James's box?

Religion | Scholar finds an ancient burial box that may refer to Jesus

Issue: "The 2002 vote," Nov. 2, 2002

It could be the earliest archaeological pointer to Jesus.

That's how some prominent scholars describe a burial box discovered recently in a private collection in Israel. The box, or ossuary, bears an inscription on its side in Aramaic: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

Noted paleographer Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris verified the inscription's authenticity and dated it to about a.d. 63. He said the writing was a cursive form used only from about a.d. 10 to 70. First-century Jews typically transferred the bones of the dead to ossuaries (hundreds have been discovered), but largely abandoned the custom following the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. (James, the brother of Jesus who later became a leader of the church in Jerusalem, was stoned to death in a.d. 62.)

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The widely respected Mr. Lemaire, a Roman Catholic, detailed his investigation in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Although all three names in the inscription were fairly common in first-century Israel, the likelihood of a man named James having a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus narrows the field, Mr. Lemaire suggested. Plus, naming a brother on an ossuary was highly unusual; this brother must have had some special role or reputation. Thus, it's "very probable" that the reference is to Jesus of Nazareth.

BAR's editor, Hershel Shanks, said the box's owner bought the box about 15 years ago from an Arab antiquities dealer. Until now, the oldest artifact that mentions Jesus has been a fragment of the Gospel of John from a manuscript dated around a.d. 125.

BAR released the Lemaire article at an Oct. 21 news conference that featured speakers with opposing viewpoints. Archaeologist Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins said the brother might have been named because he conducted the funeral or owned the tomb. Skeptic Robert Eisenman of California State University said an "extremely clever" forger likely produced the box. (Tests by the Geological Survey of Israel confirmed the box's limestone came from the Jerusalem area and shows no trace of modern tampering.) New Testament professor Ben Witherington of Asbury Seminary sided with Mr. Lemaire.

Most Roman Catholics believe Jesus was Mary's only child and regard James as Jesus' cousin; others believe James was a son of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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