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At Jerusalem, in 1990, a rather plain 20-inch limestone ossuary was unearthed. This burial box for bones bears on its side a remarkable inscription identifying it as having belonged to “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
EDITOR NOTE: The following article was originally written in 2003. An extensive court case involving the ossuary finally came to a conclusion in 2012. The results leave the authenticity of the Ossuary uncertain. As is the case with any artifact not uncovered in a scientifically controlled excavation, we will never be able to prove with 100 percent certainty that an artifact is genuine.
Archaeological evidence verifying the biblical account was boosted in 1961, when the name of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was found on a monument in Caesarea. Then in 1990 an ossuary was discovered in Jerusalem bearing the name of Caiaphas, the high priest who condemned Jesus.
In October of the same year, Andre' Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions and professor at the Sorbonne in Paris, announced the discovery of an ossuary, from a burial site in southern Jerusalem, with the extraordinary script stating it belonged to "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
Much to the disappointment of archaeologists and scholars, the box was not excavated by experts from the spot where it had rested for the last 2,000 years, but surreptitiously removed and sold on the antiquities market. This prevented the examination of the box in its proper archaeological context and the absolute elimination of any possibility of fraud.
Yet fraud seemed rather unlikely, as the limestone box was subjected to rigorous scientific tests. Like the rest of the box, the inscription, though wiped clean in parts, has a thin sheen of particulate matter on it called a patina. This particular patina shows that it developed in a cave environment and that it is consistent with an age of 2,000 years.
The artifact can also be reliably dated to within a few decades, since it is known such bone boxes were in use from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 70 when, according to Jewish custom, the dead were first sealed in caves or rock-cut tombs, with their bones being later transferred to a limestone bone box after the body had decayed.
Professor Lemaire also narrowed the dating by verifying the inscription was in a cursive style used only in the few decades before A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Thus the inscription fits the style used around A.D. 62, when James, Jesus' half-brother, died. "It seems very probable," Professor Lemaire concludes, "that this is the ossuary of James of the New Testament," because the likelihood of more than one person named James with a father named Joseph and a prominent brother named Jesus in that precise time period is minuscule.
Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, stated the "clincher" for him was the naming of the brother of the deceased. Of some 800 bone boxes discovered, 233 have inscriptions on the outside. Of these, few are inscribed with the name of a brother, and there is only one other inscription in Aramaic. Mr. Shanks maintained if one accepts the theory the deceased's brother was a prominent person—rather than simply being mentioned because the he presided over the secondary interment—the probability the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth seems overwhelming (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 2002, p. 33).
Although the evidence so far points to the listing of Jesus, James and Joseph on the ossuary as being the same persons mentioned in the New Testament, it cannot be absolutely proven. If new testing methods are developed the find could eventually be further confirmed. In the meantime it appears to be very probable evidence supporting the accuracy of the Gospels and the literal existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, and His earthly family.