So it may be surprising to hear that there has been a new find that specialists are dating back to the time of Jesus, one that has the archaeological world buzzing. But the most amazing thing is that most experts seem to think it's the real thing. According to one scholar, this could be “the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology.”
So what is this astounding discovery?
It's a box.
Well, it's not JUST a box. More accurately, it's an ossuary, a container used to hold the bones of the dead. During the time of the Roman Empire, it was Jewish custom to place the bodies of the deceased in catacombs for a year or so, and then later move them to an ossuary. The practice only lasted for about a century, between 20 B.C. and 70 A.D., but archaeologists have recovered hundreds of ossuaries in recent years.
But that's not what makes this one special. The inscription on this particular ossuary points to a rather important person, and his even more important relative.
The inscription reads, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Scholars are saying they believe it refers to James who the Bible refers to as the “brother of the Lord.”
If the box is legitimate, this is truly an amazing discovery. While most scholars accept that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed an historical figure, there have been only a few extra-biblical documents that point to his existence. The ossuary would be the earliest documentation of Jesus' life, and the first non-literary reference at that.
What's even more amazing is that, so far, the object has passed every test that scholars and scientists have put to it. The ossuary has been dated to around 60 A.D. fitting, since St. James was martyred in 62 A.D. While the names James, Joseph, and Jesus were fairly common at this time sort of the early Jewish equivalent to John, Tom, and Bob the possibility that the names would have been related in exactly this order significantly narrows the field. Plus, it was very uncommon that brothers would ever be mentioned on an ossuary that is, UNLESS the brother was considered noteworthy.
Some Bible scholars have taken their conclusions even further and stated that, since the ossuary says that James is Jesus' brother, the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary no longer holds water.
Is this true? Has archaeology conclusively refuted a 2000-year teaching of the Catholic Church?
Not at all. At the very most, it'll help us to refine our apologetics.
Let me explain. Many Catholic apologists tend to argue that the “brethren” of Jesus are actually cousins, or other distant relatives. Since there was no word for “cousin” in Aramaic, the word “brother” would often be substituted, as St. Jerome argued in 400 A.D.
But in light of the writings on the ossuary, St. Jerome's explanation probably won't work in this case. After all, the likelihood that James and Jesus were cousins who BOTH had fathers named Joseph is pretty slim.
So how else could you interpret it?
There's actually another, better explanation: James was a stepbrother from a previous marriage of Joseph's. Interestingly enough, this view is actually more ancient than St. Jerome's explanation. Indeed, it dates back to the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal book written in 120 A.D. This work states that Joseph was a widower who had children from a previous marriage (which might help to explain why he was willing to take on a young, consecrated virgin as his bride). This would also make sense in light of Joseph's age: He was apparently much older than Mary, and died before Jesus began his public ministry.
In either case, the ossuary says nothing about James having any sort of biological relationship to Mary, and it can't be extrapolated from the information provided. Nor, in fact, will we ever really be sure that the James, Joseph, and Jesus mentioned in the inscription are the same men who Christians revere.
In short, you shouldn't worry that this new finding will upset longstanding Catholic Tradition and teaching.
And that should make this discovery that much more exciting. Skeptical scholars may have a harder time denying Jesus' existence in light of the new finding, and while the ossuary may never be able to prove anything conclusively about St. James, Joseph, or Jesus' life, it certainly gives the secular world some food for thought.