From most of the pictures that you have seen of “the box,” you might think that it was the size of a large coffin. Yet, at approximately 10 inches wide, 20 inches long, and 12 inches high, this box doesn’t fit our modern idea of a coffin. In fact, it’s more like a limestone Rubbermaid® crate than a coffin. At first glance, this “box” is not so unusual at all. During the first-century B.C., and continuing until the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Jews used these containers to “rebury” their relatives. Generally, the bodies of the deceased were placed on a shelf or floor of a tomb; then, about one year after the original burial, friends or relatives would open the tomb, remove the bones, and place them in an ossuary. Occasionally, ossuaries contained the bones of multiple individuals. The outer decorations varied widely from one to the next. Some were bland, with no inscriptions, while others had carved designs or the names of the individuals buried therein.
The particular ossuary that has captured the world’s attention boasts of no great decoration. In fact, a small, 7.5-inch Aramaic inscription is the only thing that sets it apart from the most boring of ossuaries. Yet, that tiny inscription not only has set it apart from other ossuaries, but also has set it apart from all other archaeological finds to date. That inscription reads: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
The first question that arises is whether this is the James of the Bible. While there are at least two Jameses mentioned in the Bible to which this inscription likely does not apply, one James is mentioned who seems to fit the description quite well. Matthew noted in his gospel regarding Christ:
...He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas?” (13:53-56).
According to Matthew, then, the Jews recognized Jesus as the brother of James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas, and they also attributed at least two sisters to these brothers. Furthermore, Paul mentioned “James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). Apparently, this same James became a prominent leader of the Jerusalem church (see Acts 15:13; 21:18-19; Galatians 2:9,12). Additionally, James the brother of Jesus very likely was the writer of the New Testament book by the same name. Secular sources also verify the idea that Jesus had a brother named James. Josephus wrote that the Jewish high priest “assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus...whose name was James” (20:9:1). The historian then proceeded to document that James was stoned.
Naturally, it first must be established that the ossuary is an authentic artifact from a time that would correspond to Jesus Christ and His brother James. In the premiere article about the inscription appearing in the November/December 2002 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review [BAR] André Lemaire detailed several facts that make a strong case for the inscription’s authenticity. As an expert in ancient inscriptions, he stated: “This type of bone box is generally to be dated between about 20 B.C.E. [Before Common Era—KB] and 70 C.E [Common Era—KB].... Moreover, the cursive shape of three of the letters (dalet, yod and aleph) indicates an even narrower span of time: the last decades before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—the exact period when James, the brother of Jesus, would have died” (2002, 28:28). Hershel Shanks, the editor of BAR, had the ossuary’s composition tested by the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructures, which concluded that the limestone was used extensively “during the Second Temple period,” and that no modern elements or chemicals had been used to “doctor” the box to make it appear old. In addition, the patina (dirt and other build-up on the box) passed the authenticity test (p. 29).
As far as can be proven to date, the box has all the signs of authenticity. But can we conclude that the Jesus and James of the inscription are the identical characters of the New Testament writings? While the names of James, Jesus, and Joseph were common during the first century, they would not often have been found in the exact same sequence of relationship as on the ossuary and in the biblical text. Lemaire concluded that “there were therefore probably about 20 people” who would have fit the inscription (p. 33). Yet the odds narrow even more, since only rarely would a brother’s name be included on an ossuary. In the November 4, 2002 issue of Time, David Van Biema reported that Lemaire believes “there is a 90% chance that the James on the ossuary was the biblical brother of Jesus” (2002, 160:72). In the original BAR article, Lemaire stated that the ossuary “very probably” documents Jesus the Christ.
There are voices of opposition to the suggestion that this inscription refers to Christ. Since the artifact was not retrieved from its original environment, it cannot be attributed to a specific location. In the November 4, 2002 issue of Newsweek, reporter Kenneth Woodward quoted Bruce Chilton of Bard College: “If you cannot say where an artifact was found and where it has been for nearly 2,000 years, you cannot pretend to draw lines of connection between the object and the people it might mention” (2002, 140:48).
At present, we cannot be dogmatic about the ossuarial evidence, but we can state dogmatically that the name of Jesus Christ refuses to vanish into obscurity, and that His life, teachings, and personality continue to be the most influential of any human ever to walk the Earth.
Lemaire, André (2002), “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus: Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Jesus Found in Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 28:24-33, November/December.
Van Biema, David (2002), “The Brother of Jesus,” Time, 160:70-73, November 4.
Woodward, Kenneth (2002), “A Clue to Jesus?,” Newsweek, 140:48-49, November 4.