The Box for His Brother’s Bones

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken November 24, 2002

Last summer an anonymous collector asked the French paleographer Andre Lemaire to examine the inscription on an ancient ossuary from Jerusalem. An ossuary is a box for burying people’s bones. This particular ossuary–which was empty apart from a few bone fragments–was made of limestone and measured 20 inches long, 10 inches wide, and 12 inches high. For just a few hundred dollars, the collector had bought it more than a decade ago from someone who claimed that it was found just south of the Mount of Olives, in an area dotted with burial caves.

The inscription excited Lemaire as soon as he read it, and since its public announcement in October, it has excited people all over the world. Its words are simple. They read: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

The obvious question is whether or not the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth, also called the Christ. If so, then the James in question was one of the great men of the early church–not the apostle, but the brother of Jesus, the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and the man who wrote the well-known epistle of James.

The first step was to determine whether or not the inscription actually dated to the first century. There is little doubt that it does. For one thing, it is written in the style of Aramaic script common to that period. Furthermore, there is a patina on the ossuary–the dust of time. Experts from the Geological Institute of Israel who have examined it agree that it dates to around A.D. 60. This proves that the inscription is not a fake. It also fits what we know about James, who was martyred in A.D. 62. In the words of Josephus, the ancient historian, the high priest Ananus killed “one James, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ.”

The next step is to consider whether the names James, Joseph, and Jesus could refer to anyone else. All three names were relatively common in the first century–like Tom, Dick, and Harry–so it is not surprising to find them on an ossuary from that period. However, the odds are strongly against there being another family with the same three names in the same order. But the clincher is that James’s brother is mentioned at all. Ordinarily such an inscription would refer only to the deceased, and possibly to his father. It is exceptionally rare to mention his brother at all. The only reason for doing so would be that his brother happened to be famous. This confirms beyond reasonable doubt that the ossuary was for James, the brother of Jesus Christ.

This discovery has already started to stir up a certain amount of theological controversy. According to the official Roman Catholic interpretation, Jesus did not have any brothers–at least not any full brothers. In order to defend their belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin, Catholics argue that Mary and Joseph never had intercourse and thus never had any more children. The brothers of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament must have been Joseph’s sons by a previous marriage, or perhaps they were Jesus’ cousins (this is the traditional Eastern Orthodox view).

The ossuary creates problems for the Catholic view because it helps confirm that James and Jesus were brothers. But there was never any biblical evidence for the Catholic position anyway. It was based entirely on beliefs about Mary that come from tradition and not from Scripture. Protestants have always believed that Mary and Joseph did have more children and that James was one of their sons. We believe this because the Bible clearly identifies James as one of Jesus’ brothers (Matt. 13:55).

His identity as the brother of our Lord explains why James rose to such a prominent position in the early church. Although he never gets the attention that Peter and Paul receive, James played a major role in shaping the New Testament church. At the famous Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, it was James who had the last word. In those days this privilege was reserved for the man with the most authority. And it was James–not Peter or Paul–who commanded the greatest respect. This was because, in Jewish culture, when the oldest son died the mantle of responsibility fell on the shoulders of his next oldest brother. So after Jesus returned to heaven, it was only natural for people to look to his brother James as one of their leaders.

The James ossuary is already being hailed as the most important archaeological discovery since the Dead Sea Scrolls–the first great find of the 21st Century. If scholars are right, then its inscription is the earliest extra-biblical mention of Jesus Christ.

What difference does the ossuary make? Does it prove anything about Jesus? The box for his brother’s bones provides tangible evidence that Jesus was a real person with a real family. But any reasonable historian will tell you that the New Testament proved this already. The real question is not whether Jesus ever lived, but whether he is anything more than just a man. And on this point hardened skeptics will remain unconvinced. It will take more than reading the name “Jesus” on an old box of bones to make them believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of sinners. These are things that people can only accept by faith.

This was as true for James as it is for anyone else. At first James was a skeptic. Like the rest of Jesus’ brothers, he didn’t understand who Jesus was or what he had come to do. As we read in the gospels, “even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).

But eventually Jesus proved himself to James. He appeared to him after he rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:7). James responded by faith, and from that point on he identified himself, not simply as the brother of Jesus, but as “a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). James began to worship Jesus as his Savior and Lord. And this means that one day his old bones will come back to life, because everyone who believes in Jesus will be raised to eternal life.

[Information for this Window on the World comes from Gordon Govier, “Stunning new evidence of Jesus,” Christianity Today (November 18, 2002); Hillary Mayell, “Burial Box May Be That of Jesus’s Brother, Expert Says,” Internet posting by National Geographic News (October 21, 2002); Jeffrey L. Sheler, “A Discovery and a Debate,” U. S. News & World Report (November 4, 2002), and David Van Biema, “The Brother of Jesus?” TIME (November 4, 2002)]

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