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How Much Money Is in the Box?

A great deal of money is trading hands even as the box moves from one person to another, from one institution to another. Financial gain is influencing treatment of the box and undermining the credibility of its handlers.

I saw it in Toronto, in a special exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. Hundreds of us paid $16.50 and stood in line to view it.

Scholars have a name for a small limestone box such as this: ossuary, a container used in ancient times to collect and store the skeletal remains of a person long dead.

There are hundreds of these burial boxes in museums, shops and private collections around the world. More than a third of them have inscriptions naming the person interred.

What makes this one special are the words etched on the upper right-hand quadrant of the small rectangular slab that forms the visible side of the box: “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.”

James, Joseph and Jesus are Jewish names. They were widely used in the time of the Second Commonwealth, that 200-year period of history in which the faith and practice of a Jewish messianic movement evolved into what came to be known as Christianity.

In a manner of speaking, James, Joseph and Jesus were also Christian names, designating three of the most influential and well-known people associated with the birth of the church.

The principle matter of public dispute is this: Are the three people named on the box the same as the James, Joseph and Jesus in the New Testament?

More than 1,000 scholars gathered in the Canadian Ballroom of the Royal York Hotel on Sunday afternoon to listen to the debate. Those who took the stand included Eric Myers of Duke University, former president of the American Schools of Oriental Research. “I have misgivings,” he said.

Andre Lemaire, inscription specialist of the Sorbonne in Paris, defended the script. He asserted the high probability that the names refer to Jesus of Nazareth, his brother and father.

The most dramatic moments came when Hershel Shanks stood to defend the box—not only its authenticity but also the process by which it was discovered and presented to the public. He is editor of the widely read Biblical Archeology Review, the monthly magazine that first published pictures and interpretation of the famous box.

What he did not say to the crowd and what he refused to say when questioned in private was this: What are the financial arrangements surrounding the box?

We know this: The box is owned by Oded Golan of Tel Aviv, who claims to have paid $200 for it more than a quarter century ago. He says the box will return to Israel in February and will be loaned to a museum for safe exhibition and scholarly investigation.

We do not know how much the museum paid, or to whom, to display the artifact. Nor how much advance money was paid to Hershel Shanks (and others) by Harper Collins for a book manuscript that is already being promoted. Nor who will receive the insurance settlement sure to come as a result of damage to the box en route to Canada.

A great deal of money is trading hands even as the box moves from one person to another, from one institution to another. Financial gain is influencing treatment of the box and undermining the credibility of its handlers.

We know the box is authentic: All agree it dates to the first century of this common era. We know the inscription on the box names James, Joseph and Jesus; but this is not enough for us to be sure whose bones were in the box.

What we do not know is how much money is in the box. All scholarly speculation will be suspect until the truth about the money is revealed.

Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.