The James Ossuary and the Jesus Ossuary

Jerusalem ossuary (bone casket)
Jerusalem Ossuary (bone casket) - View

Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
Recently, much has been written about the inscribed Jerusalem ossuary (bone casket) attributed to Jesus' brother James, as brought to light in the Biblical Archaeological Review for November-December 2002. News of this discovery was immediately followed-up by National Geographic, CNN, Discovery Channel, Time Magazine and others, with the main point of debate being the surprise expressed by those who did not know that Jesus had a brother. It is therefore worth clarifying this from the New Testament before considering the ossuary itself.

Matthew 13:55 states in relation to Jesus: "Is not his mother called Mary and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?" This is repeated again in Mark 6:3.

In the light of these biblical statements, some apologists (as reported in the Washington Post, Tuesday 22nd October 2002) have suggested that perhaps James, Joses, Simon and Judas were half-brothers of Jesus, born to a previous wife of Joseph before he married Mary. However, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that this was not the case. They were all younger brothers of Jesus, and both Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:27 clarify that Jesus was Mary's "firstborn son".

In the New Testament Epistles, St. Paul specifically refers to his meeting in Jerusalem with "James, the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:19), while other items refer to James presiding over the famous Circumcision Debate (Galatians 2:1-10 and Acts 15:4-34) as Head of the Nazarene Church. Also, the writings of the 1st-century historian, Flavius Josephus (Commander of Galilee in AD 66) relate to "the brother of Jesus - who was called Christ - whose name was James" (Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1).

In addition, Matthew 13:56 and Mark 6:3 both indicate that Jesus also had sisters, who are named in the Panarion and Ancoratus of Epiphanius as being Mary, Salome and Anna (Joanna). The sisters of Jesus are also mentioned in the Protevangelion of James, in the Gospel of Philip, and in the Church's Apostolic Constitutions. In the New Testament Gospels, they appear at the cross and the tomb of Jesus, along with Mary Magdalene. Mary and Salome appear, for example, in Mark 15:47, while Joanna and Mary appear in Luke 24:10, and Mary features again in Matthew 28:1.

With the James ossuary bringing the siblings of Jesus to the forefront of current discussion, some orthodox theologians have suggested that Aramaic was an unusual language in that it did not differentiate between brothers, sisters and cousins. Not only is this quite incorrect, but the New Testament Gospels were not written in Aramaic; they were compiled in Greek, which defines relationships very clearly.

It was not actually until the 4th century that St. Jerome and others of the newly devised Roman Church began to promote the concept of Mother Mary's virginity. Prior to that, she was not classified as a virgin in any original Gospel. The descriptive term used in early texts was 'almah', which meant simply a 'young woman'. Had Mary been a physical virgin, the word used would not have been 'almah', but 'bethulah'.

The Jewish name Jacob (Ya'akov) translates in English to James. Hence, for example, the 17th-century supporters of Britain's King James II were called 'Jacobites' (Jacob-ites). Similarly, Yeshua (Joshua) translates in English to Jesus.

From 1986, the James ossuary - 20 inches (51 cm) by 11 inches (28 cm) by 12 inches (31 cm) and weighing about 45 lbs (20 kgs) - has been owned by an anonymous private collector in Jerusalem, who bought it at auction for around $500. He was advised that it came from a tomb in the Silwan suburb of Jerusalem but, whatever its pre-1926 origin, it was clearly the product of looting since it is not recorded as an archaeologically excavated artifact from Silwan or anywhere else.

In 1st-century Judaea it was common practice to remove bodies from their graves after a year or two, and to put the separated bones in small ossuaries for convenient shelf storage in family tombs, where they were often placed in carved niches (kokh kokhim).

James Ossuary - limestone type of bone box
James Ossuary - Limestone Box - View

The James ossuary is a plain and very common limestone type of bone box, but as was pointed out some time ago its inscription is unusually refined - more in keeping with those found on lavishly styled ossuaries such as that of Joseph Caiaphas (Yehosef bar Qayafa), the High Priest of Jerusalem AD 18-37. This was discovered by Zvi Greenhut of the Israel Museum in November 1990. Caiaphas was the Sanhedrin Council elder who committed Jesus for trial before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate.

Ossuary The Pilate Stone
The Pilate Stone

Also discovered around the same time was an ossuary inscribed "Alexander, son of Simon of Cyrene". According to the Gospels, Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus to carry his cross on the road to Golgotha/Calvary (Simon and his son Alexander are mentioned in Mark 15:21). Back in 1962, the name of Pontius Pilate was discovered on an auditorium dedication tablet at Caesarea Maritima, a sea port south of Galilee.


Given that ossuaries of the James type were only used for a short period between AD 10 and AD 70 (when the Romans finally sacked Jerusalem), it is not difficult to date the item and, given that Jesus' brother James was persecuted and stoned (according to Flavius Josephus) in AD 62, the date which has been attributed to the ossuary is AD 63. However, since the box had no historical provenance and was not related to any particular archaeological dig, it was regarded as of dubious origin by the museum authorities who released it into the antiques market some decades ago.

In fact, James was said to have travelled abroad after his AD 62 stoning and expulsion from Jerusalem, and his death is recorded in the Vatican Archives as occurring in AD 82 - so this cast further doubt on the item's authenticity, although it does not necessarily mean the ossuary was not prepared for Jesus' brother James, even if never used.

Lemaire saw the ossuary inscription
Lemaire - Ossuary Inscription - View

In October 2002, word of the James ossuary has emerged yet again - this time emanating from America by way of an article in the Washington based Biblical Archaeology Review. The latest reports tell of a recent meeting in Jerusalem with the ossuary's owner by André Lemaire, a philologist of the Sorbonne in Paris. It is related that the owner met Lemaire by chance and confided that he had some ancient inscriptions which could be viewed, making no specific mention of the ossuary. When Lemaire saw the ossuary inscription, he brought it to the owner's attention - at which the owner was apparently surprised, stating that he had no idea of the possible implication.

The most inaccurate of all statements currently being made concerning the James ossuary (as repeated in many of the related press articles, and attributed to the Biblical Archaeological Review editor Hershel Shanks) is that "It is the first and only artifact from the 1st century that mentions Jesus". This statement, as we shall see, is wholly incorrect.

It is no secret that the mainstream American press and media are rather more fearful, and far less forthcoming, than their counterparts in Britain and Europe. Stories such as that of the James ossuary are presented with a certain initial enthusiasm, but this is generally clouded by the inclusion of irrelevant comments from churchmen. They make dogmatic assertions about the perpetual virginity of Mary, etc., thereby leaving the public in a state of bewilderment. Hence, the excitement of such discoveries is apologetically subdued for the sake of maintaining a pointless status quo - as if appeasing the bishops is more important than broadcasting important news to the nation.

In this regard, there are items which become major news in other countries, but are rarely heard of by the people of North America. In fact, on many occasions these items are positively suppressed. It is this form of strategically controlled news restriction which leads to erroneous statements such as "The James ossuary is the only 1st-century artifact which mentions Jesus".

The fact is, however, that it was not so very long ago that the Jesus ossuary was discovered - an item of far greater importance, and with a good deal more historical and archaeological provenance than the presumed bone box of James.

In 1980 an important 1st-century family tomb was unearthed during excavations at East Talpiot, Jerusalem. Archaeologists then moved the tomb's ossuaries into museum storage at Romemma, and Joseph Zias, Curator of Archaeology and Anthropology for the Israel Antiquities Authority, later commented that [unlike the James ossuary] this find was "really impressive" since it emanated from "a very good, undisturbed archaeological context". Why was it impressive? Because the ossuaries were individually inscribed with the names:

Jesus son of Joseph
Mary
Joseph
Jude
(the name of one of Jesus' brothers)
Mary
(the name of one of Jesus' sisters)

Along with these was a 6-inch shard of pottery, also bearing the
name of Jesus and engraved with the emblem of a fish.

It was subsequently hailed as the greatest Christian-related discovery of all time, but for a while its secret was held within Israel. This was because the Jewish establishment was not especially concerned with Jesus - a figure of the Christian religion, even though he had been twice mentioned in the 1st-century Antiquities of the Jews.

The limestone ossuary inscribed "Jesus son of Joseph" (65 cm x 25 cm x 30 cm) came to Western attention when the BBC was preparing for a TV programme in conjunction with the J. Arthur Rank company CTVC. In the light of generally changing religious and secular attitudes concerning the literal interpretation of the Resurrection, a British research team flew to Jerusalem to establish what might have become of Jesus' body after his death. They included Chris Mann, director of the BBC's religious series Heart of the Matter, along with CTVC religious affairs director Barrie Allcott.

To their surprise, the research took hardly any time and, in a very matter of fact way, they were directed to the Israel Archaeological Authority storeroom, to meet with the curator Baruk Brendel. The Jesus ossuary was soon brought to their attention, along with the collection of ossuraries from the same family tomb. Not only the ossuary of Jesus son of Joseph, but those of his parents and siblings, together with another associated casket, inscribed with the name Matthew.

Although all devoid of bones, it was explained that the Jewish law in this regard is very strict in Israel. When bones, or artifacts containing bones, are archaeologically discovered, the bones have to be sensitively reburied by the authorities, even though their containers may be separately removed. By 1996, however, the original burial site had become quite inaccessible beneath a large new apartment block.

The Sunday Times - The Tomb that dare not speak its Name
The Sunday Times - 31st March 1996

The stunning news hit the British press on Sunday 31st March 1996, with front-page headlines and a lengthy feature article in The Sunday Times, entitled "The Tomb that dare not speak its Name".

Subsequently, on Sunday 7th April, excitement heightened when the BBC TV special, filmed in Jerusalem, was broadcast. It was Easter Sunday 1996 when Joan Bakewell, CBE (now Lady Chairman of the British Film Institute), hosted the much publicized feature documentary "The Body in Question".

Referring to their first sight of the ossuaries, Chris Mann said, "It felt like the balls of the National Lottery coming up one by one", with his co-producer Ray Bruce declaring, "It is remarkable". Also recounting the Jerusalem experience, Joan Bakewell reported, "We stood dumbfounded by the sensational nature of what was before our eyes. The names of Jesus, Joseph and Mary are luminous with meaning for anyone brought up in the Christian tradition. Our find will renew the debate of the Resurrection and deepen the mystery surrounding Easter".

As it was, the broadcast did not provoke much "debate" since there was not much for anyone to challenge - the first-hand evidence had been presented for all to see. However, it did create a huge interest, with the Irish Times reporting, "Hundreds of excited journalists and archaeologists have converged on a dusty, airless basement of the Israel Antiquities Authority for a glimpse".

A few stalwart theologians, led by the Dean of Lichfield (a member of the Church Doctrines Committee), raised voices of protest, but they were very much in the minority. Some others criticised the BBC for filming relics in Israel when there was a war going on there, and a more current story to cover. However, the BBC pointed out that the Jesus mystery was by far the longer running story, and the vast majority of people (as proved by the substantial ratings, press correspondence and complimentary reviews) were very appreciative of the long-sought information.

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