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Scholars defend authenticity of biblical-era artifact

6/19/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By United Methodist News Service

A United Methodist pastor and prominent biblical scholar defends the authenticity of an inscribed, first-century ossuary believed to provide the oldest archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ, after claims by Israel's Antiquities Authority that the box is a fake.

"What you have here is a case of dueling scholars," said the Rev. Ben Witherington III, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and a United Methodist pastor in the Kentucky Annual Conference.

Officials with Israel's Antiquities Authority announced June 18 that the Aramaic inscription reading "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" on the ossuary is a forgery.

The director of Israel's Antiquities Authority, Shuka Dorfman, called it a hoax. "The ossuary is real. But the inscription is fake. What this means is that somebody took a real box and forged the writing on it, probably to give it a religious significance."

Witherington and Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, took part in announcing the discovery of the box last year. They have written a book, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family, about the discovery of the ossuary.

"Some of the world's greatest paleographers, and two teams of rigorous scientists that have tested the inscription, have found nothing to question as to its authenticity," Shanks said. "All indicate a first-century date. There is too much evidence in favor of the inscription's authenticity that the IAA announcement has not yet addressed. It's premature to make such an announcement without an accompanying scientific report. When that comes out, paleographers and scientists can then assess it. In the end, if the inscription is indeed proven to be a fake perpetrated by a modern forger, then I hope that the forger will be caught and put in jail."

"The IAA findings are, at the very least, incomplete if not incorrect," Witherington said. "Their yet-to-be-released report could not have taken into account the new tests performed on the inscription in Toronto by scholars at the Royal Ontario Museum."

Witherington says the report did not address several crucial points:

· In conducting its tests, Israel's Antiquities Authority did not take into consideration earlier findings by the Israeli Geological Survey and the Royal Ontario Museum, which contradict the IAA results.
· The Israeli Geological Survey found conclusively that the ossuary stone and the dirt found in the ossuary both came from the Silwan area of Jerusalem. How did dirt from Silwan get encrusted in a box that Israel's Antiquities Authority claims is from Cyprus or northern Syria?
· No paleographer or Aramaic specialist in the world has suggested that a modern forger tried to imitate an older Aramaic style prior to the report by Israel's Antiquities Authority.
· The evidence from the mass-spectrometry test (the ultraviolet test) performed at the Royal Ontario Museum and featured on the Discovery Channel special "James, Brother of Jesus" is "the most rigorous scientific test there is." There was no evidence of modern tampering with the box or the inscription.

The limestone ossuary, a box used by the Jews at the time of Christ to hold the bones of the deceased, was discovered several years ago after being purchased by an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem for between $200 and $700.

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