Jesus' Brother's "Bone Box" Closer to Being Authenticated

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
April 18, 2003

Questions raised about the authenticity of a 2,000-year-old ossuary thought to have once held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus, may be a step closer to resolution.

The box bears the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." It sparked a spate of controversy among biblical scholars and archaeologists when it was first reported in the November/December 2002 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review [see our October 21 story Burial Box May Be That of Jesus's Brother, Expert Says]. The authenticity of the ossuary itself was generally accepted, but many scholars questioned whether all or part of the inscription was a forgery.

"The artifact has since undergone further study at the Royal Ontario Museum, and passed all tests with flying colors," says Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and co-author of The Brother of Jesus. The book, published March 18, describes the find itself, and what it tells us about biblical times and the origins of Christianity.

"The James ossuary is testimony to the fact that the people of the time had a strong belief in the resurrection of Jesus," said Witherington. "In antiquity, crucifixion was the most humiliating and dishonorable way to die, and people believed that how you died was a reflection on your character.

"If Jesus's life had simply ended in crucifixion, no one in their right mind would include his name—in a place of honor—on the box."

Following the Trail of the Bone Box

For a 90-year period, from 20 B.C. to A.D. 70, the Jewish burial custom was to place the body in a cave for a year or so and then retrieve the bones and put them in a bone box—ossuary—that could then be placed in a niche in the family tomb.

Several hundred such boxes from that era have been found, 215 of which have inscriptions. Only two boxes mention a brother.

"So far, with all the inscriptions we have, only one other has mentioned a brother," said Andre Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne University in Paris (École Pratique des Hautes Études). "It suggests the brother was also prominent, an important person."

Lemaire discovered the ossuary while examining the collection of Oded Golan, an engineer in Tel Aviv with a passion for relics from biblical times. Golan purchased the artifact from a Jerusalem-based dealer in the 1970s.

The artifact's lack of provenance raised doubts among some scholars. To antiquities specialists, knowing where something was originally found provides a wealth of clues that can be used to authenticate an object.

"The dealer who sold it was a man of questionable reputation who had a history of inappropriate dealings with various museums and government agencies," said Eric Meyers, an archaeologist at Duke University.

Continued on Next Page >>


SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.