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Link to Jesus?

October 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight evidence of what could be the earliest artifact ever found that can be linked to Jesus. An article in this month’s Biblical Archeology Review examines the inscription on an ancient stone box called an ossuary dated to 63 A.D. and found in Jerusalem. The inscription, written in Aramaic, reads, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If it is an authentic inscription referring to Jesus of Nazareth, it would be the earliest known documentation of Jesus outside the Bible.

Joining us are two people who have studied the box and its inscription: Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archeology Review and Kyle McCarter, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is an expert in Semitic languages and ancient writing. Hershel Shanks, how do we know that this is what your article, the article in your magazine, says it is?

HERSHEL SHANKS: Well, there are two issues. The first one is authenticity. This came from the antiquities market. That means a collector bought it from an Arab antiquities dealer who said it came from Silwan, which is an Arab village in Jerusalem. It wasn’t excavated by a professional archeologist, so that immediately: Is it a fake? Is it a forgery? That suppresses any excitement you might have over this, so we went into this very thoroughly.

GWEN IFILL: It was on a shelf in a dealer’s market?

HERSHEL SHANKS: Oh, no, no, no. It was… it wasn’t in a shop. So the first thing that we have is the opinion of paleographical experts who study the shape and the form of the letters, and can date it this way. And each of the letters has a history, like the grills on cars, and it’s got to fit together.

And the man who wrote the article is recognized as one of the world’s great paleographers in Semitic languages– Hebrew and Aramaic – is Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne. So he found it okay. My friend Kyle McCarter, whom you’re going to talk to in a moment, also is an expert, world renowned– William Foxwell Albright, professor at Johns Hopkins University…

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me just cut to him then and ask that question. Kyle McCarter, are you satisfied that this is what it is presented as being?

KYLE McCARTER: I’m satisfied that the inscription is in fact a mid- first-century Aramaic inscription. That’s the test that Hershel was talking about. That’s the first thing we have to ask– that is, is the type of handwriting appropriate to the period that this is supposed to come from? And in fact, it does seem to be.

GWEN IFILL: How do we know that this James that we see described here, or inscribed here, is the James that is mentioned in the bible as a brother of Jesus?

KYLE McCARTER: We don’t know that. One of the questions is, who are these three men who are mentioned in the inscription? We have an inscription that says “James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus.” But those three names, or their Aramaic equivalents, were very common Jewish names of the first century, so there immediately is another question. That is, are these that particular family?

And I think the argument that Andre Lemaire has made, which is based on the fact that this particular grouping, family grouping, is likely to be rare, and almost perhaps even unique in the period, is one that has some cogency.

That is, there may be a lot of people by these names, but how many were the James, the son of Joseph and has a brother named Jesus? That’s not as large a number– in fact, a much smaller number. And that’s the… that’s what gives a likelihood that this could be the James that we’re thinking it is.

GWEN IFILL: So Hershel Shanks, we’re talking about a process of deduction, scientific deduction, as it were.

HERSHEL SHANKS: Well, yeah. You have… we spoke about the authenticity. It’s been tested by the Geological Survey of Israel too, so they find that it passes that test. A great Aramaic expert studied the language, and he finds that it passes that test. So there’s little or no… virtually no question about its authenticity. But as Kyle said, it’s a different question as to whether the three characters mentioned here are the three personages from the New Testament.

And there I think that one of the… you can figure out statistically what the chances of this occurring. Actually it’s… statistically…it’s about three-and-a-half or four people whose name is James, whose father is Joseph, and who has a brother Jesus. There are three or four people. But the clincher is that this identification is on an ossuary.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you about. What is an ossuary? Most people wouldn’t be familiar with that. It’s about how big and what would be in it?

HERSHEL SHANKS: In the First Century AD, the Jewish practice of burial in Jerusalem was in a cave. They would bury you in a long niche. After about a year, the flesh would decay and fall away and the bones would be collected in a box, a limestone box about so big, about a foot-and-a-half, and long enough to… for the longest bone. And this is what an ossuary is. It remains in the cave and makes room for other burials.

GWEN IFILL: Kyle McCarter, how typical is it to find an ossuary that exists and with this kind of writing on the side and this kind of language?

KYLE McCARTER: We have a fairly large number of ossuaries from this period. I think the last catalogue, which is probably out of date by now listed almost 900, of which about 200-plus were inscribed. So it’s not unusual. That is, this is a burial practice that was well attested and well understood. So this is a typical type of Jewish burial of the First Century.

GWEN IFILL: What would have happened to the bones that were in this particular ossuary?

KYLE McCARTER: When ossuaries appear in the antiquities market, as this one evidently did, the material that was inside them is almost always or perhaps always gone. That is, any bone material or any organic material that might have remained inside the box was not there, and that’s the typical situation that we see.

GWEN IFILL: Does this, Hershel Shanks, mean that the… our interpretations of Jesus’ lineage has to be altered? The Orthodox believe that James was one person. Christian Protestants believe James was someone else. Catholics believe he was someone else.

HERSHEL SHANKS: It has a theological implication but before I get to that, I want to say that it’s very unusual… there’s only one other case of all the ossuaries that Kyle referred to, only one other case where the brother is mentioned. You have to ask why is the brother mentioned on an ossuary? The usual formula is Joe, the Son of Sam.

GWEN IFILL: The brother has been mentioned because he’s a significant person in this case.

HERSHEL SHANKS: One of the reasons is that the brother may be responsible for the burial, which isn’t this case, but if the brother is prominent and the deceased was closely associated with him, then it makes sense that the brother is mentioned. In this case James is the head of the Jerusalem church.

GWEN IFILL: And the theological implications?

HERSHEL SHANKS: The theological implications really turn on interpretation of “brother” in the New Testament. If Jesus… if James was the son of Joseph and Mary, and a younger brother of Jesus, this has implications for the perpetual virginity of Mary.

If he was an older brother, there are some scholars who say that the virgin birth was a symbolic virginity and a metaphor for purity. That’s another question. And then you have the Orthodox tradition that James was the son of Joseph by a previous marriage. That would fit in with this. That’s okay.

GWEN IFILL: A half-brother.

HERSHEL SHANKS: Yes. And then the Roman Catholic tradition has it that brother really means kin, and so they have traditionally interpreted this particular kin to be a cousin. And if that’s so, then… if these are the three characters from the New Testament, that’s a problem because it clearly says that Joseph is the father.

GWEN IFILL: Kyle McCarter, finally, what was the trump? What was the earliest previous indication, historical indication of the existence or the historical existence of Jesus?

KYLE McCARTER: We don’t have anything from the first century that mentions Jesus himself except transmitted manuscripts, documentary evidence that had been passed down to us. There’s been no archeological discovery. There have been discoveries of New Testament figures such as Pontius Pilate and so on, but it’s not until the second century that we have even a manuscript that survives from that early period. That is, in fact, a New Testament manuscript and mentions Jesus in that context.

But there’s been nothing else that is this close contemporary to Jesus himself or with a prominent member of the early Christian community such as James. This is a unique item if it is what it seems to be.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Kyle McCarter and Hershel Shanks, thank you both for joining us.