My Fifteen Minutes (seconds?) of Fame: Following the ‘Alexander son of Simon’ Ossuary

Note that I have just made two new postings to “My Articles” regarding an intriguing artefact found many  years ago here in Jerusalem, the ‘Alexander Son of Simon’ Ossuary. The articles are not actually “new” — one first appeared in 2002 and the other in 2006 — but I have just converted the two to PDF format and transferred them here from their previous home on another site.

The back-story of My Fifteen Minutes (seconds?) of Fame

In 2000 I attended parts of a seminar entitled “Jesus and Archaeology” held at the Notre Dame Center here in Jerusalem, a series of meetings that a few years later gave rise to a book by the same title, edited by the seminar’s organizer and emcee, the ubiquitous Dr. Jim Charlesworth. Anyway, at one of the sessions, Charlesworth mentioned from the podium that he had heard a “rumor” about a supposed tomb of Simon of Cyrene that had been found, and he asked if anyone could provide more information. None seemed to be forthcoming. This is just an indication of how obscure this find was at the time (despite being uncovered back in the 1940s and published in the ’60s!), and perhaps still is.

Well, I also had heard something about such a tomb but had no details — one of those myriad things you hear and “file away”. So, after the session I cornered (the likewise ubiquitous) Dr. Gabi Barkay who was kind enough to point me — off the top of his head, as he is wont to do! — to the original publication of the tomb and its contents. The information I dug up germinated for close to two years, until I put together an article and submitted it to Artifax, a USA-based digest edited by Gordon Govier, who published it in their Autumn 2002 issue. From that publication, the article was picked up by Biblical Archaeology Review, who contacted me and asked if they could run a version of it. I did not have to think too long about that one, since non-specialists without credentials are rarely published in BAR — I took it as quite an honor, and still do. That first article appeared in the BAR July-August 2003 issue. Despite their insistance on inserting an opening tie-in to the James Ossurary, which was much in the news at the time, I must say they did a respectable job with my text. The BAR-supplied graphics and captions, however, turned out to be another matter…

Fast-forward to 2005. Out of the blue, I received a call from a member of a film production team: We saw your BAR article, we are in Jerusalem making a film about ancient tombs, we are going to Mount Scopus to see the ossuary you wrote about, so would you like to come with us and perhaps say a few words on-camera? Well… YES! When I got there, I found they had Dr. James Tabor in tow as their hired expert, whom I had met in 2001 when he was co-directing, along with Shimon Gibson, the ‘Cave of John the Baptist’ dig. Anyway, while the crew was setting up, I stood for the first time before this ancient burial chest, in a back work-room of the Hebrew U Institute of Archaeology, my trusty BAR in hand! Then the shock: I quickly realized that the magazine’s graphics (and associated captions), which up ’til then had been my only visual guide to the ossuary — were seriously messed up! On the fly, I had to re-orient myself to the box, its “front” and “back”, the location of the inscriptions, and the media in which they were rendered — in hopes of spouting something halfway intelligent once the camera was rolling. Whether I succeeded or not remains to be seen, at least by me — to this day I have never seen the video that was shot!

Well, the filmmaker was Simcha Jacobovichi, and — fast forward another two years — the footage he shot that day wound up as part of his “Jesus Family Tomb” project, launched amid unbelievable hoopla in 2007. I presume I am heard, and appear on-screen, for no more than a few seconds — I literally have never seen it. But that’s all another story. Suffice it to say that the Simon/Alexander ossuary — except for the 1st century Jerusalem connection and inscribed names known to us from the NT — has nothing whatsoever to do with Simcha’s “Family Tomb”.

Most significantly, encountering the ossuary up close that day sent me back to the published reports, on a little side-journey into Greek grammatical forms, and ultimately to the writing of a follow-up article, in 2006. For one thing, I felt BAR owed it to their readers to publish an accurate rendering of the visuals and their explanation. Also, besides recapping the original article, I was now offering some new insights about the ossuary, going so far as to challenge (gently) an iconic Israeli archaeologist and epigrapher who I feel may have fudged on his reading  of one of the inscriptions! In the end, BAR  said they had quite a backlog of articles (they had recently folded their other two publications into the flagship BAR), but they agreed to publish my follow-up on-line, where it remained accessible on the BAR/BAS web-site for a couple of years or more, before vaporizing into cyber-space. Now, a version of my original article, plus the follow-up just as it appeared on the BAR site, are being made available here — see “My Articles”.  And happy reading…

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