An amazing discovery

In October 2002, the journal Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) announced that it had found an artifact of apparently unprecedented significance (the article appeared in the November/December issue). According to BAR:

After nearly 2,000 years, historical evidence for the existence of Jesus has come to light literally written in stone. An inscription has been found on an ancient bone box, called an ossuary, that reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." This container provides the only New Testament-era mention of the central figure of Christianity and is the first-ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus.
(BAR 1)

The article, by French scholar André Lemaire1, described the box as a limestone ossuary which was inscribed with the words "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua" (Jacob/James, son of Joseph, brother of Joshua/Jesus). It was announced that the find came from the private collection in Israel. Lemaire had happened to meet the collector, by chance, and the collector mentioned some objects he might be interested in seeing. He had the object for 15 years since purchasing it in Old Jerusalem from an Arab antiquities dealer for a few hundred US dollars. The engravings were what had interested him and he claimed to have had no idea about the significance of his acquisition. He wished not to be identified.

Lemaire noted that ossuaries were used around Jerusalem between 20 BC and 70 AD and that the carved Aramaic2 words matched the a cursive style that developed around 25 AD, further narrowing the date. While it is common for an inscription to list the father, few would list the brother or a third name, suggesting the significance of that person.

Lemaire also reported that, based on demographical studies, the number of people who could claim all three connected names (despite being common) in the population of the area at the time would be highly unusual. His figures gave the percentage of the population having those names as 14%, 9%, and 2%, respectively. He stated that there would be only around 20 persons (another statistician would later claim it to be as low as six) with those criteria.

Tests were run on the box by the Geological Survey of Israel who found the material out of which it was made was "from the Jerusalem area." Also that the "patina—"a thin sheen or covering that forms on stone and other material over time—has a cauliflower-type shape known to develop in a cave environment" (BAR 1) and that it showed no trace of "modern pigments, scratches by modern cutting tools or other signs of tampering" (qtd. The convergence of the evidence led Lemaire to the conclusion that the box could be dated to about 63 AD and was very likely "the first epigraphic mention...of Jesus of Nazareth" (qtd. Skeptical Inquirer).

The news caused more than a ripple through the archaeological community or that of the more evangelical Christians. The box made the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post. Articles and stories appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek, US News and World Report, and played on ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and PBS. It also got a prestigious and honored showing at Canada's Royal Ontario Museum.

Bone boxes

Ossuary boxes are used to store the bones of the dead. The practice is primarily a necessity driven by population density and the lack of adequate cemetery space. They were in common use during certain periods in Greece and Rome and are well known in Palestine.

Jewish use of ossuaries
Most use occurred between 30-20 BC and 70 AD. Since this practice is at odds with Jewish burial custom, it would have been to conserve burial space. The reason for the drop off around 70 AD would be the decrease in area population after the Romans sacked Jerusalem. There were two other periods when ossuary use was common. The second was between 70 AD and 135 AD in the area around Galilee and the Jordan Valley, and another in the late second century through the third century.

The process (probably similar in other places and times) was to acquire a cave or carve one out of the soft rock in the surrounding hills/mountains (limestone in the area makes this easier). Each cave would function as a family mausoleum. The body of the deceased would be wrapped and buried or left out to skeletonize there. The bones would then be gathered and placed in the box, purchased from a a stone carver and usually made from local rock. The boxes were usually stacked one on top of each other (inscriptions on the side), though side by side (inscriptions usually on top) was not uncommon. It was also fairly common to commingle the bones of more than one person.

The inscription on each ossuary served as a sort of vow—a covenant—between the family and the member(s) in the ossuary. Because the body could not be buried according to custom, the inscription was a means to show respect for the deceased and the promise to care for the remains. Since this was a important, personal (rather than "official") statement, it would have been written by the hand of a family member—inscriptions show that these scribes varied in their literacy and craftsmanship. Inscription placement was not a standard thing (aside from being in a position to be read) and they appear in different places on the hundreds of surviving ossuaries from the region. They are typically scratched in the stone by whatever tool or means was available, including nails and glass. Some were painted.

The "James" ossuary
The "James" ossuary was examined and its composition found to be limestone—more specifically chalk.3 It was found to be 97% CaCO3. The patina was 93% and the soil attached to it 85%. The patina had a larger percentage of silica than the ossuary or the soil. According to the men who examined it, the soil in which it was laid was of a type "known to develop on the chalks of the Mount Scopus Group" (—mountains near to Jerusalem.

The dimensions are not quite typical. Most ossuaries measure about 24 inches in length, 13 3/4 inches in height and 12 inches wide. The "James" ossuary is four inches shorter and slightly trapezoidal in that one end is ten inches wide, while the other is twelve. This may be a case of a box that was going to be alone, rather than stacked or next to others. It weighs about 45 pounds.

During the trip from Israel to the museum in Ontario, something happened to damage the ossuary. Some cracks were found upon its arrival—one through the inscription just before the name "Jesus." It hasn't been determined how it got cracked. Some suspect that it was poorly packed (cardboard and bubble wrap), though its owner insists that he used an Israeli company experienced with packing museum pieces. Also, there was a stop (rather than a direct flight) in New York where it was unloaded and reloaded onto another plane, possibly incurring damage then. Others speculate that the drop in pressure during the flight may have cause the cracking. After some days of frantic discussion with the owner and the insurance company, the museum was allowed to restore it, filling and sealing the cracks.

An "empty" box? Questions about authenticity

Despite all the assurances and pronouncements that it has been narrowed down to have been the ossuary of the James mentioned in the Bible, there are some scholars that feel that Lemaire and others have been too quick in their judgment.

To begin with, since the box and the patina (more below) are inorganic, a carbon-14 test cannot be run to determine the age of the ossuary (there is an interesting side note addressed below). Because of this, determination is based on history and language. When (and where) were ossuaries used and can the language or the style of writing be dated with reasonable accuracy to a certain range.

BAR's reasoning is given above (critiques of the assessment will be discussed below). It is interesting that the date arrived at by Lemaire and his colleagues is pinned down by the very thing they are attempting to prove. Taking his assessment at face value, the closest he gets to the date is within 40 years (dating the cursive style). This creates a window but doesn't nail it down. Since the box is assumed to have been used in the Jerusalem area, he is able close the window at about 70 AD. Where does the AD 63 come from, then? Because that is the year following the generally accepted date of the death of James of the Bible.

There are those who question some of the assumptions made by a journal like BAR since it, by definition, is assuming a historical basis for the Bible and the work is essentially being done to support that belief. While this does not necessarily mean any conclusion of those working for the journal is suspect or even generally so, it does mean, however, that strong evidence must be offered, particularly when an extraordinary claim is made and/or there is a conclusion drawn that may not be warranted without those assumptions.

This doesn't mean Lemaire should be dismissed out of hand but that his work should be given the same scrutiny and review to which any significant discovery should be subjected.

Despite Lemaire's contention of the date of the script and the assumption of its being written by a single writer, there are others who disagree. Some scholars assert that the inscription is actually written by two separate people, the first two-thirds by one and the one about "Jesus" by another. It is felt that the first part is written in a more formal style, while the second in a more "cursive" style. According to Dr. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (who chairs the Near Eastern studies department at Johns Hopkins University), "the fact that the cursive and the formal letters appear in two parts of the inscription suggests to me at least the possibility of a second hand" (New York Times).

An expert on scripts and historian of writing systems, Dr. Rochelle Altman (who also moderates a bulletin board for scholars of Judaism in the Greco-Roman) wrote an in-depth report on the inscription. She says, after examining the inscription, that it appears to have been written not only by two people but people that were likely of two different "social strata." The first part (more formal) uses a type common with the educated classes, while the second is a more informal script. Altman also says that the ability of the carver seems to be different in the two parts (corresponding to the levels of class/education that she sees).

In defense, BAR included in a later article (after noting that "the doubters are coming out of the woodwork") its view of Altman's work (her name is unmentioned):

The person who is most vociferous in claiming that different hands were responsible for the first and second parts of the inscription is also certain that the inscription is excised, rather than incised; that is, the space around the letters has been carved out leaving the letters protruding in relief. It is difficult to understand how she could have been so certain when she had never seen the ossuary itself. The experts who have seen the ossuary and studied the inscription continue to maintain that the inscription is plainly engraved—incised, not excised.
(BAR 2)

It is interesting to note that rather than address the issue, BAR changes the subject in order to discredit Altman (regardless of whether she is right or wrong). It is also a misrepresentation of what she maintains:

There are other odd points, such as some question as to whether the inscription is incised or excised. While Ada Yardeni's transcription in BAR shows the inscription as mixed incised-escised with raised section, as does the photograph, Andre Lemaire states that it is incised. This question is not really relevant as it does not change the concrete evidence given by careful examination of the complete writing system.
(Altman 1)

Not quite how BAR characterized her assessment (again noting that the issue of the "two hands" is not even addressed). In fact, the issue is only dealt with in the article this way: "In any event, it is unclear what it would mean if two hands did engrave the inscription." It seems awfully disingenuous to make such a statement.

It is true that in an earlier article (29 October 2002), Altman does claim it to be excised—"the words are excised (not incised)" (Altman 2). The problem for BAR is that her final, official report (quoted above) drops those statements. The final report was published on 6 November 2002. The BAR quote above comes from the January/February 2003 issue. One would think that a scholarly journal would be aware of the status of its critics.

Altman also notes that the first part of the inscription appears to have been placed deliberately (unlike most ossuaries), "balanced in proportion to the overall size of the box" and that the second part throws off the "careful balance" (Altman 1). She also discusses the lack of evidence for a "frame" that would have been used to align the writing. The second part is not as well aligned as the first, Altman's contention being that it is further evidence of another hand at work.

Altman's conclusion is that the ossuary is genuine (so far, no one questions this) but the "addition" to the inscription is not, possibly being carved in around the third or fourth century.

Another person challenging the inscription is engineering professor Dr. Daniel Eylon (University of Dayton in Ohio). His field of expertise includes doing failure analysis investigations for the aerospace industry. Examining photographs of the inscription and looking at the scratches on the box that would have come from it being rubbed against other boxes (whether in the cave, during excavation, or at some other time), he found that the "majority of the inscription is on top of the scratches," indicating that it was most likely a later addition. He also thinks that the "sharpness of some of the letters doesn't look right—sharp edges do not last 2,000 years" (NYT).

Which James?
Professor of Middle East religions and archaeology at California State Long Beach, Robert Eisenman, finds the leap from a "James" and a "Jesus" to the "James" and the "Jesus" just a little "too pat, too perfect." As he writes, "it was not whether Jesus had a brother, but rather whether the brother had a 'Jesus' (LA Times).

In the aforementioned BAR article, Eisenman (unnamed, like Altman, but identifiable by the quote) is the first of the "doubters...coming out of the woodwork" mentioned. It charges that he, "with little, if any, experience as a Hebrew/Aramaic paleographer has attacked the authenticity of the inscription saying it is 'just too pat,' without further specification." As it turns out, Eisenman (author of the 1998 book James the Brother of Jesus), certainly does offer his reason despite BAR's misrepresentation of the facts.

In his op-ed piece, he notes some of the criticisms raised by others and adds some of his own (particularly the provenance of the object; more below). He contends the inscription seems aimed at a later audience, given that the inscription is just what would be expected (and desired) by a later audience looking for some historical facts to base theological belief.

He further notes that "almost no ancient source" refers to him as "the brother of Jesus," pointing out that Paul ("our primary New Testament witness") called him "James the brother of the Lord." This might seem interchangeable but seems to go to the heart of his point: the inscription is almost making absolute sure that this "James" is connected to that "Jesus." It is doubtful that an ancient audience would need the explicitness of the reference. Eisenman also states that James is often referred to as "'James the Zaddik' or 'Just One'"—by such notables as Hegesippus (second century) and Eusebius (fourth century). He feels that the description used in the inscription is something that would be used by someone from a much later period.

Eisenman also notes that according to the (relatively) contemporary sources, it is known where he was buried: underneath the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple where he had been stoned—Hegesippus, writing about 100 years later. More evidence for the "title" comes from that writer who refers to James in the work as "the Lord's brother" and says he "has been universally called the Just, from the days of the Lord down to the present time." Also: "he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek Defence of the People, and Justice, in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him" (emphasis in original). In fact, Hegesippus has those who stone him call him "James the Just" (

Eisenman then adds that Eusebius and Jerome (fifth century) both write that the burial site of James was known and marked. And that no source refers to an ossuary. None of this qualifies as "further specification" according to BAR.

Backing the statements concerning Jerome, Jimmy Akin (writing for Catholic Answers) quotes him:

[James] was buried near the temple from which he had been cast down. His tombstone with its inscription was well known until the siege of Titus [AD 70] and the end of Hadrian's reign [AD 138]. Some of our writers think he is buried in Mount Olivet, but they are mistaken.

Akin suggests that the inscription could have been done by a third or fourth century Christian to "clarify for future pilgrims that this was indeed the ossuary of that James, as had been preserved in local knowledge" (emphasis in original). But he admits there is no way to know whether or not it is genuine, though he leans toward the possibility.

The words, themselves
There have also been questions brought up about the actual words used. Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Wyoming, Paul Flesher, has pointed out two things that stick out, suggesting that the inscription should be dated later. Interestingly, this also coincides with the fact that ossuary use was not confined to the Jerusalem area during the period assigned by Lemaire.

Flesher notes that the "possessive suffix on the word 'brother' in 'brother of Jesus'" uses the Aramaic -uy. This is contrary to what is found in Judea during the first centuries BC and AD where it is spelled -uhy. Only a single instance has been found of the shorter version and that is generally regarded as a spelling error. On the other hand, the -uy spelling is "the main one in both inscriptions and texts" (Flesher) in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic in Galilee during the late second century and after (recall that ossuary use was common in the area at that time).

The second issue is the "of" from "brother of Jesus." In Aramaic, it is common to indicate that by putting the two words together and changing the final letter of the first word. In the "James" inscription, the word "of" is actually written out, something common in "Aramaic translation texts (i.e., the Palestinian Targums)" and inscription from a later dialect of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. He also points out that this form has never been seen in inscriptions from the Jerusalem area.

Flesher feels that those things and the fact that ossuaries were common during later times in the same area, indicates that one should not be so quick to designate to the ossuary the time and place asserted by BAR.

One of the pieces of evidence that speaks to the age of the ossuary is the patina, a mineralized sheen that develops on metal and stone over time. The appearance of this seems to conform to the expected age of the artifact and the "absense of any modern chemicals or telltale disruptions in the patina" (Time). Hershel Shanks, the editor who published the "James" article in BAR, has stated that (in order for it to have been a forgery) "you've got to assume the forger knows how to forge patina—something not known by others" (NYT). Unfortunately for him, that is not the case.

There are numerous examples of "false patinas," often used to give sculpture or metalwork the appearance of age. It has also been done on marble and fake prehistoric flint tools. It is hardly "not known" and because a patina is composed of minerals it cannot be dated as something organic could (it is also extremely difficult to date patina). As noted above, the patina in question is mainly made of the same mineral as the box. The rest is 5% silicon, and small amounts of aluminum, iron, phosphorus, and magnesium. None of these things would necessarily provide evidence of "modern chemicals." A couple decades under the right conditions could give the appearence of age. (As for "modern" tools, one could simply not use modern tools to inscribe the box.)

Also, due to the pitting from age and biovermiculation—"limestone erosion and dissolution caused by bacteria over time in the form of pitting and etching" (qtd. Altman 1)—a new inscription could be carved over the patina while leaving evidence of it in the grooves of the inscription (the surface patina matches the patina in the grooves).

Also troubling is that the inscription was "cleaned" for better viewing, in fact the BAR report stated that the patina is therefore absent from some of the letters" (qtd. Why troubling? Patina would not easily come off. As art historian and material expert John Lupia writes "patina cannot be cleaned off limestone with any solvent or cleanser since it is essentially baked-on glass" and pointing out that "it is possible to forge patina, but when it is, it cracks off" (qtd. Altman 1), something he reports having observed from the digital pictures of the object provided him.

In order to remove the patina, one would need to use an abrasive substance, which seems clearly not to have been used (and had one been used, it would call into question some of the conclusions drawn from the inscription).

Perhaps the issue most scholars have with the ossuary (even some who accept Lemaire's conclusions) is that of provenance. Provanance is a very important thing in archaeology, like the chain of evidence in crime scene investigation. The best understanding about a historical object comes from being able to understand the context of where it was found. No only the location, but other objects there, how deep, covered or uncovered, whether the area had been disturbed by animals or people, and similar things. This can be essential knowledge for dating and identification.

The other thing is to know who owned it, when, how long, what may or may not have been altered or "repaired," or any other physical circumstances (improper storage, for example). These things are especially important in cases of significant/important and extraordinary discoveries. Particularly in cases of religious objects given the long history of faked and forged manuscripts, texts, and objects. The relic trade during the Middle Ages and Renaissance was lucrative and widespread. All this makes it utterly important to maintain the provenance of the object.

The history of the ossuary, however, is clouded and already suspect. So important were these issues brought up by other archaeologists, BAR spent over half of the January/February 2003 article discussing it and defending its actions in relation to it.5 What is the history of the ossuary as can be put together? Who is the unnamed discoverer? One turns to Oded Golan.

Golan is (according to the January/February BAR article) "a successful engineer, entrepreneur, businessman and a near professional pianist." It goes on to describe his apartment in terms that suggest an attempt to be a character witness. Why? because the ossuary may be considered looted material and the property of the state of Israel. He was "outed" by the Israeli paper Ha'aretz in conjunction with this issue.

According to Israeli law, any artifact discovered or found in Israel since 1978 is considered state property. If it was acquired prior to that, a receipt from a licensed antiquities dealer is required (the dealer must have a record of the origin of the item). Without these things (or if it fails the date test) the artifact can be confiscated. This is a problem because BAR reported Golan told them he had purchased the box 15 years prior to the announcement of discovery, putting the date at 1987. He quickly changed his story to 25 to 30 years ago, placing it within the allowed time (there is no record in the sources of whether or not he has the required proof, however) and the 15 years was how long it had been in his apartment. Golan had been living with his parents at the time.

In defense, BAR suggests that when he was visited by them "perhaps when we initially talked to him in his apartment, we asked him how long he had the ossuary there." Golan claims that "many people—his old girlfriends and friends in his parents—saw the ossuary in his parents' apartment and that they can testify to its being there at the earlier date" The article goes on to add that "The [Toronto] Globe and Mail story found the explanation a bit bizarre, but added that 'he related it with such unrestrained enthusiasm and lack of defensiveness' that it was entirely believable" (BAR).

However, even if true, there remains the lack of provenance and context that was so troubling to other scholars in the first place. As P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. laments "We don't know where [the box] came from, so there will always be some nagging doubts. Extraordinary finds require extraordinary evidence to support them" (Time).

Another part of Golan's "bizarre" tale is his insistence that he had no idea of the possible significance of his find: "until a short time ago, I didn't realize the historical importance [of the box] to the Christian world" ( Golan is Jewish. He also claims that "I didn't know that Jesus had a brother," also explaining his desire to remain anonymous because "I don't want my apartment turned into a church" (Time).

There is another intriguing aspect to the story. As reported by Lemaire, "Unfortunately as is almost always the case with ossuaries that come from the antiquities market rather than legal excavation, it was emptied" (qtd. in Skeptical Inquirer). Unfortunately for Lemaire, this is actually not the case (though one might give him the benefit of the doubt as having not been told or withholding it at Golan's request). There indeed were bone fragments in the ossuary.

In fact, Golan showed the reporter the fragments in the ossuary (Time was given a private showing before it was sent to the Royal Ontario Museum), many of them embedded in the dirt at the bottom. It does appear any larger pieces were removed due to the attitude rabbinical authorities take toward human remains (a common occurrence). the largest remaining bone fragment is about one half inch wide and three inches long. This is highly interesting given the possible information that could come from the bones.

They could be dated, unlike the stone, and they could be subjected to forensic scrutiny that might reveal evidence that supported the owner having been James (the record says he was thrown from the top of the temple, then stoned to death). The possibility of DNA information is also intriguing—given that if James really was the sibling of Jesus, it would reveal the DNA of the mother, Mary (bringing up possible theological issues with Roman Catholic doctrine of perpetual virginity). On the other hand, they could be commingled bones of family members or even bones from another ossuary (or ossuaries).

But this will remain a mystery as Golan refuses to part with the bones that he has gathered into a Tupperware container. He also refuses to allow them to be displayed or analyzed.


As the Time article remarks, this is "a scientific detective story with extremely high religious stakes." One that holds interest and significance for believer and nonbeliever alike. Even some who are more skeptical about the claims acknowledge the possibility and some of those, like Hershel Shanks (who believes that the chance of it not being a reference to the biblical Jesus are "slender"), It's a question of judgment, not scholarly expertise. It is possible that the brother was simply responsible for the burial. Or that the brother was prominent in real estate" (Time).

Given the circumstance and the conflict among assessments, there will always remain questions about the ossuary and its relevance (if any) to one's religious world view. What does seem to be missing is that, regardless of whether the claims of BAR and its supporters is true, there is still has zero impact on the claim of Christianity for the divinity of the character of Jesus, nor historicity for any of the actions and events he is supposed to have taken part in. That is and shall remain an article of faith.

1Described by BAR as a "noted paleographer...of the École Pratique des hautes Études (popularly known as the Sorbonne University) in Paris" (BAR 1).

2The language used by Jews at the time—few spoke or wrote Hebrew—as well as the one Jesus and the other New Testament characters would have used.

3Six samples each of the chalk and patina and two samples of the soil were used.

4Eisenman described Hegesippus as having "lived perhaps 50 years after the events in question." Though little is known about his birth, evidence based on his writings indicates that it was probably 50 to 60 years after the death of James. His published works came about 100 years after James was killed. The quotes from him were not given as part of the op-ed piece.

5Interestingly, it becomes an attack on policies by some societies (the Archaeological Institute of America and the American Schools of Oriental Research, specifically) that tend to exclude artifacts that have no substantial provenance BAR argues that the antiquities market must be dealt with and it is well known that objects acquired through theft and looting come to light that way. While it makes certain points, it seems as much interested in protecting itself from criticism, not only in the case of the ossuary but elsewhere. Lemaire is listed among a group of scholars who "deal with and publish unprovenanced inscriptions." As well as getting in a shot at the above-mentioned societies:

The moral posturing of ASOR and AIA unfairly leaves an ethical taint on some of their most illustrious colleagues. And younger scholars are fearful of dealing with unprovenanced objects, lest some colleague in ASOR or AIA blackmail them for tenure at the institutions where they teach.
(BAR 2)

This seems more defensive than arguing a point. It is notable that there seems little concern for the lack of provenance of the "James" ossuary. (but i digress)

Sources (in order of first appearence):

"Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone: Ossuary Of Jesus’ Brother Backs Up Biblical Accounts" (BAR 1)

"Was James' Ossuary (a.k.a. Bone Box) Found in Israel?"

"Bone (Box) of contention: The James Ossuary" Skeptical Inquierer March/April 2003

"Fwd: Re: [ANE] Ossuary of James" (chemical analysis of samples from the ossuary)

"Experts Question Authenticity of Bone Box for 'Brother of Jesus'"
John Noble Wilford New York Times 3 December 2002 from

"Cracks in James Bone Box Repaired: Crowds Flock to Toronto Exhibit" (BAR 2)

"Official report on the James Ossuary" (Altman 1) Dr. Rochelle Altman

"Ossuary was genuine, inscription was faked" (Altman 2) Dr. Rochelle Altman

"A Discovery That's Just Too Perfect" Robert Eisenman LA Times 29 October 2002 from

"Hegesippis (Roberts-Donaldson translation)"

"Burial Box of St. James Found?" Jimmy Atkin

"Does the James' Ossuary really refer to Jesus Christ?" Paul Flesher

"The Brother of Jesus?" David Van Biema Time 27 October 2002

"(I) the "artifact" (Re: Jesus, etc.; Re: Ya'acov Bar-Yosef, etc." (on the patina)

"'Brother of Jesus' bone-box plot thickens" Ellis Shuman 5 November 2002

Sources used but not quoted:

"New Discovery by ROM" Ed Keall 13 November 2002

"Stone Box May Be Oldest Link to Jesus: Scholar Believes 60 AD relic Authentic" Guy Gugliotta Washington Post 22 October 2002