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The stir has been raised by an article in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, which details the existence of an Aramaic inscription recently found on an ancient bone box, called an ossuary, that reads, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." [In Aramaic ? "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua".]

This stone casket has been for the past 15 years part of the private collection of an Israeli collector of ancient artifacts and may contain the first-ever archaeological discovery to corroborate biblical references to Jesus.

With the world anxious to get a look at the casket, BAR editor Hershel Shanks says it may be unveiled in public at a convention of Bible and religious scholars in Toronto in November.

Shanks, a leading enthusiast of biblical archaeology who sued to force the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, says the inscription is extremely unique for the time period in question.

For about a 100-year period up to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Shanks explains, prominent and wealthy Jews in Jerusalem adopted the use of ossuary boxes as part of their burial practices. A body was embalmed and left for viewing for the first year or so after death in a family burial cave, usually on or near the Mount of Olives. After the flesh decomposed, the bones were placed in a stone casket for more permanent interment.

A number of First Century burial caves filled with ossuaries have been found in and around Jerusalem in recent decades, including many with New Testament sounding names and "messianic" symbols (crosses, Stars of David with fish) linking them to the earliest Jewish believers in Jesus. One burial cave in western Jerusalem in 1990 even bears the name of Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest in Jesus' day according to biblical and other contemporary sources.

In addition, some 40 years ago, archaeologists discovered an inscription on a monument that mentions Pontius Pilate, another New Testament figure.

But the inscription on this particular ossuary is distinctive. It is not unusual, for instance, to find an ossuary with the name of the deceased and his father's name, especially if the father was prominent or wealthy. But the reference to both the father and brother is extremely rare, occurring perhaps on only one other ossuary found so far. Taking into consideration that the names mentioned also match the immediate relatives of Jesus makes the find astounding.

James (Ya'akov) was the brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem Church. (see, for example, Matthew 13:55-56 and Galatians 1:18-19).

"That's the clincher as to why the three people ? James, Joseph and Jesus ? are all very likely to be the people of those names in the New Testament," says Shanks.

Shanks, who is Jewish, suggests that the find may give some Christians theological headaches. First, it would reinforce the Jewishness of Jesus after centuries of Christian efforts to uproot the faith from its Jewish roots.

The other problem area may be a certain tenet of faith that sees Mary as a perpetual virgin, never again bearing children after the birth of Jesus. But this would be solved if James were an older half-brother from an earlier marriage entered by Joseph.

Noted Bible scholar Dr. Randall Smith would point to an early church manuscript from perhaps the Second Century that indeed suggests the brothers and sisters of Jesus often referred to in the Gospels were actually Joseph's older children by a prior marriage.

Smith notes the use of the word "espoused" to describe the arrangement between Joseph and Mary in the Gospels. This could mean a quasi-marriage practiced among Jews in the First Century, something short of a full marriage contract (ketubah) whereby a widower agrees to provide and care for a single woman in exchange for her assuming daily responsibility for raising his motherless children.

Shanks says that several experts have verified the authenticity of the ossuary and inscription as coming from the First Century era and the evolving Aramaic language used at that time. The ossuary has been dated to approximately 63 A.D, a few years before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and was found by Arabs living in the village of Silwan, in the Kidron Valley.

"The James ossuary may be the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology," concludes Shanks. "It has implications not just for scholarship, but for the world's understanding of the Bible."

Listen to an audio commentary on this discovery:
A Plain Stone Box?

Is a limestone box from the first century A.D. with the inscribed words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," the oldest tangible link to Jesus? A conversation with Steven Feldman, Managing Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.


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