Excerpt: 'The Jesus Dynasty' by James D. Tabor

On my next visit to Jerusalem I resumed my investigative efforts to recover our missing ossuary fragments through my contacts in the antiquities market. I quickly discovered that everything had changed. Even those I had talked to before began to act as though we never had spoken. What had changed was the dramatic announcement in October 2002 that an ossuary inscribed "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" had suddenly come to light. Its appearance and the resulting controversy it stirred had caused everyone who deals with antiquities in the Old City to completely clam up.

The Burial Box of James

The Brother of Jesus?

It was noon on Monday, October 21, 2002, when Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, announced at a press conference in Washington, D.C., that a limestone ossuary or "bone box" inscribed in ancient Aramaic with the phrase "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" had surfaced in Jerusalem. The Associated Press flashed the story around the world that afternoon, and the next morning there were front-page stories about the James ossuary in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and practically every other newspaper in the world. That evening all the major television networks carried the news. Feature stories followed in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Even though the ossuary had once held the bones of James, not Jesus, most of the stories emphasized that the inscription was the only physical artifact ever found from the 1st century A.D. that mentioned Jesus. The writers had to scramble a bit to deal with the "James" side of the story since it quickly became obvious that few people, whether in media or the general public, were even aware that Jesus had a brother named James.

We were told that an undisclosed private collector, later revealed to be an Israeli named Oded Golan, had bought the ossuary fifteen years earlier from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer who said it came from the area of Silwan, just south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Golan had not paid much attention to the inscription nor realized its significance. In April 2002 he had shown a photo of the ossuary to André Lemaire, professor of Semitic languages at the Sorbonne, who was on a visit to Jerusalem. Lemaire was immediately intrigued, recognizing that the combination of names and relationships very likely pointed to not just any James but to the James, brother of Jesus in Christian tradition. He could hardly believe his eyes. Golan allowed him to study the actual ossuary shortly thereafter. After careful examination Lemaire was convinced based on his expertise in ancient scripts that the inscription was authentic. Later in interviews Golan was asked why he had not recognized the potential importance of such an artifact when he first bought it. He explained that as a Jew he was of course familiar with the Christian teaching of Mary's virginity but had never imagined that Jesus, the "son of God," could have had a brother. Obviously, he was not alone in that assumption.

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