Burial Box May Be That of Jesus's Brother, Expert Says

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
October 21, 2002
Editor's Note: The artifact described in this story has since been described as inauthentic. For more information, see "'Jesus Box' Is a Fake, Israeli Experts Rule."

Researchers may have uncovered the first archaeological evidence that refers to Jesus as an actual person and identifies James, the first leader of the Christian church, as his brother.

The 2,000-year-old ossuary—a box that held bones—bears the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Until now, all references to the three men have been found only in manuscripts.

Andre Lemaire, a paleographer at the Sorbonne University in Paris (École Pratique des Hautes Études), first saw the artifact and its inscription while examining the relics of a private collector in Jerusalem. He dates the box, which was empty, to 63 A.D.

"This is probably going to be the biggest New Testament find in my lifetime, as big as the Dead Sea scrolls," said Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

"Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all historical religions, and they have to be open to historical inquiry," he said. "To some extent they stand or fall on the authenticity of the historical record. This gives us one more piece of evidence outside of the Bible that these are real people, and that they're important people, and provides a small confirmation for the claims made about James as the brother of Jesus."

The find is described in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeological Review.

Historical Record

From the first century B.C. to about 70 A.D., it was the burial custom of Jews to place their dead in a cave for a year, then retrieve the bones and put them in an ossuary. Several hundred such boxes from that era have been found—some ornately carved and others plain, some with feet and others without.

The burial custom changed in 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and torched the Temple there.

The James burial box, which is about 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, was originally acquired in the antiquities market 15 years ago and has been in the hands of a private collector.

Lemaire stumbled upon the ossuary by chance. While he was in Jerusalem on a six-month project to study paleo-inscriptions, a friend introduced him to a private collector. The collector, who remains anonymous, told Lemaire he had a few inscriptions and showed him some photographs of an ossuary.

"When I read it [the inscription], I immediately wondered if it was the same James who was said to be the brother of Jesus of Nazareth," said Lemaire. "To the collector, Jesus was known as the son of God, so he had no brother. It never occurred to him that this might be anything other than just another ossuary."

Lemaire said, "I knew right away that it could be something really important."

Telling Details

Translating the inscription was the easy part. Tying the ossuary to Jesus of Nazareth was much more difficult.

Scientists at the Geological Institute of Israel examined the box, which is made of Jerusalem limestone, and judged it to be about 2,000 years old. The inscription is written in Aramaic, in a form that further narrows the possible time frame.

"The script is very important for the date because the Aramaic script changed over time in ways we could measure," said P. Kyle McCarter, a paleographer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "It's the most important criterion for dating this object, and the script is consistent with a date in the middle of the first century A.D."

The fact that the box is very plain, apart from the beautiful script, is not surprising, according to experts. "Highly decorated boxes are the ones that are unusual," said McCarter. Lemaire said extensive study of several hundred ossuaries found in Jerusalem has shown no connection between the ornateness of the design and the importance of the person whose bones they contained.

What is highly unusual is the mention of a brother.

"So far, with all the inscriptions we have, only one other has mentioned a brother," said Lemaire. "This is a very important point for the problem of identification. There would need to be a special reason to mention the brother. It suggests the brother was also prominent, an important person."

Jesus and Joseph were fairly common names of that era; James, slightly less so. Statistical analysis suggests that the possibility of these three names occurring in the given relationships (son of Joseph, brother of Jesus) is very small.

The lack of knowledge about where the ossuary came from is worrisome but not unusual, the experts say.

"It means there will always be doubts about the thing," said McCarter. "They've applied every possible test to it to determine its character and authenticity, but there will always be a cloud over it and there will always be those who doubt because it wasn't recovered in a legitimate archaeological dig.

"But this is not an unusual situation," McCarter added. "We get this a lot."

Jesus and James

Whether Jesus was the son of God is a theological problem, said Lemaire. But historians don't doubt the existence of either James or Jesus; both are mentioned frequently in early historical accounts.

Following the death of Jesus in 29 A.D., James assumed leadership of the Christian church in Jerusalem until he himself was martyred in 62 A.D. According to biblical accounts, he was one of the first apostles to see Jesus after his resurrection.

He is referred to as the brother of Jesus in both the Bible and in contemporary historical accounts. In Matthew 13:55-56, for instance, Jesus is said to have four brothers and two sisters. But the exact nature of these relationships—whether they were full siblings by blood, half siblings, or cousins—has been open to interpretation.

"If you're Catholic, you think they're cousins because the perpetual virginity of Mary is official church doctrine," said Witheringon. "But there are a lot of problems in the historical record with that."

"When James is referred to as the 'brother of our lord' in the New Testament, the word used means 'blood brother,'" he continued. "It would have to be qualified in context to mean something different."

A second interpretation is that James and the other siblings are half-brothers and -sisters, Joseph's children from a prior marriage.

"The ossuary gives us another piece of evidence outside the Bible that these are blood brothers and sisters of Jesus," said Witherington.

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