First it was the name of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate found in a monument in Caesarea, Israel, in 1961.
Then came the discovery in 1990 in Jerusalem of an ossuary, a burial box for bones, bearing the name of Caiaphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus. Just recently it appears the most spectacular of all archaeological finds relating to Jesus has surfaced.
Another ossuary has come to light, this one bearing the names of Jesus, James and Joseph, three of the most prominent people in the New Testament. The ancient Aramaic words inscribed on the limestone box state that it belonged to "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
In late October Andre' Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions and professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, announced the discovery of the stone container with the extraordinary script. An Israeli collector, Oded Golan, had purchased the box from an Arab antiquities dealer more than a decade ago. Mr. Golan had not thought the artifact important until Professor Lemaire examined it. In fact, although Mr. Golan had read the inscription, he hadn't connected it with the biblical Jesus.
The dealer told Mr. Golan that the box had come from a burial site in southern Jerusalem where a bulldozer had accidentally uncovered a site containing tombs and bone boxes dating to the time of Jesus and James.
Much to the disappointment of archaeologists and scholars, the box was not excavated by a trained archaeologist from the spot where it had rested for the last 2,000 years. Instead it was surreptitiously removed and sold on the antiquities market (as is the case with a high percentage of archaeological finds in the Holy Land). Regrettably, this prevents the examination of the box in its proper archaeological context and the elimination of any possibility of fraud.
Strong evidence for authenticity
Yet fraud seems rather unlikely. Before the announcement of the discovery, the limestone box was subjected to rigorous scientific tests to rule out the possibility. A team of experts from the Geological Survey of Israel examined the box and the inscription under a microscope and found no evidence of modern tools or tampering. Like the rest of the box, the inscription, though wiped clean in parts, has a thin sheen of particulate matter formed on it called a patina. This particular patina shows that it developed in a cave environment and that it is consistent with an age of 2,000 years.
By its very nature the artifact can be dated to within a few decades. Such bone boxes were in use from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 70, when according to Jewish custom the dead were first sealed in caves or rock-cut tombs, then their bones later transferred to a limestone bone box after the body had decayed.
Professor Lemaire further narrowed the dating by verifying that the inscription was in a cursive style used only in the few decades before A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Thus the inscription fits the style used around A.D. 62, when James, Jesus' half brother, died.
Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, which announced the discovery, explained that the inscription was reviewed by Joseph Fitzmyer, one of the world's foremost experts on first-century Aramaic and a preeminent Dead Sea Scrolls editor. Professor Fitzmyer was at first troubled by the spelling of the word for brother, because it was a plural form used centuries later. But further research yielded the same form in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls and on another first-century ossuary. "I stand corrected," Professor Fitzmyer said.
A putative forger would have to know Aramaic better than Professor Fitzmyer, which seems rather unlikely. "To my mind," wrote Mr. Shanks, "this is one of the strongest arguments for the authenticity of the James inscription" (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 2002, p. 33).
Many factors pointing in one direction
"It seems very probable," Professor Lemaire concludes, "that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament" (ibid.).
What makes the case that this is indeed the ossuary of Jesus' half brother so convincing is the combination of factors that point in the same direction. Dr. Lemaire notes that Joseph (Hebrew Yosef) and Jesus (Yeshua, or Joshua) were common names in the A.D. 60s and James (Ya'akov or Jacob) less so, but a brother would not ordinarily be named in an inscription unless he were prominent.
Dr. Lemaire says the likelihood of more than one person named James with a father named Joseph and a prominent brother named Jesus in that precise time period is minuscule.
"It is one thing to have scattered probabilities," explains John Meier, professor of New Testament at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and an authority on first-century Palestinian Judaism; "it's another thing to have lines of probabilities all converging at one point" (UPI report, Oct. 25).
Mr. Shanks stated that the "clincher" for him was the naming of the brother of the deceased. Of some 800 bone boxes discovered, 233 have inscriptions on the outside. Of these, few are inscribed with the name of a brother—only one other in Aramaic. Mr. Shanks said if one accepts the theory that the deceased was a prominent person associated with him—rather than simply associated because the brother presided over the secondary interment—the probability that the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth seems overwhelming.
The life of James
Who was James? Let's consider the intriguing story of this half brother of Jesus.
We first read of James in the New Testament as one of Jesus' half brothers (Jesus was born of Mary, miraculously begotten of God the Father through the Holy Spirit while Mary was a betrothed virgin, as explained in Matthew 1:18-25). Yet Mary and her husband, Joseph, later had other children. In Matthew 13:55-56 we see that some residents of Nazareth asked: "Is this not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?" (emphasis added throughout).
During Jesus' life, the Bible candidly reveals that His half brothers did not believe in Him as Savior and Messiah (John 7:5). Yet, after His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His half brother James (1 Corinthians 15:7), who then became a prominent believer. In Acts 1:14 James is pictured, along with his other brothers and his mother,Mary, as original members of the Church. This was the same group that received God's Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).
James later became an apostle and leader of the Jerusalem congregation. He played a prominent role in the conference of Acts 15 (Acts 15:13-21). Paul later visited James in Jerusalem where he oversaw the elders there (Acts 21:18). In Galatians 2:9 Paul refers to James as a "pillar" of the Church, and in 1 Corinthians 9:5 he mentions that "the brothers of the Lord" were married, which apparently included James. (More of James' life is detailed in "James: Half Brother of Jesus".)
James also wrote the New Testament epistle that bears his name (James 1:1). Another brother, Judas or Judah (Matthew 13:55), wrote the short epistle of Jude (Jude 1).
The death of James
The death of James, the Lord's brother—not to be confused with the two original apostles named James (see Matthew 10:2-3)—is not mentioned in the New Testament. But Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, does record it.
He writes: "Festus [the Roman procurator] was now dead, and Albinus [his successor] was but upon the road; so he [Ananas II, the high priest] assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned" (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, chap. 9, sec. 1).
Eusebius, a fourth-century church historian, records even more of the details of James' death: "Conducting him [James] into a public place, they demanded that he should renounce the faith of Christ before all the people; but contrary to the sentiments of all, with a firm voice, and much beyond their expectation, he declared himself fully before the whole multitude, and confessed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, our Savior and Lord.
"Unable to bear any longer the testimony of the man, who, on account of his elevated virtue and piety was deemed the most just of men, they . . . slew him . . . But, as to the manner of James's death, it has been already stated in the words of Clement, that he was thrown from a wing of the temple, [to be stoned] and beaten to death with a club" (Ecclesiastical History, 1995, pp. 75-76).
Names of other biblical figures found
Although the evidence so far points to the listing of Jesus, James and Joseph on the newfound ossuary as being the same persons mentioned in the New Testament, it cannot be proven with absolute certainty. Perhaps testing methods yet to be developed will be carried out that can further confirm the find.
In the meantime, the find nevertheless appears to be powerful evidence for the accuracy of the Gospel accounts and the literal existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and His earthly family.
And by no means is this find unique; the existence of many biblical figures has been proven by archaeological finds. So far biblical names that have been positively confirmed include Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, David, many of the kings of Judah and Israel, and even Jeremiah's scribe, Baruch. Many of these finds have been discussed in our 24-part series "The Bible and Archaeology."
Jesus once said, "If these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:40). He spoke of His disciples' testimony, but it is interesting that, through the discoveries of archaeology, there are stones that are now figuratively crying out as witnesses to the authenticity of the biblical account.