James’ Ossuary found in Jerusalem

Early November, 2002 the world came to know of an ossuary (a stone box for holding the bones of a deceased person) which had the Aramaic inscription shown in the picture attachment (the cover of Nov/Dec 2002 issue of Bible Archaeology Review), and it says (transliteration) ‘Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua’ which in current English is ‘James (Jacob), son of Joseph, brother of Jesus’.

The ossuary belonged to an antique collector in Tel Aviv, Oded Golan who showed it to an ancient script scholar, Andre Lemaire during his routine visit to Jerusalem April to September. Andre recognized the writing as genuine first century AD, and of its importance. This is the clearest reference to Yeshua (Jesus) and also his relationship to James (the epistle of James does claim the same thing). The ossuary was empty; the bones apparently had been discarded.

It was just large enough to hold all the bones of the human body (the Jews believed in a literal resurrection, so the bones had to be preserve): Joseph’s bones were taken to the Promised Land from Egypt; it is said that Noah’s Ark had carried the bone of Adam). The box was 20 inches long, 10 inches wide and 12 inches high (50.5 cm 25 cm x 30.5 cm); the top was flared out to 22 inches long. It had a lid which fitted at the top. The material of the box was limestone found in the Jerusalem area.

Most scholars are convinced that the inscription is genuine. Though there were many who bore the names Ya’akov and Yosef, and a few who were Yeshuas , the probability of all the three names appearing together from a population of 80,000 in Jerusalem at that time is about 20 people. But how many would be preserved in ossuaries? James was Head of the Christian church in Jerusalem, and it is no surprise that his ossuary would be preserved and well marked.

The ossuary was on display in Toronto, Canada from November 16 for a month; it was badly damaged in transit but was patched up. The owner of the ossuary has refused to sell it.

An authoritative book on the James’ Ossuary finding published by Harper Collins soon after the discovery is The Brother of Jesus written by Hershel Shanks & Ben Witherington III. Hershel Shanks is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR). Besides giving many details on the Ossuary, the authors try to find the identity of James, described as the ‘Brother of Jesus’.

The Christian community is divided on the identity of James. Only the Protestants consider him to be the literal half brother of Jesus, born of Joseph and Mary. Furthermore they believe that Mary and Joseph had other children too: Joseph, Simon, Jude, Salome and Mary (Matt. 13:54-56).

The Roman Catholic Church views James as a first cousin of Jesus (so are the other brothers and sisters), born of Clopas (assumed to be brother of Joseph) and Mary of Clopas.

The Eastern Orthodox Church holds that James and the others mentioned above were stepbrothers of Jesus, born of Joseph and a previous wife. So Jesus would be the youngest of all.

The authors attempt to establish that the ‘Brother’ found in the inscription can mean only a literal brother as the Protestants believe. Several arguments are given:

1. James, and the other five children are mentioned as brothers and sisters in the Gospels. If they were cousins, a Greek word for Cousin, anepsios could have been used. The second century writer Hegesippus makes this distinction and asserts James and Jude (both wrote epistles) as brothers. [Jude in his epistle identifies himself as the brother (Gr. adelphos) of James].

2. Mary’s virginity appears to be limited to Jesus’ birth. Matt. 1:25 clearly tells us that until Jesus was born, Joseph had no (sexual) union with Mary. This leads us to believe that James and others were born of Joseph and Mary, and would be younger to Jesus.

3. Jewish marriages were intended to be consummated as God had commanded to be ‘fruitful and multiply’.

4. The James Ossuary clearly tells James was the brother of Jesus.

5. Eusebius, the fourth century historian says that James was made the head of the Jerusalem Church because he was the brother of Jesus. In the Jerusalem Church the ‘pillars’ were James, Peter and John, in that order. Interestingly enough, the epistles of James, Peter and John are arranged in that order in the New Testament.

The perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, finds no support in the Bible. In fact the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church views appeared centuries later. The Roman Catholic Church much later announced the ‘Immaculate Conception’ of Mary also. This elevation of Mary as divine and equal to Jesus is contrary to the biblical revelation of Jesus as the only divine Being of all the humans on earth. He is also the only Mediator between man and God. Mary is not given any special status in the Gospels, even by Jesus; she is not called ‘Mother of God’.

The inscription on the James Ossuary will continue to be debated. The criticism has already been raised that the last part of the inscription, ‘the brother of Jesus’ may be a later work, due to its cursive and semi-cursive script, in contrast with the square script of the first part, ‘James, son of Joseph’ (true first century script). However, reference to ancient first century Aramaic inscriptions shows such cursive script was also in vogue. The questioned inscription, upon closer examination, appears to be as old as the first part.

How and when did James die? The New Testament does not mention his death. This is because the Book of Acts which covers early church history ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome as a prisoner early AD 62. The Roman governor Festus who sent him to Rome soon died, and before another governor could come the high priest Ananus held power and he was the one who had James put to death by stoning; in fact, he was cast down from the pinnacle of the Temple first. This also happened in AD 62. We should not confuse this James with another James the apostle, the brother of John (also an apostle) who was put to death by Herod Agrippa AD 44. He was probably the head of the Church at the time, and James the half-brother of Jesus then took his place. The Church in Jerusalem later on dispersed due to persecution and the Roman attack on Jerusalem and the Temple.

Copyright © 1999-2005 by T. V. Oommen