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The Brother of Jesus

The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family

The Brother of Jesus by Hershel Shanks
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The discovery of a limestone burial box with the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" set the world of biblical archaeology abuzz. Could this be the first tangible proof of Jesus' existence? Hershel Shanks, celebrated for making biblical archaeology accessible to general readers, and Ben Witherington III, leading New Testament expert, reveal not only what the discovery means for understanding the Bible, but what it shows about the family of Jesus and the earliest Christians--and what it may mean for the most fundamental and deeply held beliefs of the church.

HarperCollins; May 2009
336 pages; ISBN 9780061941252
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Title: The Brother of Jesus
Author: Hershel Shanks; Ben Witherington

Chapter One

Oh, No!

It's shortly after 10 A.M. on Friday, November 1, 2002, when the call comes. It is Dan Rahimi, director of collections management at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where the now world-famous ossuary, or bone box, bearing the startling inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" is to be exhibited in two weeks.

"I'm sitting here with Ed Keall," Dan says. Ed is the museum's senior curator of Near Eastern and Asian civilizations, and I had previously talked with him about various aspects of the exhibit. But Dan ominously continues. "Joel Peters, vice president for marketing, is also here." I start to worry. I'd had a run-in with Joel the previous day when he suggested local television stations could film the arrival of the ossuary in Toronto. We had previously agreed to grant exclusive television rights to an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He had told Joel that he would make his film footage available without charge to local television stations. So I blew my stack at Joel's suggestion. Was this dispute resurfacing, I wonder?

Dan goes on: "We're in the office of Meg Beckel, chief operating officer of the museum." Now I really begin to get scared. "William Thorsell, director of the museum and chief executive officer, is also here. I have some terrible news."

Oh, my God, I think. They're canceling the exhibit because the ossuary is "unprovenanced" (the professional archaeological term for discoveries whose origin is unknown and that were not professionally excavated). The ossuary, privately owned by an antiquities collector in Israel who wished to remain anonymous, had been purchased on the antiquities market from an unidentified Arab antiquities dealer. We don't know exactly where it was found or when or by whom. This had become an issue over the past few days as ethical questions were being raised. The leading American professional organization of Near Eastern archaeologists, which was about to meet in Toronto during the scheduled Royal Ontario Museum exhibition, would have nothing to do with the ossuary. The organization's policy is not to publish articles on, exhibit, or even professionally discuss objects that were not professionally excavated for fear that this will enhance their value.

But this isn't the problem. It's something worse. "We have opened the shipping crate, and the ossuary is full of cracks," Dan continues. I suddenly feel a rush of blood to my head. Dan goes on to describe how they carefully unpacked the ossuary only to find serious cracks, even fissures, in the soft limestone box. It had been poorly packed, he says. Small chips of stone have fallen off. He is sorry to say that one large crack goes straight through the inscription.

A press conference to reenact the opening of the ossuary crate has been scheduled for 2 P.M., less than four hours away. The museum needs to have the owner's instructions. It is already after P.M. in Israel, the beginning of Shabbat, the sabbath. They cannot show the ossuary to the press in this condition, Dan says. He proposes calling off the press conference. As we talk, however, we quickly decide that the only thing to do is to be candid. While we cannot display the ossuary in this condition, there is no way to prevent the press from coming and asking questions. We must tell them that the ossuary has been damaged. In the end, the only question facing us is whether the press should be given a picture of the ossuary with its cracks. Painfully, we agree that the press should be given the picture. Will the owner of the ossuary agree.

At the time, we still refer to the owner as "Joe" to protect his anonymity. The museum does not know his real name. All dealings requiring Joe's agreement are made through his lawyer, but the lawyer's office is closed for Shabbat. So I am the intermediary. I know Joe. I know his real name, and I have even been to his apartment in Israel, so I know how to get in touch with him. I track him down in Tel Aviv.

When I tell him what has happened, he is momentarily speechless. He insists that he had the ossuary packed by the best packers in Israel, a firm that does packing for many museums. The transportation itself was handled by the world-famous Brinks. He obviously feels helpless and frustrated.

We have a number of conference calls with the museum group in Meg Beckel's office. Though they don't know Joe's name, they know his voice well; we have talked a number of times before. It is almost noon, and we are told that the cameras will begin arriving at the museum within an hour for the conference. In the end, Joe agrees with us that there is nothing to do but be candid with the press -- and to give them a picture of the damaged ossuary.

The museum carefully photographed every detail of the private unpacking that took place the day before. They e-mail the pictures to Joe and to me, but I do not see them until the press conference is well under way. The photos nearly make me sick to my stomach. I, had thought that Dan Rahimi might have been exaggerating the damage just to emphasize the seriousness of the situation. Instead, he had tried to put as good a face on it as he honestly could. The cracks were terrible.

The silver lining is that the Royal Ontario Museum has an excellent conservator on its staff, Ewa Dziadowiec, who specializes in stone restoration. She can conserve the ossuary in a matter of days.

Just before I am ready to sit down to Shabbat dinner with my wife, a fax from Dan comes through at my home -- a copy of a fax he is sending to Joe, with an attached protocol for conservation of the ossuary. "Dear Joe," the letter begins. It urges Joe to authorize the museum to undertake the conservation as soon as possible.

My eyes immediately drop to the protocol. There I read for the first time: "The box of the ossuary has been broken into five pieces." For a moment, my heart stops.

I turn back to the letter: "Ewa proposes to remove the five fragments, clean them of dust or any other contaminant and glue them back together, using an additive like poly-vinyl acetate mixed with textured filler material and pigment. This treatment is totally reversible and can be easily dissolved with acetone. We do not propose to paint over the repair. Rather, the pigmented filler will come close to matching the colour of the ossuary. The cracks will be slightly visible."

That's the best we can do. Indeed, that's the best that can be done when what may be one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time lies in pieces.