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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"SOME SEMBLANCE OF CAUTION" by this point, however, many other scholars had parted ways with Lemaire. P. Kyle McCarter, chair of the Near Eastern studies department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., notes that the log of inscription names from which the Sorbonne professor derives his percentages may not actually reflect their frequency in Jerusalem as a whole, contaminating his calculations. He comments, "It wouldn't be my inclination to quantify it in that way." (Meanwhile, Camil Fuchs, head of Tel Aviv University's statistics department, running numbers from the article, claims that Lemaire overestimated the final tally. Fuchs claims that there would have been only five possible Jameses.) Rather than focusing on the numbers, McCarter and other specialists with whom TIME talked seemed obsessed with two facts. All were horrified that the artifact had been ripped out of context, partly because looting is immoral but, more important, because, as McCarter says, it "compromises everything. We don't know where [the box] came from, so there will always be nagging doubts. Extraordinary finds need extraordinary evidence to support them."

At the same time, however, he and his colleagues are, like Lemaire, fascinated by the appearance of a brother's name on an ossuary, which has been documented only once before in an Aramaic inscription. "It immediately suggests [this Jesus] was somebody important," says Ben Witherington III, a New Testament specialist at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky who is co-authoring, with Shanks, a book on the ossuary. Granted, there needs to be "some semblance of caution," says Eric Meyers, professor of Judaic studies at Duke University who has published on ossuaries. The combination of the three names could be simply a coincidence. "But there is a strong possibility that the artifact is what Lemaire says it is: the oldest extra-biblical archaeological evidence of Jesus."

Concedes Biblical Archaeology's Shanks, "It's a question of judgment, not scholarly expertise. It is possible that the brother was simply responsible for the burial. Or that the brother was prominent in real estate. But frankly, to me, the chances [that he wasn't the biblical Jesus] are slender."

A Tupperware Full of Bones
the bone fragments lie in the dirt at the bottom of the box like the dots and dashes of some infuriating code. They were there, says the owner, when he bought it. Whoever sold it to his dealer would have removed anything larger, since Israeli collectors and looters alike know that the rabbinical authorities are sensitive about human remains. What is left is these off-white bits. The largest is half an inch wide and three inches long, its inner surface an intricate honeycomb. A reporter holds it gently — who knows whose dna it might contain?

It need not have belonged to James. Ossuaries often held the bones of several family members. Looters could have used the box as a handy receptacle while emptying others. Radiocarbon dating might be able to determine whether the chips date to the same approximate period as the box. As for genetic tests, James Chatters, a Seattle-based archaeologist with forensic expertise, says it is "entirely possible" that dna could be extracted from such fragments. Most likely to be recovered would be the mitochondrial variety, which can provide a catalog of maternal traits. Of course, if the ossuary was biblical, the mother (by the Gospels' most literal interpretation) would be Mary.

Soon the bone-box will leave Israel for the first time to go on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. But the bone fragments will not go with it, nor will the owner allow them to be displayed or analyzed. He brandishes a Tupperware container. They will stay right here. Who needs trouble with the rabbis or with Israeli customs? The ossuary has delivered enough mystery into the world for now.

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