The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Significance of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family
By Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III
254 pp.; $24.95

In spite of the fact that it split into several pieces before the museum exhibit opened and it had to be glued back together, the ancient bone box (or "ossuary") managed to pack in the crowds. The Royal Ontario Museum was so impressed that it extended the limestone container's stay to accommodate more paying customers. This unusually large attendance did not signal a renewed popular interest in the discipline of archaeology. Rather, the motivation was religious. The crowds believed they were viewing a relic.

Only a handful of months after its discovery (in early 2002) in the hands of an Israeli antiquities collector, an ordinary burial box had reached the status of prized religious object. This was not due to its beauty or rarity but to the writing etched onto the side, which identified the bones that it used to contain. The Aramaic inscription read "Ya'cob son of Yosef brother of Yeshua." In modern English: James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.

Of course, the find didn't publicize itself. Biblical Archaeology Review, by far the most widely circulated journal of Middle Eastern archaeology in the world, ran a picture of the box on the cover of the November/December issue. The article, by André Lemaire, discoverer of the ossuary, argued that this was in fact the Jesus. Of Nazareth.

Lemaire reported that a battery of tests had been conducted to determine that the ossuary likely originated in first-century Palestine. The writing style and grammar were consistent with the early first century. And statistical analysis based on inscriptions and writings from the time demonstrated that while "James," "Joseph" and "Jesus" were all common names, the likelihood of having a James who was a son of Joseph and a brother of (or even cousin of) a Jesus was quite small. Maybe 20 people in the couple of generations leading up to the fall of the temple in a.d. 70 could have been eligible. (After the temple fell, the practice of storing people's bones in ossuaries was discontinued.)

Also—and here was the kicker for a lot of people—there is only one other known example of someone's brother being listed on a bone box inscription. Thus, Trinity Western University's Peter Flint argues that this "Jesus" would have to be quite prominent in order to be included, and that "son of God" just might do the trick.

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The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Significance of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family, by BAR publisher Hershel Shanks and prolific Asbury Seminary scholar Ben Witherington III, recounts the discovery and assesses its significance. Shanks concedes that the "evidence is not so clear that it would stand up in court in a criminal case; we have not proved it beyond a reasonable doubt. But I do think it would be enough to sustain an award in a civil suit, where the standard of proof is a preponderance of the evidence."

Shanks and Witherington are far from alone in their belief in the inscription's authenticity. Craig A. Evans, for instance, is a professor at Acadia Divinity College who has written his own book on the subject, forthcoming from Baylor University Press and tentatively titled Jesus and the Ossuaries. "Contrary to some misguided and wrongheaded reports that were in the popular media," says Evans, the Aramaic writing is appropriate for the time period. Plus, all the other indicators seem to add up.

But add up to what? Shanks takes a fairly restrained approach. He argues, sensibly, that the ossuary is the first archaeological verification of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and James the Just. Evans adds that the ossuary "proves" four things that were already believed by modern scholars: 1) James and family spoke Aramaic; 2) James continued to live in or near Jerusalem; 3) James probably died in or near Jerusalem; 4) James continued to live as a Jew—proving that the decisive break between Christianity and Judaism did not come until later in the first century.

Witherington, for his part as the author of the last two-thirds of The Brother of Jesus, calls for a reassessment of Jewish Christianity and a reevaluation of the much-neglected figure of James, a leader in the Jerusalem church who authored the wonderful little book that Martin Luther wanted to burn. He also intentionally steps on the insoles of the group whose nerves have been the most frayed by this discovery: Catholics. The plain text of the Bible, says Witherington, indicates that James was the younger brother of Jesus by Mary and Joseph. Other interpretations amount to "arguments from silence."

Scott McKellar, professor of religious studies for Redeemer Pacific College, begs to differ. If it is accepted as authentic, he says, the ossuary will likely lead to a revision in the Catechism to accommodate the Epiphanian view of Jesus' family. That is, rather than being seen as "cousins," as in current popular Catholic understanding, Jesus' "brothers and sisters" would be understood to be Joseph's children from a previous marriage—a view accepted by many church fathers and believed by most Orthodox to this day.

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The paternity of James is but one combustible issue opened by the ossuary. Don't expect the debate to die down anytime soon.

Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor to Books & Culture. He lives in Washington State.

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