At its most significant, history is a palpable thing. It exists not merely in the sense of place and import it adds to our lives, or the questions it leaves us to ponder, but also in its transcendent ambassadors of stone and clay and script. In the physical vessels that speak to us across oceans of time.
It is the riveting contemplation of one of these vessels, an ossuary, a Jewish bone box from antiquity, that drives the hour-long "James: Brother of Jesus," which airs Easter Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. This well-paced documentary tackles the question: Could this box, with its 20-letter Aramaic inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," have held the remains of the biblical figure who came to be known as "James the Just"? Is the inscription a forgery, or could the box be the first hard archaeology, the first carved-in-stone proof of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth?
"James: Brother of Jesus" is the History Channel meets "CSI." It was produced by Simcha Jacobovici, a Jewish filmmaker whose work has explored biblical themes and who won Emmys for documentaries on the Ebola virus and the child sex trade in India. The documentary calls upon academics and historians, experts in ancient Aramaic and translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls to argue and counter-argue. It introduces us to the underbelly of the Middle Eastern antiquities market -- to tomb robbers and scientists who pack handguns. It is a fascinating mystery that will most especially appeal to those who require the help of science to walk by faith.
Last November, when the ossuary was displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, 100,000 people showed up to stare at the inscription. "Here is the first tangible, physical evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth on an archaeological artifact," says Jacobovici. "His name is carved in stone."
For some, that it names three of the most important figures from the New Testament is proof of its authenticity. "On the other hand," Jacobovici says, "people are so invested in science that it became all-important to 'tell me if it's real, tell me if it's real, tell me if it's real.' "
Signs point to yes.
Ossuaries were used by Jews in Jerusalem from 10 B.C. to A.D. 70 to hold skeletal remains of bodies left to decompose in a cave. It is believed this would prepare the dead for resurrection with the coming of the Messiah. Of the thousands of ossuaries unearthed, only a few hundred contain inscriptions, reserved for the dead of high status. Inscriptions often mentioned the father of the deceased, but only one other known ossuary mentioned a brother, also a prominent figure.
According to the New Testament, James was head of the Jerusalem church and a leader of the embryonic Jesus movement sect of Judaism, which sought to keep Jesus followers within the Jewish faith. That sect eventually evolved into the new religion Christianity, and in A.D. 62, James was stoned to death for his teachings. Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans eight years later, Christianity took root, and figures like Paul overshadowed James in biblical import.
James would still be obscured by other New Testament figures if the ossuary had not come to public attention last year. It is owned by Tel Aviv antiquities collector Oded Golan, who maintains he bought it from a dealer in the 1970s. Last year, he invited French paleographer Andre Lemaire to examine the box. Lemaire declared it authentic. Other scholars concurred, and the findings were reported last fall in the respected Biblical Archaeology Review, making news worldwide.
Still, the ossuary continues to be the stuff of dueling experts and religious interpretations. The documentary follows three strains of the mystery: Is the inscription forged? Where did the box come from? And what do we know about James?
Shot in Israel and the West Bank as the intifada rages, the documentary peeks into caves in the Jerusalem suburb of Silwan to discover the ossuary's origins. Scientists at the Israeli Geologic Survey match the ossuary's limestone to a quarry near Jerusalem and test the patina -- the film produced over time as stone interacts with air -- to see if exposure to the elements inside the lettering and on the outside of the ossuary is consistent; they are. The box is shipped to the Royal Ontario Museum for further tests -- and is broken during transit. After it is restored, it is studied for phosphate encrustation. Epigraphers study the inscription to determine whether it was written all at once, or at different times by two different hands.
A statistician is employed to estimate the number of adult Jewish males named James who could have had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus during the same time period. Because of the cost of the ossuary and having it inscribed, rates of literacy and affluence are factored in. The conclusion: three.
The challenges to the ossuary primarily focus on the inscription. While most agree the writing is first-century Aramaic, scholars like Baruch Halpern, professor of ancient history at Penn State, note the apparent difference in the lettering between the first part of the inscription and the "brother of Jesus" part.
"The thing that troubles me most of all is that the inscription starts off with perfect lapidary script, and all of a sudden that's not important anymore," Halpern says. "Somewhere in the middle of the word 'brother' they don't care anymore."
That could mean that portion was added later to distinguish the ossuary from others similarly named. Or it could mean a response to the softness of that part of the limestone. Or it could be a forgery.
Or, the documentary counters, "it could be the archaeological find of the two millennia," says Hershel Shanks, founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and co-author of the book "The Brother of Jesus," (Harper Collins) released last month.
Reached in Charlottesville while visiting his daughter for Passover, Shanks says that when he first saw the ossuary, "I wanted to sit in silence and stare."
Says Jacobovici: "It certainly reminds us of the common roots of Judeo-Christianity and Islam as well. If we trace three great religions, they were all hatched in the same egg. We've been propelled by this big theological bang away from each other, and over the last few thousand years we've gone off in different directions. This reminds us, at least on one level, we're not so different," he says.
If the documentary answers some questions, it also raises others. What does the ossuary mean for the Roman Catholic teaching of Mary as the perpetual Virgin? And though the ossuary speaks to Jesus's existence, what about the question of divinity?
The ossuary is currently with the Israel Antiquities Authority for further examination. Later it will be turned back over to Golan.
Even at its most tactile, history offers no certainties. But the questions are what drives us. And this Easter, they ought to make us tune in as well.