Scholar Claims Oldest Jesus Evidence

WASHINGTON (AP) — An inscription on a burial artifact recently discovered in Israel is ``the first appearance of Jesus in the archaeological record,'' magazine editor Hershel Shanks announced Monday.

Writing in the new issue of Shanks' Biblical Archaeology Review, Andre Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions at France's Practical School of Higher Studies, says it is ``very probable'' the find is an authentic reference to Jesus of Nazareth and he dates it to A.D. 63 — just three decades after the crucifixion.

Kyle McCarter, a Johns Hopkins University archaeologist, told a news conference that the identification is probable but he has ``a bit of doubt.''
``We may never be absolutely certain. In the work I do we're rarely absolutely certain about anything,'' he said.

That Jesus existed is not doubted by scholars, but what the world knows about him comes almost entirely from the New Testament. No physical artifact from the first century related to Jesus has been discovered and verified. Lemaire believes that has changed, though questions remain, such as where the piece with the inscription has been for more than 19 centuries.

The inscription, in the Aramaic language, appears on an empty ossuary, or limestone burial box for bones. It reads: ``James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.'' Lemaire dates the object to 63 A.D.

Lemaire says the writing style, and the fact that Jews practiced ossuary burials only between 20 B.C. and A.D. 70, puts the inscription squarely in the time of Jesus and James, who led the early church in Jerusalem.

All three names were commonplace, but he estimates that only 20 Jameses in Jerusalem during that era would have had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus.

Moreover, naming the brother as well as the father on an ossuary was ``very unusual,'' Lemaire says. There's only one other known example in Aramaic. Thus, this particular Jesus must have had some unusual role or fame — and

Jesus of Nazareth certainly qualified, Lemaire concludes.
It's impossible, however, to prove absolutely that the Jesus named on the box was Jesus of Nazareth.

The archaeology magazine says two scientists with the Israeli government's Geological Survey conducted a detailed microscopic examination of the surface patina and the inscription. They reported last month that there is ``no evidence that might detract from the authenticity.''

The ossuary's owner also is requiring Lemaire to shield his identity, so the box's current location was not revealed.

James is depicted as Jesus' brother in the Gospels and head of the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts and Paul's epistles.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus recorded that ``the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James by name,'' was stoned to death as a Jewish heretic in A.D. 62. If his bones were placed in an ossuary that would have occurred the following year, dating the inscription around A.D. 63.

The Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a Bible professor at Catholic University who studied photos of the box, agrees with Lemaire that the writing style ``fits perfectly'' with other first century examples and admits the joint appearance of these three famous names is ``striking.''

``But the big problem is, you have to show me the Jesus in this text is Jesus of Nazareth, and nobody can show that,'' Fitzmyer says.

The owner of the ossuary never realized its potential importance until Lemaire examined it last spring. Shanks himself saw the box Sept. 25.

Lemaire told The Associated Press the owner wants anonymity to avoid time-consuming contacts with reporters and religious figures. The owner also wants to avoid the cost of insurance and guarding the artifact, and has no plans to display it publicly, he said.

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