Burial box may be oldest find linked to Jesus

Seattle Times Oct. 22, 2002

The Washington Post and The Associated Press


WASHINGTON ‑ A limestone burial box dating to the first century, looted from a Jerusalem cave and held secretly in a private collection in Israel, could be the oldest archaeological link to Jesus Christ, according to a French scholar whose findings were published yesterday.

  An inscription in the Aramaic language ‑ "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" ‑ appears on the empty ossuary, a burial box for bones.
  Andre Lemaire said it's "very probable" that the writing refers to Jesus of Nazareth. He dates the ossuary to 63 A.D., just three decades after the crucifixion. Examinations by other scholars and scientists supported his conclusions as to the age of the box and authenticity of the inscription.
  However, because the box was looted, it's impossible to know for certain where it came from, and nothing is known about its history over the past 19 centuries.
  Lemaire, a specialist in ancient Aramaic and Hebrew at the Sorbonne, was invited by the ossuary's owner to examine it this spring. His findings are published in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
  Since Lemaire's visit, other scholars and scientists have examined and analyzed the box, seeking to expose it for a fake or otherwise show that it could not be the ossuary that once held the bones of St. James, founder of the Christian church of Jerusalem and, in the words of St. Paul to the Galatians, "the Lord's brother."
  So far the ossuary has withstood scrutiny, but even those who have studied it, such as the Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, an emeritus biblical studies and Aramaic expert at The Catholic University, concede that "it will always be controversial."
  "The problem is how do you determine that the people involved are the people in the New Testament?" Fitzmyer said. "It's certainly possible that they are, but I can't see going beyond that."
  The Jewish custom of using ossuaries to collect the remains of the deceased lasted from about 20 B.C. until the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Corpses lay in long caves for a year until flesh and soft tissue fell away, after which the bones were placed in a box and put in tombs.
  Historians say St. James was stoned to death around 62 or 63 A.D. for teaching the divinity of Christ.
  Until the ossuary's appearance, the earliest known artifact mentioning Jesus was a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, dated about 125 A.D. and discovered in Egypt in 1920.
  While James is described as a "brother" of Jesus not only in St. Paul's epistles but also in the Gospel of Matthew, there are three different interpretations of the relationship.
  Protestant scholarship holds that James is a full blood brother of Jesus, while the orthodox churches regard him as the son of Joseph by a previous marriage. Roman Catholic scholars have suggested that "brother" is an idiom, and that James was Jesus' cousin.
  Review publisher Hershel Shanks said the James ossuary was looted and sold to the owner 15 years ago for between $200 and $700. "The Arab dealer told the owner it came from Silwan," Shanks said, a Jerusalem suburb honeycombed with ancient tombs.
  Lemaire said the owner of the ossuary "didn't know about Christian traditions" and had little interest in them.
  "The inscription caught his attention because of its length," which could indicate that the box held the remains of a titled person, he said.
  The ossuary is about 20 inches long, slightly trapezoidal in shape and with a slightly convex lid.
  Lemaire told the owner that his ossuary was "interesting," but he knew the box posed immediate and serious questions: How likely was it that the names James, Joseph and Jesus ‑ all popular in New Testament Jerusalem ‑ referred to the biblical family?
  Was the Aramaic inscription as old as the box, or had it been etched in later to enhance its value? Did the cursive lettering used in the inscription match characters used in other scripts from the same era?
  And even if these questions were answered satisfactorily, could scholars ever overcome the fact that the box was looted and that nothing is known about its history over the past 19 centuries? Probably not.
  "If it's looted, archaeologists would say it's useless, because we have no idea where it came from, and it has no context," said Glenn Schwartz, a specialist in Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Also, the object, if real, would be hugely valuable, so anybody interested in forging it would make it as believable as possible."
  Otherwise, however, the ossuary passed all its tests. Scientists from the Geological Survey of Israel confirmed that the limestone ossuary was typical of biblical Jerusalem. The Survey also said its surface patina matched patina in the grooves of the inscription characters, indicating that the box and inscription were the same age.
  Fitzmyer was at first puzzled by some of the Aramaic characters but found them used in a book of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  Finally, Lemaire calculated that there statistically could have been perhaps 20 people out of Jerusalem's population of 80,000 at the time who fulfilled the requirement of being "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
  And while mentioning the father of the deceased on an ossuary is relatively common, a brother's name usually appears only if the brother paid for the funeral, "or if the brother is famous," Shanks said. "That certainly would be the case here."


This empty ossuary, (picture has been removed for simple e-mail format) or limestone burial box for bones, has been dated to the era of Jesus Christ.


Aramaic inscription on the ossuary reads, 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. " The burial artifact that was recently discovered in Israel has been dated to 63 A.D. It apparently was looted from a Jerusalem cave and then sold, which mars its archaeological authenticity.