Hershel Shanks: The World’s Best Paleographers Will Declare the James Ossuary Authentic

Hershel Shanks: The World’s Best Paleographers Will Declare the James Ossuary Authentic August 6, 2015

Ronald Way recently interviewed Hershel Shanks on the Crossing the Line podcast, and Shanks gave a preview mention of something that will be appearing in coming months in Biblical Archaeology Review. He says that he gathered together some of the world’s best experts on paleography to reexamine the James ossuary, and they agreed that the inscription is authentic.

If you are interested, have a listen to the podcast. This of course has been Shanks’ stance on the artifact all along. And he may well be correct. If we finally had a proper re-examination of the ossuary, and experts agreed not just on the genuineness of the ossuary itself, but also the antiquity of the entire inscription, then there would be no real doubt that it was referring to the James, brother of Jesus, mentioned in the New Testament, since we don’t know of another James son of Joseph whose brother Jesus was so much more famous than him, that he might deserve mention on his sibling’s ossuary.

If experts were to declare this object authentic, and its inscription authentically ancient, what would you say the implications of that would be?

For earlier discussion, see the two sets of articles on the Bible and Interpretation website.

James ossuary


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  • Implications?

    None, really. I don’t think it would settle any serious issues, though it might give the mythicists pause.

  • Yes, I think it would be mostly problematic for the Mythicists.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    If I were a Mythicist, which I am not, I would probably just adjust my line of reasoning to the fact that Jesus was a common name and there’s no way to know it was THAT Jesus.

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    Jesus, James, and Joseph (or rather the Hebrew named commonly anglicized as such) were pretty much the three most common names for men in that region at that time.

    • Yes, but the question in this case is whether we know of any three who are related in precisely this way, and where the Yeshua in question was so much more famous than his brother that he would be mentioned on James’ ossuary.

      • But, James, isn’t this the equivalent of saying we don’t know of any other Jim, son of Joe, whose brother John deserved mention on his tomb?

        • Yes, it is – except that it needs to be Josh, not Johnny.

          • Right! (I went more for commonality than precision).

      • David Evans

        Your link to Shanks gives one estimate of the probabilities that more than one set of people was related in this way:

        “There is a 38 percent chance that this is the only instance of a James with a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus in Jerusalem at this time. There is a slightly smaller chance (32 percent) that there were two such men named James in Jerusalem at this time. What’s the chance that there were three such people? Only 18 percent.”

        Add to that the requirement that Yeshua be much more famous than his brother (which is improbable since most people are not famous at all) and it seems likely that there was only one such set. So this may well be a problem for mythicists.

        • Erp

          “More famous” or “better known” within the community? Would perhaps a living elder brother who was head of the household the deceased lived in be named. I would suspect one would have to look at all known ossuary inscriptions from that culture and time and organize them to type (e.g., X, X son of Y, X son of Y and R of Z, X R of Y, where R is some sort of relationship such as grandson, brother, etc.) then see if we can draw any conclusions.

      • Ian

        Something tells me this will be the kind of probabilistic reasoning that Carrier will dismiss with an argument to handwaving without incorporating numerically into his Bayesian schema.

        • I just watched a video of Carrier with a friend.
          We haven’t read the book yet.

          We were stunned by his presenting many speculative and often dubious) hypotheses as almost proven facts.

          To my mind, a very strong argument against his view is the duration of the transition between a mythical,non-existing divine figure and a human character of flesh and blood.”

          It is also worth noting that the transition “Spiritual being” => “Human being living among us” doesn’t occur in any of the Hebrew examples he mentioned (i.e. Moses, Abraham and Adam) who were
          (according to mainstream scholarship) fictional human beings literally created as such by the “pens” of their authors.

          The key probability concerns event E: “A purely spiritual creature of the Jewish world (such as the angel Raphael or Michael) gets turned into a
          human being walking the earth in a later tradition written within the next 50 years following the first detailed description of the mythological entity.

          As far as I can tell, the corresponding frequency seems to be zero. It even seems (according to my admittedly limited knowledge of the topic) to be zero while considering the whole Greco-Roman world, given this
          time span.

          I find it quite bizarre that, in this context, Carrier
          mentioned the Roswell’s myth (a weird crashed weather balloon leading to hoaxes according to which it was a flying saucer populated by little grey aliens 30 years after the events) AS IF it showed this is likely
          that first-century Jews could (without any deceitful intention) have written fictional tales about a mythological character seeing the light of days, living and dying as a man. My head is still spinning while thinking on this.

          “Me: Hey Richard, have you estimated the probability of a purely spiritual creature of the Jewish world (such as the angel Raphael and Michael) getting turned into a human being walking the earth in a later tradition
          written within the next 50 years following its first detailed description?”
          “Carrier: Oh yeah! But the fact that this happens in 0% of the cases is utterly irrelevant to its probability which is at least 0.5 so that it wouldn’t affect my overall computation.”
          “Me: Okay…Did you at the very least use the frequency of this event for all cultures of the Mediterranean world?”
          “Carrier: Yes, it equals zero as well. But again, this isn’t relevant to my argument.”
          “Me: But what is relevant to it then?????”
          “Carrier: That’s simple. The overall human ability to build utterly fictional stories based on real events within the next fifty years. In Roswell, hoaxes describing the discovery of an Alien spacecraft along a
          staggering government cover-up emerged only 30 years after the original happening and they were soon (and still are) accepted by countless UFO enthusiasts.”
          “Me: Man, I’m dumbstruck by your answer. There are very
          strong differences between the emergence of the myth of Roswell and that of the synoptic Gospels.
          – in the case of Roswell, there was a deliberated lie and deceptive intention lying behind the appearance of
          all these tall tales. This clearly isn’t the case of the synoptic Gospels.
          – Roswell began with the recovery of a real (earthly)
          physical object. According to mythicists, all began with a purely spiritual and non-existing Jesus.
          – Majestic 12 and all its members
          were either (deceptively) identified with real people from the past or created from scratch. In no case was a previously known supernatural (or even extraterrestrial) being turned into a fictional non-existing human walking the earth.
          – this occurred more than 1900 years after the rise of the early Church in a completely different historical and cultural context
          and I could go on and on.
          If you utilise such extremely divergent cases for computing your approximation of p(E), I fear that the numbers you get are extraordinarily imprecise and could be as wrong as plus or minus 0.99999″.

          NOW, given the fact I haven’t read Carrier, I might be judging him prematurely.

          My question to you is simple: does it get better in the books you read? Does he really tackle the hard problem of honestly calculating p(E) using the most similar cases to the Gospels we dispose of?

          Or does he wiggle out of this awkward situation through rhetorical tricks as he often does on his blog or during his talks?”

          Many thanks for your answer.


          • In my opinion, the only difference between his books and his online writings is that he is slightly less insulting in his books.
            But no, he clearly makes efforts to avoid placing Jesus in appropriate reference classes, such as “first century Jewish messianic claimants.” Anyone (except perhaps Carrier himself) can see that the entire enterprise is designed to allow him to draw the conclusion that he set out to.

          • Adrian Mihai

            The implications are simple and profound .. There really is a Jesus Christ in history .. He was not a made up figure . People can differ if the Bible tells the accurate history of Jesus (I absolutely do believe this), however the likelihood that this ossuary belongs to Jesus’ brother is quite strong ..

      • Does being mentioned on an ossuary necessarily indicate fame? The only other known example of a brother being mentioned on an ossuary is “Shimi, son of Asiya, brother of Hanin”, but AFAIK, there is no reason to think that this Hanin was particularly more famous than his brother.

        It would be cool if the box was genuine, but I wonder if we are taking the fact that Bible Jesus is more famous to us than his brother and reading this back into the ossuary, when there might be other reasons why an individual might be described in this way?

        • That’s a great question. That is the only other example of a person’s brother being mentioned on an ossuary that I am aware of, although there may be others – epigraphy and inscriptions are not my area of expertise. And unless I can find some textual mention of Hanin – or perhaps, Yohanin, if Jeffrey Chadwick’s reading is correct – then we simply do not know. But unless there are a significant number of other ossuaries mentioning siblings, then that would seem to me a plausible interpretation of that ossuary.

    • Ian

      There are several things to weigh in the calculation of how likely this is

      a) relative frequency of each name
      b) average family size
      c) population of the area where the ossuary was found
      d) range of possible dates
      e) how common ‘X son of Y brother of Z’ inscriptions are

      So you’re right, the individual frequencies of each name is high, but as a whole the argument is that the combined probability that this inscription refer to another family is vanishingly small. In particular, when I read the paper, the population size was smaller than I would have guessed, which was a key point, I felt. The details are tricky, but the overall approach is reasonable.

      • Gary

        I have no strong opinions one way or the other.
        However (there is always a however),
        Concerning things to weigh, how does date (post 33AD), religion of families, and devotion to past events, effect the probabilities?

        Example, Catholics in Mexico naming their children Mary, or Jesus? I would tend to believe that a single family, with a daughter and son, would more likely connect Mary/Jesus, than say, Mary/Juan. So probabilities based upon single name occurances are useless to determine probabilities when skewed by religious fervor/devotion/(maybe fanaticism).

        I would suggest that a preponderance of pre-Christans in Jerusalem would tend to name their children Jesus, James, or Joseph. That would skew the data toward the combination-threesome being more common. Key is the dating. As the delta date grows post 33 AD, the impact is greater.

        • Ian

          As far as I know the correlation isn’t part of the calculation.

          The calculation assumes that the names are chosen at random, in proportion to the archaeological evidence of the prevalence of those names. If that’s what you mean by increasing popularity, then that already takes into account that after Jesus, Jesus-related names might have been more popular. Because the data is taken from archaeology (dating is, of course, crucial, I agree).

          But it doesn’t take into account that families might have chosen names so that the whole family replicates Jesus’s family. Do you think that is common. In parts of the world where Jesus is a common name, do people call their other children James, when the father’s name is Joseph, to collect the set? Is that what you meant?

          • Gary

            Just thinking, an 18 year old pre-Christian man in Jerusalem in 50 AD, has twins. I would bet he would be tempted to name them Jesus and James, if he was more fanatical than the average. And it seems that Jerusalem at the time had some really fanatical people. I can only relate it to modern day popularity of naming new babies – 18 year olds tend to name their children after their favorite TV star, sports star, movie star. Jesus was the Rock Star for Proto Christians post 33 AD. I guess my opinion is simply that no significant conclusion can be drawn from the probability of occurance of three specific names in the same place. I would be willing to bet that in Kenya right now, there is a surplus of babies being named Barak and Michelle. Although, I don’t really know.

            Example – in my old church, a young guy had a son, and named him Terek. I ask his grandfather, is that a family name? (Stupid me). The response, “he was named after the father’s favorite anime character”. Significant eye-rolling occurred by both of us.

  • Geoff Carter

    As an archaeologist, I am far more comfortable with this line of evidence for a historical Jesus than the biblical account. It’s evidence, but, I presume, the wrong sort for many people of faith; an ordinary / common Jesus that is is far too ordinary and common, positively mundane.
    As a specialist in buildings, I also see the context of the Talpiot tombs as entirely appropriate for a “tekton” – Jesus’s family as Masons / carpenters – builders rather than a joiners making furniture.
    Tombs with bones in make for good archaeology; you do find empty ones, which can prompt some idle speculation, but not in my experience a new religion, you would never git it peer reviewed.

  • Nick G

    I think this would be the first archeological evidence for a historical Jesus (whereas we have masses of it for e.g. Tiberius, who some have absurdly claimed is no more securely a historical figure than Jesus).

    But can anyone calculate the probability that Richard Carrier would accept (if Shanks is right about the forthcoming expert validation) that this tells heavily against mythicism 😉

  • ccws

    I don’t know about anyone else, and I’m not sure why I feel this way, but Hershel Shanks and BAR have always seemed just a tiny bit “off” to me in terms of “we’re trying really hard not to let apologetics color what we say, but we’re not quite succeeding.”

    Back in the early 70s, a fellow church member gave my dad a year’s subscription to BAR. Dad (a Baptist minister, for those of you who haven’t been following along) didn’t seem all that impressed with it, and to me it seemed to be trying to be at least somewhat scholarly while retaining a certain undercurrent of appeal-to-the-middle-of-the-evangelical-road reader that made me squirm.

    Is that just my personal weird vibe, or is BAR really “too much of both and not enough of neither”?

    • That sounds about right – trying to be mainstream scholarly without alienating conservatives.

      • ccws

        Glad it’s not just me!