PW: Your new book, The Brother of Jesus, is about the ossuary that is supposed to have contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. Why is the ossuary getting so much media attention? What makes it important?
Ben Witherington: If the ossuary is what it appears to be—and I think it is—then this is the first non-literary piece of evidence that Jesus existed. More particularly, it's the first first-century piece of evidence that Jesus existed. It's an extrabiblical confirmation of what the Bible claims—not just about the existence of Jesus, but about the particular configuration of the Holy Family's relationships.
PW: The ossuary has been a bone of contention—sorry for the pun—for some Roman Catholics. Why?
BW: Because of the inscription. That James is the son of Joseph is controversial for Roman Catholics who believe that the "sons" of Joseph are actually cousins. The further bombshell is that if James really was the brother of Jesus, then Mary was not perpetually a virgin. The jury is still out about what kind of official response is going to come. The popular response is that there's a whole lot of shakin' going on.
PW: The ossuary's existence was only announced in October, so this book came about in an amazingly short period of time. How did that happen?
BW: It was my idea to do a book and to do it right away. We needed to put out a sort of thesis statement, laying out the basic documentary evidence and its possible implications. Harper San Francisco jumped on it, and the rest was history. Harper came back to me and Hershel [Shanks, his co-author] and said they needed the manuscript in six weeks or less. I'm fast, but I've never had to do anything that fast before! So after the initial news conference, we hunkered down. Hershel wrote about the first third of the book—the story of the find. I wrote the last two-thirds, explaining the significance of James and the discovery. Simple was best. We had to be able to do it quickly.
PW: So you really wrote this book in six weeks?
BW: Fortunately, I was on sabbatical in the fall. I have to say, having just read the page proofs, that it's a very good piece of work, especially considering the time frame in which we were operating. It's pitched at a broad readership, but it's not watered down in any way. It really deals with the complexity and fascination of a project like this.
PW: The promotion plans for this book are fairly ambitious.
BW: Yes, I have been "all ossuary, all the time" since October 22. We're doing a major book tour to about 15 or 20 cities. I'm going to L.A. to be on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power, which will air on Palm Sunday. I'm also doing speaking engagements at lots of big churches, including Washington National Cathedral, St. John Cathedral in New York, and Park Street Church in Boston.
PW: What's your next project?
BW: My sabbatical projects were to finish my Revelation book for Cambridge University Press, which I did, and to finish my Romans commentary for Eerdmans, which I also did. I try to write, on average, a book each academic year. I've been teaching 22 years now, and I have 22 books. And they're all still in print, which is kind of amazing to me.
PW: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
BW: I hope that it's going to revive an interest in James and the more thoroughly Jewish strain of the early Christian movement. I would tell readers: let the ossuary be a catalyst for rethinking the origins of Christianity. My posture all along about this thing has been Anselm's motto of fides quaerens intellectum — faith seeking understanding. I would just ask people to be open-minded.