James the Lord's Brother

Has His Ossuary Been Found?

By Ferrell Jenkins

The name James was a common name in New Testament times. Several people bearing that name are mentioned in the New Testament. Two apostles bore that name: James the son of Zebedee (Mt. 4:21; 10:2), and James the son of Alphaeus (Mt. 10:3). James, the son of Zebedee, and brother of the apostle John, was put to death by Herod Agrippa I before A.D. 44 (Acts 12:1-2). There was also James, the brother of Jesus. Paul refers to him, along with Cephas [Peter] and John as men who were reputed to be pillars among the brethren (Gal. 2:9). Paul identifies James as "the Lord's brother" in Galatians 1:19.

The New Testament mentions the brothers and sisters of Jesus in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56. Roman Catholics make every effort to evade the plain meaning of "brother." Roman Catholics hold the non-biblical doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. They claim that the brothers of Jesus were really half-brothers or cousins. The inscription on the James ossuary has opened this issue anew, but more about that at another time (see Matthew 1:25). The New Testament indicates that James and the others listed were the uterine brothers of Jesus. James, the Lord's brother, is generally thought to be the author of the Epistle of James. Jude, another brother of Jesus, wrote a short book in which he says that he is "a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James." This last expression indicates that Jude was not as well known as James.

James Ossuary - BAR photoThe brothers of Jesus did not believe in him during His public ministry (Jn. 7:5), but after the resurrection they are mentioned among the disciples (Acts 1:14). Paul informs us that Jesus made an appearance to James (1 Cor. 15:7). At least some of the brothers of James seem to be preachers of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:5). It appears that the brothers of Jesus were convinced by the resurrection. James proved to be influential among the brethren both in Jerusalem and in other places (Gal. 2:11-13; Acts 15; 21:17-26). We'll leave this matter for another time.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, makes a reference to "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James" (Ant. Xx.9.1). Eusebius, the early church historian, records the martyrdom of "James, the brother of the Lord" in his Ecclesiastical History (2.23). He cites the earlier accounts by Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria, and Josephus. This would have been shortly after the death of Festus, procurator of Judea, in A.D. 61.

The James Ossuary

BAR Nov-Dec James OssuaryThe existence of an ossuary bearing an Aramaic inscription, "Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua" [James the son of Joseph the brother of Jesus] was announced at a press conference conducted by Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, October 21, 2002. In the feature article of the November-December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Professor Andre Lemairé gives details about the ossuary and its inscription. [Visit the BAR web site for a brief account of the article.] An ossuary was used to house the bones of the deceased after the decay of the body. An ossuary need be only as large as the longest bones. This ossuary is about 20 inches long, 12 inches high, and 10 inches wide. They were commonly used by the Jews for secondary burial in the first century A.D.

The James Ossuary has been on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, since November 15th (continues through December 29). It is displayed in a third floor room by itself in a well-lighted case. The walls of the room are filled with information about James, ossuaries, Jewish burial customs, and the James ossuary. The ossuary was cracked in transit from Israel to Canada but has been restored by the museum staff. The ROM has a good selection of material from the ancient Mediterranean world. The exhibition of the James Ossuary was arranged to coincide with the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the American Academy of Religion, and the Society of Biblical Literature. About eight thousand professors of religion and Biblical studies from around the world attend these meetings.

SBL Panel — "No Ordinary Box of Bones"

The Society of Biblical Literature planned a special session under the title "No Ordinary Box of Bones" for a learned discussion about the ossuary. The panel included the following scholars:

André Lemairé, the epigrapher from the Sorbonne who recently published the ossuary inscription in the Biblical Archaeology Review.
John Painter, author of a book on James, from Charles Stuart University in Australia.
Steve Mason, a Josephus scholar, from York University, Toronto. He put the quotation about James in Josephus in its proper context.
Eric Meyers, an archaeologist and scholar of Judaism at Duke University.
Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Adele Reinhartz, of Wilfred Laurier University, served as chair of the panel.

James ossuary panel at SBL

Lemairé summarized the material from his BAR article. He responded to some recent charges that the second half of the inscription [brother of Jesus] is different from the first part [James the son of Joseph]. Evidence from paleography places the Aramaic inscription near the middle of the first century AD, prior to AD 70. Eric Myers, a former president of ASOR, stated that he had concern about the existence of such a panel in light of the fact that the ossuary was "looted" and sold on the illegal antiquities market. He said the owner had been questioned by the police in Israel about the ossuary. Herschel Shanks took exception to several statements made by Myers. Shanks publishes artifact which belong to private collectors. Both Shanks and Lemairé emphasized that the Dead Sea Scrolls fall into the same category. Shanks said there are good collectors and bad collectors. Good collectors allow their material to be published and share it with the world. Bad collectors keep their artifacts in their basements for personal enjoyment.

Mason put the quotation about James from Josephus in proper historical context. Josephus was dealing with the character of High Priests and mentioned, incidentally, that one of the people put to death was the brother of Jesus, the so-called Christ. Painter mentioned the tradition that the throne of James (as Bishop of Jerusalem) and his burial in the Church of Saint James, an Armenian church in Jerusalem. He also cited other traditions about the death and burial of James from Clement of Alexandria, Hegesippus, and Eusebius.

Oded Golan and Ferrell Jenkins in TorontoWhen the panelists finished their presentations, time was allowed for only two or three questions from the audience of about 800 persons. I was seated directly in front of the podium about 4 or 5 rows from the front and rose to ask the first question. The owner of the ossuary, Mr. Oded Golan, was present for the session. I stated that we would like to hear him say how long the ossuary had been in his possession and whether the inscription was on it when he obtained it. Mr. Golan was seated beside Ray Madrigal, a member of the Biblical Studies faculty at Florida College, and my co-worker at the Carrollwood Church of Christ. Mr. Golan went to the platform and stated that he obtained the ossuary in the 1970s and that the inscription was on it when he obtained it. He is 51 years of age, and has been collecting ossuaries and other antiquities since he was 8 years old. He stated that one item from his collection had been published by the late Yigael Yadin.

It may sound strange to Americans that a young boy would be collecting ossuaries and other antiquities. We must remember that ancient artifacts are everywhere in Israel (and the West Bank) and that archaeology is a sort of past-time for many people who live there. As a boy growing up in north Alabama I picked up Indian arrowheads from the cotton fields. In one home in that area, a few years ago, my host brought out box after box of artifacts he had collected from Indian mounds.

Important Questions

Several important questions should be asked about this ossuary. These questions will help us draw some conclusions.

James Ossuary after repair. Photo by Ferrell JenkinsDid the ossuary originate in first century Jerusalem? The evidence indicates that it did. The Geologic Survey of Israel has certified that the limestone is typical of that quarried in Jerusalem during the first and second centuries A.D. The patina in the inscription contains no modern elements, and there is no indication of the use of a modern tool on the ossuary. André Lemairé thinks this type of ossuary can be dated between 20 B.C. and A.D. 70.

Is the inscription authentic? The shape of certain of the letters indicates that the Aramaic inscription belongs to the last decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This is the exact period, according to Josephus, when James was killed. Some scholars have suggested that the inscription may have been written by two different hands. Lemairé sees no reason to draw this conclusion. After the panel discussion the ossuary was examined by Frank Moore Cross and Joseph Fitzmeyer, both experts in the Aramaic of this period. According to Oded Golan, in an interview with the Discovery Channel (EXN.Ca), they believe the inscription was written by one hand.

Is this the James of Galatians 1:19 and Acts 15? Is the James mentioned on the ossuary the James of the New Testament (Acts 15; Gal. 1:19)? In first century Jerusalem many people bore the names James, Joseph, and Jesus. When we consider the combination of relationships (son of, brother of), the number of possibilities goes down dramatically. The exact size of the population is uncertain. Lemairé estimated a maximum population of 80,000. Based on ossuary inscriptions of the period, Lemairé first suggested that about 20 people could be called "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus." Golan says that Professor Camil Fuchs, head of Tel Aviv University's Department of Statistics and Operations Research in the School of Mathematical Sciences, estimates on the basis of a highly complex statistical analysis that "only one person could be 'James son of Joseph brother of Jesus,' and that is the man who was known as James the Just, a leader in the early church and the brother of Jesus Christ" (Paddey, Patricia L. "Ossuary's Owner Reveals New Research." http://www.biblenetworknews.com (23 Nov. 2002). I think the combination of relationships makes it highly probable that this is the ossuary of the James of Acts 15, but we may never know for certain.

Does it matter? If the inscription is authentic, it is another of the many archaeological confirmations of Biblical characters. We already know of Caiaphas, Pilate, Erastus, et al. It is another example of the historicity of the New Testament. It provides the earliest inscriptional evidence of Jesus. If the inscription is not authentic then it is just an ordinary limestone bone box, but one that has caused multitudes to discuss Jesus and the New Testament. Let us use it as an opportunity to discuss Jesus with those who do not know Him.

Please keep in mind that the New Testament documents, all of which date to the first century, provide the evidence that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (Jn. 20:31). [See book by F. F. Bruce.]

Additional Links to Follow
(These links open in a new window)

The Royal Ontario Museum has added several new pages recently.
F. F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Complete book online.
News reports about the James Ossuary can be found by using a search engine such as Google. Type in james ossuary and you will find more than is worth reading!

Scholars view burial box
said to verify Jesus

The Christian Chronicle - January, 2003


Almost 100 professors of biblical studies from churches of Christ had the opportunity to view the recently publicized ossurary, or burial box, said to be that of James, the brother of Jesus, at a scholarly meeting in late November.

A panel of scholars discussed the ossurary’s authenticity at a joint session of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Toronto, Canada, attended by Christian College faculty members.

Schools represented include Abilene Christian, Austin Graduate School of Theology, Florida College, Freed-Hardeman, Harding Graduate School of Religion, Harding University, Lipscomb, Lubbock Christian, Oklahoma Christian, Pepperdine and Rochester College.

Why is this ossuary, among so many Jewish burial boxes from the early centuries attracting such interest? Because of the three names in the inscription: “James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus,” said Lynn McMillon, dean of the College of Biblical Studies, Oklahoma Christian University. “At stake is not faith but rather tangible evidence linked to the person of Jesus.”

The November issue of “Biblical Archaeology Review” first reported discovery of the box — raising interest and debate, McMillon said.

Stone ossurary boxes contain the bones of a deceased person, deposited a year after the initial burial, McMillon said, following the Jewish custom before and after the time of Jesus.

Arrangements were made to ship the ossuary from its owner’s home in Jerusalem to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to coincide with the meeting of scholars.

Technical points in judging the box’s and the inscription’s authenticity include the frequency of use of the names James, Joseph and Jesus in the first century. Factors for study to determine the box’s dating are the box’s style, type of stone, Aramaic script and patina.

Besides the technical questions the box raises are the human questions of how the present owner got the box and from whom — which will spark future discussion, McMillon said.

Though the owner of the ossuary had planned to remain anonymous, he was introduced to the society upon the request of Ferrell Jenkins, emeritus professor, Florida College, during a question and answer session.

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Article posted December 18, 2002. Article from The Christian Chronicle added January 11, 2003.
© Ferrell Jenkins 2002.