Scholars: Oldest evidence of Jesus?
By Jeordan Legon
(CNN) -- A limestone burial box,
almost 2,000 years old, may provide the oldest archeological
record of Jesus of Nazareth, experts announced Monday.
The ossuary, as the bone boxes are known, dates to A.D. 63 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 box in Jerusalem last spring.
Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language, was the lingua franca of
the Middle East for many centuries. At the time of Jesus' life,
Aramaic was the common language of the Jews.
Writing about his findings in the new issue of Biblical
Archaeology Review, Lemaire, who teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris,
called it "very probable" that the box belonged to Jesus' brother
James, who by Christian tradition was 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."
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.
Writing provides answers
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 A.D. 70 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 noted only when he was someone
James, Joseph and Jesus were common names in ancient Jerusalem,
a city of about 40,000 residents. Lemaire estimates there could
have been as many as 20 Jameses in the 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.
'Didn't realize the significance'
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
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. He discovered the interest in the object only 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 said. "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 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."