Scholars: Oldest evidence of Jesus?
By Jeordan Legon
WASHINGTON (CNN) --
A limestone burial box, almost 2,000 years old, may provide the oldest
archeological record of Jesus of Nazareth, experts announced Monday.
The ossuary, as the bone boxes are known, dates to A.D. 63 and has an
inscription in Aramaic which translates to: "James, son of Joseph, brother of
Jesus," said Andre Lemaire, an expert in ancient writing who identified the box
in Jerusalem last spring.
Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language, was the lingua franca of the Middle
East for many centuries. At the time of Jesus' life, Aramaic was the common
language of the Jews.
Writing about his findings in the new issue of Biblical Archaeology Review,
Lemaire, who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris, called it "very probable" that
the box belonged to Jesus' brother James, who by Christian tradition was the
leader of the early church in Jerusalem.
Some scholars expressed doubt that the box, which is 20 inches long by 11
inches wide, could be definitively linked to Jesus, a Jewish carpenter by trade
revered by Christians as the son of God.
"We may never be absolutely certain. In the work I do we're rarely absolutely
certain about anything," said Kyle McCarter, a Johns Hopkins University
archaeologist, who said that the finding was probable, but that he had "a bit of
While most scholars agree that Jesus existed, no physical evidence from the
first century has ever been conclusively tied with his life.
Two scientists from the Israeli government's geological survey tested the box
last month, inspecting the surface patina and inscription under a microscope.
They concurred that the object is more than 19 centuries old, the archaeology
"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that these three names refer to the
personages so identified in the New Testament," said Hershel Shanks, editor of
Biblical Archaeology Review.
Writing provides answers
Many of the conclusions reached by experts relied on the inscription written
on the ossuary. The boxes commonly were used by Jewish families between 20 B.C.
and A.D. 70 to store the bones of their loved ones.
Lemaire said out of hundreds of such boxes found with Aramaic writing only
two contain mentions of a brother. From this, scholars infer that the brother
was noted only when he was someone important.
James, Joseph and Jesus were common names in ancient Jerusalem, a city of
about 40,000 residents. Lemaire estimates there could have been as many as 20
Jameses in the city with brothers named Jesus and fathers named Joseph.
But it is unlikely there would have been more than one James who had a
brother of such importance that it merited having him mentioned on his ossuary,
Lemaire found the box in June by accident, said Shanks, who was able to
inspect the box personally.
'Didn't realize the significance'
The owner is reported to be a collector of ancient Jewish artifacts. The man,
who wishes to remain anonymous, bought the box some 15 years ago from an antique
dealer for $200 to $700, Shanks said.
The boxes "are not popular on the market because ... people don't want a bone
box in their living room," Shanks said.
The collector, who is Jewish, was not aware that Jesus had a brother. He
discovered the interest in the object only when he met Lemaire at a dinner party
last spring and asked him to decipher some Aramaic written on a number of
collectibles, Shanks said.
The box owner "didn't realize the significance," Shanks said. "He threw up
his hands, 'How could the Son of God have a brother?'"
Plans are under way to exhibit the box at the Royal Ontario Museum in
Toronto, Canada, during the annual meeting of Bible scholars in November, Shanks
But he said whether the box belonged to Jesus' brother, it still provides a
powerful link with the past.
"This is something that provides a bridge over time," he said. "My reaction
is not so much excitement as it is awe."