The Brother of Jesus?

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

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For years the ossuary sat in obscurity. Jews in Jerusalem in the hundred years before and after Jesus' birth practiced secondary burial — the transfer of bones of the deceased from a first grave into a container that was then deposited in the family burial cave. Archaeologists have unearthed thousands of such boxes, ranging from ornately carved and painted chests to utilitarian containers devoid of any inscription. The James ossuary fell somewhere in the middle. Its owner says he was familiar with its inscription but, as a Jew, was unaware that the names were special. One day last spring he invited Lemaire — inJerusalem on a scholar's break from his job as head of the Hebrew and Aramaic philology and epigraphy department at the Sorbonne in Paris — to examine some inscriptions in his collection. As an afterthought, the owner mentioned the names on the James box and showed Lemaire a photo.

"Suddenly, your brain goes, 'tick!'" says Lemaire, now back in France. "My first thought was, 'Is it James, the brother of the Lord?'" A former priest, he knew well that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew credit Jesus with siblings, of whom James was the most distinguished. Several weeks later, at Lemaire's request, the owner produced the ossuary. Weighing about 45 lbs., it was irregularly shaped, longer on its top than at the bottom and just long enough to accommodate the longest human bone, the femur. Lemaire examined the inscription with a photographer's loupe. "My impression was that it was genuine," he says. He contacted Shanks, and together with the collector, they set about testing it more thoroughly.


science approaches the study of an ob-ject like the ossuary from a number of angles, including its physical context, the condition of the stone from which it is made and its style, ornamentation and inscriptions. The James ossuary's undocumented history eliminated the use of context. To assess the box's composition, Shanks sent it to the Geological Survey of Israel. Survey scientists determined that it was made of a limestone quarried intensively from the Mount Scopus ridge (which includes the Bible's Mount of Olives) in the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. and that the cauliflower-shaped structure of its patina — amineral sheen that develops with age — indicated that it had spent centuries in a cave. Citing the absence of any modern chemicals or telltale disruptions in the patina and any marks in the stone by modern tools, they confirmed its antiquity and ruled out forgery. Independent scholars have almost unanimously accepted their judgment.

Lemaire, of course, wanted to ascertain the date more exactly than a 200-year window. He points out that Jews in Jerusalem, primarily Pharisees, used ossuaries only from roughly 20 B.C. to A.D. 70. The style of the inscription conforms to the same period. Moreover, Lemaire, one of whose specialties is Aramaic writing, contends that three characters written in cursive, a script developed only around A.D. 25, date the box to within 40 years of James' death in A.D. 62. With the exception of his countryman Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique etArcheologique Francaise in Jerusalem, other epigraphers, working from photographs, have agreed.

At this point Lemaire's proof shifts from the letters to the words. Yosef, Yeshua and Ya'akov (which can be translated as either Jacob or James) are very common names in a study of 1st century Jewish inscriptions. They represent 14%, 9% and 2%, respectively, of the total. But, as in a horse-racing trifecta, the odds favoring a combination ofthree names are drastically lower. Lemaire's formula for determining exactly how low takes into account the frequencies of the names, the estimated male population of Jerusalem over two generations (80,000) and the estimated number of brothers each man would have had (two). His ensuing calculations, he wrote, indicated that "there were probably about 20 people who could be called 'James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.'"

He believes that the Jerusalemites who would have inscribed a burial box that way were actually far fewer. In the article, he points out that any mention of a brother on an ossuary was extremely rare and speculates that when it occurred it may have been because that brother was "known" in his own right, as the biblical Jesus was to his circle. Privately, Lemaire adds that the number of James/Joseph/Jesus families who utilized an ossuary is perhaps further reduced when one eliminates those belonging to the Sadducee sect, which did not believe in bodily resurrection and would have been less likely to preserve bones. (Others disagree: the high priest Caiaphas was a Sadducee, and his ossuary turned up in 1990.) One might also subtract the trios who used uninscribed ossuaries, and those whose survivors could afford no ossuary at all. When one is done subtracting, Lemaire believes, there is a 90% chance that the James on the ossuary was the biblical brother of Jesus. "I don't use the 90% figure in the article because there are too many unknowns," he says somewhat apologetically. He settled for "very probably" instead.

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