|Hershel Shanks, giving the reasons he believes the "James ossuary" is genuine. (Photo: AP)
The discovery of an ossuary - a burial box for bones - has been defined by the world press as the most important discovery in the history of New Testament archaeology. Hershel Shanks, Jewish editor of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), the leading popular publication of its field, believes "it has implications not just for scholarship, but for the world's understanding of the Bible." (bib-arch.org)
"What we want to announce today is the first archaeological attestation of Jesus," declared Shanks, "This is a startling, mind-boggling inscription." (israelinsider.com, Oct. 25, 02)
Although an ossuary from the first century A.D. in the Holy Land is a common find, an international stir has been caused by the Aramaic inscription on the outer wall of the small limestone box: "Ya'acov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua." In "traditional" English, the translation reads as "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." James was the leader of the many thousands of Jewish believers in Jerusalem as seen in Acts 12:17, 15:13 and 21:18.
The publication of the find in BAR's Nov./Dec. 2002 issue has aroused great interest among archaeologists around the world and in Christian circles as scholars claim the ancient box may provide archaeological proof of Yeshua's life.
If, indeed, the box once held the bones of the brother of Yeshua of Nazareth, then it is the earliest artifact relating to the existence of the Messiah. Until now, the oldest artifact that mentions Yeshua has been a fragment of the Gospel of John from a manuscript dated around A.D. 125. (World, Nov. 2, 02)
The widely respected French scholar, Andre Lemaire, a specialist in paleography (the study of script and letter forms) from the Sorbonne in Paris, detailed his investigation in the current issue of BAR in which he verified the inscription's authenticity and dated it to about A.D. 63. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century, said that around A.D. 62 the high priest Ananus arranged for the death of "one James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Messiah."
What makes this ossuary so intriguing, says Lemaire, is the fact that a brother's name of the deceased has been carved on the box. This is highly unusual; the brother must have had some special role or reputation. Thus, its "very probable" that the reference is to Jesus of Nazareth, concludes Lemaire. The paleographer said the writing was a cursive form used only from about A.D. 10 to 70.
Considering that Jerusalem might have had a population of 80,000 people, Lemaire estimates there might have been some twenty men named Ya'acov with a father named Yosef and a brother named Yeshua. Out of the hundreds of ossuaries found, only two others have had a brother's name carved along with the father's. It is not likely that there was another James with a brother named Jesus who was so prominent that it would warrant adding his name to his ossuary, Lemaire stated.
(Israelinsider.com, Oct. 25, 02)
Stephen Pfann, an American expert on early Christianity based in Jerusalem, said reference to the "brother of Jesus" immediately narrowed the field. Observant Jews at the time would have wanted to avoid any link to the followers of Jesus, while ordinary Jewish believers in Jesus would not have used the term "brother of Jesus" unless they were referring to the Messiah.(Washington Times, Nov. 11, 02)
First-century Jews typically transferred the bones of their dead to ossuaries exactly a year after death, but largely abandoned the custom following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. (World, Nov. 2, 2002)
In Jerusalem, "the solution to the space problem was to use caves, usually carved out of the soft rock. Wrapped in shrouds, the bodies were either buried or left to decay until reduced to skeletons." The bones were then transferred to limestone boxes by those families who were able to afford to do so.(Rochelle I. Alman at israelinsider.com, Nov. 6, 02)
"As ossuaries contravene the normal rules for Jewish burial, the appearance of so many ossuaries in the period before the destruction of the temple is strong evidence that the cemeteries around Jerusalem were extremely short on normal burial space." (Ibid.) When Jerusalemites who survived the destruction of Jerusalem scattered throughout the country, there was no longer a lack of burial space and the custom of using ossuaries ended.
MOST ISRAELI EXAMINERS AGREE IT'S GENUINE
Interestingly, most Israeli archaeologists and experts in ancient disciplines generally agree that the ossuary and its inscription are authentic. When Ada Yardeni, a leading Israeli scholar on scripts, was asked to examine the inscription, she confimed its authenticity: The style of the letters were all authentic, she said.(Jerusalem Post, Oct. 27, 02)
Israel's Geological Institute conducted electronmicroscope tests that proved the inscription was not added at a later date; no traces of modern elements were found. (israelinsider.com, Oct. 25, 02) Their investigation determined that the platina (a filmy coating that develops naturally on a surface after long exposure) is homogeneous - meaning the surface has not been disturbed by modern forgers cutting into the rock to make a fake inscription. This, then, is its strongest point in the claims for authenticity according to Israeli scholars.
A number of scholars around the world who have examined the evidence believe that the discovery is genuine. Experts such as New Testament professor Ben Witherington of Ashbury Seminary have sided with French scholar Andre Lemaire. The renowned Aramaic scholar Father Joseph Fitzmyer, also said that the language and script was legitimate. The list is long and impressive.
A CHANCE MEETING
The discovery of the ossuary was made at a chance meeting when Mr. Lemaire attended a party in Jerusalem. There he met an Israeli antique collector, Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv engineer, who asked him to decipher some inscriptions for him. When Lemaire read the inscription on the ossuary, he immediately understood its significance. "I was very excited," he said. "Although I am a Catholic, I related to the inscription as a man of science." (Ha'aretz Magazine, Nov. 8, 02)
There are critics who are convinced the ossuary inscription is a forgery - not the ossuary, but the inscription. The main objection is that the Israeli owner, Oded Golan, will not reveal where he obtained the container. He claims he bought the burial box, (20 inches long, 12 inches wide at one end and 10 inches wide at the other,) after the Six Day War which occurred in 1967, from a Bethlehem dealer whom he can't remember. (In fairness, he has purchased over 3,000 items over many years from different dealers.)
But another well-known dealer says the box was circulating among dealers only a few months ago. Golan said he was told by the Arab dealer that it was found in Silwan, directly south of the Mount of Olives, where hundreds of manmade caves have been found.
A question people are asking is why Golan, who is known to be extremely knowledgeable in archaeology, didn't know what a potential treasure he possessed. His answer was, "It just didn't ring any bells." Hershel Shanks explained why Golan hadn't realized he had anything of significance. When first told about the possible significance of the inscription, Golan told Andre Lemaire, "How could the son of God have brothers?" He didn't know that Jesus had a brother, said Shanks. (Ha'aretz, Nov. 8, 02)
Kyle McArthur of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who believes the inscription is authentic, nevertheless expressed disappointment that there's so little information about the source of the ossuary. "We may never be certain," he said.
That kind of grave robbery caused the government of Israel to pass the 1978 Antiquities Law making it illegal to acquire antiquities that were looted from unsupervised sites. Still, over 90 percent of the antiquities originating in Israel have been looted. (Ibid.)
The sharpest attacks against its authenticity have been made by Robert Eisenman, an expert on archaeology and Middle Eastern religions, director of the Study of Judeo-Christian origins at California State University in Long Beach. He insists the find is a forgery since its inscription is too perfect - not worn enough -and its origins are unknown. Besides, he says, James was a well-known person in his time, and was "not identified as the brother of Jesus," (Ibid.) but as the brother of the Lord, [which we find, incidentally, to be a weak argument based solely on the single instance when Paul employed the phrase in Galatians 1:19]
"There is no firm, final proof, says Keal. It won't stand up in a court of law." However, some dirt has been found inside ancient cracks of the box, which may lead scientists to decipher the original area from where the box was dug up. Furthermore, the present owner says he found some bone pieces in the bottom of the case, which may or may not be the bones of the original occupant or occupants. He is now guarding them in a plastic box. The bone pieces could be tested by radiocarbon dating, so there is still much to be investigated. Gideon Avni, former chief of archaeology of Jerusalem, figures that scientists should eventually be able to say with about 95 percent certainty whether the inscription is authentic. (Washington Times, Nov. 11, 02)
THE REAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE JAMES OSSUARY
The most significant aspect of the entire affair is not at all whether this is or isn't the actual tomb of Yeshua's half brother, Ya'acov.
The real significance is in the fact that the subject of Yeshua keeps coming back to the Jewish people - the fact that He was born and raised and lived as a Jew. He was not only a Jew, but also a "sabra" Israeli, (a Jew born in Israel) and he walked as a Jewish man the length and breadth of this land. Now 2000 years later, Israel just can't seem to give Him the slip, can't shake Him off. He keeps reappearing. Israel is continually having to deal with the One who keeps rising up in its national consciousness.
When asked by a Jerusalem Post reporter if anyone ever seriously suggested that Yeshua never existed, Hershel Shanks replied, "I suppose there are some crazies who doubted it, but no, not really."(J.P., Ibid.)
As I see it, Israel has a love/hate relationship with Yeshua. In all the 35 years of living in Israel, I have never heard a single person say he didn't believe that Yeshua existed. Yet, when I attended university in the U.S. in the 60's, there were many intellectuals - professors, students and writers, who scoffed at the thought that He, Yeshua, had actually lived on this earth. Or even if He had, He was totally irrelevant to this age.
Not so in Israel. When Arafat claimed that Jesus was the first Palestinian, the Israeli press was indignant. They reminded everyone, including themselves, that everyone knows Yeshua was a Jew.
No one in Israel doubts He existed, and though many do it grudgingly, they are also beginning to admit to His significance as a Jew and an Israeli. Perhaps it's because now that the Jewish people have returned to the land of the Bible, Bethlehem is just a few miles from everywhere. Nazareth is a real city. The ruins of the Capernaum synagogue where Yeshua preached has been dug up by archaeologists. Anyone who wants can look through a grill and see a few feet below a section of the original floor of that synagogue where Yeshua walked.
Perhaps it's because the Jordan River where Yeshua was immersed and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, runs the whole length of the northern and central part of Israel, and is a main source for drinking water to the centers of Israel's population.
Perhaps it's because the Christians are now Israel's only real friend (besides the world's Jewish population) and it is they who love the Jewish cities where Yeshua once prayed and healed and saved.
Perhaps it is because Jerusalem, the city of David, the place where Yeshua died and rose from the grave, is connected to Yeshua, precisely because He was a Jew - unlike Mohammed who was neither a Jew nor an Israelite, and who probably never gave two thoughts to Jerusalem in his lifetime.
In fact, the Gospels proclaim that Yeshua died as the King of the Jews, and the Book of Revelation states that He will return as the Lion of Judah; Judah is the name of the forefather of the Jewish people.
Yes, Yeshua was a Jew. And His brother Ya'acov? No one here in Israel is doubting that this Jewish man once existed, meaning that Israeli intellectuals believe the New Testament to be historically accurate. And because there is a good chance that the grave of Ya'acov has been found, it will certainly be kept in a prominent place in Jerusalem to remind Jews and Gentiles alike that Yeshua's brother was a Jew, as were His (supposed) father, mother, sisters, His cousin John (Yochanan) and all His relatives.
It kind of messes up the theory that you can't be Jewish and believe in Yeshua. Salvation is on its way! Since God's hand is always working, though most of the time behind the scenes, it is interesting to muse upon this latest turn of events.
Forty years ago, archaeologists discovered an inscription on a monument in Jerusalem that mentions Pontius Pilate, settling once and for all the fact that this man was a historic figure. Then in 1990, the ossuary of Caiphas, the High Priest who turned Yeshua over to the Romans, was uncovered, giving more authenticity to the New Testament account.
In the last twenty years, a boat was discovered buried in the mud of the receding Sea of Galilee. The boat was built and used in exactly the period when Yeshua and His fishermen disciples lived around the Sea of Galilee. Everyone in Israel calls it "the Jesus boat." Of course there is small chance that that exact boat was used by Yeshua or His disciples. But that's not the point. Yeshua just doesn't go away!
When a journalist asked Hershel Shanks if there is a Jewish angle to this story, this Jewish publisher answered: "It illustrates for the Christian world that Jesus was not incidentally Jewish; he was fundamentally Jewish." Well! Let's add that it also conveys that same information to the Jewish nation which has viewed this ossuary in every newspaper and every news program in Israel.
"If you want to understand Jesus, you have to understand the Jewish world in which he lived; his vernacular was Aramaic. His brother was buried according to Jewish practice. He was born a Jew and he died a Jew," Shanks said.(Ibid.)
So not only can you believe in Yeshua and be a Jew, if you happened to have lived in the first century, you could also have been one of His Jewish relatives!This is a dawning revelation to the Jewish nation whose day has come.
Now that's significant!