relic as somehow confirming faith and providing access to the power of the dead savior or saint was indeed well-documented Christian practice from the second century forward. But, if one buys into the "earlier is better" paradigm which is the logical backbone of the current media debate, the enigmatic ending of Mark's gospel -- written within a decade of the death of James -- is quite clear: "he is not here" (16:6). For "contact" with Jesus one must go to Galilee -- that is, back to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark that is now being reread liturgically in the Common Lectionary. "There you will see him, just as he said to you" (16:7).
Margaret M. Mitchell is Associate Professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Chair of the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature. Her latest book is The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation (Westminster/John Knox, 2002).