A French scholar says he has seen what may be the oldest archeological evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ. It is a small limestone box inscribed with the name Jesus and believed to have held the bones of his brother James.
The box, called an ossuary, is typical of those in which families deposited bones of dead relatives around the time of Christ, in the first century. It belongs to an anonymous private Israeli collector who bought it from an Arab antiquities dealer 15 years ago.
A Sorbonne University scholar of ancient biblical languages, Andre Lemaire, examined the ossuary after learning of it during a chance encounter with the owner at a Jerusalem reception earlier this year. He reports in the journal Biblical Archaeological Review that its carved inscriptions may be the oldest reference to Jesus outside the Bible.
The writing is in the Aramaic language of the time and reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The publisher of Biblical Archaeological Review, Hershel Shanks, says several lines of evidence suggest that the box is authentic.
"I think this has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.
Mr. Shanks says U.S. scholars who have examined the box say the language and letter styles are typical of the time of Jesus. Israeli government geologists chemically analyzed the bone box and looked at it under a powerful microscope. Mr. Shanks says this research reveals no metal fragments in the letter indentations to indicate traces of a modern forger's tool.
It also shows that the inscription is as old as the ossuary itself, judging by its patina.
"The patina is the film that takes centuries in a damp cave to develop," he said. "There is patina in the crevices of the inscription and it matches the patina on the side of the ossuary. So that was the final test, and we have little or no doubt that it is authentic."
But the Aramaic names for James, Joseph and Jesus - Yakov, Yosef and Yeshua - were common in the first century after Christ's birth. Could the inscription refer to another group of people?
Mr. Shanks thinks not because, given the estimated population of Jerusalem at the time and the known frequency of the names, only about 20 people would have them in two generations. He points out that only three or four James' might be able to claim a father named Joseph and brother named Jesus.
To further narrow the case, Mr. Shanks notes that it is unusual for a brother's name, in this case Jesus, to be on an ossuary unless he conducted the burial or is prominent. Since Jesus died long before James, the publisher argues the latter is the case.
"By this time Jesus was very well known, and James was the head of the Jerusalem [Christian] Church," he said. So he had every reason to put him on the ossuary, even though it was not customary. So when you put all that together, you have a pretty good case."
Nevertheless, the box's owner is willing to submit the ossuary to further expert inspection. Hershel Shanks says this will occur if he can arrange for a museum in Toronto to display it during a convention there of religious and biblical scholars in the city in November.