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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Existence of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: Has the Actual Burial Box of James, Jesus' Brother, Been Found?

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Has the Actual Burial Box of James, Jesus’ Brother, Been Found?

The Existence of Jesus Christ – Question 16

In October, 2002 a surprising announcement was made that could have major implications for biblical studies. An ossuary, or burial box, from the first century A.D., was found to contain the names of James, Joseph, and Jesus.

The Aramaic inscription on the side of the box can be translated as follows:

Jacob (James) the son of Joseph brother of Jesus

The obvious question: Is this the same James mentioned in the New Testament that is the brother of Jesus and the son of Joseph?

The Burial Box: An Ossuary

An ossuary is not the same thing as a grave or tomb. It is a box where the bones of someone who had previously been buried were placed. About a year after a person was buried the bones were dug up and placed in an ossuary. The ossuary does not contain an entire skeleton intact. It only has to be large enough to contain the femur—the longest bone in the human body.

A Number of Important Questions Need to Be Answered

The announcement of the discovery of this ossuary brings up a number of important questions. They include the following.

1. Is It Authentic?

The first question that has to be addressed concerns the authenticity of ossuary and the inscription. Is it really a first century receptacle for the bones of a man named James, or is it a fraud. Most experts who have examined the ossuary believe it to be authentic.

2. Does It Refer to the New Testament Characters?

If authentic, does it refer to the New Testament characters? Even if this is an authentic first-century ossuary should we assume that it is from the same James mentioned in the New Testament as the brother of Jesus? While there could have been other men with the name James who had a brother named Jesus and a father named Joseph the likelihood that it refers to a different James is remote. For one thing, this combination of names would not have been all that widespread.

However, what seems to give strong evidence for its authenticity as being the James of the New Testament is the mention of his brother—Jesus. Only one other ossuary discovered from that time period has the name of the brother of the deceased as well as the father. In every other case, it is only the father who is mentioned. The fact that James is referred to as the brother of Jesus is a strong indication of its identification with James the son of Mary.

If Seemingly Authentic, Then What Would It Mean?

This brings us to the question of what all this would mean. To begin with, this would be the first physical evidence of the existence of Jesus, His half-brother James, as well as Joseph the husband of Mary. It is the first inscription from that period in which we find their names.

Some Objections to Its Authenticity

As can be imagined, there have been a number of objections to the claim that this ossuary actually contains the bones of James the brother of Jesus. They include, but are not limited to, the following.

Objection 1: Science Has Proved the Ossuary to Be a Fraud

A seemingly fatal objection to the authenticity of the ossuary came soon after it was discovered. A team of experts from Israel examined the burial box and unanimously declared it to be a fraud. They concluded that it was an ancient burial box that had been tampered with in modern times. This, is seems, was the end of the story.

In addition, the man who owned the burial box has been accused of being involved in another “ancient find” that has turned out to be an obvious hoax; a tablet, which was supposedly written eight centuries before Christ. This adds to our suspicion about the genuineness of the burial box.

But not so fast. While the report of these experts seemingly closed the door on the ossuary being authentic, a closer looks shows that the issue had not been resolved. For one thing, it has been pointed out that the leader of the committee who made the conclusion was an outspoken critic of the ossuary from the beginning. Furthermore, it has been alleged that he persuaded some of members of the committee to agree to this conclusion even though they had their own reservations about declaring the ossuary to be a hoax.

The scientific conclusions of this Israeli panel have also been disputed by other scientists who have looked at the ossuary. Even after the report of the Israeli experts, they continued to argue for its authenticity.

Thus, the conclusion that was made with such public fanfare, that the ossuary and its inscription was a modern hoax, may not be the last word on the subject. The ossuary may indeed prove to be a fake. However, we should be careful not to assume that the matter is now closed.

Objection 2: It Was Not Discovered by Trained Archaeologists

The ossuary was not discovered by trained archaeologists in a dig, but rather it was purchased by an Israeli citizen from an antiques dealer. This, it is argued, makes its authenticity suspect.

However, this should not necessarily be the case. The Dead Sea Scrolls are in the same category. They were not initially discovered by archaeologists in the field but rather were purchased from a dealer. Nobody doubts their authenticity. While it would have been simpler for all concerned if this ossuary was found in the midst of some sponsored dig, the fact that it came from a private citizen who purchased it from a dealer does not rule out it being authentic.

Objection 3: The Lettering Is from Two Different Hands

Another objection is that the lettering on the ossuary was not written by one writer but two. It is argued that “James the son of Joseph” was written by a different person than who wrote “the brother of Jesus.” If this is the case, then the authenticity of the ossuary should be seriously questioned.

While this claim has been made, it has not been accepted by most authorities. They argue that the writing consists of one person writing at one time in history.

What Would It Mean If Authentic?

If the ossuary is authentic then several things would be true. It would mean there is now physical evidence for three New Testament characters; Joseph, Jesus, and James. It would also give further confirmation to the fact that Jesus was considered to be an important figure since His name was on James’ burial box.

What Should We Conclude about the Authenticity of This Burial Box?

As of now, the best that we can say is that the ossuary was possibly the burial box for the bones of James. Unfortunately, because of the way in which it was made public, and the suspicious circumstances around the man who owned the box, there can never be certainty of its authenticity.

Add to this the testimony of the Israeli experts who declared it to be a fraud after scientifically testing it. Doubts will also persist. In addition, it may be discovered sometime in the future that the entire episode was fraudulent and no one will argue for its authenticity.

However, as the situation now stands, we have to have some reservations about its genuineness.

This should be a valuable lesson for all of us. Indeed, when news comes of some sensational find about Jesus, or some other biblical character or event, we should be careful to jump to quick conclusions. The right way of approaching these issues is with caution. Eventually the truth of the matter will emerge. Until it does we should be very careful as to how we embrace such claims.

Summary – Question 16
Has the Actual Burial Box of James, Jesus’ Brother, Been Found?

It is possible that the actual bones of Jacob, the son of Mary and the half brother of Jesus, have been discovered. Much of the evidence seems to indicate that the ossuary is authentic.

In addition, the combination of names makes the identification with the James of the New Testament likely. If authentic, it provides the first physical evidence that Jesus existed.

The objections that have so far been brought forward against the identification are not convincing to everyone. However, because of the object was not discovered in an archaeological dig by reputable scholars, and because of the questionable motives of the Israeli citizen who owned the box, there will always be some degree of doubt concerning its authenticity.

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