Who needs proof?
Who needs proof?
MICHAEL MCATEER - Toronto Star, April 20, 2003 - original
There is very little historical evidence of Jesus, but in an age in which science and skepticism encourage us to look for proof


With the tantalizing, eye-catching headline, "Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone," the prestigious Biblical Archaeological Review heralded its world exclusive on the discovery of the now famous "James" ossuary on the front cover of its November-December issue.

Could this small limestone bone box with the Aramaic inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" incised on its side, be the first tangible extra-biblical proof of Jesus' existence as the Review headline implies? Or is it a hoax, a pious fake as some experts suggest?

For ardent Christians such as U.S. conservative Protestant scholar Ben Witherington, the ossuary's inscription provides "historical confirmation of Gospel accounts" and is welcome news in a skeptical age that demands evidence before belief.

While the James ossuary may not convey any totally new information to believers, Witherington writes in the recently published The Brother Of Jesus, it does seem to supply further confirmation that the Bible is speaking of real historical figures and events "despite the skepticism about its historical truth that has emerged from many directions in our times."

Both Witherington and Hershel Shanks, the Review's editor-in-chief and co-author of The Brother Of Jesus, are convinced that the ossuary's inscription is authentic and that most scholars agree with them.

John Kloppenborg, professor of religion at the University of Toronto, is one scholar who does not agree and dismisses as "bluster" the blanket assertion that most scholars do.

As a historian of early Christianity and an epigraphist (the study of inscriptions), Kloppenborg is willing to accept the authenticity of the ossuary as a first-century bone box. His problem, shared by many other scholars he says, is with the inscription.

"It probably depends on which circles you travel in," he said in an interview. "If you travel in evangelical (Christian) circles, I would imagine lots think it's great and probably authentic. But in the circle I move in I have yet to meet anyone who thought the inscription authentic."

And even if it were authentic what would it tell you? "That James, Jesus' brother, had bones, and that he died? We sort of guessed that already. In that sense it does not tell us an awful lot."

As other scholars have argued, verification of the ossuary's inscription would not advance what we know about Jesus of Nazareth, revered by millions as their Saviour and Lord. It would not prove the ossuary's three names were the James, Joseph and Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament. Nor would it prove that the man revered by millions as the Son of God was divine and a miracle worker.

As John Crossan, a renowned U.S. biblical scholar and author, points out, there is a distinction between fact and faith. "You can't make faith into history."

If authentic, the ossuary's inscription would provide the first archaeological link to Christianity's central figure and to the early Christian movement of the New Testament. The ossuary of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, who, according to biblical accounts, turned over Jesus to the Romans and an inscription on a monument that mentions Pontius Pilate, are the only known archaeological finds that mention biblical characters.

Almost all of the little we know of Jesus' life is contained in the four Gospels, written decades after his death by his followers. Non-Christian references to Jesus are so meagre as to be almost non-existent, says John Meier, a Catholic University of America biblical scholar and a former president of the Catholic Biblical Association.

"From the viewpoint of the Jewish and pagan literature of the century following Jesus' death he was at most a `blip' on the radar screen," says Meier. If seen at all it was on the periphery of their vision.

Peter Wyatt, United Church minister and principal of Emmanuel College, says that, if authentic the ossuary's inscription could provide extra-biblical evidence that Jesus, James and Joseph were indeed flesh-and-blood figures and lend support to the "historicity of the biblical witness" to Jesus.

"In a world of critical thinking, and certainly for many people to have empirical anchors to justify or to give depth to Christian claims is important," Wyatt says.

Despite the worldwide attention the ossuary has attracted, Wyatt says the ossuary has not prompted any great debate among his own colleagues. For many people, he suggests, "the tremor of excitement, such as it is," is in having an artifact in your hand that dates from the first century and that raises questions about the world's most populous religion.

For example, if the biblical James and Jesus were blood brothers, what are the theological implications for the Roman Catholics' firmly held belief in Mary's perpetual virginity?

Most Christians of whatever denomination hold that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy that a virgin would conceive a child. The theological disputes, which still divide Protestants and Roman Catholics, arise out of different interpretations of "brother."

Wyatt says there are clear references in the New Testament to James being the brother of Jesus, hence the general Protestant position that Mary was a virgin before Jesus was born but that afterwards she and Joseph had natural children.

"Protestants would have no difficulty with that," Wyatt said in an interview. "The ideal of womanhood in the history of Protestantism has been a married woman raising a family.

"So our sense that Mary would have had sexual relations with Joseph to produce other children would not diminish her role as one of the pre-eminent people of faith in the Bible."

Mary's virginity is preserved in the Eastern Orthodox Christian belief that James was the son of Joseph by a previous marriage and therefore Jesus' stepbrother. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church, interpreting "brother" to mean cousin or kin, holds that James was not Jesus' biological brother. This view not only preserves Mary's perpetual virginity from her own conception to the end of her earthly life but also suggests that Joseph, too, was a perpetual virgin.

Challenging the Roman Catholic position, Witherington argues that the inscription on the recently discovered ossuary proves that the Catholic interpretation is full of holes.

In The Brother Of Jesus, Witherington writes: "Since the consensus of the best experts on Aramaic inscriptions and writing of the first century A.D. is that the ossuary of James is authentic, then it seems that the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church about Mary, Joseph and the brothers and sisters of Mary is wrong."

Of course, there is no conclusive evidence that can prove, or disprove, that Mary was a perpetual virgin, says Bishop Miklos Hazy, retired dean of the theology faculty at Saint Augustine's Seminary. "We don't have absolute proof about that and anybody can interpret whatever he or she wants," he said in an interview.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer, doctor, humanitarian and missionary, said Jesus brought a mighty spiritual force to the world. "This fact can neither be shaken nor confirmed by any historical discovery," he said. "It is the solid foundation of Christianity."

Scott Lewis, Jesuit priest and assistant professor of New Testament at Regis College, would likely agree.

Lewis believes Jesus lived. Not even the wildest skeptic would deny that, he says. For Lewis, it is not so much proving this or that. The proof of Jesus' message is how it is lived out.