ASK Commentary
November 28, 2002 

The "Bone Box" Ossuary

Breaking News for November 28, 2002, Thanksgiving

I just returned from the conference for the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature in Toronto, Canada. Other groups held meetings at the same time. One group was organized by Hershel Shanks the editor of Biblical Archeology Review (hereafter BAR) in a series of lectures for his Biblical Archeology Society. For the various conferences, Mr. Shanks brought the James Ossuary to a Toronto museum for public viewing. The results were interesting but inconclusive.

At www.bib-arch.org/bswb_BAR/bswbbar2806f1.html is a short article abstracted from the "The Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus: Earliest Archeological Evidence of Jesus Found in Jerusalem," from November/December 2002 issue of BAR.

An "Ossuary" is a burial box in which the bones of a dead person are placed for reburial in a location different from the original tomb after one year. It was a common practice in the 1st century C.E. There are no bones in the James Ossuary. DNA sampling or dating is not possible. The structure of this box is consistent with ossuaries from 20 B.C.E. to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

The ossuary of "James" is made of limestone (chalk) with a single-line 20-letter inscription on the outside written in Aramaic that says, "Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Jacob means James. The letters were carved with a tool to create the indented impressions of the letters. The shape of the letters is common to the 1st century C.E.

The problem is that there is no way to date when the letters were inscribed. One scholar told me that he saw no reason that the letters could have not been etched in the last few weeks, months or years, rather than 2,000 years ago.

Expert opinion is claimed to be able to tell whether etchings are recent or old because of a "patina" or glaze that is on the box. Such a patina forms when such a box is kept in a cave structure for centuries. The patina (giving evidence of great age) is on some of the letters, but not all. On some of the letters the patina has been cleared away. This inconsistency makes dating problematical and dependent on expert opinion, and one must read the analysis (with limited data) for oneself in the BAR issue. This controversy will continue for some time.

Contrary to Mr. Shank's statement that the James Ossuary "may be the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology," it is an artifact that can never be fully or finally verified. It adds little to our knowledge. We already knew from ancient historians Eusebius and Josephus that James was murdered, how that act was done and where James was initially buried.

The Death of James - Background Eusebius, an early historian of the Christian Church wrote about James. Festus was the Roman governor around 62 C.E.

"But after Paul, ... had been sent to Rome by Festus, the Jews, ... turned against James, the brother of the Lord, to whom the episcopal seat at Jerusalem bad been entrusted by the apostles. The following daring measures were undertaken by them against him. Leading him into their midst they demanded of him that he should renounce faith in Christ in the presence of all the people. But, contrary to the opinion of all, with a clear voice, and with greater boldness than they had anticipated, he spoke out before the whole multitude and confessed that our Savior and Lord Jesus is the Son of God. ... [A]nd consequently they slew him. Opportunity for this deed of violence was furnished by the prevailing anarchy, which was caused by the fact that Festus had died just at this time in Judea, a nd that the province was thus without a governor and head. The manner of James' death has been already indicated by ... Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, ... writes as follows:
'James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. ... Now some of the seven sects, which existed among the people ... asked him, "What is the gate of Jesus?" and he replied that he was the Savior. On account of these words some believed that Jesus is the Christ. But the sects mentioned above did not believe either in a resurrection or in one's coming to give to every man according to his works. But as many as believed did so on account of James. ...

The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, ... But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him." And they cried out, saying, "Oh! oh! the just man is also in error." ... So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, "Let us stone James the Just." And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, "I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. ..."

And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. ...

These things are related at length by Hegesippus, who is in agreement with Clement. James was so admirable a man and so celebrated among all for his justice, that the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them immediately after his martyrdom for no other reason than their daring act against him. Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says, 'These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.' And the same writer records his death also in the twentieth book of his Antiquities ...'"

Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, 2.23,
underlining for emphasis

We learn then from Hegesippus through Eusebius that James the Just was initially buried where he fell, near the Temple. Unfortunately we do not have that location. If we did, it would likely be on the south of the Temple sanctuary. It is doubtful they would bury James on the east side, near the source of water at the Gihon Springs, as denoted in Dr. Martin's Temple evidence. It is also doubtful that the monument remained to the day of Hegesippus. This is because Josephus said the destruction of the Temple and environs was complete and razed all objects to the ground. Tomb monuments were likely included.

The discoverer of the James Ossuary has not disclosed where he found the object because it may implicate him in criminal activity regarding the theft of antiquities in Israel.

To conclude, this object contributes little to faith, even if genuine. It is not necessary to believe in the truth of the ossuary in order to believe the truths of the Bible.

David Sielaff david@askelm.com

Go to ASK Home Page •  Print Page

1976-2017 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions