Ancient Box Held 'Brother of Jesus'; Biblical Scholars Debate Authenticity of Inscribed ossuary.(PAGE ONE)

Article excerpt

Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A first-century limestone box for bones found in Jerusalem and inscribed with "James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus" was announced yesterday as a possible archaeological reference to Jesus of Nazareth.

While a range of scholars affirm the authenticity of the ossuary inscribed in about A.D. 63, whether the inscription refers to the New Testament family is harder to confirm.

"What we want to announce today is the first archaeological attestation of Jesus," Herschel Shanks, publisher of Biblical Archaeology Review, which has the exclusive story, said at a news conference here.

"This is a startling, mind-boggling inscription," said Mr. Shanks, who as a Jewish expert on archaeology in Israel believes the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth. "Scholars are justly skeptical and quizzical."

If the ossuary is that of James, who was leader of the first Jerusalem church of Jesus' followers, it will shed light on early Christianity - and might complicate Catholic tradition, which says Jesus was Mary's only child.

"We're getting right back to the beginning of the Jesus movement," said New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, one of three panelists responding to the announcement. If it is the ossuary of James, he said, it means early Christians spoke Aramaic and buried each other in traditional Jewish custom.

Despite the find's significance, the panelists said they are uncertain the reference is to Jesus of Nazareth. They said it could easily be "sensationalized," and the work of high-tech forgers "smarter than we are."

An electron-microscope test conducted by the Geological Survey of Israel found the chisel marks were original - not a later addition - and the stone box's style was deemed typical of first-century Jerusalem.

"This appeared on the antiquities market," Mr. Shanks said. "It was not excavated by professional archaeologists." That makes the origins of the box nearly impossible to track down.

In the time of Jesus, bodies of the deceased were put in cave niches and their dried bones collected a year later in a box. The James ossuary is believed to have come from tombs in Arab Jerusalem, where an Arab trader sold it to a Jewish collector 15 years ago for "a few hundred dollars."

In the somewhat secret world of traders, collectors and scholars, the box's inscription was described to top French archeologist Andre Lemaire while he was in Jerusalem. He probed its authenticity and then showed it to Mr. Shanks, whose magazine has popularized Bible archaeology.

With the owner remaining anonymous, Mr. Shanks hopes to display the ossuary in Toronto in November when 8,000 scholars of the Bible and religion hold their annual meeting. "I'm hopeful it will soon be exhibited in North America," he said. …