James Ossuary

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The discovery of the James ossuary in 2002, seen here on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, has sparked considerable debate. Is the inscription on the limestone box genuine, and does it mean that it contains the bones of Jesus Christ’s brother?AFP/Getty Images.

James Ossuary

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

On October 21, 2002, the popular scientific journal Biblical Archaeological Review announced the existence of an ancient limestone box described as an ossuary, or burial box, some 50 centimeters by 25 centimeters by 30 centimeters. The ossuary shows an inscription carved on its side in Aramaic that reads: “Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua,” which in translation becomes “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If genuine, this box would be the earliest tangible evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, outside of the biblical narrative. The box also reiterated the questionable nature of the many relics that now exist throughout Christendom which claim to come from the time of Jesus’ ministry, from the Shroud of Turin and Veronica’s Veil to icons supposedly tied to the apostle Luke.

The authenticity of the ossuary was immediately called into question, and as far as possible, preliminary tests were run to support the claims of its proponents. Among the first to pronounce on it, Israeli geologists confirmed that the limestone is from the Jerusalem area and was probably quarried in the first or second century CE. Also, an analysis of the surface of the box suggested theinscription was made soon after the ossuary was fashioned from the rock. The language and style of the inscription are consistent with that of the first century (20 BCE-70ce). Critics have noted the same scholarship that authenticated it could possibly have faked it.

Primary doubts about the ossuary begin with its checkered modern history. Reputedly it was found in a cave near Silwan by an Arab laborer who subsequently sold it to an antique dealer, who in turn sold it to the present owner. There is little information on the site where the ossuary was found, which could ideally be examined independently.

Adding its voice to doubts about the ossuary, on June 18, 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority formally announced its opinion that the box was a forgery. Their report emphasized both the findings from their careful examination of the box and the problems of its modern discovery. Rochelle Altman, one scholar who had examined the box, concluded that the part of the key inscription that reads “Jacob (James) son of Joseph” was likely carved in the first century, but that the later part of the inscription, which reads “brother of Joshua (Jesus),” was a later addition, probably from the third or fourth century. Altman noted significant stylistic changes between the two parts of the inscription.


Eshe, Esther, Tal Ilan, Dr. Avner Ayalon, and Orna Cohen. Final Report of the Examining Committees for the
Yehoash Inscription and James Ossuary. May 18, 2003. Posted at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Com mittees_report.htm. Accessed April 1, 2007.
Lemaire, André. “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28, 6 (November/December 2002): 24–33, 70.
Witherington, Ben. “Bones of Contention: Why I Still Think the James Bone Box Is Likely to Be Authentic.” Christianity Today 47, 10 (October 2003): 42. Posted at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/010/2.42.html. Accessed April 1, 2007.