Archaeologists in Israel recently announced that they had found the burial box of Jesus' brother James. Who was James? What do we know about his life and his teachings—and their importance for Christians today? The answer may surprise you!
In the fall of 2002, a startling story with important religious significance hit the secular news wires. Scholars were claiming that the ossuary (burial box) of James, the brother of Jesus Christ, had been discovered in the Jerusalem area. Major network news programs and news magazines alike carried the story, based upon information contained in the November-December 2002 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
The discoverer of the box, and the author of the BAR article, was Dr. Andre Lemaire, a professor who directs the Hebrew and Aramaic philology and epigraphy section at the Sorbonne in Paris. One of the world's foremost specialists in ancient inscriptions, Lemaire has published more than 400 articles and papers. When someone of his reputation makes a startling claim, people sit up and take notice. For six months in 2002, Lemaire was at the Institute for Advanced Study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he met a private collector who had an ossuary dated to the first century ad. When Dr. Lemaire examined the box and read the inscription, he was startled by its possible implications, and he began a scholarly investigation to discover whether the box was authentic.
Ossuaries like the one Lemaire found were used in the Jerusalem area from about 20bc until the Roman assault on the city in 70ad. Burials in the Jerusalem area normally took place in limestone caves carved into the hillsides. Wrapped in a linen burial shroud, the body of the deceased was placed on a ledge in a family burial cave. About a year later, family members returned and placed the then-skeletal remains in an ossuary. The box was inscribed with the name of the deceased, and stacked with similar boxes containing skeletal remains of other family members who had previously been interred in the cave. This is what is meant by the common Old Testament phrase that a person after death "rested with his fathers" (1 Kings 11:21, 43). The same burial cave often kept the bones of generations of the same family.
What made Dr. Lemaire and others conclude that this particular ossuary had once contained the bones of a family member of Jesus Christ? To begin with, the inscription on the side read: "James the son of Joseph the brother of Jesus." Inscriptions normally used the formula "x the son of y." A brother would be mentioned only rarely, when that brother was of unusual prominence. Since the Bible speaks of a James who was the son of Joseph and brother of Jesus Christ, and we know that this James died in Jerusalem in 62ad—when such ossuaries were in common use—the question immediately arose: was this ossuary linked to that prominent James?
One of the first steps to be taken was to determine the age of the box and the inscription upon it. Was it a fake? The box was brought to the Geological Survey of Israel for their study to help establish its authenticity. Specialists from the Israeli government examined the box and the inscription with binocular magnifying lenses, and examined samples from it with a scanning electron microscope. In a letter to BAR editor Hershel Shanks, Drs. Amnon Rosefeld and Shimon Ilani, from the Israeli state ministry for Geological Survey, stated: "No sign of the use of a modern tool or instrument was found. No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina [the thin covering of the surface caused by age] and the inscription was found."
A forger adding the inscription would have had to be able to imitate Aramaic letter forms, and to avoid any errors in first century usage. Before publishing the article outlining their discovery, the editors of BAR showed it to Joseph Fiztmyer, a former professor at Catholic University of America, who is considered one of the world's foremost experts in first-century Aramaic. Fiztmyer was convinced that the inscription was genuine.
Since the publication of the article in BAR, other scholars have disputed the integrity of the inscription and discounted the ossuary's connection to the James of the New Testament. Most of these disputants, however, have only seen pictures of the inscription, and have not examined it in the way that Dr. Lemaire and those involved with him were able. Still, there is probably no way to indisputably determine whether this particular box was truly the repository of the bones of James, who was called "the Lord's brother" in the New Testament.
What, then, is the real importance of this find? Read on.
Since the discovery of the "James ossuary" was announced last fall, its authenticity has been the subject of much scholarly debate. At this point, virtually all acknowledge that the ossuary itself is authentic—that it dates to the first century ad and that it was an actual ossuary used in the Jerusalem area. But disagreements about the inscription persist: is it genuine, or is it at least partly a forgery?
Perhaps the most vocal critic of the inscription's authenticity is Dr. Rochelle Altman. Studying photographs of the inscription, she has come to the conclusion that a key part of the inscription is forged—added at a later date than the rest of the inscription.
Writing in the online Web magazine Jewsweek, Altman described her finding that half of the ossuary inscription appears to be written in one script, and half in a different script. She believes that the phrase "James the son of Joseph" is the original inscription, dated from the first century ad, but that the phrase "the brother of Jesus" was added a century or two later by another hand. Altman believes that the first half of the inscription is properly executed, and represents a much higher degree of literacy than the second half. She disputes the Aramaic spelling of "brother" and "Jesus" and asserts that the second half of the text is excised, rather than incised (meaning that the surface around the letters was cut away, instead of the letters being chiseled into the surface). Noting that frames were normally left around excised texts to protect them from alteration, Altman asserts that the frame must later have been cut away from the original to make room for the added text.
In the January-February 2003 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, editor Hershel Shanks reacted to Altman's theory: "The person who is most certain and vociferous in claiming that different hands were responsible for the first and second parts of the inscription is also certain that the inscription is excised, rather incised.… It is difficult to understand how she could be so certain when she has never seen the ossuary itself. The experts who have seen the ossuary and studied the inscriptions continue to maintain that the inscription is plainly engraved—incised, not excised" (p. 25).
Robert Eisenman, a professor of Middle East religions and archaeology at California State University, Long Beach, typified many scholars' ambivalence when he wrote: "This box is just too pat, too perfect. In issues of antiquities verification, this is always a warning sign."
Ultimately, as Uzi Dahari of Israel's Antiquities Authority put it: "There are so many questions that will never have an answer, so that no one will ever be able to say for sure that this is the ossuary of the brother of Jesus."
Scholars may never be satisfied that they have found James' final resting place in death. Christians, however, can find—in the pages of the Bible—a world of information about his life, his teachings and his example for us today.
—John H. Ogwyn
Of far greater importance than arguments about whether this particular box was the final resting place of Jesus' brother James, is the attention that the discovery focused on a subject about which most professing Christians are utterly ignorant. That subject, when properly understood, has far-reaching implications for all who would call themselves Christian in today's world. U.S. News & World Report addressed the subject: "As leader of the mother church in Jerusalem, James was the key proponent of a brand of Christianity that retained strong ties to Judaism.… These 'Jerusalem Christians' continued to worship in the temple and carefully observed the law of Moses, practicing a form of the religion, says James D. G. Dunn, professor of divinity at the University of Durham, England, that 'we today would scarcely recognize—Jewish Christianity'" ("A Discovery and a Debate," Nov. 4, 2002, p. 50).
Dunn acknowledges that the kind of Christianity practiced by James was very different from what is called Christianity today. The question that we must answer is: Who had it right? Was James wrong in his understanding of how Christianity ought to be practiced? What does the New Testament tell us about James, and the role that he played in the early Church?
The majority of professing Christians have been taught that Jesus Christ never had brothers and sisters. They have been wrongly taught that Mary was a perpetual virgin, though the Bible clearly teaches the very opposite! It is certainly correct that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was supernaturally conceived in her through the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:31, 34–35). In fact, God even sent an angel to explain this to her espoused husband, Joseph, who was obviously shaken upon learning that Mary was pregnant (Matthew 1:19–20). Notice the plain scriptural statement that Joseph "took Mary home to be his wife, but had no intercourse with her until her son was born. And he named the child Jesus" (vv. 24–25, NEB). Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus' conception and birth, but after that, she and Joseph had a normal marital relationship and she gave birth to other children who were the fruit of their union. Notice the comments of the townspeople in Nazareth where Jesus had grown up. He had come preaching powerfully, and they were astonished. "Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where did this Man get all these things?" (Matthew 13:54–56). Clearly, Jesus had brothers and sisters—and the people in His hometown were well aware of them.
While James and the others were not disciples during the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, He appeared to James after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:4–7). In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul describes the "brethren of the Lord" as ministers who were active in spreading the gospel. Clearly, after the resurrection, Christ's family was converted (Acts 1:14). They now knew that the One with whom they had grown up, their older brother, was in fact the Son of God. From early in the history of the New Testament Church, James the Lord's brother had a leading role. He is described in Acts 15 as being the one who presided over the Jerusalem Church, and the important Church council that was held there. In Galatians 2:9, Paul mentions him as one of the three "pillars" of the Church along with Peter and John. When Paul came back to Jerusalem, Luke states that he "went in with us to James, and all the elders were present" (Acts 21:18).
James and his younger brother Jude wrote the books of the New Testament that bear their names. Jude, identifying himself in the first verse as James' brother, goes on to give a vital exhortation: "I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). The faith once for all delivered? Think about the implications of that statement. Did James and Jude understand the message that Jesus Christ delivered to the world? Did they know what He taught and practiced? If the form of Christianity acknowledged in today's world differs drastically from that practiced by James and Jude, as Dunn (noted above) and others have observed, then who had it right? Whose form of Christianity is true to that which was once for all delivered by Jesus Christ, the very founder of Christianity?
Jude went on to explain that, even in his day, what was called Christianity was beginning to follow very divergent paths. How was this possible? "For certain men have crept in unnoticed… ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness" (Jude 4). Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines licentiousness as being "unrestrained by law." Even in the first century, some were distorting the meaning of grace to imply that God's law was no longer binding upon Christians. Jude made plain to his readers that they were to exert great effort to hold on to the message that Jesus Christ had once for all delivered.
The popular explanation given in theological circles is that the Apostle Paul taught a version of Christianity tailored to gentiles, and that this was different from the form practiced in Judea and Jerusalem. Clearly, what is popularly called Christianity in our modern world is a form that traces its roots to Rome rather than to Jerusalem, as many scholars readily admit. However, the question we need to pose is whether or not Roman Christianity really had its origins with Paul.
Think about it! Jesus taught and trained men who spent literally hundreds of hours with Him. They witnessed His conduct in countless situations, they heard His public teaching, they had opportunity to ask Him to explain points that were unclear to them. In addition, they saw His miracles and they had many hours of personal conversation with Him. But who had spent more hours with Him than had James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus? Who knew more clearly the kind of life that He lived and the customs and practices that He observed? Does it make sense that Jesus would set a particular example all his life, tell those that He had trained to teach all that He had taught them to all nations (Matthew 28:20), then a few years later bring in Paul and have him start teaching very different doctrines? Absolutely ridiculous!
In fact, Paul made no such claim. He emphasized that there is only one true gospel (Galatians 1:6–7) and one true faith (Ephesians 4:5). This one faith to which Paul referred was clearly that which Jude declared had been once for all delivered to the saints. Not only did the Apostle Paul not teach against the law of God, he personally kept the law and taught his converts to follow his personal example (1 Corinthians 11:1). Notice what Paul told the elders of the Jewish community who came to visit him when he was under house arrest in Rome. He declared, " I have done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans" (Acts 28:17). If Paul had disregarded the Sabbath, the laws of clean and unclean meats, and other biblical injunctions, he could not have made such a statement.
However, false claims were being made about Paul's teachings even during his lifetime. When he arrived back in Jerusalem in 56ad, after his third evangelistic journey, he went to meet with James the Lord's brother and other leaders of the Jerusalem Church. After listening to the news of Paul's recent travels and the growth in the Work in the areas that he oversaw, James told Paul what had been happening in the Jerusalem area. He brought to his attention that there had been thousands of additional Jewish converts and that they were all "zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20). However there were ugly rumors being spread about Paul, that he taught the Jews living in the diaspora "to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs" (v. 21). James knew that the rumor was false, and came up with a plan that he thought would convince the Jews in Jerusalem that Paul took all of the details of God's law very seriously. Clearly, James and Paul were not at odds over doctrine, but had a relationship based upon mutual affection and respect.
Most people completely overlook the fact that nearly all of Paul's early gentile converts came from a group called "God-fearers." These were gentiles who regularly attended the synagogue and listened to the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. They were already familiar with the Sabbath and the Holy Days, and were observing them. The "God-fearers" were not circumcised, however, and would have been unable to come into the inner courts of the Jerusalem temple and to participate in the rituals there. Notice the account given in Acts 13 when Paul first came to Antioch of Pisidia, part of the Roman province of Galatia. He spoke to the local synagogue. His audience consisted (v. 16) both of Jews by nationality ("men of Israel"), and of devout gentiles among them ("you who fear God"). After his address, many of the gentiles present asked that he speak further to them "the next Sabbath" (Acts 13:42). A similar account is given in Acts 18:4, where we are told that Paul reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. The devout gentiles who first heard the gospel message were those who had already forsaken pagan idolatry and were assembling with the Jews every Sabbath to hear the Hebrew Scriptures read so that they might learn more about the God of Israel.
Many misunderstand Paul's teaching regarding justification. Most are unaware that Paul based his teachings about "justification by faith" not on some new revelation by Jesus, but rather on the Torah—the first five books of the Bible. Throughout Romans and Galatians, the books where he most thoroughly discussed justification, Paul took his readers back to the story of Abraham recorded in the book of Genesis, the very first book of the Torah. He explained that faith was the basis of Abraham's relationship with God, the means by which he was justified and became righteous (Romans 4:3). Clearly then, it must also be the basis of our relationship with God. Paul was discussing a living faith—a faith that produces surrender and obedience in our lives, just as it did in Abraham's. James also discussed living faith in the book that bears his name, and also used Abraham's example to prove his point (James 2:19–23). Paul's explanation of how to be in harmony with God is as old as the book of Genesis—and is completely in harmony with the teachings of James, Peter, John and Jude.
How, then, did a form of Christianity develop at Rome that was so different from that of the Jerusalem Church? The answer lies in a series of dramatic events that took place from 62 to 70ad. They set the stage for a second-century church that called itself Christian, yet would have been almost unrecognizable to James, Peter and Paul.
It was in 62ad, about a year after Paul's release from Roman imprisonment, that James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem Church was stoned to death at the instigation of the Jewish high priest. Tradition has suggested that about five years later, during the closing months of Nero's reign, first Paul and then Peter were executed. Soon thereafter, a war broke out in Judea. The Jerusalem Church fled the area in the summer of 69ad, and about a year later the Roman legions breached Jerusalem's walls, burned the Temple and razed the city. Anti-Jewish sentiment spread across the Roman Empire and grew worse over the decades that led up to the second Jewish revolt approximately 65 years later. Utter confusion began to spread through the Christian community during the closing decades of the first century.
In the closing months of Peter's life, he had warned that certain ones whom he labeled spiritually unstable had begun to distort Paul's writings (2 Peter 3:15–16). These are the same ones whom Jude referred to a short time earlier to have crept in unnoticed. These false teachers had begun to distort the meaning of grace by teaching against the necessity of obeying God's law. Influenced by such teachings, and influenced by an anti-Jewish political atmosphere, it was only a matter of time before gentiles in Rome began to jettison practices that they associated with Jews. What began in Rome eventually became the norm, especially after the fourth-century alliance between Roman Emperor Constantine and the bishop of Rome.
Noted historian Will Durant, in his book Caesar and Christ, describes the path of development taken by the Church of Rome, as distinct from the Jerusalem Church. He acknowledged that while the Roman church derived ethics from Judea, it derived its theology from Greece and its organization from Rome (p. 618). In addition, pagan Rome bequeathed many other features: ecclesiastical structure, the title and vestments of the pontifex maximus, the worship of the Great Mother, old festivals, along with pageantry and ceremony "passed like maternal blood into the new religion" (p. 672). Many modern theologians readily admit that, by its doctrine and trappings, most of present-day "Christianity" shows itself to be far more the heir of the Roman Church, rather than of the Church of God known to James and the early Jerusalem Christians.
What about you? Are you content with traditions of men or will you earnestly contend for the faith that was once for all delivered—the one practiced by James, the Apostles and the Jerusalem Church?