In 2002 an announcement was made - Andre Lemaire, a French expert in Semitic linguistics, had found a limestone box inscribed with the words "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus."
Thereon hangs many a tale. The authors of the book The Brother of Jesus are quite sure that the provenance of the box, known as an ossuary, or bone box, is indisputable. It has been dated to as close as AD 62, the time when James, referred to in the Bible as the brother of Jesus the Christ, was martyred by stoning to death. The inscription is Aramaic, and correct as to its grammar and its typical appearance and phrasing. Though not found in situ, and acquired through a commercial transaction rather than directly through an archaeological dig, the box, so we are told, would have once contained relics of a man named James who had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus.
Almost simultaneous with the release of this startling discovery to the esteemed Biblical Archeology Review and elsewhere, the finders made a deal with the Discovery Channel, in what seems to have been a move to sweep the table clear of all opposition by exciting sufficient public inquiry to keep decriers at bay. Foreseeing no doubt the kind of controversy in which archeologists, historians and Biblical scholars gleefully join, Lemaire and Hershel Shanks threw a curve ball. The book, the TV show - everything but the tee shirt were public knowledge before most scholars had gotten into position to pitch a monkey wrench into the smooth proceedings.
It’s possible that the discoverers of the ossuary leapt ahead in a burst of genuine enthusiasm, of the sort which advances on the reader at every turn of the page. Phrases like “Lemaire’s eyes popped” - “the excitement about the discovery was greater than I had imagined in my wildest dreams” - and, “to my mind, it is virtually certain that the James ossuary and its inscription are authentic ancient artifacts” - leave no doubt as to the conviction of the authors (Shanks and Ben Witherington III), despite the polite bows they make to caution and disputation. The subtitle of the book, The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family, would certainly indicate that what we are confronting here is true believerism, rather than full blown scientific methodology.
Fair enough. The box may well be authentic as stated - produced in the first century, its contents (once) the bones of a man with a certain father and brother. Statistical evidence has painstakingly been gathered about the commonness of the three names, and this has narrowed the chances - according to those with a stake in the game - to about 20 people named James (with a father Joseph and a brother Jesus) who lived at that crucial time in Biblical history. If it is true moreover that the James in question is THE James, then it sets the cat among the pigeons, all four feet down and running.
Roman Catholicism has long held that the Virgin Mary remained virginal all her life, that Jesus had no siblings - “perpetual virginity” is an important if not necessary belief among those who revere the holy mother of the man called the Christ. The Bible plainly refers to James and others as “brothers” of Jesus but tradition has allowed this to seem a reference to cousins, spiritual brothers such as the disciples would have been, or even, stretching possibility almost to the tearing point, stepbrothers, sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. Many Protestants find no difficulty in acknowledging that scripture tells true and that, after the miraculous birth of Jesus absent the help of an earthly father, Mary had more children than one, including at least two daughters, all by natural means. What a noise there would be if the ossuary is somehow connected to THE Jesus and his father Joseph.
Protestant religions hover philosophically around the writings and moral teachings of Paul, the convert who found and interpreted Jesus’ life in a poetic and personal way that speaks to converts down the ages. Roman Catholic theology has been based on the primacy (and papacy) of Peter, the rock on which Jesus of Nazareth founded his church. Never shall this twain meet, and the finding of the bone box could merely set these groups to arguing more vehemently than before.
Who was James, the man whose bones once may have rested in the ossuary?
James of the scriptures appears to be an early leader of the followers of Jesus, who were not about starting a religion called Christianity, but about keeping the spirit of the teachings of the Christ available and correctly understood. James apparently had but scant interest in his brother’s ministry during Jesus’ life (perhaps more than any other person being the basis for Jesus’ complaint about prophets lacking honor in their own domain). Yet after the death and resurrection of Jesus, James came into some relationship based on his brother’s personal visitation. Though these matters have been mostly of interest to scholars alone, Catholics will crow because James (whose greatest respect has been garnered in the Eastern Orthodox Church) held the view that works were the greatest priority for believers, in contrast to the convert (and non-Pharisaic) views of Paul that faith alone was sufficient. Non-ecumenical Protestants will rejoice because if James were Jesus’ real blood brother, this would weaken the doctrine of perpetual virginity sufficient to set any and all Catholic doctrine on its ear.
It would be remarkable if any link is ever established between the ossuary and the Biblical characters whose names are said to be engraved on its side. It would be remarkable also if there never arose cries of fraud, tampering and the kind of counter-dating and forensic nit picking that have dogged the proponents of the authenticity of other relics, such as the Shroud of Turin. But already one hears the contentiousness offstage. The publication of one book of archeological evidence and theological treatise (for this book is dually authored and bi-partite) will not stop the wrangling that must inevitably creep in to mar almost any scientific claim.
Despite the best efforts of Shanks and Witherington to make it so, the book is not a proof, merely the well thought-through opinion of two men who have much to gain from authenticating the box. The controversy will catch fire and burn on, no doubt for many years to come.