A Clue To Jesus?

Although Jesus of Nazareth is a universally recognized figure, no one has ever found any evidence for his existence apart from texts. Now, in the form of a 20-inch-long limestone ossuary, a box used by first-century Jews to hold the bones of the dead, Biblical archeologists may have found their holy grail. The bones are gone, but in large Aramaic letters the inscription reads JAMES, SON OF JOSEPH, BROTHER OF JESUS. The names and relationships fit the New Testament, which identifies Jesus as the son of Joseph and James as one of Jesus' brothers. James is historically important as the leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem during the middle decades of the first century, after the departure of the Apostle Peter for Rome. He was stoned to death in A.D. 62 at the instigation of the Jewish high priest Ananus.

The find, announced last week in an article in Biblical Archeology Review, immediately stirred excitement among scholars. In the article, French epigraphist Andre Lemaire argues that the evidence, while circumstantial, strongly favors the assumption that the Jesus inscribed on the box is Christ. Other scholars, however, believe that until they can study the site where the ossuary was found, the connection with the historical Jesus remains highly speculative. Even so, the discovery has raised again centuries-old debates about who the brothers of Jesus were and whether they supported his reform movement.

One major problem with the ossuary is that it appears to be stolen property. According to BAR editor Herschel Shanks, it came from an area of Jerusalem south of the Mount of Olives, was purchased from an antiquities peddler 15 years ago and is now part of the private collection of an Israeli who wishes to remain anonymous. Since it contains no bones--Armenian Christians claim to have them in their cathedral in old Jerusalem--dating by carbon testing is impossible. "If you cannot say where an artifact was found and where it has been for nearly 2,000 years," contends Bruce Chilton, a professor of religious studies at Bard College in New York, "you cannot pretend to draw the lines of connection between the object and the people it might mention."

There are problems with the inscription as well. In first-century Galilee and Judea, relatively few names were in circulation and Joseph, James and Jesus were among the most common. The name James appears 42 times in the New Testament alone. Nonetheless, Lemaire concludes that the chance of finding all three names in a single inscription is less than 1 percent. That James is identified not only by his father but by his brother is also rare, Lemaire says, and it indicates that Jesus was an important figure. But Australian professor John Painter, a highly regarded expert on James, believes that a first-century inscription referencing Jesus as kin would have identified him--as the New Testament does--as "brother of Jesus the Lord."

But who exactly was this James? According to the Gospel of Mark, he is one of Jesus' four "brothers" and two "sisters." With the others--Joseph, Simon, Jude, Salome and Mary--he is believed to have remained behind in Nazareth while Jesus went about the countryside preaching and working miracles. But on the question of what is meant by "brothers and sisters," scholarly opinion differs.

The earliest tradition dates from the second century and holds that Jesus' brothers and sisters were not siblings born to Mary but are children of Joseph by a previous marriage. This view prevails in Eastern Orthodox theology. A fourth-century tradition, originating with Saint Jerome, the greatest Biblical scholar of his age, identifies the brothers and sisters, according to Semitic idiom, as cousins of Jesus by Joseph's brother Clopas and his wife, Mary. Like the first view, this interpretation preserves the belief that Mary remained a virgin all her life, and is held by most Roman Catholics today. Since the Reformation, which found the perpetual virginity of Mary suspect, Protestant scholars have generally taken the position that she gave birth to other children by Joseph after Jesus. "There is strong evidence for all three positions," says Father Daniel Harrington of the Jesuits' Weston School of Theology, "and I don't think we will ever reach agreement."

Scholars also disagree on whether the family of Jesus (his mother excepted) were followers of Jesus during his lifetime. John's Gospel says flatly, "His brothers did not believe in him," and Mark reports his relatives as thinking that Jesus "is out of his mind." "These verses make clear that Jesus is disgracing his family," says Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, a scholar at the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique in Jerusalem. But in his recent book, "Just James," Painter argues that "if James had not already been an established figure among the followers of Jesus he would not so quickly have become leader of the Jerusalem church."

Whatever was the case, James is the only relative of Jesus to put his stamp on the early church. With Peter, and against Paul, he argued that Christians should uphold the Torah. He is thought to be the author of the "Epistle of James," which, says Patrick Hartin, a James scholar at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., "places a very Jewish emphasis on the necessity of exhibiting faith through good works." At his death, James was replaced as leader of the Jerusalem community by his cousin, Symeon. The ossuary could turn out to be the earliest original reference we have to Jesus. But it is also a timely reminder of the often-overlooked man called James.