Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived
Pilgrims who travel to Israel to walk where Jesus walked may soon have something new to connect them with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Scholars have recently examined a box carved out of soft limestone, made to hold the bones of a first-century Jew. On its side is carved an Aramaic inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The bone box, known as an ossuary, is in the hands of a private collector in Jerusalem. But its existence, revealed in a news conference today in Washington, D.C., has already generated a buzz among archaeologists and biblical scholars.
The news conference was convened by Biblical Archaeological Review, which reports "an archaeological landmark" in its November-December issue. The ossuary was not uncovered in an archaeological excavation, but apparently surfaced on the antiquities market. This means that potentially important evidence for evaluating the box is missing.
But experts consulted by BAR and Christianity Today seem satisfied that it really is a 2,000-year old artifact. BAR editor Hershel Shanks asked for an analysis by the Geological Survey of Israel. Retired Wheaton College professor John McRay, author of Archaelogy and the New Testament, says the survey's lab report was convincing. "Six different pieces of the patina of the stone were looked at through that laboratory," he said. "It was verified, by people who are not Christians, that the date on this is first century and there is no evidence of recent disturbances of the box."
"I have no question it is an ancient artifact from the first century," said Eric Meyers, the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University. "It appears to be the oldest extra-biblical, non-literary mention of Jesus in the context of the nascent Christian church, and that's pretty significant."
Jews used ossuaries in their burial caves for a relatively short period in the first century. But archaeologists have found hundreds in recent years, including one that probably belonged to the high priest Caiaphas mentioned in the Gospels. Some have even been found inscribed with the name Yeshua (Jesus/Joshua) or with the inscription "James, the son of Joseph."
But could this ossuary really belong to the brother of Jesus of Nazareth? "You have to remember that the three names mentioned are equivalent to Tom, Dick, and Harry," says Meyers.
"They're everyday sort of names in the first century. What is most compelling to me is the use of 'brother of.' We don't have the designation of siblings common in the epigraphy of the Second Temple or early Roman period. That's kind of a clincher for me."
Meyers is an archaeologist who has excavated a number of sites in Israel. And even while marveling at this development, he cannot hide his repugnance at having to comment on a discovery of unknown provenance. "There was a whole tomb that was looted and this has been sold on the black market," he charges. "We're missing all of the rest of the stuff that could have filled in the blanks. That's very sad and that's why we don't want to encourage archaeological looting and this sort of activity."
Implications for Catholic doctrines
Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, believes that the bones stayed in the ossuary for a very short time. Noting that first-century Christians fled Jerusalem shortly before the Romans destroyed it in A.D. 70, Witherington thinks they took James' remains with them. "It's not likely they would take the ossuary with them, it's too heavy," he says. "They would probably have taken the bones because they wouldn't have wanted his grave to have been desecrated by Romans."