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.

Meyers doesn't question whether the box is genuine and dates back to the first century. The box was originally tested in Israel by scientists at the Geological Survey Group, who judged it to be about 2,000 years old. But the inscription divides the believers and the non-believers.

"I'm more convinced than ever that the artifact has been tampered with, and that the part of the inscription that reads 'brother of Jesus' is a forgery inserted at a later date," Meyers said.

Witherington argues that the testing revealed a great deal about the provenance of the box.

"It is made of Jerusalem limestone from Mount Scopus, and the dirt encrusted in the inner walls comes quite specifically from a region in Jerusalem, consistent with the claim that this box came from Silwan, which is what the antiquities dealer originally told Oded Golan," he said.

Golan, he added, isn't sure which dealer sold him the box 30 years ago.

Two-Hand Theory

The doubts result from the fact that half of the inscription was cleaned at some point in time. The break comes at the word "brother," and the "brother of Jesus" part of the inscription also looks to be written in a slightly more cursive form than the beginning of the inscription. This gave rise to the idea that the inscription was carved by two different people.

"A non-professional lay person in Israel saw a photograph of the box and started to circulate her interpretation that it was a two-hand job," said Ed Keall, director of the Near Eastern and Ancient Civilization department of the Royal Ontario Museum.

The doubts, he said, spread like a contagious disease when reports of the find were first published.

"We looked over the box very carefully, and subjected it to analytical testing using a light polarizing microscope, ultraviolet light, a microscope with 60 times the magnification, and electron microscopy," said Keall.

"I'm very comfortable saying that the ossuary itself and the inscription are totally genuine and everything we found was consistent with considerable age. It's obvious someone had scrubbed the James part of the inscription," said Keall. "But it's like when you brush your teeth, no matter how hard you try to do a good job, there are always bits and pieces left. And that's true with the inscription; there are still bits and pieces left in the nooks and crannies, and they are consistent with the rest of the encrustation."

A conference of biblical scholars that took place in December at the Royal Ontario Museum allowed a large number of antiquities professionals to look at the box, and many were convinced of its authenticity, he said.

But not all. The wear and weathering on the two long sides of the box are significantly different, complicating the picture. The more weathered side has two rosettes carved into it, and some red paint. The side with the inscription is less weathered. Meyers argues that this is evidence that the inscription was carved at a later date.

There's a reasonable explanation for that, says Witherington.

"The majority of the work of building the temple in Jerusalem was finished by the time Jesus was a young child," he said. "So the stone masons moved into carving ossuaries. They didn't wait until someone died to carve a one-person adult box, which is what this is. They carved a number of them and then left them out in the yard, exposed to the elements, which in Jerusalem can be quite harsh. James was suddenly martyred in A.D. 62, and they couldn't afford an expensive one, so they bought one that had already been carved, had it inscribed, and placed it in a place protected from the elements."

Keall has an alternate explanation for the differences in weathering.

"I think the rosettes are on the front of the box, and the inscription on the back," he said. "When the box was placed in its niche in the cave it's conceivable that the front was subjected to more fluctuating conditions."

There will always be doubters.

"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," said P. Kyle McCarter, a paleographer at Johns Hopkins University. "But this is not an unusual situation. We get this a lot."

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