Called ossuaries, the boxes belong to a set of 10 found in 1980 in a cave outside Jerusalem. Five bear Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek inscriptions: One reads "Maria"; another "Yose," a diminutive of Joseph; a third either "Mariamne e Mara" or "Mariamnou e Mara"; and the fourth and most provocative, "Jesus son of Joseph."
The proper translations of those names and their implications have been topics of lively dispute among scholars worldwide.
Troy Collins, senior vice president of the Franklin Institute, says the museum has no plans to suggest they once held the bones of Jesus of Nazareth or his family. However, American biblical scholar James Tabor, who investigated the cave, is not so restrained.
In articles, blog postings, and a 2007 Discovery Channel film called The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Tabor, a religious-studies professor at the University of North Carolina, has proposed the cave might well have been the "family tomb" of Joseph, Mary, Mary Magdalene - and Christ himself. His assertion sharply challenges the Christian belief that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.
Most biblical archaeologists are highly skeptical. They note the names were too common during the time of Jesus to make special claims for them.
Some paleolinguists - scholars who study ancient scripts - also challenge the names themselves, noting that an inscription translated as "Jesus" could also be "Hanun," and dismiss any link between the words Mariamne e Mara to Mary Magdalene.
Regardless of whose bones the Philadelphia-bound ossuaries might once have held, such boxes do shed some light on an ancient burial practice that may figure in the New Testament story of Easter.
Around the time of Christ, when Essene scribes were copying Jewish scripture onto what are now the Dead Sea Scrolls, another Jewish sect known as the Pharisees was engaging in an unusual custom known as "second burial."
Instead of burying the dead or sealing them in vaults, Pharisees - who believed in bodily resurrection - would leave a corpse to decompose in a cave or crypt whose entrance was closed by a stone. The process was thought to raise bodies from a state of greater impurity to lesser impurity by ridding them of their decayed flesh.
When that was accomplished, in about two years, they would remove the bones and place them in a small stone chest or ossuary. The box would be stored in a family crypt to await the coming of the Messiah, who, they believed, would restore the bones to life.
Elements of this practice, which ceased with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem around 70 A.D., seem to be evident in the New Testament story of Easter. According to all four Gospels, the body of Jesus was wrapped in linen after his crucifixion and laid out in a cave-like tomb. Two days later, his followers visited the cave and, discovering his corpse was not there, proclaimed, "He is risen!"
The miracle of his resurrection became an essential element in Christian theology.
While some biblical scholars speculate that Jesus' family might have belonged to the Pharisaic sect, nothing in the biblical account of Christ's death suggests his body was relocated for "second burial."
Just how much prominence the ossuaries will receive at the Franklin Institute is yet to be decided, according to Collins. They are just three of 600 artifacts that will be on display at the "Dead Sea Scrolls" exhibit, which was created by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
The difficulty of proving any claim for an ossuary was made clear Wednesday when an Israeli judge acquitted a man accused of forging an ossuary inscription that read "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus."
More than 100 scholars, scientists, and archaeologists testified during the two-year trial, and none could agree on whether the mold, patina, or lettering were original or fake.
"How am I supposed to make a decision," the judge complained, "when even you cannot agree?"
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