- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

A first-century limestone box for bones found in Jerusalem and inscribed with "James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus" was announced yesterday as a possible archaeological reference to Jesus of Nazareth.
While a range of scholars affirm the authenticity of the ossuary inscribed in about A.D. 63, whether the inscription refers to the New Testament family is harder to confirm.
"What we want to announce today is the first archaeological attestation of Jesus," Herschel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review, which has the exclusive story, said at a news conference here.
"This is a startling, mind-boggling inscription," said Mr. Shanks, who as a Jewish expert on archaeology in Israel believes the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth. "Scholars are justly skeptical and quizzical."
If the ossuary is that of James, who was leader of the first Jerusalem church of Jesus' followers, it will shed light on early Christianity and might complicate Catholic tradition, which says Jesus was Mary's only child.
"We're getting right back to the beginning of the Jesus movement," said New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, one of three panelists responding to the announcement. If it is the ossuary of James, he said, it means early Christians spoke Aramaic and buried each other in traditional Jewish custom.
Despite the find's significance, the panelists said they are uncertain the reference is to Jesus of Nazareth. They said it could easily be "sensationalized," and the work of high-tech forgers "smarter than we are."
An electron-microscope test conducted by the Geological Survey of Israel found the chisel marks were original not a later addition and the stone box's style was deemed typical of first-century Jerusalem.
"This appeared on the antiquities market," Mr. Shanks said. "It was not excavated by professional archaeologists." That makes the origins of the box nearly impossible to track down.
In the time of Jesus, bodies of the deceased were put in cave niches and their dried bones collected a year later in a box. The James ossuary is believed to have come from tombs in Arab Jerusalem, where an Arab trader sold it to a Jewish collector 15 years ago for "a few hundred dollars."
In the somewhat secret world of traders, collectors and scholars, the box's inscription was described to top French archeologist Andre Lemaire while he was in Jerusalem. He probed its authenticity and then showed it to Mr. Shanks, whose magazine has popularized Bible archaeology.
With the owner remaining anonymous, Mr. Shanks hopes to display the ossuary in Toronto in November when 8,000 scholars of the Bible and religion hold their annual meeting. "I'm hopeful it will soon be exhibited in North America," he said.
Evidence favoring the inscription as referring to Jesus of Nazareth includes:
Of an estimated 40,000 men in Jerusalem at the time of James' death, it is estimated that only three sets of men named Joseph, James and Jesus had father-sons relationships, according to statistical analysis.
In only one other case is a brother's name found on an ossuary, suggesting that the Jesus named in the artifact's inscription was famous enough to be included.
The inscription was carved with unusual care, suggesting great respect toward the deceased.
The burial time matched the end of James' church leadership, just before Rome destroyed Jerusalem's temple in A.D. 70.
Mr. Witherington called these "converging lines of historical evidence," while Mr. Shanks said, "It's hard to avoid the conclusion that these names apply to the personages in the New Testament."
Reasons to doubt that the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth include:
"Brother" has several meanings in Aramaic, from sibling to relative to associate.
cAn ossuary inscribed with "Jesus, son of David" surfaced in 1931, so the name "Yeshua" was not rare in first-century Judea.
cJames is not called by his popular title "the just" or "the righteous," and Jesus is not "of Nazareth."
cIn about A.D. 80, Christians already contested the "brother" status of James; the Gospel of Luke (3:23) said it was only "supposed."
The Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a Catholic scholar of the Old Testament and Aramaic, said Catholic tradition describes James as a "relative or kinsman" of Jesus, but not necessarily a cousin.
Given the ambiguity of the inscription, he said, "Nothing confirms the identification."
But if it does refer to the Nazarene, it would be one of only six textual or archaeological sources citing Jesus outside the New Testament. "This would be a precious attestation if this is Jesus of Nazareth," he said.
Bible and archaeology professor P. Kyle McCarter, who expressed a "bit of doubt" that it was Jesus of Nazareth, said some scholars in their field frown on going public with the find so early.
"We have colleagues that will question us even being here with you," he told the press. In the field of ancient artifacts, Mr. McCarter said, "We may never be absolutely certain."
Mr. Shanks said he asked the collector, a Jewish man who reads Aramaic, why he did not recognize the significance of the inscription earlier. He said the man threw up his hands and said: "I didn't think the son of God could have a brother."


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