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Dr. Paul L. Maier
What are the facts?
An ossuary is a limestone box for burying bones that was used by Jews primarily in the first century AD. As a kind of space-saving way to deal with the dead, this "second-burial" system first interred the deceased in sepulchers to decompose for a year or two, then gathered the bones that remained and put them into stone boxes or "ossuaries." Jesus Himself was in the first stage of this burial method, and had it not been for the resurrection, His bones would have been transferred to an ossuary a year or two after His crucifixion and death.
In fact, three crucial ossuary discoveries in the last quarter century have been extremely supportive of the New Testament records.
Critics used to doubt that Jesus was ever nailed to a cross, insisting that John's Gospel was indulging in fantasy rather than fact in claiming such. No longer! In 1968, at a suburb of northern Jerusalem, the ossuary of Yohanan benHa'galgol was discovered. While otherwise unknown, this man had been crucified, as the seven-inch iron spike still transfixing his heel bones offers mute testimony.
In November 1990, the bones of the first Biblical personality ever discovered came to light in another ossuary, which was magnificently carved with perfect fluting along the edges and two great whorls adorning its face. Clearly, this bone box must have been adorned for an important person. And, indeed, on the other side was his name, incised twice in Aramaic: Iosef bar-Caiapha, or "Joseph, son of Caiaphas," the high priest who indicted Jesus before Pontius Pilate on Good Friday, a major Biblical figure and another stunning discovery.
Now, a dozen years later, we have number three: the James ossuary, a slightly trapezoidal box about 20 inches long, 10 inches wide, and 12 inches high, with removable stone lid. It has no adornment other than a narrow marginal border about a half-inch wide.
Is the Ossuary authentic?
Let's explore the evidence pro and con.
Against authenticity: Unfortunately, the ossuary was not discovered in situ, that is, it did not come to light in the course of an archaeological dig as was the case in the two previous. Accordingly, the context of this find is lost, and we have no exact idea where the ossuary was found, what else was buried there and the like - priceless evidence that has now vanished. Some 30 years ago, an Arab antiquities dealer in Jerusalem sold the ossuary for a few hundred dollars to a now-51-year-old engineer named Oded Golan living in Tel Aviv.
The dealer stated that the ossuary - one of many rifled from ancient tombs - came from the Silwan area in the Kidron Valley, southeast of the site where the Jerusalem Temple once stood.
Worse still, the bones originally inside the ossuary had been dumped out somewhere, which is the case in nearly all ossuaries not discovered by archaeologists. If the skeletal remains were left inside such bone boxes, looters would encounter hostility from ultra-orthodox Jews, who object to all disruption of human remains.
For authenticity: The evidence for authenticity of the James ossuary, however, is much stronger. The very fact that an ossuary is involved all but proves its first-century origin, since the only time Jews buried in that fashion was from approximately 20 B.C. to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
The fragile condition of the ossuary cracks that widened en mute to its first public display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto further attest to its antiquity. Any perpetrator of archaeological fraud would have found some way to make the "find" public much sooner than was actually the case. And finally, the Israel Geological Survey submitted the ossuary to a variety of scientific tests, which determined that the limestone of the ossuary had a patina or sheen consistent with a many-centuries-long sojourn in a cave.
Is the inscription authenic?
In a word, yes. The same patina covers the incised lettering of the inscription as the rest of the surface. If the inscription was recent, this would not be the case.
It is true that the first part of the inscription, "James son of Joseph," seems more deeply incised than the latter "brother of Jesus," but this may have no significance. Even if it does, differences in the hardness of the limestone may have been responsible, or the carver may have been pressed by time. Conceivably, he or someone else may have thought to add the further defining clause subsequently in view of its importance.
The script is cursive Aramaic - fully consistent with first-century lettering, according to Dr. Andre Lemaire, the Parisian epigrapher who first saw the importance of the inscription when Golan invited him to view the ossuary in his apartment. Furthermore, the inscription was not incised with modern tools, and contains no elements not available in the ancient world. The inscription, then, appears genuine.
Our James, Joseph and Jesus?
Here the evidence is not as conclusive. All three names were frequent for that era. Josephus, for example, mentions a score of different Jesuses in the first century. But this exact relationship Joseph the father, James a son, and Jesus a brother has never been cited in any extrabiblical ancient literary source or on stone. According to best estimates, only a tiny fraction of Jerusalem men would have had such a relationship, and even fewer would have been able to afford an ossuary.
Even more extraordinary is the inclusion of the phrase "brother of Jesus." With but one exception, the hundreds of ossuaries discovered in the Jerusalem area mention only the deceased and his father. Clearly, this "Jesus" was additionally inscribed as "brother" because of His importance.
Accordingly, there is strong (though not absolutely conclusive) evidence that, yes, the ossuary and its inscription are not only authentic, but that the inscribed names are the New Testament personalities. Hershall Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, who broke the story, is joined by a host of other authorities who support this conclusion in varying degrees.
Personally, I give it a 7 on my handy 1 - to - 10 scale.
James the Just
This, then, is the man who is named as one of Jesus' four half-brothers in Matt. 13:55. (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and others who advocate that Mary was always a virgin claim that these brothers were either children of Joseph by a previous marriage or cousins of Jesus. Most other Christians, on the basis of Matt 1:25, assume that they were indeed children of Joseph and Mary after Jesus' birth.)
An unbeliever until Jesus' resurrection, James - not Peter - became the first bishop of the Christian church (Acts 15), the author of the New Testament epistle bearing his name, and an early Christian martyr.
Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, reports that "James, the brother of Jesus who was called 'the Christ'" was held in high repute by many in Jerusalem, including Jews, who called him not only "James the Just," but "Camel Knees" because his were knobby from prolonged kneeling in prayer.
Still, he was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin in the year 62.
Eusebius, the early Christian church historian, adds detail to that stoning in his Church History. The Jerusalem priests had expected James to denounce his brother, Jesus, publicly when they placed him before crowds at the temple. Instead, he boldly testified that Jesus was the Messianic Christ. Pitched down from the temple as a result James was finally dispatched by a laundryman using a fuller's club.
That death, however, saved many Christian lives. After James' martyrdom, believers fled from Jerusalem to the Decapolis (Greek, meaning "Ten Cities," a Hellenistic league of the first century B.C. to the second century A.D.), thus escaping the horrors of the bloody Jewish war with Rome a very short time afterward. Three centuries later, Eusebius reported that the bishop's chair of James was still preserved by the Jerusalem Christians.
If the James ossuary had preserved human remains that included a cracked or crushed skull, the identification would then be conclusive. Still, bone fragments have been found inside the ossuary. If a DNA test is performed on these, we may be able to learn who today could be related to that first-century James - and perhaps Jesus Himself.
In view of such discoveries, it's a fascinating time to be alive - especially for Christians!
Dr. Paul L. Maier is fourth vice president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University.
Matthew 13:55 - Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?
Matthew 1:25 - But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness, January 2003. You can subscribe to The Lutheran Witness by calling 1-800-325-3381.
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