The artifact's existence, revealed this week, was a source of excitement to those interested in early Christianity and 1st century Judaism. If authentic, it could prove to be the first archaeological evidence of Jesus of Nazareth.
No serious scholar doubts that such a person lived (some half-dozen references to him exist in secular texts from antiquity), so the container -- or ossuary -- brings no dramatic new information. Nor does the object, almost certainly looted from a tomb in the environs of Jerusalem, shed light on whether Jesus was God, the Jewish Messiah, or whether he rose from the dead, as millions of Christians believe.
Scholars are wary of "unprovenienced artifacts" that have been ripped from their archaeological contexts. The looting that led to this ossuary's sale on the antiquities market was especially unfortunate. The absence of a bone box for Jesus in an intact family tomb that contained the remains of close relatives of the same generation would have tended to support claims for the resurrection.
The ossuary of James is empty. Presumably, it was empty when an Israeli, who prefers to remain anonymous, bought it from an Arab about 15 years ago. The dealer told the buyer it came from Silwan, an east Jerusalem neighborhood near the Mount of Olives, the place where Jewish tradition says the resurrection of the dead will begin. In 1989, a bulldozer widening a narrow street in Silwan uncovered an extensive Jewish burial complex hewn into the underlying rock from the Second Temple period -- the era in which James and Jesus lived.
At a press conference, Biblical Archaeology Review Editor Hershel Shanks explained that from about 20 B.C. to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Jews would bury their dead in niches, often in caves. After about a year, when the flesh had desiccated or fallen off, the bones would be collected in stone boxes and reinterred.
Shanks said the limestone box is covered in a cauliflower-like patina known to develop in a cave environment that is consistent with an age of 2,000 years. The patina in the crevices of the inscription matches the patina on the sides of the box. "There is no evidence of any modern tinkering." Shanks is convinced that it is an authentic ossuary with an authentic inscription from the 1st century A.D.
Shanks called the inscription "startling" and "mind-boggling." In 1st century Aramaic it says, "Ya'akov (James), son of Yosef (Joseph), brother of Yeshua (Jesus). Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne, one of the world's leading epigraphers, believes the inscription is authentic. Lemaire is author of the article "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus" in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeological Review. Ada Yardeni, the renowned scholar of Semitic paleography who copied the inscription for the article, also believes in its authenticity.
But does "Jesus" refer to Jesus of Nazareth, and does "brother" mean children of the same parent?
"Unless you can be certain that the 'Jesus' is Jesus of Nazareth, the whole thing is still up for grabs,"
the Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, professor emeritus of Catholic University, told United Press International. Shanks called Fitzmyer "one of the world's leading experts in 1st-century Aramaic and a pre-eminent Dead Sea Scroll editor." (Fitzmyer, initially troubled by an unusual spelling of the word "brother," did some research and found other examples from the same period.)
In a telephone interview, Fitzmyer noted that in Lemaire's article the Frenchman concluded: "It seems very probable that this is the ossuary of James of the New Testament." But earlier on the same page, Lemaire wrote: "Nothing in this ossuary inscription confirms the identification." Surely, however, Lemaire was making a pro forma distinction between probability and certitude.
The Rev. John P. Meier, a professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Ind., said converging lines of probabilities make it more likely than not that the Jesus referred to is Jesus of Nazareth. Meier, a Roman Catholic priest, is an expert on 1st century Palestinian Judaism and author of the four-volume series "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus."
"What are we left with but weighing probabilities?" Meier asked in a phone interview from South Bend. "It's one thing to have scattered probabilities. It's another thing to have lines of probabilities all converging at one point."
At the press conference, Shanks summarized a statistical argument Lemaire made in the article about the probability that the James, Joseph and Jesus on the ossuary are the people we know in the New Testament. Each of those names was somewhat common during the period, when the population of Jerusalem was roughly 80,000. In the two generations leading up to 70 A.D., about 20 people had this combination of names and relationships. But Shanks said an econometrician had told him that the sequence of the names and the relationship of the three men must also be taken into account. Of the six combinations, only one applies. This narrows it down to one-sixth of the 20 Jameses, or 3.3 people out of the 80,000 in the city.
For Shanks, the "clincher" is that the brother of the deceased is named.
Of the "hundreds" of bone boxes discovered, only one other is inscribed with the name of a brother. Shanks said if one accepts the theory that the brother is mentioned because he was a figure of some importance, and the deceased was associated with him -- and not simply because the brother presided over the secondary interment -- the probability that the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth seems overwhelming.
Fitzmyer, however, was unconvinced. In the only other ossuary inscription in which a brother is mentioned, it says brother of Hanin, and nobody knows who Hanin is, the Jesuit priest said. "To me, the reason why this Jesus is mentioned here as the brother of the person whose bones are buried there is simply because he's the one who saw to the second burial."
But David Flusser (1917-2000) -- the late professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem -- wrote that the Babylonian Talmud mentions the house of Hanin as a much-feared Sadducean high-priestly clan, "a reference to the mighty family of Annas." At the time of Jesus' crucifixion, Annas was a still influential former high priest who had been succeeded by his son-in-law Caiaphas. The Gospels say that after questioning Jesus, the Sadducees turned Jesus over to Pontius Pilate.
We learn from the Jewish historian Josephus that in 62 A.D. Annas the younger, probably the brother-in-law of Caiaphas, "convened the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the Torah and delivered them to be stoned." Caiaphas' tomb and ossuary box were discovered in 1990.
Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., said the ossuary of James is not ornate, and does not suggest that a well-to-do person was buried in it. It is far less ornate, for example, than the ossuary of Caiaphas. "I think there's a pretty high probability that this thing is authentic, and that has all kinds of implications," Witherington told UPI.
P. Kyle McCarter Jr., professor of Biblical and Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said he has "a bit of doubt" about the authenticity of the inscription. "There's reason for a lot of caution, because as Hershel Shanks pointed out, this is an unprovenienced artifact -- one not found by an archaeologist in a controlled excavation."
Meier said he is "a little bit nervous" about authenticity, but such uncertainty about artifacts from Israel is by no means unusual. "I think we need an international commission of reputable scholars to begin a formal investigation -- hopefully, with the help of the Israeli government if necessary -- to pry loose as many of the facts as we can about the very shadowy history of this ossuary," he told UPI.
But a shadowy past is true of many other artifacts, Meier said, including, at first, the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many ossuaries are in private hands, not in museums, he noted, and Lemaire got special permission to take photographs from the still anonymous owner.
"Until a whole commission of independent scholars can have ready, untrammeled access to the ossuary -- with the scholars having the freedom to trace down as best they can the history of the box -- it leaves one still somewhat in doubt," Meier said.
To this layman, the physical evidence indicates an authentic 1st century ossuary and inscription. Further, statistical analysis of the names of the men and their relationship to each other, combined with the historical record, strongly suggest that the Jesus on the inscription is Jesus of Nazareth. Assuming an authentic artifact, Meier agrees.
"Contrary to all customary usage, the brother is named as well as the father -- so important is the brother," he said.
"When you see 'James the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,' the strong hypothesis that would explain this grand exception sort of hits you in the face. While there are other possible explanations, why ignore the explanation that is right there in front of you as you go searching around for some other possible explanation, most of which -- I admit -- don't sound very convincing to me."
Now, what does "brother" mean, and how does this bear on religious beliefs, especially the Roman Catholic cult of the perpetual virginity of Mary?
In a phone interview, Fitzmyer was asked if the word for "brother" found on the box was restricted to sons of the same parent or also used for other male relatives.
"That's a big question," he replied. "That's precisely the problem with the whole inscription. The word is ach. That's the Aramaic form. It means 'a brother.' The word can be used, certainly, for blood brother -- sibling. There's no doubt about it. It occurs many times. In the Aramaic form of the Book of Tobit that came from the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, we have the word ach which is being used in a broader sense."
Asked the same question at the press conference, McCarter invoked the principle of parsimony, also known in the philosophy of science as Occam's razor. It says that when confronted by an array of possible explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest should be accepted.
"I think the most likely meaning for the word 'brother' is 'brother,' " he said.
Witherington agreed. "The fallback position in any inscription is that a word carries its normal meaning," he told UPI. The word "under any sort of normal circumstances means brother, and if not the context will make that clear.
"The normal assumption has to be that James has a blood relationship with both of these two persons, unless there's some clear qualifier there, and there just isn't. My interpretation is that the inscription is talking about James' two closest blood relatives."
Meier expanded on this. "If you wanted to be quite precise, you would spell it out descriptively," he said, as in the son of my brother. "The Old Testament does do that when it wants to be precise about something," he said.
It seems reasonable, then, to assume that in the 1st century Jesus of the New Testament and the James whose bones rested in the ossuary both were known as sons of the same father -- namely, Joseph, a "tekton" (builder) of Nazareth.
Fitzmyer demurs. None of the five "Jameses" of the New Testament is said to have a father called Joseph, he said.
Witherington called this "an argument from silence" and referred to Matthew 13:55-56. The New International Version is: "Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren't all his sisters with us?"
That James was the son of Joseph of Nazareth isn't in dispute, Meier told UPI. "But was he also son of Mary?" he asked.
"When Josephus, in Book 20 of the (Jewish) Antiquities speaks ever so briefly of James the brother of Jesus who is called messiah, you notice that he is not using the revered Christian terminology. It's not James the brother of the Lord. It's not a question of a set term which would be used if the relationship were not quite brother. He's just speaking as a historian of what he knows, and (that is) James is the brother of Jesus.
"The intriguing thing here, also, is Josephus is not necessarily dependent for this on some long oral or literary tradition. He was an aristocratic Hesmonian priest from Jerusalem. As far as we can trace his whereabouts, during this period around 62-63 A.D., when James would have been killed by Annas the Sadducean high priest, probably Josephus was in Jerusalem himself. So it's not as though he was speaking about some distant event that he had to learn about from somebody. We can't say he was in Jerusalem on that particular day, but basically we know he was living in Jerusalem during that period.
Meier said that when Josephus wrote of Old Testament stories which do use "brother" and "sister" in looser senses, he went out of his way in retelling the story in the Greek to make clear what the relationship was, substituting such words as cousin for clarity.
"And this person (Josephus), speaking in his own voice and probably from his own knowledge, calls James the brother of Jesus. That I find a rather weighty, independent, non-Christian attestation -- as is this inscription. Josephus in Greek uses adelphos; this inscription uses ach. We'll never have certainty here, but increasingly the argument builds up on one side rather than the other side."
At the press conference, Witherington said the ossuary inscription does not raise the issue of the virginal conception of Jesus because Mary is not mentioned. The evidence of the Gospels suggests that Jesus was her first child, he said, because it refers to the fact that Joseph and Mary were betrothed when she was found to be pregnant. It does raise questions about the perpetual virginity of Mary after the birth of Jesus, Witherington said.
In his article in Biblical Archaeological Review, Lemaire outlined three different Christian traditions about the "brothers" of Jesus. A version favored by Protestants is that James was a younger brother of Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph. The interpretation dominant in Eastern and Orthodox circles is that James was the son of Joseph by a previous marriage. Most, but not all, Roman Catholic exegesis holds that James was a relative and that Mary and Joseph never had marital relations. Until recently Roman Catholics -- following St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin in the late 4th/early 5th century -- held that James was a cousin, perhaps a son of Joseph's brother Clopas and his wife, also named Mary.
Fitzmyer said the Greek adelphos can mean kinsman or relative, "but don't say cousin. That's wrong. It never means cousin by itself. That's a mistake that Jerome made, and it's been repeated ever since. The New Testament has a very explicit word for a cousin, anepsios, but that's never used of either Jesus or James," the Jesuit said.
Meier said when the Apostle Paul called James "the brother of the Lord" (Galatians 1:19), "he's talking about somebody whom he had met personally, not somebody he had to know only through literary text or by some sort of oral tradition. ... And when he speaks of him in Greek, knowing full well there's the word anepsios for cousin, he calls him adelphos -- brother -- instead.
If Paul didn't write the epistle, Meier said, one of his close followers did. "And more to the point, obviously, the witness is therefore that in early Christian circles -- a rather small group of people, really -- anepsios was a known and available term."
Asked when the Roman Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity began, Meier said one begins to see it as early as the apocryphal Proto-evangelium of James in the mid-second century, in which "Mary's infancy is sort of back-written in imitation of the infancy of Jesus." In this document, Mary remains a virgin even in the act of giving birth.
By the 4th century, he said, "you begin to get the word aeiparthenos in Greek, meaning ever-virgin.
"Notice that all these explanations about James' relationship (with Jesus) are sort of moving backwards from the doctrinal position about Mary. It's not as though they really knew anything about James' relationship to Jesus. It's sort of logical deductions from something else."
Ever-virginity doesn't enter into the great creeds of the councils of late antiquity, Meier said.
He referred to John 7:5, "For not even his brothers believed in him."
"Notice the poignancy is lost if this means 'not even his cousins (or more distant relatives) believed in him.' It's precisely the brothers."
Meier was asked about Jesus' charge to the "beloved disciple" to take care of Mary (John 19:26-27). "This fits in perfectly with 7:5," he said. "It represents the rejection of Jesus' physical brothers because they have not believed in him."
Meier said that although Jerome's interpretations have held sway in Roman Catholicism until the 1980s, the "secondary Epiphanian view" -- that James was the son of Joseph by a previous marriage -- never died out. "If you look at the Giotto frescos in Assisi (dated about 1305), presumably a good source of Roman Catholic piety, in the depiction of the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15), you have the image of James leading the donkey."
Of course, if Joseph was a widower, he could have had other children -- not only James.
Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998), a Roman Catholic priest who was a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and one of America's preeminent Biblical scholars, has questioned the historicity of Jesus' birth narratives.
"One must remember," Meier said, "Jerome's precise solution has never been a matter of doctrinal definition among Catholics. It's been the common explanation, but the fact is that Roman Catholic doctrine has never defined what is the precise relationship of James to Jesus."
Bruce Chilton, an Anglican priest who is professor of Religion at Bard College, suggests that James' seniority relative to Jesus might be reflected in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). "The story of those with Jesus seizing him in the midst of exorcism (Mark 3:21; cf. 3:31-35) reflects the kind of almost parental concern an older brother might feel for a younger brother," he wrote.
Meier said that if one puts aside matters of faith and sifts the historical evidence on purely empirical grounds, "the explanation that James and the other brothers and sisters are the product of the marriage of Joseph and Mary and that in some sense they are blood brothers -- full, half or whatever -- of Jesus is the more probable solution. By no means can I say it is certain. All sorts of caveats have to surround that. ...
"If the quest for the historical Jesus is difficult, the quest for the historical relatives of Jesus is neigh impossible," Meier said.