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Israel: Scholars Disagree Over Reported Ossuary Of Jesus' Brother, James

  • Don Hill

A French archaeologist has discovered an artifact called an ossuary -- or bone burial box -- that appears to date to the middle of the first century and that bears the name of James, brother of Jesus. The bone box is in the hands of a private collector in Jerusalem. The find, reported in the current issue of the magazine "Biblical Archeology Review," has caused a sensation among archaeologists and Christian believers. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that there are also some tough-minded skeptics.

Prague, 23 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Christian story in the New Testament of the Bible tells of the wanderings and acts of Jesus, "the son of God," and mentions his Earthly father Joseph and brother James. Now, Andre Lemaire, an ancient-inscriptions specialist at the Sorbonne in Paris, says he has made an incredible find -- a burial box that once contained the bones of James.

In an article in the current issue of the Washington-based magazine "Biblical Archeology Review," or "BAR," Lemaire describes an inscription carved in stone on the ancient ossuary -- or bone box. It reads in the Aramaic of 2,000 years ago, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." In the article, Lemaire says the inscription appears to be authentic. As he puts it, "It seems very probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament."

Steve Feldman, managing editor of "BAR" for the last 13 years, says Lemaire's find was serendipitous. The magazine's editor-in-chief, Hershel Shenks, unexpectedly met with Lemaire earlier this year while on a trip to the Middle East:

"Professor Lemaire happened to mention that he had met an antiquities collector whom he had not known previously who told him he had something he thought the professor might want to take a look at. Professor Lemaire is often shown things because he is a specialist in ancient inscriptions."

The find is causing a stir among Christian believers and Biblical archaeologists because, if authentic -- and if it really refers to Jesus of Nazareth -- it would be the earliest known documentation of Jesus outside of the Bible.

But there are skeptics. New York writer Daniel Lazare is one of them. He is author of a recent cover story in the U.S. magazine "Harper's" subtitled "Archeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History." Lazare told our correspondent this in a telephone interview: "The odds against it are really huge. I mean, James was...We're pretty sure that James lived. We're pretty sure that Jesus lived. But James was a pretty obscure guy who, you know, was just one of millions of common folk in that part of the world."

At the time of Jesus and James, it was common among Jews to conduct two burials. A corpse would be laid out in a burial cave until the flesh decomposed. Then the bones would be placed in a limestone box -- an ossuary -- and reburied. In 1990, "BAR" magazine recorded the discovery of a beautifully carved ossuary inscribed Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the name of the high priest who, according to the Christian story, turned Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified.

One of the problems with the James ossuary is that its provenance is muddy. It apparently was looted from an ancient burial plot and sold. It was not found in an established archaeological site, where its environment would have been meticulously recorded. "Harper's" writer Lazare comments: "But it's a longshot. It doesn't mean it's impossible. It's just unlikely. And the fact that it was not recovered through a recognized archaeological dig but was found on the open market does compromise it, as well."

In his "BAR" article, the Sorbonne's Lemaire lays out the case for the ossuary's authenticity. He says microscopic examination shows no evidence of modern tampering. Lemaire says Joseph and Jesus were common names in that time, James less so. But, he says, a brother would not ordinarily be named on an ossuary unless he were prominent. He says the likelihood of more than one person named James with a father named Joseph and a prominent brother named Jesus is miniscule.

It is common among many Christian believers to hold that the Bible is sufficient authority for all that it contains. Even so, the faithful ardently welcome extra-Biblical evidence of Biblical truths. "BAR" Managing Editor Feldman: "Well, there are people for whom the Bible is sufficient. But I think that even for many devout Christians and Jews or what have you, that whenever you come across an object or a site that is associated with a Biblical event or a Biblical person, there's an immediacy that is just very powerful. And even if it's no more than just a confirmation of one's beliefs, it is still very powerful confirmation."

This eagerness to find historic evidence, writer Lazare says, contributes to a problem. In his "Harper's" article, Lazare says that many Biblical archaeologists make the nonscientific error of beginning from a set of beliefs and then fitting the evidence they discover into those beliefs: "[This view] tends to assume that whatever archaeologists find will somehow buttress Christian or Jewish faith, and tends to look at it from that perspective."

Lazare continues: "Well, the 'Biblical Archeology Review' is a very interesting publication. It's kind of imbued with that kind of mentality. It's a magazine that's written for and read by believers."

Not so, says "BAR's" Feldman: "Well, we try to be impartial. We've been accused of having a point of view, but we've been accused of having contrary.... You know, some people think we're too liberal and some people think we're too conservative. So, I like to think that we're just right -- somewhere in the middle."

Feldman is the author of a recent commentary in "BAR" taking issue with Lazare's debunking article in "Harper's."

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