An Ancient Link To Jesus Discovered?

(Did Mary Have Other Children?)

An Ancient Link To Jesus Discovered?

CRISIS Magazine - e-Letter

October 23, 2002


Dear Friend,

It may end up being one of the biggest stories of the year.

We've all heard of archaeological hoaxes that involve some sort of famous religious relic. For every one that seems to be legitimate, there are at least a dozen elaborate phonies. If I only had a dollar for every time someone discovered Noah's Ark...

So it may be surprising to hear that there has been a new find that specialists are dating back to the time of Jesus, one that has the archaeological world buzzing. But the most amazing thing is that most experts seem to think it's the real thing. According to one scholar, this could be "the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology."

So what is this astounding discovery?

It's a box.

Well, it's not JUST a box. More accurately, it's an ossuary, a container used to hold the bones of the dead. During the time of the Roman Empire, it was Jewish custom to place the bodies of the deceased in catacombs for a year or so, and then later move them to an ossuary. The practice only lasted for about a century, between 20 B.C. and 70 A.D., but archaeologists have recovered hundreds of ossuaries in recent years.

But that's not what makes this one special. The inscription on this particular ossuary points to a rather important person, and his even more important relative.

The inscription reads, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Scholars are saying they believe it refers to James -- who the Bible refers to as the "brother of the Lord."

If the box is legitimate, this is truly an amazing discovery. While most scholars accept that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed an historical figure, there have been only a few extra-biblical documents that point to his existence. The ossuary would be the earliest documentation of Jesus' life, and the first non-literary reference at that.

What's even more amazing is that, so far, the object has passed every test that scholars and scientists have put to it. The ossuary has been dated to around 60 A.D. -- fitting, since St. James was martyred in 62 A.D. While the names James, Joseph, and Jesus were fairly common at this time -- sort of the early Jewish equivalent to John, Tom, and Bob -- the possibility that the names would have been related in exactly this order significantly narrows the field. Plus, it was very uncommon that brothers would ever be mentioned on an ossuary -- that is, UNLESS the brother was considered noteworthy.

Some Bible scholars have taken their conclusions even further and stated that, since the ossuary says that James is Jesus' brother, the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary no longer holds water.

Is this true? Has archaeology conclusively refuted a 2000-year teaching of the Catholic Church?

Not at all. At the very most, it'll help us to refine our apologetics.

Let me explain. Many Catholic apologists tend to argue that the "brethren" of Jesus are actually cousins, or other distant relatives. Since there was no word for "cousin" in Aramaic, the word "brother" would often be substituted, as St. Jerome argued in 400 A.D.

But in light of the writings on the ossuary, St. Jerome's explanation probably won't work in this case. After all, the likelihood that James and Jesus were cousins who BOTH had fathers named Joseph is pretty slim.

So how else could you interpret it?

There's actually another, better explanation: James was a stepbrother from a previous marriage of Joseph's. Interestingly enough, this view is actually more ancient than St. Jerome's explanation. Indeed, it dates back to the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal book written in 120 A.D. This work states that Joseph was a widower who had children from a previous marriage (which might help to explain why he was willing to take on a young, consecrated virgin as his bride). This would also make sense in light of Joseph's age: He was apparently much older than Mary, and died before Jesus began his public ministry.

In either case, the ossuary says nothing about James having any sort of biological relationship to Mary, and it can't be extrapolated from the information provided. Nor, in fact, will we ever really be sure that the James, Joseph, and Jesus mentioned in the inscription are the same men who Christians revere.

In short, you shouldn't worry that this new finding will upset longstanding Catholic Tradition and teaching.

And that should make this discovery that much more exciting. Skeptical scholars may have a harder time denying Jesus' existence in light of the new finding, and while the ossuary may never be able to prove anything conclusively about St. James, Joseph, or Jesus' life, it certainly gives the secular world some food for thought.

Talk to you next week,


P.S. As I write this, I'm in the midst of this year's CRISIS Magazine cruise. The sky is blue, the water is clear, and the air is clean. In other words, we're all having a great time. I'll tell you more about the trip next week. In the meantime, while I'm sorry you couldn't come, I do hope you'll think about joining us next year. (copy and paste into your browser if you can't click)

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A Massive Hoax?
CRISIS Magazine - e-Letter
October 31, 2002
Dear Friend,

Well, I'm back from the cruise, refreshed and relaxed from my week at sea. We all had a great time, and my thanks go out to everyone who sailed with us and helped make the trip possible. Hopefully we'll see even more of you out there next year.

Before I get into my letter, I want to pass along to you an interesting news release that I came across yesterday. The article from United Press International is titled "Ark of Covenant reported to be in Ethiopia." It goes on to say that some scholars and researchers now think that the Ark may actually be in a tiny town in Ethiopia called Axum, guarded by a small group of priests.

This certainly would be exciting news -- that is, if we hadn't already reported it.

As you may know, CRISIS ran an expanded cover story on this very topic way back in July. Our writer followed the path of the Ark from Israel down to the Ethiopian Orthodox church where the relic is reputedly stored. Not only that, but he interviewed the monk who guards the Ark -- the only man allowed to approach it.

If you want to get a copy of that issue -- along with the photos -- call 1-800-852-9962, and ask for the July/August 2002 issue.

Sorry, I just couldn't resist dropping a little plug in there.

The main reason I wanted to write you has to do with a different article I came across a couple days ago. In my letter from last week, I told you I was interested in seeing what new developments would arise concerning the ossuary that was recently discovered bearing the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

It turns out I didn't have to wait long -- the report I read claims that part of the ossuary is an obvious fake. While many scholars who have studied the box are convinced of its authenticity, there are a growing number who are skeptical.

Robert Eisenman is one. He recently wrote a piece for the L.A. Times where he says that the discovery of the ossuary is just "too perfect" to convince him that it's real. For one thing, its sudden, mysterious appearance and lack of any record of its whereabouts for the past 2000 years makes him suspicious of its origins.

Another problem he has is with the nature of the inscription itself. Eisenman states that ancient sources never called James "the brother of Jesus" -- this is strictly a Biblical reference. Instead, he would have been referred to as "James the Zaddik" or "Just One," titles given him by other early Christians. He also says that ancient sources are unclear as to James's father, and probably would have called him "son of Cleophas" or "son of Alphaeus" (these names were often interchanged, according to Eisenman), but not "son of Joseph," something a more modern reader would expect.

In the end, Eisenman thinks that the ossuary is a little too perfect to be convincing. It seems to please a modern audience, one that bases its knowledge of St. James on the Gospels, not at an ancient audience who would have known first-hand who James was.

Dr. Rochelle Altman is another critic of the recent findings. An historian of writing systems and an expert on scripts, Altman writes that while the ossuary itself is genuine, the second half of the inscription -- "brother of Jesus" -- is a poor imitation of the first half of the inscription, one that must have been added later. Her reasons sound pretty convincing (though I claim no expertise in that area).

According to Altman, inscriptions on ossuaries were covenants made by the dead person's family members, pledging that they would continue to revere their deceased loved one. As was the case with all such solemn vows, the covenant had to be written in the hand of the person making it. Thus, while professional masons might have "touched up" the inscription later, the original inscription had to be made by the family member.

Obviously, not all family members were literate, so their inscriptions might have been a little shaky. Either way, it would have all been done in the same hand. However, Altman argues that the inscription on this particular ossuary was written by two different people.

How does she know? Well, the first group of words -- "Jacob son of Joseph" -- was written by someone who was fully literate (she could tell by the consistency of the lettering and the formal script).

After the author carved the initial lettering, a professional excised the text (meaning that the stone around it was carved out to make the letters raised) and enclosed the words in a kind of frame -- a common practice when excising an inscription.

All of this appears legitimate to Altman. But, she says, that's not true of the second half of the inscription -- "brother of Jesus." Apparently, there are a few strange misspellings in this second part, as if the person writing it had little grasp of either Hebrew or Aramaic, and was trying to copy a script and language unfamiliar to him. Altman also points out that the script is informal, as compared with the formal lettering of the first section.

But that's not all. She additionally notes that there's no excised frame around the words. Since it was a normal practice to excise both the words and a frame, she concluded that the second writer removed the original frame so he could add his own words.

Her final verdict? The box is real; the inscription is not. "If the entire inscription on the ossuary is genuine," she says, "then somebody has to explain why there are two hands of clearly different levels of literacy and two different scripts. They also have to explain why the second hand did not know how to write 'brother of' in Aramaic or even spell 'Joshua' [the Hebrew form of Jesus]. Further, they had better explain where the frame has gone."

Once again, there's really no way to know conclusively whether or not Altman is correct. Nevertheless, her points -- and Eisenman's points -- are significant and need to be addressed.

And, of course, I'll keep you updated as the investigation into the ossuary continues.

Talk to you soon,



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Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven

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(Praying at West Seattle Planned Parenthood)