Black Spirituality Religion : 'Jesus' Inscription On Stone May Be Earliest Ever Found


Well-Known Member
Feb 3, 2001
New York

By John Noble Wilford

An inscription in stone, found in or near Jerusalem and written in a language and script of 2,000 years ago, bears the words "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

That could well be the earliest artifact ever found relating to the historical Jesus, a French scholar has concluded in an analysis of the inscription being published this week in the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review. If the inscription is authentic and indeed refers to Jesus of Nazareth, it would be the earliest known documentation of Jesus outside the Bible. The magazine, which announced the find yesterday, is promoting it as "the first-ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus."

Other scholars are reacting with caution, calling the find important and tantalizing but saying it will probably be impossible to confirm a definite link between the inscription and any of the central figures in the founding of Christianity. Fraud cannot be ruled out, they said, though the cursive style of the script and a microscopic examination of the etched surface seemed to diminish suspicions. An investigation by the Geological Survey of Israel found no evidence of modern pigments, scratches by modern cutting tools or other signs of tampering.

A lack of organic remains associated with the inscription rendered radiocarbon dating impossible. But the words were carved on a 20-inch-long limestone burial box, similar to ones the Jews used only in the first centuries BC and AD. More specifically, the French scholar said, the style of the script and the forms of certain words placed the date of the inscription to the last decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Biblical scholars said in interviews that the circumstantial evidence supporting a link to Jesus was possibly strong, but circumstantial nonetheless.

Although James (Jacob or Ya'akov), Joseph (Yosef) and Jesus (Yeshua) were common names of that time and place, several scholars noted, it would have been highly unusual to have them appear in the combination and kinship order found in the inscription. The words, in Aramaic, "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua" were carved on a burial box, known as an ossuary, which presumably once held the bones of a man named James who died in the 1st century AD.

Several times the New Testament mentions that Jesus had a brother named James, who became leader of the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem after the crucifixion. And the new article noted that the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus recorded that James was executed by stoning around 63 AD. The James whose name is on the stone could have been one of many Jameses. But the rest of the inscription significantly narrows the possibilities. First, in the common practice, his father is identified, in this case as a "Joseph."

Rarely, though, would a brother of the deceased have been added to the inscription, unless the brother was prominent. James the apostle might have wanted to proclaim one last time his kinship with Jesus.

Dr. André Lemaire, a researcher at the Sorbonne in Paris and a respected specialist on inscriptions of the Biblical period, calculated the statistical probability of the three names' occurring in such a combination as extremely slim. Probably over two generations in 1st-century Jerusalem, no more than 20 people could have been called "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," and few of them might have been buried in inscribed ossuaries. Other calculations yield an even lower probability.

"It seems very probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament," Dr. Lemaire wrote in the magazine article. "If so, this would also mean that we have here the first epigraphic mention — from about 63 AD — of Jesus of Nazareth." But elsewhere in his article, he acknowledged that "nothing in this ossuary inscription clearly confirms the identification" of this James as the one known in Christian tradition.

Christians have three different interpretations regarding the kinship of James to Jesus, Dr. Lemaire noted.


Well-Known Member
Feb 3, 2001
New York
James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus

Protestants generally read the New Testament to mean that James was the son of Joseph and Mary; in this case, Mary presumably gave birth to Jesus as a virgin and then had James and other children. A second interpretation, dominant in the Eastern Orthodox Church, regards James as a son of Joseph by a previous marriage. Roman Catholics tend to regard the word "brother" to mean any close relative; perhaps James was a cousin, the son of Joseph's brother, which would accord with teachings of Mary's "perpetual virginity."

Before this, Biblical Archaeology Review reported, the earliest mention of Jesus was in a piece of papyrus containing a fragment of the Gospel by John, written in Greek in about 125 AD. Most of the existing early texts for the New Testament date from 300 or more years after the time of Jesus. The earliest Gospel to be written, by Mark, is thought to have been composed around the year 70 AD.

Like other Biblical scholars, Dr. James C. VanderKam, of the University of Notre Dame, praised Dr. Lemaire as an authoritative epigrapher - or specialist in ancient inscriptions - whose research is thorough and evaluations judicious. "Since the research comes from André Lemaire, I take it very seriously," Dr. VanderKam said. "If it is authentic, and it looks like it is, this is helpful non-Biblical confirmation of the existence of this man James."

Dr. Eric M. Meyers, an archaeologist and director of the graduate program in religion at Duke University, said the rarity of this configuration of names occurring, especially the inclusion of a brother's name, "lends a sense of credibility to the claim." But Dr. Meyers questioned whether the discovery, if it does refer to Jesus Christ, will "tell us anything we didn't already know." He and other scholars agreed that Jesus as a historical figure had long been well established.

Dr. Joseph Fitzmyer, professor emeritus of New Testament studies at Catholic University in Washington, hailed it as a significant discovery if it does indeed refer to Jesus of Nazareth. "That would be a new extra-Biblical attestation of his existence, and there are so few extra-Biblical things that do," he said. Still, Dr. Fitzmyer said he had serious doubts that the third name on the inscription actually referred to Jesus of Nazareth. "My reaction is, it's possible, but I hesitate to say probable," he said. "I don't see how anybody can say any more."

How the ossuary was discovered is part of the problem, scholars said. It somehow fell into the hands of looters, who then turned a profit selling it on the antiquities market. Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, said the ossuary was now owned by an unidentified collector in Jerusalem.

Because the ossuary did not come from a controlled excavation, where archaeologists plot every detail and possible clue to a discovery's context, scholars said they despaired of ever knowing the inscription's meaning beyond doubt. "This could be something genuinely important, but we can never know for certain," said Dr. P. Kyle McCarter Jr., a professor of Biblical and Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University. "Not knowing the context of where the ossuary was found compromises anything we might say, and so doubts are going to persist."

A few scholars criticized the magazine for publishing an article based on research involving looted goods, arguing that this encouraged unethical practices in the antiquities market. The Discovery Channel announced it planned a television documentary next spring on the scientific testing of the so-called James ossuary.

Ossuaries were used in the two-burial practice that was standard among Jews in the 1st century. When a person died, the body was first laid out in a burial cave for about a year. After the flesh decayed, the bones were then gathered and placed in a limestone box, an ossuary. The one in question was unadorned, except for the inscription of 20 Aramaic letters etched on one side.

In the article, Dr. Lemaire concedes that no one knows whether Christians at the time continued the Jewish two-burial custom. He said the shapes of three of the letters in the script indicated that the burial occurred shortly before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.


Feb 28, 2009
Wonderful article!

I find this immensely interesting. I wonder what determinations have been made since this discovery or if its authenticity is still debatable.

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