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.

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