Ossuary of James - I: Burial Box of St. James Found?


By Jimmy Akin

In October 2002 Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) announced that a first century stone ossuary had been discovered that is believed to have held the bones of St. James, the brother of Jesus, also known as "James the Just." The ossuary carries an inscription that says, in Aramaic, "James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The announcement set of a flurry of stories in the media speculating on whether the ossuary is genuine and what implications it has for our understanding of Jesus and his family. It wasn't long before some Evangelicals were trumpeting the artifact as a disproof of Catholic doctrine. It wasn't long after that before some scholars began to raise questions about the box.

What an Ossuary Is
An ossuary is a container used to hold the bones of a dead person. Historically, ossuaries tend to be used in areas with high populations and little burial space since they require much less space than a grave of the familiar kind. After death, the body is reposed in a tomb until it decays (not long in the absence of modern embalming). Afterwards, the family disinters the bones, cleans them, and re-inters them in an ossuary for long-term burial.

Ossuaries were used all over the ancient world, from Rome to Greece to Palestine-wherever burial space was at a premium. They are still used in some places, including Greece, where metal ossuaries are used.

Though use of ossuaries was at variance with traditional Jewish burial customs, cemetery space was at such a premium around first century Jerusalem that stone, box-like ossuaries were widely used there between 20 B.C. and A.D. 70, when the Romans sacked the city and in so doing substantially reduced the population.

Today we have hundreds of Palestinian ossuaries dating from this period, found in the cave-tombs that also were commonly used in the Jerusalem area.

The James bar-Joseph Ossuary
The recently announced ossuary was in the possession of a private collector in Israel who did not wish to be identified. By early November, however, his identity had become public: He is a fifty-one year old engineer from Tel Aviv named Oded Golan. According to him, he didn't want his name revealed simply because he is a private person, though some have speculated that there was another reason: He may not legally own the box.

In 1978 Israel passed a law that made new archaeological discoveries the property of the state. Depending on when and how Golan came into possession of the box, he might not be its proper owner. According to him, he acquired the box sometime in the 1970s-before 1976-though individuals from the Israeli Antiquities Authority have questioned several antiquities dealers in the Old City to investigate whether the box was purchased more recently.

According to Golan, he did not realize the significance of the box until recently, when it was examined by Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne, a paleographer or expert in ancient writing, who recognized the potential connection to the family of Christ.

James, Joseph, and Jesus were very common names in first century Palestine, and Lemaire estimates that there may have been as many as twenty individuals in Jerusalem who were named James and who had fathers named Joseph and brothers names Jesus. Nevertheless, Lemaire and other experts concluded that it probable the James to whose bones this ossuary held very probably was the one referred to in the New Testament as "the brother of the Lord" (Gal. 1:19).

It is extremely uncommon for brothers to be named in ossuary inscriptions. Of the hundreds of such ossuaries that have been found, only two name a brother as well as the father. The fact that this one does so suggests that the brother was considered very important. It is unlikely that there were other men named James who had fathers named Joseph and who had brothers named Jesus that were so important that they warranted mention on an ossuary.

One Box, Two Inscriptions?
If there is at present some question as to how Golan got the ossuary, experts seem agreed that the box itself is a first century Palestinian ossuary. It is also agreed that the inscription on the box is ancient.

According to BAR's web site (www.bib-arch.org), "Laboratory tests performed by the Geological Survey of Israel confirm that the box's limestone comes from the Jerusalem area. The patina-a thin sheen or covering that forms on stone and other materials over time-has the cauliflower-type shape known to develop in a cave environment; more importantly, it shows no trace of modern elements." The patina covers the inscription on the box as well, indicating its ancient origin.

What is not agreed is whether the entire inscription dates to the first century. Rochelle Altman, another paleographer, quickly argued that, while the first part of the inscription ("James son of Joseph") dates to the first century, the second part ("brother of Jesus") shows signs of being written by a different hand at a later date, which she estimated to be the third or fourth century ("Final Report on the James Ossuary" at web.israelinsider.com).

If Altman is right that the second part of the inscription was carved in a later century then that would reveal something about the second part's carver: He was identifying the box's occupant as James the Just, for it is very unlikely that any other first century Jesus would be remembered so much later and warrant doing a new inscription. This especially the case after the flowering of Christianity, when any first century Jesus would be assumed to be Jesus of Nazareth unless identified otherwise. In the third or fourth century, when the area was Christian, to carve "brother of Jesus" on the ossuary of a first century James was to identify him as James the Just.

Why the Addition?
This leaves the question of why the carving would be made. Archaeology didn't exist yet, so archaeological fraud would not have been a motive. However, relics were venerated, and so relic fraud could have been a motive. In fact, that's the only likely immoral motive that is reasonable.

The alternative is to say that the second inscriptionist's motives were moral: He believed that the box belonged to James the Just. In that case, the question would be: How warranted was his belief. If he just found an ossuary that said "James son of Joseph" then, given how common these two names were, it would be unlikely (though by no means impossible) that it held James the Just.

However, it is not at all unreasonable to think that the Jerusalem Christians retained a knowledge of where James was buried, e.g., through veneration at the site. Indeed, St. Jerome, who moved to Bethlehem in the late fourth century, records that substantial knowledge of his gravesite was preserved: 

"[James] was buried near the temple from which he had been cast down. His tombstone with its inscription was well known until the siege of Titus [A.D. 70] and the end of Hadrian's reign [A.D. 138]. Some of our writers think he was buried in Mount Olivet, but they are mistaken" (On Illustrious Men 2).

It well could be that in the third or fourth century, a Christian added the second part of the inscription to the first in order to clarify for future pilgrims that this was indeed the ossuary of that James, as had been preserved in local knowledge.

Ultimately, we can't know if the inscription is correct or not. From what is currently known about the box, we don't seem to have alternative means of establishing its accuracy. But given what is publicly known about the ossuary at this point, there is a substantial chance that it is the ossuary of James the Just, even if this could never be proven.

What if it is?

(Non-)Implications for Doctrine
Some non-Catholics were quick to tout the box as evidence against the perpetual virginity of Mary, however this does not follow. The ossuary identifies its James as the son of Joseph and the brother of Jesus, it does not identify him as the son-much less the biological son-of Mary. The only point that Catholic doctrine has defined regarding the "brethren of the Lord" is that they are not biological children of Mary.

What relationship they did have with her is a matter of speculation. They may have been Jesus' adoptive brothers, stepbrothers through Joseph, or-according to one popular theory-cousins.

As has often been pointed out, Aramaic had no word for "cousin," so the word for brother was used in its place. This inscription is in Aramaic, and so there would be little surprise if it were being used in that way. In fact, that's what you'd expect.

While the inscription does not establish the brethren of the Lord as biological children of Mary, it does have an impact on which theory may best explain the relationship of the brethren to Jesus. If James "the brother of the Lord" were Jesus' cousin then it would be unlikely for him also to have a father named Joseph. This would diminish the probability of the cousin theory in favor of the idea that this James was a stepbrother or an adoptive brother of Jesus.

The stepbrother hypothesis is, in fact, the earliest one on record. It is endorsed by a document known as the Protoevangelium of James, which dates to the year 120, within sixty years of James' death (A.D. 62). According to the Protoevangelium, Joseph was an elderly widower at the time he was betrothed to Mary. He already had a family and thus was willing to become the guardian of a virgin consecrated to God. The stepbrother hypothesis was the most common explanation of the brethren of the Lord until St. Jerome popularized the cousin hypothesis just before the year 400.

The stepbrother hypothesis is also supported by the fact that Joseph apparently was significantly older than Mary, as he appears to have died before our Lord's public ministry began.

Bottom line: If the ossuary of James bar-Joseph is that of James the brother of the Lord, it sheds light on which of the theories Catholics are permitted to hold is most likely the correct one, but it does nothing to refute Catholic doctrine.



Addendum: The Life of James the Just
by St. Jerome

 

James, who is called the brother of the Lord, surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife (as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary sister of the mother of our Lord of whom John makes mention in his book), after our Lord's passion at once ordained by the apostles bishop of Jerusalem, wrote a single epistle, which is reckoned among the seven Catholic Epistles and even this is claimed by some to have been published by some one else under his name, and gradually, as time went on, to have gained authority.

Hegesippus [the second century historian] who lived near the apostolic age, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James. says

 

"After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels' knees."

 

He says also many other things, too numerous to mention. Josephus also in the 20th book of his Antiquities, and Clement in the 7th of his Outlinesmention that on the death of Fetus who reigned over Judea, Albinus was sent by Nero as his successor.

Before he had reached his province, Ananias the high priest, the youthful son of Ananus of the priestly class taking advantage of the state of anarchy, assembled a council and publicly tried to force James to deny that Christ is the son of God. When he refused Ananius ordered him to be stoned. Cast down from a pinnacle of the temple, his legs broken, but still half alive, raising his hands to heaven he said, "Lord forgive them for they know not what they do." Then struck on the head by the club of a fuller such a club as fullers are accustomed to wring out garments with-he died.

This same Josephus records the tradition that this James was of so great sanctity and reputation among the people that the downfall of Jerusalem was believed to be on account of his death. He it is of whom the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians that "No one else of the apostles did I see except James the brother of the Lord" [Gal. 1:19], and shortly after the event the Acts of the apostles bear witness to the matter.

The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Saviour says, "but the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep)" and again, a little later, it says "'Bring a table and bread,' said the Lord." And immediately it is added, "He brought bread and blessed and brake and gave to James the Just and said to him, 'My brother eat thy bread, for the son of man is risen from among those that sleep.'"

And so he ruled the Church of Jerusalem thirty years, that is until the seventh year of Nero, and was buried near the temple from which he had been cast down. His tombstone with its inscription was well known until the siege of Titus and the end of Hadrian's reign. Some of our writers think he was buried in Mount Olivet, but they are mistaken.

 

--St. Jerome, On Illustrious Men 2