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Authenticity of inscription on James burial box debated

TORONTO (BP)–Apparent differences in the handwriting in the inscription on the limestone box believed to be the most significant biblical archeological discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls have led critics to suggest that the phrase about Jesus could have been added by a forger.

The inscription appears to be written in two different hands, the critics say. The first phrase, “James, son of Joseph,” was written in a formal script while the second, “brother of Jesus,” is a more free-flowing cursive style, according to The New York Times Dec. 3.

Experts discussed the validity of the inscription at a conference of biblical and archaeological researchers in Toronto. Andre Lemaire, the French specialist in Aramaic who first proposed the inscription’s connection to Jesus, defended its authenticity at the conference.

“When you look at the inscription, there are not two parts,” he said. “In the second part, you also have formal script. Only two letters are cursive. … That mixture of cursive and formal script is well-known from other inscriptions.”

Some scholars have suggested that the second part of the inscription may have been added during the Byzantine period in Jerusalem when pilgrims coming to the Holy Land began seeking out objects related to Jesus so that they could venerate them, according to the Baltimore Sun Nov. 25.

But Peter Richardson, archaeologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, explained that by the Byzantine period James was almost universally referred to as “the brother of our Lord,” not “the brother of Jesus.” According to the Sun, Richardson believes the second phrase was added sometime between the middle of the first century and the early second century by a Christian community that knew James, as “a reinforcement of the first part of the inscription, rather than a forgery.”

P. Kyle McCarter Jr., a noted Johns Hopkins University expert in ancient Near East languages, agreed.

“It is possible that someone in a community that venerated James, who had an awareness of this ossuary, perhaps even knew that it was indeed James the brother of Jesus’ ossuary, simply wanted to make it explicit,” McCarter said.

Daniel Eylon, an Israeli engineering professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, offered his experience based on determining if a malfunction of an airplane part occurred before or after an accident. According to The Times, he examined photographs of the inscription for scratches caused by moving the box against other boxes in a cave or in the final excavation.

“The inscription would be underneath these scratches if it had been on the box at the time of burial, but the majority of this inscription is on top of the scratches,” Eylon said. “And the sharpness of some of the letters doesn’t look right — sharp edges do not last 2,000 years.”

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the magazine that first published news of the bone box, gave two reasons the inscription is not a forgery.

“If a modern forger did it, for a couple of hundred dollars he could get a blank ossuary, and it would be a dumb forger who doesn’t start from scratch so the writing is consistent,” he said in an interview with The Times. “Also, you’ve got to assume the forger knows how to forge patina — something not known by others. All these things are possible, but extraordinarily unlikely.”

The patina — the surface coating from aging and weathering — on the ossuary is consistent with estimates that the box is about 2,000 years old, according to geologists in Israel who judged the patina, The Times reported. The geologists also said they detected no signs of later tampering with the inscription.

The limestone box is scheduled to return to Israel at the conclusion of its exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto at the end of December.

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