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The ossuary that is soon to be exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto may be the most important find in the continuing search for material evidence of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth through archaeological and historical means.

The age of the limestone and the patina of this ossuary have already been proven scientifically to date from the first century AD. So discussions concerning its authenticity will focus largely on the provenance, or origin, of the ossuary, the type(s) of script used, and the deciphering of the words inscribed on it.

Before we examine these issues, some context would be valuable in order to understand the discourse that will undoubtedly flow for many years as a result of this find, and particularly in the period during its initial exhibition.

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The ossuary itself is typical. The inscription is partially atypical. First, what of the ossuary? The archaeological community is very familiar with ossuaries of this period and type. As part of my research, I have studied a large number of ossuaries, their inscriptions and the places in which they were located. I reviewed this in my article on funerary customs of the Jews of early Roman Palestine, published in 1991 in Paris.

There is no question that this ossuary is very similar in shape, function and size to many others in collections worldwide, especially in Israel and including that of the ROM. The ossuaries are testimonies of secondary burial, a practice common between 37 BC and 135 AD in Jewish society in and around Jerusalem. The custom of "ossilegium," or gathering of the bones from the tomb, is at least as old as the Old Testament. One can find a number of relevant references in the Scriptures. This practice is also attested in the Mishna, a written compilation of rabbinic oral discussion.

Secondary burial, and in particular the order in which the bones were gathered, is also to be linked to the concept of resurrection, common at that time. The New Testament recounts that Jesus was placed in a tomb after he was crucified, and when the door rolled open later, the tomb was empty. Indeed, archaeological evidence indicates that the doors to the tombs were often blocked by stones that could be rolled to permit entry.

In the case of the James ossuary, there is no information about its provenance other than the fact that it was found in a cave in the surroundings of Jerusalem. If archaeologists had found it, they would have taken minute notes of all aspects of the site. Archaeological evidence could have assisted in determining the social origin and religion of the deceased.

Could the family of Jesus, as known from other sources, have fit the social context? Unfortunately, for the moment, all of the data that would normally come from an archaeological find is unknown. We are left with the ossuary itself and the inscription.

The scientific dating of the box is in harmony with one literary text from the time. Josephus Flavius was a Jewish historian who wrote during the first century AD. He mentions the death of James, the brother of Jesus. From that reference, one can deduce that the death occurred in the year 62 AD, which is approximately the dating for the ossuary.

Other than that, we draw a blank. We can only hope that more information regarding the provenance of the ossuary will be forthcoming, if it is known.

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What of the Aramaic inscription? The first part reads: Ya'akov (James) bar (son of) Yoseph (Joseph). Until this point, it is similar to many of the other ossuary inscriptions of the period -- it indicates the name of the deceased whose bones were gathered inside and his filiation.

However, the second part remains problematic as it contains a grammatical form that can be read, " achui d" (likely translated as "brother of") and ends in the name "Yeshua" (usually interpreted as Jesus).

In my work as a historian and specialist of the period, I have established a list of people who lived in early Roman Palestine, between 63 BC and 138 AD. This is known as a "prosopography." Although my list is not exhaustive, it allowed me to notice the most common male names of the period. The name Ya'akov and its various forms (Iakkobos and Iakobos) translated as Jacob, and Yeshua and its variables (Iesous and Yehoshua) translated as Jesus, were respectively the seventh- and eighth-most common male names in my sample of 715 names. The name Yoseph and its variables (Yoseh, Iosepos, Iosephos and Ioseph) was the fourth-most common.

But, over the 200 ossuary inscriptions I have read, the mention of a deceased's brother is found in only one other instance besides the James ossuary. A deceased is usually mentioned only as "son of" or "daughter of." Therefore, the person who gave instructions to write the inscription considered that the deceased having had a brother named Jesus was of great significance.

The use of the term " achui d" before the name Yeshua, raises an issue. It appears at first glance to be a double genitive, or in translation "the brother of of." " Achui" would have been enough.

We have yet to find, in the only contemporary writings in our possession, the Dead Sea Scrolls, whether the use of the apparent double genitive was not out of the ordinary in the period. In any event, the double genitive is used in a slightly changed form in contemporary Hebrew. Readers of Hebrew recognize " achiv shel" as common in formal use to mean "brother of."

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Perhaps the problem arises from a slip of the carver's chisel? The letters consist of, firstly, an aleph -- which is recognizable as typical of the cursive script on contemporary ossuaries; then a heth, which is angular, but recognizable (although it appears to be of a later type of script); and then two letters that may either be two vavs or one vav and one yod. In cursive script, the difference between a vav and a yod is minimal. Both are vertical lines, yet the yod is shorter. If the second letter is a yod, it reads achui d. If the letters are both vavs, then the inscription is more difficult to interpret. Right through the inscription, the shape of the vavs and the yods is inconsistent. The daleth following the achui also appears to belong to a later type of script. In any case, there is still some research to be done in this direction.

One should not discount the possibility that the carver made an error. During the period, Jerusalem was a crossroads with a polyglot and mixed population. Craftsmen flocked to the city to participate in Herod's reconstruction projects. Often the workmen did not speak or read Aramaic and were instructed to follow written guides when making inscriptions in their work. There are numerous examples of inscriptions containing grammatical or spelling errors, or that have misshaped letters due to the inability of the craftsmen to accurately follow instructions. Often these errors were noted after and it was difficult or expensive to repair. The errors were subsequently left and in some cases have led to debates about their meaning.

What do we know for sure?

First, the practice of secondary burial among the Jews of Roman Palestine is largely attested from the Herodian period up to the Byzantine Era.

Second, this practice must have remained in use among the first Christians since the funerary customs are the last that a people would give up on, due to the sensitivity of the matter. In fact, the practice of burial in ossuaries was also in use among the Christian monks living in the caves of Cappadocia in Turkey in the Byzantine Era.

Is the ossuary that of the brother of Jesus? It may be, but much of the historical and archaeological evidence is not yet in. This is worth keeping in mind on your way to the exhibit. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky (PhD, Sorbonne) is a historian specializing in the social history of early Roman Palestine. She is author of Les Laics en Palestine d'Auguste à Hadrien: Étude Prosopographique (2001).

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