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Jerusalem's Bone Box Controversy

Was this the burial place of James the Just?


An empty limestone burial box with an engraving in the ancient Aramaic language has been creating all kinds of stir recently in the academic world of biblical archaeology. The engraving suggests that it was used to hold the skeletal remains of James the Just, brother to Jesus of Nazareth and a founding member of the Christian religion.

An article in the November/December 2002 Biblical Archaeology Review by the well-respected French paleographer Andre Lemaire reports on his investigations of the box. Similar burial boxes were used by the Jewish community around the first century AD to store secondary burials; such burials involved the interment of an individual in a cave until the flesh decayed away, when the bones were gathered and stored in a burial box. The boxes were typically engraved with the individual's name; this one reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" (in Aramaic, "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua"). According to the New Testament, James was a brother of Jesus, the historical founder of the Christian religion, and himself a leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem. James was stoned to death about AD 62.

Lemaire reports that the inscription on the box is in the right language and uses the documented form of Aramaic writing for the latter half of the first century AD. Investigators from the Geological Survey of Israel closely examined the box and agree that the box is made of limestone from the Jerusalem area and that the patina developed on the surface of the limestone is compatible with something stored in a cave environment. The box is empty; and there is no organic material that could be submitted for radiocarbon dating.

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