Biblical Archaeology, Part III: Facts of the James Ossuary

Charles Page | Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies | Friday, April 4, 2003

Biblical Archaeology, Part III: Facts of the James Ossuary

Editor's Note: In October of 2002, a limestone bone box dating to approximately 63 A.D. was discovered in a Jerusalem cave. The box apparently once contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. According to Biblical Archaeology Review, "The James ossuary may be the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology." Charles Page is the Vice-president for Academic Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies and the Director of the Kursi and Capernaum Excavation Projects in Galilee. This article is the third in a series (read Part I, and  Part II) devoted to the James Ossuary.

I am not sure whether or not this article constitutes a revelation, but I am writing today from the beautiful island of Patmos, in the Aegean Sea. I am sitting on a balcony with a magnificent view of the Monastery of St. John where I am teaching a group of fine Christian folk from the Southeastern US.

In part 1 of this series I offered an overview of ossuaries and how they were used in 1st century Palestine. I also introduced the "James Ossuary," uncovered in October 2002, and discussed the history of its discovery and how it came to be in the news at this time.

In part 2, I attempted to outline the case against the Ossuary's authenticity; specifically the likelihood that this artifact was the actual ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus Christ). Attacking the authenticity of the James Ossuary was a difficult task, as there is actually not much data to support this position. However, I did not always feel this way.

When the news of the ossuary's discovery first appeared, my natural skepticism regarding such flashy announcements led me to dismiss the entire discovery as a fraud. With no research data in hand I would tell anyone who asked that "It is probably a fake." Or, "You cannot trust these kinds of MTV reports and the people who are trying to become famous by reporting such things." After detailed and exhaustive research these past weeks I am sad-- and happy-- to report that I was wrong. I am now convinced that there is no way this ossuary can be a forgery.

Ironically, I was in Toronto in November when the broken ossuary was displayed and debated at the SBL Annual Meeting. Scholarly colleagues debated and argued their points and I was unimpressed and unconvinced by both sides. My opinion at the time was "Why are we wasting our time with this nonsense?"

Now I know better. One should never rush to judgment unless he or she knows what they are talking about. The very arguments against its authenticity are now the arguments that support the opposite opinion! Let us examine the major elements which support the authenticity of this amazing discovery.

First of all, let's consider the inscription itself. Many critics suggest that two different people inscribed the bone box at two different times. Their argument actually makes the case for the authenticity of the ossuary. They correctly report that the first half of the inscription, "Ya'akov bar Yosef" ("James son of Joseph"), is a more professionally etched with a higher Aramaic script than the second half of the inscription, "akhiu Yeshua" ("brother of Jesus"). This suggests to me that at a later time someone wanted to make sure that we knew that this James son of Joseph was the brother of the Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ.

Obviously the ossuary was buried in the ground or stored in a tomb known to the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Perhaps the second half of the inscription was done toward the end of the 1st century and the church in Jerusalem wanted to make sure subsequent generations knew that this truly was James, the leader of the early Christian movement in Jerusalem. After all, the church relocated to Pella during the Great Revolt of 66-70 A.D. By the time of their return to Jerusalem, many, if not most, of the first generation of believers had died. This is why the inscription was amended at the time of the writing of the Gospels. The remnants of the first generation of believers wanted to make sure that future generations would not forget their heritage.

Secondly, the epigraphic report offers scientific evidence that the box is first century and the inscription has not been manipulated. The Geological Survey of Israel carried out exhaustive scientific tests in Jerusalem. It was reported, "The soil in which the ossuary laid is of Rendzina type, known to develop on chalks of the Mount Scopus (Mt. of Olives) Group. It is worth mentioning that the patina1 does not contain any modern elements (such as modern pigments) and it adheres firmly to the stone. No signs of the use of a modern tool or instrument were found. No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found."2

Thirdly, the script itself suggests that the inscription cannot be a forgery. Father Joseph Fitzmyer,3 an internationally know authority in first-century Aramaic, in conjunction with other Aramaic scholars, reports that no forger could have known some of the subtle nuances of the Aramaic script found on the ossuary.

Finally, we need to return to the first article to revisit the history of the box. Hegesippus, an early Christian historian reports,4

"The aforesaid scribes and Pharisees accordingly set James on the summit of the temple, and cried aloud to him, and said: 'O just one, whom we are all bound to obey, forasmuch as the people is in error, and follows Jesus the crucified, do thou tell us what is the door of Jesus, the crucified'. And he answered with a loud voice: 'Why ask ye me concerning Jesus the Son of man? He Himself sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven.'

'And, when many were fully convinced by these words, and offered praise for the testimony of James, and said, 'Hosanna to the son of David,' then again the Pharisees and scribes said to one another, 'We have not done well in procuring this testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, that they may be afraid, and not believe him.' And they cried aloud, and said: 'Oh! oh! the just man himself is in error.' Thus they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah: 'Let us away with the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore shall they eat the fruit of their doings.' So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to one another: 'Let us stone James the Just.' And they began to stone him: for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned, and kneeled down, and said: 'I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.'

'And, while they were thus stoning him to death, one of the priests, the sons of Rechab, the son of Rechabim, to whom testimony is borne by Jeremiah the prophet, began to cry aloud, saying: 'Cease, what do ye? The just man is praying for us.' But one among them, one of the fullers, took the staff with which he was accustomed to wring out the garments he dyed, and hurled it at the head of the just man.

'And so he suffered martyrdom; and they buried him on the spot, and the pillar erected to his memory still remains, close by the temple. This man was a true witness to both Jews and Greeks that Jesus is the Christ.'"5

According to Josephus Flavius,6 James was martyred in 62 A.D. Hegesippus writes that James was thrown from the ramparts of Jerusalem. When he failed to die from the fall he was stoned to death and buried in a tomb in the Kidron Valley. According to the early reports of the ossuary discovery, Oded Golan bought the ossuary from an antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem. According to the antiquities dealer, the box was found in a tomb near Silwan, the area where James’ burial was reported. If all of these facts are correct, this adds to the legitimacy of the burial box.

In conclusion, we will never be able to "prove" that this ossuary is the actual ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. However, taking into account all of the circumstantial factors presented above, it would be illogical to come to any other conclusion.

Charles Page is the Vice-president for Academic Affairs for the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies located in the heart of Jerusalem, Israel. He is the co-director of the excavations at Biblical Gergesa (Kursi) and Capernaum. For more information on these excavations or study opportunities in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Greece see the JCBS website: or write to him at [email protected]

Sponsored by Trinity College of the Bible & Trinity Theological Seminary


1 Patina is a light film covering that is found on ancient objects and caused by age..

2 Andre Lemaire, "Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus," Biblical Archaeological Review, (Vo. 28 No. 6), November/December 2002, page 29.

3 Father Fitzmyer formerly on the faculty of Catholic University of America.

4 Hegesippus’ writings have been lost. All that remains is found in the writings of Eusebius.

5 site Eusebius here.

6 Josephus was a first century Jewish historian. His books are the best historical records available for the first century.