WILMORE (Kentucky) – The Rev Ben Witherington III is in the middle of a whirlwind dating back to AD 63.
A New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary and a writer for the Biblical Archaeology Review, the Rev Witherington, a United Methodist pastor in the Kentucky Annual Conference, was one of those who announced to the nation on Oct 21, 2002 that a limestone ossuary discovered recently in Israel appears to provide the oldest archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ.
The ossuary, a box used by Jews at the time of Christ to hold the bones of the deceased, has a simple but provocative Aramaic inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
“The inscription reads ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,’ not ‘James, brother of Jesus, son of Joseph,’ ” said the Rev Witherington. “We might have expected the latter if this was a forgery. Also, if we had the latter inscription it would raise some questions about Jesus’ relationship with Joseph. As it is written, it simply tells us James’ relationship to two of his close relatives – his father and his brother.”
“This inscription is the most important extrabiblical evidence of its kind that James existed, was someone important, and was the brother of another early Jew who was very important – Jesus.”
It was unusual for the box to have an inscription that referred to a brother, he said. It was not the usual practice to put a brother’s name on the ossuary unless the brother was someone who was well known, he said.
“Since the Aramaic here clearly says brother, without qualification, the natural inference is that James had the same sort of blood kinship to Jesus as he did to Joseph. In other words, it argues against any theories that Jesus’ brothers were actually his cousins, as according to some later Catholic traditions.”
The limestone box was discovered several years ago after being purchased by an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem for somewhere between US$200 (S$350) and US$700 (S$1,225). It was kept secret while undergoing authentification tests since its discovery.
“I have done my own evaluations, and I am convinced it is the real deal,” the Rev Witherington said. “The box has been out there for 15 years. Clearly it has been handled by people who were oblivious to its value.”
This discovery has some important implications, he said. “The language of the holy family was, as we have long thought Aramaic, not Hebrew or Greek. Probably the primary language of the earliest Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, who likely were responsible for burying James and inscribing this box with the Aramaic inscription, was Aramaic,” he said.
“As the Jewish historian Josephus suggests, James lived and died in Jerusalem, and now we know he was buried there as well, not in his home region of Galilee,” he added. Josephus’ evidence suggests that James was killed in AD 62, which coincides with the dating of the ossuary.
The Rev Witherington said that if the burial took place around AD 63 it suggests the Jewish Christians had not yet fled the city, though the Jewish War with Rome was already percolating.
“It would be my conjecture that the reason the bone box contained no bones when found is that the Jewish Christians who fled to Pella (according to church tradition) probably took the bones with them, so his remains would not be desecrated by the Romans. The bone box was probably too heavy to flee with, especially if the city was left in haste.”
The Rev Witherington said the cursive Aramaic inscription helps set a limit on the period when it could have been written.
“Acts 21 informs us that Paul met James in Jerusalem on his last journey to Jerusalem. This dates to the time when Festus and Felix were the proconsuls in Judea. This places this event to the period AD 58-60, probably the earlier end of that period,” he said.
“This confirms that James was still alive at that time, and since Paul and Luke left Jerusalem in AD 60, it is probably significant that Luke does not mention the death of James. This is because it did not occur when he was there, and he apparently did not know about it after they went to Rome and Luke wrote Acts.”
The next step for the Rev Witherington will be to co-write a book about the discovery with Hershel Shanks, Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. – United Methodist News Service.
‘This inscription is the most important extrabiblical evidence of its kind that James existed, was someone important, and was the brother of another early Jew who was very important – Jesus.’
— the Rev Ben Witherington III, who announced that a limestone ossuary discovered recently in Israel appears to provide the oldest archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ.