Amazing as it may sound, a limestone bone box (called an “ossuary”) has surfaced in Israel that may once have contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus.
We know this because an extraordinary inscription incised on one side of the ossuary reads in clear Aramaic letters: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
But is this the same James who was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, or was this another James, whose father happened to be called Joseph and who also happened coincidentally to have a brother named Jesus? The ossuary is one of many now in a private collection in Israel. I have been permitted to study and photograph it. Very likely, it was found in Jerusalem or its environs. We know of hundreds of such ossuaries that have been recovered in the Holy City. Unfortunately, as is almost always the case with ossuaries that come from the antiquities market rather than from a legal excavation, it was emptied. What happened to the bones that were once inside it we do not know.
For a relatively short the first period—from the first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Temple; the practice of ossilegium, as it is called, was widespread among the Jewish population. A corpse would first be laid in a niche carved into the wall of a burial cave; about a year after this primary burial, when the corpse’s flesh had decayed, the bones of the deceased were gathered together and placed in a box or chest, usually made of Jerusalem limestone, called an ossuaiy Sometimes the bones of more than one person were placed in the same ossuary. The practice of ossilegium thus made room for additional primary burials inside the burial cave.
This two-part burial practice is described in a rabbinic treatise, in the words of a sage, probably of the late first century B.C.E.: Rabbi Eleazar bar Zadok said: “Thus spoke father at the time of his death: ‘My son, bury me first in a grave [fosse] . In the course of time, collect my bones and put them in an ossuary; but do not gather them with your own hands.’ And thus did I watch him: Johanan entered, collected the bones, and spread a sheet over them. I then came in, rent my clothes for them, and sprinkled dry herbs over them. Just as he attended his father, so I attended him.”
The newly revealed ossuary with the startling inscription bearing the name of James is unadorned, unlike numerous ornately carved ossuaries. The only decoration is a line forming a frame about 0.5 inch (1.2 cm) from the outer edges. Many ossuaries have little feet. This one does not. However, scarce decoration does not indicate a lower social status of the dead, as a leading authority on ossuaries has observed.
This ossuary is not exactly rectangular, but that is true of most of the ossuaries we know. It is 20 inches long (50.5 cm) at the base and flairs out to almost 22 inches (56 cm) at the top. Although one of the short sides is perpendicular to the base, the other is slanted, giving the box a trapezoid shape. The ossuary is 10 inches (25 cm) wide and 12 inches (30.5 cm) high. The stone lid is essentially flat (very slightly convex, to be exact) and rests on a small (0.24 inch, or 0.6 cm) ledge running inside the rim of the long sides of the ossuary. The 20 Aramaic letters of the inscription appear on one of the long sides.* They reveal a classical script carefully incised. There is no space between the words. The inscription is 7.5 inches (19.5 cm) long and about 0.33 inch (0.9 cm) high and reads:
Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua
James (Ya’akov/Jacob), son of Joseph (Yosef),
brother of Jesus (Yeshua)
All three of the personal names in the inscription were common during this period, although they may be spelled in various ways. For example, “Jacob” (English “James”) can be written either with a waw (rnp~r), as it is here, or without (:pr) “Joseph” can be written “Yosef” (~I’) as it is here, or as “Yehosef” (row) with a heh following the initial consonant.6 ‘Jesus” can be written “Yeshua” as it is here, or “Yeshu” (~.)7 or “Yehoshua”
A word about the equivalency of Jacob and James:Jacob (Ya ‘akov) of course is the name of the Biblical patriarch. In Latin translations of the Bible, the Biblical patriarch became Jaco bus and the New Testament apostle of the same name became Jacomus. They are simply variants of the same name. The English forms are clearly derived from the Latin Returning to the ossuary, this type of bone box is generally to be dated between about 20 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. The classical shape of the letters of the inscription also fits this approximate date. None of these letters displays the developments typical of the following period. 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.
But who is “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”? In one sense, this question asks who was James in Christian tradition—in what way was he Jesus’ brother? In another sense, it asks whether the Jesus of the inscription is the Jesus of Nazareth we know from the New Testament. Jesus’ family is mentioned several times in the
Gospels—for example, in Matthew 13:55-56: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (see the parallel text in Mark 6:3 and also Matthew 12:46). Thus James appears to be the first brother of Jesus, who was himself the son of Joseph and Mary (Luke 4:22 and John 6:42 both indicate Joseph was the father of Jesus). James is also mentioned several times in Paul’s letters. In the Letter to the Galatians, which Paul wrote in the late 50s C.E., he states: “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19). Paul seems to present James as the first leader of the Jerusalem church: “When James and Cephas and John who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Galatians 2:9).
James was also the first of the apostles to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared (1 Corinthians 15:7). James’ importance in Paul’s eyes is all the more remarkable because they disagreed about the role of Jewish law as applicable to gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). James’ importance in the early church is also confirmed in Acts. It is James who suggests the compromise between the Jerusalem church and those preaching to the gentiles—gentiles who become Christian need only refrain from fornication and from eating meat sacrificed to idols or from animals that have been strangled; they are not obligated to keep other Jewish dietary (kosher) laws or to be circumcised (see Acts 15:12-29). In this way, unity between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians was maintained.
When Paul comes to Jerusalem in about 58 C.E .he visits James, “and all the elders were present (Acts 21:18); James appears to be the leader of the Jerusalem church. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus dates James’ death to 62 C.E. when the high priest Ananus had “one James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ/ Messiah” brought before the Sanhedrin.’ James’ place as the leader (or bishop) of the .Jerusalem church is recognized in early Christian literature—for example, in the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea c 324), which quotes the tradition of the Christian writer and historian Hegesippus and the church father Clement of Alexandria. In this tradition James was known as “James the Just” or “James the Righteous.” According to this tradition he was buried in Jerusalem. Hegesippus ©. 180), as quoted by Eusebius, tells us that “He [James] was buried on the spot, by the Sanctuary, and his headstone is still there by the Sanctuary”
According to the Protevangelium of James, a late apocryphal gospel, James, as Joseph’s son, led the she-ass upon which Mary rode (while Joseph followed) on their way to Bethlehem. The text then postulates that as James was older than Jesus, he was the son of an earlier marriage of Joseph’s. From the New Testament, however, there is no reason to think anything but that Jesus and his brothers and sisters were children of Joseph and Mary. The apocryphal tradition is doubtless a sign that the idea of Jesus having blood brothers faced some opposition. The tension between this view and an affirmation of Mary’s continued virginity also led to a re-interpretation of “brother” as cousin.
Thus, there are three different Christian traditions regarding the “brothers” of Jesus. The first is that James was the blood brother of Jesus, the son of the same mother and father as Jesus. This seems to be the view of the canonical New Testament, as well as of the second-third century church father Tertullian, Hegesippus and others. This interpretation is dominant in Protestant scholarship. A second tradition regards James as a son of Joseph by a previous marriage. This is the view not only of the Protevangelium ofJames, but also of the secnd/third-century church father Origen, the third/fourth century church historian Eusebius and others. This interpretation is dominant in Orthodox circles.
Finally, it is said that James was only a cousin of Jesus, being the son of Clopas and the Mary who stood near the cross. This interpretation was held by St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin (late fourth/early fifth century), among others. This tradition tends to predominate in Roman Catholic exegesis, though some Catholic scholars accept the first view.
All agree, however, that James was a leading figure in the Jerusalem church. But the question remains: Can we identify this James with the James whose bones were once encased in this ossuary?
It certainly seems reasonable that a leader of the Jerusalem church would be buried in Jerusalem and his bones later collected in an ossuary like this. Whether Jewish Christians (or, perhaps more correctly, Christian Jews) were re-interred in ossuaries is a matter of some debate. It is true that no inscription or symbol has been found indicating that this was a Jewish Christian custom, in addition to a Jewish custom, but even such cautious scholars as L.Y Rahmani’ and Simon Mimouni, who are properly critical of some speculative interpretations, recognize it as a distinct possibility. The fact that James was familiar with the Pharisees, as opposed to the Sadducees, may be an argument in favor of Christian Jewish ossuaries, as this practice is well attested in Pharisaic tradition.
On the other hand, nothing in this ossuary inscription clearly confirms the ident-ification. James is not called “James the Just” (or “James the Righteous, as he was known in Christian tradition). Jesus is not called “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus the Messiah.”
The names of James (Jacob), Joseph and Jesus were all fairly common among Jews at the turn of the era. Rahmani’s catalogue of ossuaries in Israel lists 233 inscriptions. All three names are among those that appear the most frequently. Joseph is found 1 9 times, Jesus ten times and James/Jacob five times. Rachel Hachlili has studied names used at this time in all types of inscriptions. Joseph appeared in 14 percent, Jesus in 9 percent and James/Jacob in 2 percent of the cases.
Based on these percentages, we can conclude that about 0.28 percent (a little more than a quarter of a percent) of the male population were named either “James/Jacob, son of Joseph” or ‘Joseph, son of James/Jacob.” So about 0.14 percent were named “James/Jacob, son of Joseph.” Of these people, how many would also have a brother Jesus”? Assuming that each male had approximately two brothers, this would mean that about 18 percent of the men named “James/Jacob, son of Joseph” had a brother named Jesus. Accordingly, over two generations, 0.05 percent of the population would likely be called “Jacob, son of Joseph brother of Jesus.”
The estimated population of Jerusalem at this time was about 80,000, which means that about 40,000 of the people were male. In Jerusalem durng the two generations before 70 C.E., there were. therefore probably about 20 people who could be called “James/Jacob son of Joseph brother of Jesus.” it is, however, impossible to estimate how many of these 20 people were buried in ossuaries and how many of these ossuaries would be inscribed.
Does the fact that the inscription on this ossuary mentions not only the father of the person whose bones are enclosed but also the brother help us in our identification? It is common to mention the father in this context, but mention of the brother is very unusual, although it does happen (we have only one other example in Aramaic, in a similar formula). The mention of the brother probably means that the brother had a particular role, either in taking responsibility for the burial, or more generally because the brother was known, and the deceased had a special connection with him.
When we take into account that this “James/Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” had a brother who was by this time well known and that the “James/Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” had a special relationship with this brother as the leader of the Jerusalem church, it seems very probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament. If so, this would also mean that we have here the first epigraphic mention from about 63 CE—of Jesus of Nazareth!
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