If the experts in archaeology, geology, linguistics and epigraphy (study of inscriptions) are correct, a stone box (“ossuary”) which once held the bones of James the half-brother of our Lord has surfaced to become one of the earliest physical finds which mention the historical Jesus. Dr. Andre’ Lemaire of the Sorbonne in Paris, perhaps the world’s leading scholar in ancient inscriptions, was shown the box by an Israeli antiquities dealer while working at Hebrew University from April to September 2002. Inscribed on the box in Aramaic letters were the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” (Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua). The story of the unique find broke in the November-December 2002 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Professor Lemaire’s instincts immediately told him that this inscription came from the period 20 B.C. to 70 A.D., and his scholarly analysis of the script confirmed that first impression. Scientists at the laboratory of the Geological Survey of Israel examined both the writing and the box with microscopes and a spectroscope. They found no sign of modern tools or pigment and verified that the stone was soft limestone from the correct period. The geologists finally concluded that there was “no evidence that might detract from the authenticity” of the box or its inscription. This box, which measures 20″ long, 10″ wide and 12″ high, is typical of ossuaries which Jews used during the first century to hold skeletal remains, allowing the re-use of limited burial caves.
Although scholars calculate that perhaps 20 people in first-century Jerusalem named “James” likely had a father named “Joseph” and a brother named “Jesus” (all three names were common), not all those would be buried in an ossuary and not all ossuaries carried inscriptions. Furthermore, while inscribed bone boxes frequently identified one’s father, it was highly unusual to name a brother unless the brother himself was well-known. The chances are great, therefore, that the “James” whose bones once lay in this box was the half-brother (Catholics believe “cousin”; Orthodox believe “half-brother” by an earlier marriage of Joseph) of our Lord, a leader of the Jerusalem church and author of the Epistle of James.
Early Christian tradition says that this James was martyred when certain scribes and Pharisees ordered him thrown from the top of the Temple and stoned, then killed by a blow to the head with a fuller’s club. Because of his piety (his knees were said to resemble a camel’s from much time kneeling in prayer) he is known in church history as James the Just (“Righteous”).
A Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Globe, has since identified the ossuary’s owner as Mr. Oded Golan of Tel Aviv, who says he bought the stone box from an Arab antique dealer in the 1970’s while he was still in university. According to the Globe, the ossuary was damaged during shipment for display in Canada. Mr. Golan says that he has some bone fragments that were in the box and that he might present them for DNA testing to see if James has any living descendants.