James Ossuary - Does it Refer to James, the Brother of the Biblical Jesus?

 In 2002 a bone box, or ossuary was presented to the world. The unique feature of this ossuary was an inscription which read, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. It was immediately assumed this ossuary had once held the earthly remains of James, one of Jesus’ half brothers. Almost as quickly critics began questioning the authenticity of the artifact and what followed was called the fraud trial of the century. The defendants were eventually found innocent but doubts remained concerning the ossuary. 

After careful review by some of the top experts in the world, the evidence for this being an authentic find began to mount. While there are still some who claim the engraving is a forgery, many scholars now believe the ossuary to be from the first century A.D., but one question still lingers unanswered. If it is authentic, this in itself makes the artifact both interesting and important, but does the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” refer to the ‘real’ Jesus? The name Jesus was somewhat common in the first century and let’s be honest, if the ossuary refers to a Jesus other than the Jesus of the Bible, the ossuary loses much of its importance. Is this bone box an external record of Jesus and once contained the bones of His brother, James? Or is this just another ossuary with no connection to the Bible whatsoever?

Pie Chart / Statistics

If it is so important for this to be a reference to the actual Jesus, is it possible to absolutely prove the reference is indeed about Jesus? The short answer is, absolutely not. It is impossible to prove this artifact has anything at all to do with Jesus, it is as simple as that. However, while we cannot prove the ossuary references Jesus for certain, we can certainly look at the odds of probability. Given what we know about the population and customs of Jerusalem in the days of Jesus, can we deduce anything concerning the persons referenced? Statistically speaking, we can.

Let us first look at the person whose remains may have once been contained in the ossuary. Jesus was the first born to Mary, so James, along with three others, would have been Jesus’ younger brothers. The Bible gives us no information on when James was born, but we do know James was not a follower of Jesus while he was alive. Only after Jesus rose from the dead did James become a believer and in fact became a very important figure in the early church. He would eventually become the leader, bishop, of the church in Jerusalem and would serve faithfully until his death.

Again the Bible does not tell us about the death of James or when it took place, but there are reliable external references which can help in when and how James died. First century historian Josephus recorded the death of James having taken place in the year 62 A.D. The actually details of the death of James was recorded by Hegesippus in his writings. Those writings are lost to us now, but Eusebius quoted the works of Hegesippus in his own writing “The Church History”. Eusebius completed this book around 300 A.D. while the works of Hegesippus, who wrote in the second century, were still available. In this work he records the death of James in some detail.

“ So the scribes and Pharisees made James stand on the temple parapet ….So they went up and threw down the righteous one. Then they said to each other, “let us stone James the Just,” and they began to stone him, since the fall had not killed him. But he turned and knelt down saying, “I implore you, O Lord, God and Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.”….Then one of them, a laundryman, took the club he used to beat out clothes and hit the Just on the head. Such was his Martyrdom.” — Eusebius called this the most accurate account of the death of James. -”Eusebius — The Church History” — Quoting Hegesippus from Book 5 of his Memoirs

We know James was born sometime after Jesus, and was martyred in or near 62 A.D. It is assumed his body was taken by his followers and laid in a tomb. After his body had decomposed, his bones would have been placed into the ossuary, as was the custom of the day. These facts help us know more about the history of James, but do little to help us confirm the James referenced on the ossuary was in fact the brother of the biblical Jesus. The problem faced is that all three names mentioned on the ossuary were very common in the first century. With so little to go on, and the commonness of these names, is it possible to confirm or reject the identity of James? While all three names were common in first century Judea, this does not mean we are without resources to discover the truth.

The use of statistics is a complex science which carefully evaluates numbers in order to give us an accurate snapshot of the probability of a particular outcome. Statistics can also be distorted and twisted to present the same facts in a manner which, on the surface, gives a totally different perspective depending on who is presenting or preparing the data. This can make people very dubious of statistics, and understandably so. Despite the hesitation by many to accept statistics, what do they tell us concerning the James Ossuary?

Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University is a statistician who has carefully examined the facts and numbers of the James Ossuary. In his evaluation Professor Fuchs took a wide number of factors into account. He began with the population of Jerusalem during the first century A.D. and then broke it down by a number of factors. These included

  •  The gender of the population
  •  The percentage of non-Jewish residents
  •  The literacy rate
  •  Number of children in the family
  •  The financial status of the population. 

This was narrowed down to only adults, and finally the frequency of the three names mentioned on the Ossuary — James, Joseph and Jesus.

Professor Fuchs claims his final numbers have a 95 percent probability of being accurate. The final calculations show there is a 38 percent chance the inscription on the ossuary could only refer to a single person in the population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. There is a 32 percent chance the combination of the three names were shared by two individuals. The percentages drop to 18 percent chance three people shared these attributes and drop further to 8 percent that four people shared the same attributes. Statistically speaking, the most likely scenario is that the inscription can only refer to a single person during that time period.

With a degree of accuracy of 95 percent we can see there would have been only 1.71 individuals living at the time of Jesus who match the criteria for the ossuary. The likelihood of someone named James having a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus is 0.0227 percent.

It is also interesting that only one other ossuary has ever mentioned a brother. Scholars also tell us inscriptions are not common and when they occur it is for a reason. Generally an inscription was only made when the person was famous, or the family was very wealthy. Mentioning a brother as a reference would indicate the brother was better known than the person whose bones were contained in the ossuary, otherwise no mention would be necessary. These are further indicators this was a person of some note in his day, someone who people would remember, if not for his own actions, then for those of his brother.

James would have been extremely well known in first century Jerusalem. While most do not believe James was an active member of Jesus’ ministry during His lifetime, James was extremely instrumental in the early days of the church after the crucifixion. Some scholars believe James was more influential than even Peter, who many consider the first Pope. All of these factors, along with the statistical data, help us come to a conclusion as to just who the ossuary belonged to. While it cannot be listed as a certainty, the probability is this ossuary once held the bones of James the first Bishop of Jerusalem, and the younger brother of the Biblical Jesus.

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