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Burial Box Bears Inscription of 'James ... Brother of Jesus'

The finding could be the earliest archeological evidence of the biblical figure. However, scholars say they may never know for sure.

October 22, 2002|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

A French scholar has discovered what may be the earliest archeological evidence of Jesus -- a 1,940-year-old limestone burial box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The 20-inch-long box for holding the bones of the dead, known as an ossuary, dates from AD 63 and all evidence suggests that it is genuine and not a forgery, said paleographer Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris, who discovered it in a private collection.

The discovery, which so far has survived the scrutiny of a variety of scholars and scientists, could be one of the most important finds in New Testament archeology, said Hershel Shanks, publisher of the Biblical Archeology Review, which is reporting Lemaire's findings in its November/December issue. Until this find, the oldest existing text with the name "Jesus" was a papyrus fragment of the New Testament dated about a century after Jesus' death. One of the major questions facing historians is whether the James mentioned in the inscription is actually St. James, who headed the church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death, or whether the inscription refers to another family entirely.

Although Lemaire said at a news conference Monday that it is "very probable" the box held the bones of St. James, P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University told the same gathering that "we may never be absolutely certain."

"In the work I do, we are rarely absolutely certain about anything," he said.

"It is real," said John McCray of Wheaton College in Illinois. "The big question is, are we 100% sure that the reference is to Jesus [Christ]? The answer is no, we are not 100% certain, but the probabilities are very strong that it is."

The reservations stem from the fact that no one knows where the ossuary has been for 19 centuries. The unidentified Israeli collector who owns the ossuary purchased it 15 years ago from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer for "$200 to $700," Lemaire said. The dealer, in turn, bought it from an Arab who said he found it in Silwan, a Jerusalem suburb that is the site of thousands of tombs.

McCarter said he was disappointed that there was little information available about the ossuary's original location and history. "This leaves us in the awkward position of always having doubts," he said. "They will always be there."

Ossuaries were used by Jews in the 1st century AD, transferring bones from burial caves to the boxes after all the flesh had naturally decayed. The practice was largely abandoned after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70. No one is quite sure why the practice started or stopped, but it provides a rare period of self-documentation in which commoners as well as leaders left their names carved in stone.

Lemaire is a well-known epigrapher who specializes in analyzing texts from the early Christian era. He was shown the ossuary on a visit to Jerusalem this year. The owner did not recognize the significance of the inscription.

The box is trapezoidal in shape, slightly wider at the top than the bottom. The lid is slightly convex. The inscription on the side is in simple Aramaic, in a cursive form of writing that was used only from about AD 10 to AD 70, Lemaire said. Aramaic was spoken throughout the Near East from about 300 BC to AD 650, and was the language of Jesus and his contemporaries.

Lemaire was suspicious of the text at first because it had an unusual way of saying "brother of."

But a search of other documents from the period by Lemaire revealed similar phraseology, thereby lending authenticity to the ossuary. It's unlikely a forger would have chosen such phraseology, he said.

Laboratory tests performed by researchers at the Geological Survey of Israel confirm that the box is made from a porous limestone from the Jerusalem area. Most important, the box is coated by a thin patina, or sheen, indicating that it was stored in a cave for centuries. That patina covers the inscription as well as the box, the researchers found, and it contains no chemicals indicating that it is of modern origin.

There is "no evidence that might detract from the authenticity" of the bone box, the Israeli Geological Survey wrote.

The bones were missing from the ossuary because they were probably taken by Jewish Christians who fled so that James' remains would not be desecrated by the Romans, speculates Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. The box itself would have been too heavy to carry, he said, especially if they were leaving in haste.

Unfortunately, all three names were very common in the Jerusalem of that period. Researchers have already discovered at least two ossuaries that say "James, son of Joseph," McCray said. "But to have all three names is highly significant and extremely unusual, and indicates the importance of the name Jesus."

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