Vessel, inscription might be earliest reference to Jesus

Burial box is old enough to have belonged to James of Gospels, experts say

Message in ancient Aramaic

October 22, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Scholars announced yesterday the discovery of an ossuary, a burial vessel used to hold human bones, with an inscription they believe represents the earliest archaeological reference to Jesus.

The ossuary, a nearly 2-foot-long limestone box with an inscription in the ancient language of Aramaic, reads: "James, son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus." It was discovered earlier this year by Andre Lemaire, a French specialist in ancient scripts, in the possession of a private collector in Jerusalem.

The private collector, who wishes to remain anonymous, reportedly purchased the empty ossuary 15 years ago but did not realize its significance and knew nothing of its history.

"What we want to announce today is the first archaeological attestation of Jesus," said Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, which published the find in its November/December issue. "This inscription is the first appearance of Jesus in the archaeological record."

Other experts say that the ossuary appears authentic and might indeed refer to Jesus of Nazareth. But they also caution that it is impossible to be sure.

Most scholars accept that Jesus was a historical figure. There are several references to him in documents outside of the Bible by non-Christian Roman figures such as Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger and the historian Josephus.

But no archaeological evidence has ever been unearthed. The authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, believed by the devout to be the burial cloth of Jesus, and the True Cross, supposedly a splinter of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, are very much disputed.

"The number of ancient references we have to Jesus outside the New Testament is very minimal," said the Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a pioneer in Catholic biblical studies. "This would be a precious attestation if this were Jesus of Nazareth."

James is mentioned in the Gospels as one of four brothers of Jesus. There is a reference in Paul's letter to the Galatians of "James, the Lord's brother," who is elsewhere described as the one who assumed leadership of the nascent church in Jerusalem after the death of Jesus.

Protestant Bible scholars have long assumed that references to Jesus' brother meant that Mary had children after the birth of Jesus who were fathered by Joseph. The Orthodox view is that James is Jesus' half-brother, the son of Joseph from an earlier marriage.

Different interpretation

Roman Catholic scholars, however, have traditionally translated the word for "brother" as "kin" or "cousin," as the existence of a brother by blood would contradict the church's teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus.

Lemaire, a professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, bases his claim to the ossuary's authenticity on a linguistic examination of the writing as well as laboratory tests on the box's materials and surface.

Jews followed the custom of using ossuaries to collect the bones of their dead for a relatively short period, from about the first century B.C. until A.D. 70, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. The dead would first be buried in a cave and about a year later, after the flesh had decayed, the bones would be collected and placed in the ossuary.

Lemaire holds that the style of writing, the "classical shape of the letters," is typical of mid-first century Aramaic. Further, he contends that the cursive shape of three of the letters is characteristic of the last years of the period, which correspond to the A.D. 62 date determined from historical references for the death of James.

Dead Sea scrolls

Shanks showed the inscription to Fitzmyer, who at first was troubled by what he felt was the unusual spelling for the word "brother," which he previously found only in later Aramaic, and then only as plural, not singular. But after going back to the Dead Sea scrolls, Fitzmyer found an identical use of the word. He also found a similar use in another ossuary inscription.

"He said, `I stand corrected,'" Shanks said. If it is a forgery, he said, "Either the forger knows Aramaic better than Joe Fitzmyer, or it is authentic."

Lemaire acknowledges that nothing in the inscription confirms the biblical identification. James is not referred to as "James the Just," as he is called in the Bible, and Jesus is not called "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus the Messiah."

He also acknowledges that the names Jesus, James and Joseph were common in that era. But he offers a statistical estimate, based on the number of people who would have those three names out of a population of about 40,000 men in Jerusalem at that time, that only about 20 people could be called "James, son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus."

Unusual reference

Lemaire also argues that the mere mention of Jesus' name indicates he was someone who was prominent. It was common to list one's father in an ossuary inscription, but there is only one other instance in Aramaic mentioning a brother.

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