A newly discovered ancient limestone box with a flowing Aramaic inscription could include the earliest mention of Jesus outside the Bible and may turn out to be the most-dazzling archaeological discovery in decades.
The rough-hewn object about the size of a big toolbox appears to be a "bone box" used in 1st century burial rituals in Jerusalem. Letters etched into its side read, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
Whether it's truly from about A.D. 63 and whether it really refers to three of history's most famous family members is likely to be widely debated. But if so, it would be the first extraBiblical mention of Jesus or his relatives created shortly after their lifetimes.
If authentic, "it's high on the list probably No. 1" of the most important Jesus related artifacts, says John Dominic Crossan, cauthor of "Excavating Jesus." It is "the closest we come archeologically to Jesus."
Other than this box, a papyrus scrap from 100 years after the crucifixion is the earliest mention of Jesus outside the Bible.
While potentially rife with import for archeology, the bone box won't necessarily transform mainstream views of Jesus: Religious tradition has long connected him to James and Joseph. And for many Christians, archaeological finds don't create epiphanies of faith.
Ultimately, the box's biggest impact may be to stoke interest in James and his relationship to Jesus and to remind millions that Jesus is more than the abstract icon so often pictured high above a pulpit. "Sometimes Jesus just drifts off into the clouds," says Dr. Crossan. But "we're not just dealing with mythical characters who are being theologically assessed. These were real people in real situations."
Indeed, bone boxes or ossuaries were used between the 1st century BC and AD 70.
A year after a person's burial in a tomb, family members would collect the bones into an ossuary. It was a ritual driven by necessity: Tombs, which were often carved into rocks, were expensive and thus were reused.
For the ossuary in question announced in "Biblical Archaeology Review" there's first the question of authenticity.
The biggest red flag is that it comes from an anonymous collector in Jerusalem who is mum on its history. Observers worry it could be a fake from the sometimes shady antiquities market. There is a long history of archeological forgery. The largely discredited "Shroud of Turin" supposedly placed on Jesus after the crucifixion is one example.
The article's author, a well-known epigrapher from the Sorbonne in Paris, scrutinized this ossuary carefully. Scans by electron microscopes show no trace of modern tools and full evidence of layers of a patina that could have developed only over many centuries. The inscription's grammar and script also appear to fit normal usage in the decades leading up to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Then there's the question of whether the inscription refers to Jesus of Nazareth. The three names it mentions are as common as Jim, Jack, and John today. In tackling this riddle, the author turns to statistics. Of the 40,000 men living in Jerusalem at the time, he figures about 20 people could fit the description "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." But the mention of a brother is highly unusual on ossuaries. This could hint that the Jesus mentioned here is particularly famous thus perhaps Jesus of Nazareth.
Experts already disagree about the authenticity. Crossan figures it's most likely credible. But Robert Eisenman, author of "James the Brother of Jesus" worries the inscription is too good to be true. "It's too pat," he says. "Why add 'Jesus' to the inscription? It's like someone wanted us to be sure."
If the box is viewed as credible, the impact could be enormous. "It would perhaps rival the Dead Sea Scrolls," says Dr. Eisenman.
First, it would add to the scant extrabiblical evidence of Jesus' existence though few today doubt such a man trod the Earth.
Second, it would renew a theologically charged debate about James's relationship to Jesus. The traditional Roman Catholic view is that Jesus is the only son of Mary. If Mary was always a virgin, the argument goes, then James must actually be a cousin or half-brother or step-brother. The ossuary may be "the nail in the coffin of the 'cousin' argument," says John Meier, a New Testament professor at Notre Dame University.
Third, it would perhaps renew interest in the man who has been called "James the Just." A reputed vegetarian who dressed in simple linen, he had little political power but used his enormous moral suasion to broker compromises between Christian factions.
Most broadly, it would remind people of the humanity of Jesus. "For the first time," says Mr. Meier, "you can actually put your hands on something connected to Jesus."
Biggest archaeological finds related to the life and times of Jesus besides the new "James ossuary."
1. Ossuary of high priest Joseph Caiaphas, who's mentioned in the Bible as helping interrogate Jesus before the crucifixion. Found in Jerusalem in 1990.
2. Inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who approved Jesus' crucifixion. Found in 1962 near the Mediterranean Sea.
3. The apostle Peter's house. Found in 1906 but not confirmed until the 1980s in Capernaum beneath the remains of a 5th-century church.
4. The Galilee Boat. A 1st-century, 8-by-26-foot fishing boat. Found in the mud of the Sea of Galilee in 1986.
5. The Crucified Man. Remains, including a bone heel pierced by a large nail. Discovered in burial caves near Jerusalem in 1968.
Source: "Excavating Jesus"