Biblical Archaeology and the James Ossuary, Part I

Charles Page | Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies | Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Biblical Archaeology and the James Ossuary, Part I

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 first in a series devoted to the James Ossuary, its discovery and authenticity, and its significance.

With all of the recent excitement about the "Ossuary of James," many laypersons I know are asking, "What is an ossuary and how did it work?"

An ossuary box was a bone burial boxed used from the early Hashmonean Dynasty (about 150 BC) to just after the Bar Kochba (bar Kochva) Revolt (approximately 150 AD). The bodies of wealthy or prominent Jewish leaders in first century Palestine were interred in multi-chambered tombs and allowed to decompose. The process usually took about eighteen months. After decomposition had been effected, the bones of the deceased were gathered together and placed in a small stone burial box called an ossuary. The bones were broken at the joints to make them fit easily in this small box. The box was hewn to fit the longest or largest none, the leg bone. So ossuaries could be of different sizes.

In our excavations in Israel we have found many ossuaries. In fact, thousands of ossuaries dating to this period have been found in excavations in Israel. Some have inscriptions (like the James and Ciaphas ossuaries). Most have no inscriptions. Of those with inscriptions it is common to have the name of the deceased. Many also include the name of the deceased’s father. Only three ossuaries have been found that includes the name of a brother. Ossuaries also come in different sizes. We have found different sizes for men, women, and children.

The "Ossuary of James" is certainly an authentic ossuary box from the period. The real question for us is, "Who is this James in the inscription?"

The James Ossuary

The discovery of this remarkable ossuary box has caused a whirlwind of excitement and skepticism and wonder. What do we know about this ossuary box?

The owner or the ossuary box is an engineer from Tel Aviv named Oded Golan. Golan claims that the box was purchased in an antiquities shop in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1978. He also claims that the owner of the gift shop told him the ossuary was found by Arab grave robbers in the village of Silwan, located to the southeast and across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount. There are problems with Golan’s claims.

First of all, we really do not when Golan did obtain the box from the antique dealer in the Old City. There is a law in Israel which states that any archaeological artifact discovered after 1978 is the property of the State of Israel. In 1978 Golan was sixteen years old. Some doubt that a sixteen year old would have made such a purchase as this. If not, and the purchase was made after 1978, then Golan and the antiquity dealer broke the law.

A second problem is that we do not know where the ossuary was found. If it was found in Silwan, as Golan has stated, this raises some interesting possibilities. We will discuss this later. But since we cannot know for sue where the ossuary was found we cannot scientifically verify the authenticity of the artifact.

Furthermore, the cave or tomb where the ossuary was kept has most likely been destroyed. This means we can never properly investigate the history of the ossuary.

The Death of James

The second century Christian writer Hegesippus offers a detailed account of the martyrdom of James. He writes,

"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 said 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.’ "

According to Hegesippus, James was thrown off the Temple on the southeastern corner. He did not die from the fall and was stoned in the Kidron Valley. Later traditions state that James was buried in the area of his death. Today this area is known as Silwan, the place where the ossuary of James was supposedly discovered prior to 1978.

In our next offering we will look at arguments that dispute the authenticity of the ossuary of James.

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. His field work in Israel spans four decades.

For more information about the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies, our excavations in Galilee, or other study opportunities in the lands of the Bible please see www.jerusalem-center.org or write to Dr. Page at [email protected]

Sponsored by Trinity College of the Bible & Trinity Theological Seminary