Civilization: Burial box of Jesus' brother


WASHINGTON, April 17 (UPI) -- In the six months since a limestone bone box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" was announced to the world, evidence mounts that the ossuary is authentic and that the "Jesus" is indeed the rabbi of Nazareth.

This dramatic discovery -- the first archaeological evidence of the man Christians worship as God, the second person of the Holy Trinity -- is the subject of a new book and a documentary film.


Dateline NBC will air a small portion of the film, "James the Brother of Jesus," on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday at 9 p.m., the Discovery Channel will broadcast the film on 100 stations worldwide.

The authors of "The Bother of Jesus" are Hershel Shanks, the founder and editor in chief of Biblical Archaeological Review and Bible Review, and Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky.

The film, which was previewed this week at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, was produced by Simcha Jacobovici, a Toronto-based filmmaker who won Emmy Awards in 1996 and 1997 for Outstanding Investigative Journalism.

"In the 3,500 years of their history, the Jewish people use ossuaries for 65 to 90 years maximum," Jacobovici told United Press International before the screening, referring to a period that began about 20 B.C. and lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. "The practice was prevalent in Jerusalem and in the Galilee. Resurrection was in the air. ... All the cave tombs faced the Temple Mount. They were waiting for messiah, and their physical resurrection. That's why they got their bones ready in an ossuary."


"Many Jews in Jerusalem in Jesus' time buried their dead in long niches in cave tombs," Shanks writes in the book's introduction. "After a year, when the flesh had desiccated and fallen away, the bones of the deceased would be collected in limestone chests ... just large enough to accommodate the longest bone of the body, the thighbone. Sometimes the name of the deceased would be inscribed on the outside of the box."

Of the thousands of ossuaries discovered, 233 of the some 900 catalogued are inscribed with the names of those buried inside.

In those days, people were known by their given names followed by the given name of their fathers. Only under very special circumstances was any other information added in ossuary inscriptions. For example, one man is identified as the builder of the temple sanctuary, and another as the person who made the gates of the temple.

The James ossuary came to light a year ago in Israel. André Lemaire, a former priest who specializes in the study of ancient Semitic inscriptions, is chairman of the Hebrew and Aramaic philology and epigraphy section at the Sorbonne in Paris. In April, 2002, Lemaire met an antiquities collector -- Oded Golan, 51, a Tel Aviv engineer and entrepreneur -- at the home of another collector.


Lemaire accepted Golan's invitation to view some of the more difficult-to-read inscriptions on his artifacts. Almost as an afterthought, Golan showed Lemaire a photograph of an inscription that was not difficult to read. Golan said he found it interesting because it was one of only two catalogued ossuary inscriptions that mentioned a brother. But Golan did not regard the artifact as important enough to display in his major collection, so he kept it in storage. Golan said in the early 1970s he bought the box from a dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem who said it had come from Silwan, an Arab neighborhood just south of the Mount of Olives on the flank of the Kidron Valley, site of many ancient Jewish cave tombs.

The inscription read, "Ya'acov, son of Yosef, bother of Yeshua," all common Jewish names in the first century. The association of the names had no significance for Golan, who didn't know that "Jesus," the Latinate form familiar to us, had a brother named "James" who led the community of Christian Jews in Jerusalem until his martyrdom in 62 A.D. The historian Josephus tells us that during an interregnum between Roman procurators of Judea, the Saduceean high priest Ananus the Younger seized the opportunity to have James and others stoned.


Lemaire, however, was struck by the possibility that this was the ossuary of "James the Just." Later, after examining the artifact itself, Lemaire asked Golan if it would be possible to publish a study of the inscription. Golan agreed, asking that the article appear in an English publication because he is not fluent in French. Lemaire suggested Shanks' Biblical Archaeological Review.

This led to a press conference in Washington on Oct. 21, which the review held jointly with the Discovery Channel, and a major article by Lemaire in BAR's November-December issue.

"I went into this whole issue as skeptical as anybody, on every count," Jacobovici told UPI. But he emerged from the process convinced of the authenticity of the ossuary and the inscription.

"Whatever challenge has been thrown at this ossuary, it's passed," the filmmaker said. "Most artifacts in the Smithsonian have undergone far less testing. This is one of the most tested archaeological artifacts ever."

Jacobovici sought to take people behind the scenes about whatever issues arose regarding the ossuary, and he set out to weave three strands of the story into one tale.

"Is it authentic?" This is a science story.

"Where did it come from?" Jacobovici described this as a contemporary investigative story. "This takes us to the gray underbelly of the antiquities market. We kind of run with tomb robbers and tomb-robber catchers."


"Who is James?" is a historical question the film addresses.

And at the end of the film Jacobovici offers a provisional solution to the mystery of the box's origins.

Both the book and the movie take note of the objections of those who believe the words "brother of Jesus" were a later addition – the "two hands theory" – and find them wanting.

The physical evidence is even more compelling.

UPI spoke with Vincent Vertolli, assistant curator of Geology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who examined the phosphate layer inside the box. The most logical source, he said, is disintegrating bone that released the phosphate, which re-precipitated along the sides and bottom of the ossuary.

"If it was a fake, you wouldn't expect to see this very slow growth which is highlighted by the layering," Vertolli says in the film. "It's very difficult ... to duplicate this wavy pattern."

No sign of the use of a modern tool was found.

An electron scanning microscope showed that the patina that develops when limestone interacts with air in a cave environment is the same inside the incised letters of the inscription as it is on the surface of the box. And if the patina were forged, it would glow under long-wave ultraviolet light. (It doesn't.)


But how do we know that "Yeshua" was Jesus of Nazareth? Certitude is impossible, but a case can be made for overwhelming probability.

Statistics Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University analyzed the population of Jerusalem during the relevant 65-year period -- about 80,000 at peak -- to answer the question of how many adult men among the thousands called Ya'acov had a father named Yosef and a brother named Yeshua. His narrowing of the pool by wealth and literacy may not be warranted. It's true that although ossuaries were reasonably priced, burial space in a cave was expensive. But by the time of his death, James was the leader of a significant faction. His followers could have taken up a collection for the disposition of his remains.

Likewise, although James could well have been literate and many of his followers could certainly read and write, countless illiterates have been buried under inscribed gravestones. The point is that Fuchs may have narrowed the pool of "Jameses" too much by considering only men from literate, wealthy families. By this calculation, he concludes that just three had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus.

But even if it were six, nine or a dozen, signs still point to Jesus of Nazareth. A brother would have been mentioned only if he had paid for the burial or if he were especially well known. The only other ossuary that mentions a brother is No. 570 in the collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority. It once held the bones of a man called Simon with a brother named Hanin. The father's name is illegible, but it might be Dosa. If Simon's brother was Hanina ben Dosa, then the fraternal reference is to another 1st century Galilean miracle worker who became well known.


Jacobovici discovered that only one church in Jerusalem is dedicated to James the brother of Jesus, and that is the Cathedral of St. James in the Old City, run by the Armenian Orthodox Church.

"The Armenians claim that they have the bones of St. James," he told UPI. The filmmaker interviewed the Armenians, who said there used to be a very early Christian church in the Kidron Valley, which was the traditional tomb of St. James. "They said, 'When the Muslims came in the 7th century, we abandoned that church, and we fled into the city with the bones of St. James.' If this was all true, they wouldn't have cared about an ossuary; they would have cared about the holy bones." They would have left the ossuary in the old church.

Jacobovici said in 1960 the British researcher John Marco Allegro (1923-1988) conducted an archaeological expedition in the Kidron Valley, which was still under the control of Jordan. Allegro was an early translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of which mentions treasure from the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Allegro, whom Jacobovici called "a bit of an adventurer," was looking for temple treasure and didn't care about such things as oil lamps or ossuaries.


"He never found treasure," Jacobovici said. "But he did find a chapel at the base of the tomb of St. James exactly where the Armenian tradition said there should be one. ... If the Armenians are preserving a real tradition, then ironically John Marco Allegro may have found the 'treasure' and not realized it."

Allegro's widow says in the film that the "dreadfully poor" Bedouin laborers on her husband's crew made what money they could by selling unearthed artifacts on the antiquities market.

Jacobovici believes Allegro excavated and discarded the empty ossuary, which was then sold to a dealer from whom Golan bought the box. "The Armenian story, the Allegro story and the Golan story all fit," he said.

It would be irony indeed if Allegro was the one to have unearthed the only archaeological evidence of Jesus of Nazareth, because he is one of the few educated Westerners to argue that Jesus never existed. The name, he asserted, was merely a secret way of referring to a psychoactive mushroom.

Jacobivici's suggestion, stated in the film, that James' followers "were intent on killing Paul, whom they saw as a collaborator with the Roman occupation and a transgressor of Jewish law" must remain controversial. As Witherington writes in the book, the evidence from the New Testament does not support the conclusion that James and Paul were fundamentally at odds. The attempt to pit James against Paul, which began with Martin Luther, "is wrong," Witherington writes.


Jonathan Reed, professor of religion at the University of La Verne, observed that James' importance diminished over the years because he was killed eight years before the Romans sacked Jerusalem. Therefore, Reed said in the film, our historical recollection of James' community of Jewish Christians is not as significant as that of the Christian communities established by Paul, who traveled around the rest of the Mediterranean world.

"So the ossuary is, I think, a very important reminder that there were alternatives within early Christianity -- one of which was James, which represents a very Jewish form of early Christianity," Reed said.

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