Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics

Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics

Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics

Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics


In 2002 a burial box of skeletal remains purchased anonymously from the black market was identified as the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. Transformed by the media into a religious and historical relic overnight, the artifact made its way to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where 100,000 people congregated to experience what had been prematurely and hyperbolically billed as the closest tactile connection to Jesus yet unearthed. Within a few months, however, the ossuary was revealed to be a forgery. Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus offers a critical evaluation of the popular and scholarly reception of the James Ossuary as it emerged from the dimness of the antiquities black market to become a Protestant relic in the media's custody.

The volume brings together experts in Jewish archaeology, early Christianity, American religious history, and pilgrimage to explore the theory and practice couched in the debate about the object's authenticity. Contributors explore the ways in which the varying popular and scholarly responses to the ossuary phenomenon inform the presumption of religious meaning; how religious categories are created, vetted, and used for various purposes; and whether the history of pious frauds in America can help to illuminate this international episode. Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus also contributes to discussions about the construction of religious studies as an academic discipline and the role of scholars as public interpreters of discoveries with religious significance.

Thomas S. Bremer, Rhodes College
Ryan Byrne, Menifee, California
Byron R. McCane, Wofford College
Bernadette McNary-Zak, Rhodes College
Milton Moreland, Rhodes College
Jonathan L. Reed, University of La Verne


Ryan Byrne & Bernadette McNary-Zak

Thus ran the cover of the popular newsstand magazine Biblical Archaeology Review (bar) in the autumn of 2002. in a private antiquities collection, Sorbonne professor Andre Lemaire had discovered an Aramaic inscription on an ancient Jewish ossuary—a burial box for skeletal remains—that read, “Jacob [James] son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” the find was heralded as the final resting place of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, Le Monde, and other newspapers around the world acclaimed the ossuary as perhaps the greatest archaeological find of all time. the Lehrer News Hour, 60 Minutes, the Discovery Channel, the Tonight Show, and the New Yorker all offered perspectives on the potential significance of the discovery. On November 7, 2002, the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart offered the barb: “Heaven’s Crate: scientists have found the burial box of Jesus’ brother James, who was sort of the Emilio Estevez of the Holy Land.” the abstruse pop culture reference was apt, in part because James had never enjoyed a prominent role in Protestantism, while Catholicism could not grant him a blood relationship with Jesus, the son of a perpetual virgin. in other words, the religious public needed a kind of introduction to James. It fell to scholars, specifically biblicists and epigraphers, to repackage James as a central Christian figure and cause for religious excitement. It fell to the media to sensationalize the find and polemicize its potential theological meaning. These choices of deliberate interpretation offer us an instructive look at the commercialization of biblical antiquity, the academy’s dialogue with . . .

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