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."

Archaeological looting

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."

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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."

Witherington is intrigued as much by the beautiful Aramaic lettering of the inscription as by what it says. Handwriting analysis also helps date the ossuary to around A.D. 62, the traditional date of James' death.

"It certainly supports the view that Aramaic was still very much a living language amongst early Jews, including some of the followers of Jesus," he adds. He also sees implications for some Catholic doctrines in this discovery, especially the perpetual virginity of Mary.

"The dominant Catholic tradition is that the brothers of Jesus are actually cousins because Mary didn't have any more children, or they were step brothers in that they were Joseph's sons by a previous marriage," he said. "This inscription could call into question that doctrine."

Most Protestant scholars believe James was a younger brother of Jesus (one of four mentioned in Matthew 13:55) and not to be confused with the apostles, James the brother of John, or James the son of Alphaeus. James doesn't appear to have followed Jesus while he was alive, but Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:7, mentions that Jesus appeared to James after the resurrection. James then became the leader of the Jerusalem church.

Acts 15 records that James rendered judgment at a church council that met to adjudicate issues raised by Paul and Barnabas. He was also probably the author of the New Testament book that bears his name. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus says that around A.D. 62 the high priest Ananus arranged for the death of "one James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ/Messiah."

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An important discovery

BAR editor Hershel Shankstold CT the ossuary had been in the private collection of an Israeli citizen for about 15 years. "I asked the owner why he didn't recognize it. He said, 'I never thought that the Son of God could have a brother.'"

Shanks became aware of its existence in June after the owner contacted French epigrapher Andre LeMaire to evaluate it for him. The owner "got it from an Arab antiquities dealer," he said. "He only paid a few hundred dollars for it. The antiquities dealer told him it was found in the section of Jerusalem called Silwan, just south of the Mount of Olives. It's an area that's pockmarked with burial caves. Some people have their basements in ancient burial caves."

McRay said he had anticipated a discovery like this when he wrote his book a few years ago. "Two thousand years have passed and you would expect something like this to be there. It could be, probably, the most significant archaeological discovery of this generation." Shanks calls it "the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology."

"We're making arrangements right now to have it exhibited in North America," Shanks adds. "Next month there are 8,000 biblical scholars meeting in Toronto at their annual meeting. We'd like it to be there." After that, he's not sure what will happen with the ossuary.

Related Elsewhere

See the official website for Biblical Archaeology Review.

Christianity Today's 1998 article "Grave Matters" and sister publication Christian History's "The Scandal of the Grave" discuss archeological finds, the use of ossuaries, and the burial rituals of Jesus' time.

Additional articles on the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth can be found in issue 59 of Christian History. One of that issue's articles looks at "What Happened to Jesus' 'Brothers'?" The article says that, "James, probably the oldest of Jesus' brothers, was reported to have spent so much time in prayer that his knees 'were like those of a camel.'"

The Jewish Roman World of Jesus site includes text from Josephus' Antiquities on the death of James brother of Jesus. More information on James is available at Gospel Gazette Online and Crying Voice in the Wilderness.

Brother Anthony M. Opisso, M.D., of the Cistercian Abby in New Brunswick has written an extensive article on Mary's perpetual virginity. More explanation and debate is available on the Catholic Encyclopedia site.

Last month, University of Cincinnati professor Steven Fine made another significant ossuary discovery in the Cincinnati Art Museum. Fine found an image carved into an ossuary that depicts what first century Jerusalem looked like.