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Mt 13:55  Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? (ESV)

Gal 1:19  But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (ESV)

James the brother of Jesus became the first bishop of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15) and wrote a NT epistle.  He died in AD 62 when he was thrown from the temple and then stoned to death by the Sanhedrin.

In 2002, antiquities dealer Oded Golan rocked the archaeological world and caused a media stir when he announced the existence of an ossuary that was purported to belong to James, the brother of Jesus Christ.  What is his basis for this claim?  The side of the ossuary contains an Aramaic inscription that reads, “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.”

Unfortunately, the exact provenance of this find is unknown since it was not discovered as part of an archaeological dig.  Oded Golan, however, claims that he acquired it nearly 40 years ago[1] (the bones were missing), and that it was discovered in the Silwan area in the Kidron Valley.

If Golan acquired the ossuary 40 years ago, why did he wait until 2002 to unveil it to the public?  According to Golan he did not consider the inscription significant.  As a Jew, he says he knows little about Jesus, including the fact that Jesus had brothers.  The significance of the inscription was only pointed out to him by the eminent epigrapher, Dr. Andre Lemaire, when he visited Golan’s home in 2002.

There is no question that the ossuary itself is authentic.  Ossuaries were only used from 50 BC – AD 70, and the patina on the box confirms this age.  It has also been confirmed that the limestone of which the box is made is from the Jerusalem area, quarried in the 1st or 2nd century AD.

While the genuineness of the ossuary is not questioned, scholars are divided on the authenticity of the inscription, particularly the phrase “brother of Jesus.”  Evidence for the authenticity of the inscription is that the patina found in the incised letters is the same patina that covers the limestone surface of the ossuary.  Also, according to epigrapher Dr. Andre Lemaire, the cursive Aramaic writing is consistent with 1st century Aramaic.  The style of the letters indicate that it was written between 20 BC and AD 70, which is the period of time in which ossuaries were used.  The shape of the dalet (“d”), yod (“y”) and aleph (“a”), narrow the time range down to roughly AD 50 to 70.  The Geological Survey of Israel also investigated the ossuary and declared it authentic.

Evidence against the authenticity of the inscription is that “James son of Joseph” seems more deeply incised than “brother of Jesus,” but this could be due to the hardness of the limestone, or the tendency of the engraver to be less careful as he finishes the inscription.

Some say the phrase “brother of Jesus” looks different from the other words, which indicates it was added by a forger to original phrase, “James, son of Joseph.”  The two ayins in the phrase “brother of Jesus” are completely different from each other, and differ from the ayin in the first half of the inscription.  Of course, it could be countered that this argues for the authenticity of the entire inscription.  A forger would try his best to match the letters already on the box.  Even if he failed to do so, surely he would at least be sure to make his own two ayins match.  We know from experience, however, that a single author is quite capable of writing the same letter in slightly different ways.  This is even more so given the medium.  Given the difficulties involved with incising letters into limestone we would expect for there to be some variability.

Others have noted that the Hebrew word for “of” is suffixed to “brother” in the phrase “brother of Jesus.”  This raises eyebrows because in most ossuary inscriptions this word is left out.  Instead, the final letter of the name is changed to indicate possession.  Also, the suffix is spelled “uhy,” when it normally appears as “uy.”  There is one instance of this spelling, and it is considered by most to be a spelling error.

In 2003 the Israeli Antiquities Authority declared the James Ossuary a forgery, and put Golan on trial for forgery (as well as for the Joash Tablet and Ivory Pomegranate).  The trial lasted for five years, from 2005 to October 2010, and spanned 116 sessions, included 133 witnesses, 200 exhibits, and nearly 12,000 pages of witness testimony.  At one point the judge advised the plaintiffs to drop their case for lack of evidence.  And in his summation, lead prosecutor Dan Bahat made a startling admission: “If the ossuary had been the only thing on trial, we probably would not have carried on with the process.”  Even Yuval Goren of the Israel Antiquities Authority admitted under cross-examination that microscopic analysis revealed that the patina in “Yeshua” is authentic and ancient.  The judge has yet to render a verdict in the case.  Given the divided opinion of scholars, and given the lack of a verdict in the forgery trial, I find it ironic that the mainstream media regularly declares the James Ossuary to be a modern forgery.  Perhaps it is, but the question of its authenticity has not been settled yet.

Is this the James of the Bible?

Even if the ossuary and inscription is authentic, it still does not answer the question as to whether or not this is James, the brother of Jesus, the Christ of the New Testament.  Could it be a different James who also happened to have a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus?  Over 200 out of 900 ossuaries have inscriptions.  Of those 200, 19 contain the name of Joseph and 10 contain the name of Jesus.  One ossuary even has an inscription reading “Jesus son of Joseph” on it.  But to have all three names appear together, and the proper relationship of each person to the other, it raises the statistical improbability of it referring to another James to such a degree as to make it unlikely that this ossuary contained the bones of someone other than the brother of our Jesus.

Furthermore, while it is common to find the name of the father in an inscription, it is not common to also find the name of one’s brother.  Indeed, only one other ossuary contains three names, and only one other ossuary contains the name of a brother.  It makes sense to include the name of one’s brother, however, if that brother was a famous or significant figure. If the inscription is authentic, then it is highly probable that this ossuary contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

Significance:

  1. If authentic, this would be the only artifact ever discovered with a direct link to the Biblical Jesus.
  2. If authentic, this is the where the bones of the brother and first bishop of Jerusalem were laid to rest.


[1]Apparently Golan told BAR that he acquired it 15 years before 2002 (1987), but  then he changed his story to say that’s how long it had been in his apartment, and that he acquired 25-30 years before then.  He probably changed his story because Israeli law requires that any artifact acquired after 1978 is the property of Israel.  See http://everything2.com/user/sid/writeups/The+ossuary+of+James.

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