~ The Ossuary of James ~
The Aramaic letters etched on a side of the discovered ossuary reads
"Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua," or "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"

 
This ancient limestone box with a flowing Aramaic inscription could include the earliest mention of Jesus outside the Bible and may turn out to be the most important archaeological discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls. An ossuary is a second burial bone box rectangular in shape, around 1 1/4 feet wide and 2 1/2 feet long. At the time of death, the body was laid in the cave or tomb, and allowed to decompose. A year later the bones would be collected, and put in the ossuary. It was a ritual driven by necessity: Tombs, which were often carved into rock, were expensive and thus were often reused unless the family was wealthy. The ossuary was then placed in a niche (loculi or kokh) area of the burial cave for permanent storage. These bone boxes or "ossuaries" were used in Jerusalem between the 1st century BC and AD 70.
The ossuary, a limestone burial box for bones, is seen with an inscription in Aramaic reading  ``James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.'' This burial artifact was discovered in Israel and provides the oldest archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ, according to Andre Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions at France's Practical School of Higher Studies, who dates it to three decades after the crucifixion, 63 A.D.

"Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua," or "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"

The rough-hewn ossuary recently discovered is the type of "bone box" as used in 1st century burial rituals in Jerusalem. The Aramaic letters etched into its side reads, from right to left, "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua," or "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, and has been dated to about A.D. 63.

"It's high on the list probably No. 1" of the most important Jesus related artifacts, says John Dominic Crossan, coauthor of "Excavating Jesus." It is "the closest we come archeologically to Jesus."

Other than this box, a papyrus scrap from 100 years after the crucifixion is the earliest mention of Jesus outside the Bible.

Ultimately, the box's biggest impact may be to restore interest in James and his relationship to Jesus, the Essenes and the early church, and to remind the world that Jesus is more than a abstract icon. "We're not just dealing with mythical characters who are being theologically assessed," says Dr. Crossan, "These were real people in real situations."


For the ossuary in question, first announced in the Nov/Dec issue of "Biblical Archaeology Review," there is always a question of authenticity.

Kept in a private collection in Israel, the 20-inch long box is unfortunately empty. Nothing is known of its history prior to the current ownership, but experts believe it was probably one of hundreds uncovered in the Holy City. 

The box was bought by an Israeli collector 15 years ago from an Arab antiquities dealer for "several hundred dollars." There were no bones in the box, and the owner didn't think much of the inscription because he "didn't think the son of God could have a brother."

Observers worry it could be a fake from the sometimes shady antiquities market. There is a long history of archeological forgery. The largely discredited "Shroud of Turin" supposedly placed on Jesus after the crucifixion is one example.

The article's author, a well-known epigrapher from the Sorbonne in Paris, scrutinized the ossuary carefully. The cursive shape of three engraved letters would date the ossuary to the last decades of 70 A.D. Further, laboratory tests by the Geological Survey of Israel concluded that the ossuary has no modern elements and appears to be genuine. 

Scans by electron microscopes show no trace of modern tools and full evidence of layers of "patina" even in the recesses of the inscription indicates that box and inscription are the same age. Patina is a microscopic film that can only developed over many centuries after being kept in a cave or tomb. The inscription's grammar and script also appear to fit normal usage in the decades leading up to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Then there's the question of whether the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth. In tackling this riddle, the author turns to statistics. Jesus, Joseph and James were common names in biblical times, but according to experts, the statistical probability of their appearing in that combination is extremely slim. There is only a remote possibility, that of the 40,000 men living in Jerusalem at the time, that someone else could fit the description "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." He also notes that the mention of a brother is highly unusual on ossuaries. This indicates that the Jesus mentioned here is particularly famous. "It's like someone wanted us to be sure its Jesus of Nazareth."


~ Authenticity ~

In 2002, experts hailed the discovery of a burial box as a historic find. Now, accusations are flying.

The first group of experts heralded it as one of archaeology's greatest discoveries, a burial box inscribed with the earliest reference to Jesus ever found. But after a closer look, another group of specialists debunked the find as an elaborate hoax.

Now Israeli authorities have indicted the owner of the "James Ossuary" as a serial forger. The indictment has further polarized opposing sides in an increasingly vitriolic dispute.

Magazine editor Hershel Shanks, the most outspoken advocate of the box's possible authenticity, published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review detailing mistakes in what he called a "badly bungled" investigation by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The response was immediate. Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Antiquities Authority, dismissed Shanks as "totally crazy" and his claims as "pathetic." Dahari denounced ossuary owner Oded Golan as a "scoundrel" and a career criminal who lives off the proceeds of doctored artifacts.

All this has left the box trapped, perhaps forever, in historic limbo - revered by many believers as the onetime repository for the remains of Jesus' brother, James, even as skeptics revile the ossuary as an attempt to deceive biblical history.

~ History ~

The use of ossuaries was largely abandoned in 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple. This dated practice offers a rare period of self documentation, with hundreds of names carved in stone.

It is highly uncommon for a man's brother to be listed on the ossuary, unless that brother is prominent or important. Of all the ossuaries that have been discovered, only one other mentioned both the father and the brother of the deceased.

Until the ossuary's appearance, the earliest known artifact mentioning Jesus was a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, dated to about 125 A.D. Scholars date the Gospel of Mark, the earliest chronicle of Jesus' life, at around 70 A.D.

Historians, not the Bible, recorded James and his martyr's death in 62 A.D. He is repeatedly referred to as the "brother of Jesus" throughout the New Testament.

The style of Aramaic script used on the box was popular only from 10 to 70 A.D. Extensive tests dated the box to 63 A.D., well within the half-century when the containers were in popular use. Jews customarily placed bones in such a box after the body had decomposed for one year; the box is dated to one year after James' death.


~ The Impact ~

The Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a professor of biblical studies at Catholic University, acknowledged the box's potential impact for Catholic teaching. "It all centers on the meaning of the word `brother,'" he said. "If you take it to mean a blood brother, then yes, it would (disqualify) the Roman Catholic position."

If authentic, the ossuary would have immense significance for Christians everywhere. Additionally, it would be the first artifact, and the only artifact from the first century, that mentions Jesus. 

If the box is viewed as credible, the impact and implications could be enormous. "It would perhaps rival even the Dead Sea Scrolls."

First, it would add to the biblical evidence of Jesus' existence though few people today doubt Jesus ever existed.

Second, it would renew the theologically charged debate about James' relationship to Jesus. 

Third, The traditional Roman Catholic view is that Jesus is the only son of Mary. If Mary continued as the perpetual virgin, the argument goes, then James must actually be a cousin or half-brother or step-brother. The ossuary is the "the nail in the coffin of the 'cousin' argument," says John Meier, a New Testament professor at Notre Dame University.

Fourth, it would renew interest in the man who has been called "James the Just." A reputed vegetarian* who dressed in simple white linen. These Essenic customs would have been inherent also to all direct family members and an important ethic of apostolic tradition and early Christian teachings.

(*James, the brother of the Lord was holy from his mothers womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. Hegesippus, quoted in The Church History of Eusebius, book 2, chapter 23.)

Fifth, most of James' role in the early church was written out of the bible. If James is indeed the blood brother of Jesus, then by divine lineage, his position as successor and leader of the early Christian movement must be reexamined.


~ The Authority of James ~

Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340 CE), Archbishop under Constantine, tells us in his "Ecclesiastical History" that James was "The lord's brother, who had been elected by the Apostles to the episcopal throne at Jerusalem," - "Ecclesiastical History" 2.23

Knowing Jesus would soon depart from them, his Disciples, according to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, (buried and preserved in Nag Hammadi, Egypt), asked him who would lead them, "And Jesus said to them, 'In the place you are to go, go to James the Righteous, for whose sake Heaven and Earth came into existence.'"

Jerome (342-420 CE), basing his knowledge on Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria, and the Jewish historian Josephus, also knows this when he says in his "Lives of Illustrious Men" that "He [James] alone enjoyed the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since, indeed, he did not wear woolen, but only linen clothes, and went into the Temple alone and prayed on behalf of the people, so that his knees were reputed to have acquired the callousness of a camel's knees," and that after Jesus departed "was immediately appointed Bishop of Jerusalem by the Apostles." - "Lives of Illustrious Men" chapter 2

Palestinian Jewish Christian Hegesippus (100-180 CE), portions of whose five books of early Church history only survive in passages cited by Eusebius, tells us, "There were many James', but this one...the Lord's brother...was Holy from his birth. Everyone from the Lord's time till our own has called him the Righteous," and that "[b]ecause of his unsurpassable Righteousness he was called the Righteous, and Oblias," (E.H. 2.23)

The second century Syriac Apostolic Constitutions tell us that James was "the brother of Christ according to the flesh... and one appointed Bishop of Jerusalem by the Lord Himself," (8.35).

In another passage surviving only in Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 CE) tells us that the "Gift of knowledge" was imparted by Jesus to "James the Righteous, to John, and to Peter," and that these in turn "delivered it to the rest of the Apostles, and they to the Seventy, of whom Barnabas was one," (E.H. 2.1).

Clement of Rome (30-97 CE), or someone purporting to be him, addresses his letter in the non-canonical Pseudo-Clementine Homilies of Clement to "James... the Bishop of Bishops, who rules Jerusalem, the Holy Assembly of the Hebrews and the Assemblies everywhere," as does Peter similarly in his Homilies letter.

Even Josephus (37-96 CE), who was not a Christian, but was a Jewish contemporary of James, knows about him, and even insists that James' death was the reason the Jewish people believed Jerusalem fell: "These things [the Uprising and consequent destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans] happened to the Jews in requital for James the Righteous, who was a brother of Jesus known as Christ, for though he was the most Righteous of men, the Jews put him to death."

This passage, remarked on also by Origen (185-254 CE), and Jerome, only exists in Eusebius' E.H., Jerome's Commentary on Galatians, and Origen's letter (Contra Celsus 1.47), and, interestingly, is no longer extant in any manuscript of the works of Josephus! Commenting on it, Eusebius says, "So remarkable a person must James have been, so universally esteemed for Righteousness, that even the most intelligent of Jews felt this was why his martyrdom was immediately followed by the siege of Jerusalem," (E.H. 2.23)

This contradicts Christian belief that the Temple fell because of the "death of Jesus," as Origen is well aware and at pains to "correct" in Contra Celsus. This letter also tells us that "the wonderful thing is that, though he [Josephus] did not accept Jesus as Christ, he yet gave testimony that the Righteousness of James was so great...that the people thought they had suffered these things on account of [him]." (Commentary on Matthew; 10.17)

For his part, Jerome, in his Lives, writes "This same Josephus records the tradition that this James was of so great Holiness and reputation among the people that the destruction of Jerusalem was believed to have occurred on account of his death," and in a Commentary that "So Holy was James that the people zealously tried to touch the fringes of his garment," (Commentary on Galatians 1:19); these are the fringes commanded to be worn by observant Jews in Numbers 15:38:

"Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and Remember all the Commandments of YHWH, and do them; and that you go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray." Numbers 15:38-39

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם; וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף, פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת. וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל מִצְוֹת יְהוָה, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם.

Even the very attire of James reminded the masses that, as he retorted to Paul, "Faith without works is dead." As well we are told here that this was to be bid unto the "B'nei Yisrael," the Children of Israel, throughout their generations. This did not expire with Jesus Christ, as he also confirmed many times that there was not a single aspect, or even the smallest letter of the Torah that was to pass away on account of him. And still, despite Paul's claims to the contrary, the Torah did not expire when he came pandering to the Roman Beast.


~ Jesus-Related Artifacts ~

Until now, the most significant finds related to New Testament figures have been the ossuary of Caiaphas, the high priest who handed Jesus over the Romans for crucifixion, and a dedication tablet on a monument. It mentions Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who passed the death sentence against Jesus.

The new find would be the first archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus.

Biggest archaeological finds related to the life and times of Jesus besides the new "James ossuary."

1. Ossuary of high priest Joseph Caiaphas, who's mentioned in the Bible as helping interrogate Jesus before the crucifixion. Found in Jerusalem in 1990.

2. Inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who approved Jesus' crucifixion. Found in 1962 near the Mediterranean Sea.

3. The apostle Peter's house. Found in 1906 but not confirmed until the 1980s in Capernaum beneath the remains of a 5th-century church.

4. The Galilee Boat. A 1st-century, 8-by-26-foot fishing boat. Found in the mud of the Sea of Galilee in 1986.

5. The Crucified Man. Remains, including a bone heel pierced by a large nail. Discovered in burial caves near Jerusalem in 1968. Source: "Excavating Jesus"

In many ways, this discovery is likely to raise as many questions as it answers. Still, scholars say it is an important addition to a small but growing collection of historical footnotes that shape the future of Christianity and the historical Jesus.


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