Oldest Evidence of Jesus? - Buriel Box Inscribed in Aramaic

October 21, 2002
By Jeordan Legon

Photo: Scientists say that this box dates from 63 A.D.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A limestone burial box, almost 2000 years old, may provide the oldest archeological record of Jesus of Nazareth, according to several experts who announced the finding Monday.

The ossuary, as the bone boxes are known, dates to 63 A.D. 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 writing on the box in Jerusalem last spring.

Writing about his findings in the new issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Lemaire, who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris, calls it "very probable" that the box belonged to Jesus' brother James, 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 doubt."

Photo: The inscription reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," according to scholars.

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 magazine reported.

"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.

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 70 A.D. 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 only noted when he was someone important.

James, Joseph and Jesus were common names in ancient Jerusalem, a city of about 40,000 residents. And Lemaire estimates that there could have been as many as 20 Jameses in that 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 said.

Lemaire found the box in June by accident, said Shanks, who was able to inspect the box personally. 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. And he only discovered the interest in the object 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 added. "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 said.

But he said whether or not 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."


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