The James Ossuary

December 15, 2002

THE JAMES OSSUARY BY RAY PRITCHARD The recent discovery of the “James ossuary” has given the world a close encounter with Jesus and his family. An ossuary was a small limestone box in which the bones of a deceased loved one were placed. This sort of burial was very common among the Jews of the first century. What makes this particular ossuary so important is the inscription on the side of the box: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” James was one of the leaders of the early church and the author of the epistle that bears his name. Joseph was the legal father of Jesus and the physical father of James. And the name Jesus refers to Jesus Christ who was born to Mary while she was still a virgin. Scholars who have studied the ossuary tell us that it bears all of the marks of being genuine and no marks at all of being a forgery. It is owned by a private collector in Tel Aviv who purchased it for $200 from a dealer who said it came from a cemetery south of ancient Jerusalem. The collector had no idea of the significance so he asked an expert in Aramaic to examine it. The expert quickly realized the enormous importance of this find. There are limits to what archaeology can do for our faith. It cannot prove that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross and then rose from the dead. It cannot prove that Jesus walked on water or raised Lazarus from the dead. And it cannot prove that Jesus was born of a virgin. Those things are matters of faith that are outside the realm of absolute scientific or historical proof. But the James ossuary has great value nonetheless. It contains the oldest reference to Jesus yet found (dated approximately A.D. 62), only 30 years or so after his death. As Bryant Wood points out, the ossuary is important not only because it mentions Jesus, but also because it testifies to the accuracy of the New Testament. “It names three very important individuals of the New Testament and verifies their relationships as recorded in the gospels. Once again, a new discovery proclaims loud and clear, ‘God’s Word is Truth’ (John 17:17).” All this has great relevance to our Christmas celebration. We Christians believe something absolutely stunning–that God somehow took on human form and was born of a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago. We really and truly believe that the “Word was made flesh” and that the baby in the manger is the Son of God who came down from heaven. This is the central miracle of our faith. That little box, which was found “by chance,” apparently once held the bones of James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. This is exactly what we would have expected. It’s almost as if God is saying to 21st-century skeptics: “Merry Christmas. Stop doubting and believe.”

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