The Jesus Ossuary Inscription

By Wayne Jackson

{pictureRef (“barJesusInscription”, glossref:“barJesusInscriptionArticle”, align:right, height:132, width:100)}James, the brother of Jesus, is mentioned several times in the New Testament. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, says that on a visit to Jerusalem, he saw “James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19). Matthew mentions James, along with Christ’s other half-siblings (Mt. 13:55-56).

Following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7). James was a significant influence in the Jerusalem church (see Acts 15:13ff; 21:18-19; Gal. 2:9), and the best evidence indicates that, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, he authored the book of James.

There is also extra-biblical testimony regarding James. Josephus, the famed Jewish historian, refers to the death of “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” He also records that James was stoned to death (Antiquities 20.9.1).

Eusebius, an historian of the fourth century A.D. refers to the earlier testimony of Hegesippus, who also mentions the stoning of James, “the brother of the Lord,” and says that he was buried near the temple (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23).

Now, suddenly, James, and more importantly Jesus himself, have made today’s headlines. According to an Associated Press article, “Jesus Inscription Found?” by Richard N. Ostling (released today – Oct. 21, 2002), an empty ossuary (limestone burial box) has come to light that contains this inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

The inscription has been dated at about A.D. 63. If the reference is to the “James,” “Joseph,” and “Jesus” of the New Testament documents, then this is one of the most explosive archaeological discoveries ever made. According to Herschel Shanks, editor of the prestigious Biblical Archaeological Review, this would be “the first appearance of Jesus in the archaeological record.” [Note: There is, in fact, evidence of an earlier inscription containing the name “Jesus.” See our article, “Another Voice from the Tomb”, “Penpoints”, November 25, 2002.]

While this discovery is bound to be contested and debated for some time, Andre Lemaire, at France’s Practical School of Higher Studies, a specialist in ancient inscriptions, believes it is “very probable” that the find is genuine. Initially there appears to be prima facie evidence which points to its authenticity.

  1. The Jews buried their dead in ossuary boxes between 20 B.C. and A.D. 70; this discovery (at A.D. 63) would fit into that time frame.
  2. The writing style (Aramaic) is consistent with the time of James and Jesus.
  3. Two scientists, affiliated with the Israeli government’s Geological Survey, conducted a microscopic examination of the inscription. Their investigation revealed “no evidence that might detract from the authenticity.”
  4. The fact that the inscription contains the name of the father (Joseph), and brother (Jesus) of the deceased (James) has been described as “very unusual.” Only one other such example in Aramaic has been found. Scholars have concluded, therefore, that this particular “Jesus” must have had “some unusual role or fame.” The circumstances surrounding the life and death of Christ would certainly fit that mold.

This discovery is likely to ignite controversy from several quarters. Predictably, Bible critics will attack the evidence. A few misguided skeptics deny that Jesus ever lived, and so they will “choke” on this.

Some Roman Catholics will more-than-likely be disturbed since they do not believe that Jesus had any siblings due to their dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary — a view, in fact, which is not supported by the evidence (See our article, “False Teaching Regarding Mary”).

At this point it is too early to make impetuous and dogmatic judgments — but the possibility that this discovery is authentic is exciting indeed.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.