“James, Brother of Jesus” Ossuary Adds Fuel to Historical Jesus Debate

Updated: Mar 28

Few archaeological discoveries have caused as much controversy as that of the James Ossuary. The opinions vary from its proving the existence of historical Jesus to its being an outright forgery. But for those who have delved deep into the story, the truth is less certain than ever.

It was antiquities collector Oded Golan who first acquired the limestone bone box, or ossuary, that showed the Aramaic phrase “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” and the find was announced to the public in 2002. An ossuary is a container that is used for human bones after burial: it can be an urn, box, or vault. During the historical period of the Second Temple (from the second century BC until the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD), burial customs in Israel called for the internment of human remains in cave-like rooms to decompose. After at least a year, the bones were then placed in box-like ossuaries, which were commonly made of limestone.

This bone box came to be known as the James Ossuary, and because the names corresponded to those of Jesus of Nazareth’s brother, some people have claimed that the box once must have held the bones of the brother of Jesus. When the James Ossuary came to light, it was potentially of enormous significance.

In 2003, the charge that the inscription was a fake was lodged by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Oded Golan faced 40 counts of forgery.

According to Biblical Archaeology, “No experts maintain the box is a fake. All acknowledge the box, or ossuary, is genuine and from the period when Jesus lived. The inscription is what is at issue—and, even then, only the last part of it: ‘brother of Jesus.’ The government’s criminal complaint itself recognizes that the first part of the inscription is authentic and charges only that ‘brother of Jesus’ has been recently forged.”

Close-up of the inscription: “Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua” (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”). The following attribution must accompany this image: The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003.

But after a grueling seven-year trial, a judge cleared Oded Golan, who owned the box, of the forgery charges. (He was convicted of illegal trading in antiquities.) Some websites have asked why Oded Golan’s being cleared has received so little attention and what this says about the veracity of the inscription.

James, brother of James (Saint James the Just)