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Originally published in Creation 25, no 2 (March 2003): 16-18.
A spectacular discovery has been made—an ossuary on which was inscribed, in Aramaic, the words ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.’
For the 1,500 years after they occupied their promised land, Israelites were buried in graves dug in the ground or tombs cut out of the rock. But between about 20 BC and AD 70, a different form of burial was popular. Bodies were buried or interred until the flesh disintegrated, then the bones were collected and placed in an ossuary (bone box).
Many such ossuaries have been discovered. In recent times an ossuary was discovered on which was an inscription bearing the name of Caiaphas, the High Priest who presided over the trial of Jesus Christ. It is for now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. That was quite a spectacular discovery, but now an even more spectacular discovery has been made—an ossuary on which was inscribed, in Aramaic, the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
The owner of this spectacular find actually now admits that he purchased the contents of a tomb a few weeks ago. But he denies that the ossuary was part of that deal, claiming that he bought it 30 years ago (when he was 16 years old!). This scenario may have something to do with the fact that under Israeli law, if he bought it less than 30 years ago, the Israeli government could acquire it compulsorily from him—for a relatively nominal price. It may be one reason why he hastily sent the ossuary out of Israel to the Toronto Museum. All of which highlights the likelihood of its authenticity, and likely current value of millions of dollars.
Actually, this ossuary is said to have been in the possession of an Israeli for a number of years. He says he purchased it from an Arab antiquities dealer in Jerusalem for US$400 (it is now estimated to be worth about US$2 million). But he took no interest in the inscription engraved on the side of the ossuary. Being Israeli, no doubt he could read it—but the names held no great significance for him. He stated, “I didn’t know that Jesus had a brother.”1
However, in mid-2002, Professor André Lemaire of Paris, a specialist in ancient inscriptions, happened to meet the owner and see the ossuary. Lemaire was startled to read the words engraved on the side of the box.
Critics have been quick to point out that Joseph, James (Jacob in Hebrew) and Jesus (Joshua/Yeshua in Hebrew) were common names in the time of Christ, and therefore it does not prove that this Jesus was Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian religion. One critic even suggested that there could have been 20 men by the name of Jesus, whose father was Joseph and who had a brother named Jacob (James), living in Jerusalem at the time, but what the critics are ignoring is the unique nature of this wording.
It was common for the name of the deceased to be written on his ossuary, and in some cases the father’s name was added, but this is the only known case of one of the deceased’s brothers being named. The fact that James’s brother is added, and that the brother’s name is Jesus, is just too much of a coincidence for it to be lightly dismissed. Obviously, this brother of James was a well-known or significant figure, and Jesus Christ certainly fits that scenario.
In fact, it seems so perfect that the antiquity of the writing has been questioned. Perhaps some well-meaning Christian (or not so well-meaning forger) did the engraving in recent times? But archaeologists have a way of testing such inscriptions—after all, this would not be the first time a forgery has been attempted. The curvature of the writing and the scratch marks of the chisel can be tested to determine its antiquity. The patina (incrustation accumulated over centuries of time) testifies to its antiquity. According to the experts, the present inscription stands up well to these tests, and the patina is even present in the lettering of the inscription.
According to a Sydney Morning Herald report, Dr Lawrence Stager, Professor of Archaeology at Harvard University, who excavated the dog cemetery in Ashkelon, stated that: “It will be extremely important if it’s authentic. Everything that they’ve put in this non-technical article seems to point in that direction.” He added that if the discovery proved genuine it would have a big impact on the debate over how accurately Christian texts depicted the life of Jesus, and would force scholars to take the New Testament more seriously.
It is hardly realistic to question the historical existence of Jesus Christ.It is hardly realistic to question the historical existence of Jesus Christ. It would be hard to explain the existence of the early Christian church if Jesus was a mythical figure, but some continue to raise that possibility. Professor Stager points out that “You’ll never prove or disprove the miracles of Jesus, but to give him an actual authentic setting of place and person is no small accomplishment.”
According to Matthew 13:55, Jesus had some sisters and four brothers, “James, Joses, Simon and Judas,” which, in Hebrew, would have been Jacob, Joseph, Simeon and Judah. His brothers once tried to pressure Jesus into going to Jerusalem, scornfully suggesting, “If you do these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:3).
Jesus performed no miracles before he left home to start his ministry, and John 7:5 states that “his brothers did not believe in him.” However, according to the Apostle Paul, Jesus appeared to James after He rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:7), and apparently this resulted in James’s conversion. He seems to have become the head of the early Christian church, since he delivered the judgment of the church’s council in Jerusalem. After a lengthy discussion about the church’s attitude to the Gentiles, James said, “I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
Josephus wrote that the High Priest “assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or some of his companions;] and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”2
When Stephen was stoned to death, “devout men carried Stephen to his burial” (Acts 8:2). The same could have happened with James. Devout men may have removed his body and interred it in a tomb, later to deposit his bones in the ossuary which has now come to light. What has happened to his bones is irrelevant. An antiquities dealer would have no interest in bones, though some dust and bone chips still lie at the bottom of the ossuary.3
In any case, the discovery is so spectacular that the Toronto Museum immediately negotiated with the owner, who agreed to put it on display at the museum. Unfortunately, it was not properly packed for the journey, and when it arrived, it was found to have suffered a number of large cracks, which experts are now frantically trying to rectify.
Time magazine said that if the inscription refers to “the right James” it would be “the most important discovery in the history of New Testament archaeology.”4 The magazine also stated, “Almost no educated person these days doubts that Jesus lived.”5 It went further by quoting Hershel Shanks, editor of the liberal Biblical Archaeology Review, as conceding (remarkably, for a Jewish writer): “[This ossuary] is something tactile and visible reaching back to the single most important personage ever to walk the earth.”
Despite the importance of this find to Biblical Christianity, we are not suggesting that artifacts should be used to try to “prove” the Bible. Historical (forensic) sciences like archaeology have immense value, but, like attempts at evolutionary reconstruction of the past, they are greatly limited. Much depends on the bias and starting beliefs of the researcher. Those who take God at His word will be encouraged, but not surprised, whenever evidence comes to light to confirm the reliable, historical accounts of the Bible.