The Brother of Jesus?

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An Aramaic inscription on the box reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"

It is smooth to the touch, cool and solid. It is worn, but not so much that its extraordinary message cannot be read. The small limestone box, the color of sand, nearly 2,000 years old, sits on its Israeli owner's kitchen cabinet. Its inscription, as with most Semitic writing, starts on the right. "Ya'akov, bar Yosef," it begins, carved strong and deep in the stone. James, son of Joseph. Then, slightly more eroded, "akhui di..." Brother of. And at the end, clearly visible from only close up, "Yeshua." Jesus. The language is the Aramaic spoken by Jews in Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D., but the words are so simple that any Hebrew reader would know the meaning. Here, in this bone-box, or ossuary, once lay the earthly remains of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

Yes, James, the son of that Joseph and the brother of that Jesus, whom millions of believers know as the Christ. Or at any rate, such was the claim made on the box's behalf last week at a remarkable Washington press conference by the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. (The container stayed in Israel, where TIME was given a private showing.) In the publication's cover story, Andre Lemaire, one of the world's foremost scholars of ancient scripts, announced that "it seems very probable that this [box] is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament."

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If the 10-in. by 20-in. by 12-in. receptacle is authentic — and scholars have no reason to believe it's not — and if the inscription refers tothe right James — a somewhat dicier proposition — this would be the most important discovery in the history of New Testament archaeology. It would also underscore the fact that early Christians still thought of themselves as essentially Jewish (the use of ossuaries at the time was a Jewish custom) and would pose something of a theological problem for the Roman Catholic Church (see box).

More significant, James' ossuary, if real, could become a kind of trans-denominational, scientifically approved relic. The Roman Catholic and various Orthodox churches, all of which regard James as a saint, would venerate it as a relic. Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson, while warning against "building faith on archaeological discovery," predicts that even conservative Protestants would probably find it " fascinating" and "enormously useful in evangelizing and shedding light on our understanding of the Scriptures."

Almost no educated person these days doubts that Jesus lived. Some accept it on faith, others on the testimony of a brace of ancient chroniclers, both Christian and Roman. Yet there is something uniquely compelling about an attestation in stone. As Lemaire explained to TIME, "The written word is a bit airy. Listen, you can talk about Egyptian civilization, but the day you visit the pyramids, it speaks to you in a different way." Or as Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, says of the ossuary, "It is something tactile and visible reaching back to the single most important personage ever to walk the earth."

But all these assessments are based on two suppositions: that the box is not a forged item and that the James, Joseph and Jesus inscribed on it are the ones in the Bible. Neither is a foregone conclusion. The history of the ossuary is murky. It was probably looted from a burial cave decades ago. The Biblical Archaeology article includes testimony by geologists and experts in ancient writing with sufficient credibility to convince scholars that the box is not a fake and probably does date to within four decades of A.D. 62, the accepted year for James' martyrdom at the temple. Many academics, however, have expressed reservations about Lemaire's claim to somehow be able to eliminate virtually all the other Jameses roaming Jerusalem during that period. Thus what might otherwise have been a kind of archaeological/religious coronation turns into something slightly different: a scientific detective story with extremely high religious stakes.

The owner of the ossuary claims to be stunned by the entire experience. He says he bought it for a few hundred dollars "in the 1970s" as representative of its particular period. He claims he had no idea at the time of its possible significance ("I didn't know that Jesus had a brother.") And he pleads with TIME not to divulge his name or location. "I don't want my apartment turned into a church," he explains.

His hope to avoid being overwhelmed by pilgrims seems a bit forlorn, however, especially when a reporter notes that the soil at the bottom of the now famous ossuary is littered with bone chips.

The town of silwan, nestled below the southern wall of the Old City, is a fairly typical Jerusalem-area Arab village — densely settled, tense and poor. But it does possess one distinction: numerous 1st century subterranean Jewish burial caves, some of which now double as basements for Silwan's rough cinder-block houses. Unofficial excavations by residents and by professional looters, although illegal, have long supplied the antiquities market with pots, lamps and other artifacts. According to the ossuary's owner, the dealer who sold it to him told him it was found in the Silwan area. The owner says it is highly unlikely that anyone will be able locate the cave from which it came.

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