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James Was Not a Midget!: Observations on a Visit to the James Ossuary Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum

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“Why did they need so much space after the bones were burned?”

“I study Hebrew, why don’t I recognize this?”

“James sure was short!”

These were comments I heard while I visited the James ossuary exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) last week.1 I realized that while many people have heard about this newly famous discovery, many visitors to the exhibit were learning about the “bone box” in a more detailed manner for the first time. Hundred of years separate us from the first century a.d., and few are familiar with the society that collected the bones of their dead in limestone boxes. The goal of this article is to explain briefly the first-century Jewish practice known as ossilegium, discuss the James ossuary in particular, and report on my visit to the ROM to see the ossuary first hand. (For pictures of the exhibit see http://www.rom.on.ca/ossuary/ossuary_intro.html ).

What Is an Ossuary? What Is Ossilegium?

To answer these questions we need to understand that burial space was limited in first-century Jerusalem. To compensate for the lack of space, an interesting burial custom developed. After a death, the body of the deceased would not be buried in the ground, nor would it be burned, but instead it would be placed in a cave tomb. The tomb was carved with a “shelf” on which the body was laid. The corpse would be left in this sealed tomb for an entire year in order to allow the soft tissue to decompose and fall off the bones. No earlier than a year and a day after interment, the bones of the deceased would be collected and placed in a limestone box called an ossuary. This burial practice is called ossilegium.2 The names derive from the Latin word ossuarius, “of bones.”

An ossuary was a small chest like box with a lid. Although these “bone boxes” were sometimes made out of wood or clay, by far the most common construction material was limestone. Some of the boxes were ornately decorated, while others were left unadorned.3 Once the bones of the deceased had been gathered into the burial box, the ossuary was left in the cave in a niche carved out for the purpose of storing the boxes with bones in them. The place where the body had lain would then be ready for use when another individual died. Archaeologists have discovered that at times a single ossuary might be used for the bones of more than one individual.4

The Jewish community in and around Jerusalem practiced this form of burial from about 20 b.c. until the destruction of the city in a.d. 70. The custom continued outside of Jerusalem and in Judea until as late as the middle of the third century a.d.5 Since ossilegium was practiced in Jerusalem for a relatively short period of time the location of discovery, or provenance, of an ossuary can help date it.6

The James ossuary was reportedly found near Jerusalem and is a typical first-century ossuary. It is not a perfect rectangle, but has a trapezoidal shape. It is approximately 20 inches long at the base and 22 inches at the top. It is 10 inches wide and 12 inches high. It is undecorated except for a thin line around the edges of the box and a single rosette (as far as I could see) on the side opposite the inscription. In some cases the name of the person whose bones were gathered in the ossuary was carved on the outside of the box. This is the case with the James ossuary, where the inscription reads, יעקוב בר יוסף אחוי דישוע (ya‘aqov bar yosef achui deyeshua‘, “Jacob son of Joseph brother of Jesus”).7

The Argument of the Specialist

The Biblical Archaeological Society broke this story when it published an article by André Lemaire, a respected epigrapher.8 Lemaire concluded that “it seems very probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament.” He bases his argument on three lines of evidence: 1) the shape of the letters, 2) the patina of the ossuary, and 3) a statistical projection of the population of Jerusalem. Let me briefly summarize each in turn.

First, the script, or writing style, seems authentic. Examining the shapes of letters is one way inscriptions can be dated. Over time letter styles changed much the way car designs change today. Epigraphers can date a particular inscription to a fairly well defined range by examining the shapes of the letters. Lemaire argues that the letters on the James ossuary date to the first century a.d.9

Second, a patina analysis dismisses the idea that the inscription is a modern forgery. Patina is the accumulation of dirt and dust that settles on an object and over time adheres to it. Depending on the material in question, the accumulated particulates may react with the material it settles on. For example, although the skin of the Statue of Liberty is made of copper and was originally a brown color, pollutants have reacted with the copper and the result is a blue-green patina.

When testing an artifact with an inscription, the goal is to determine whether or not the patina in the grooves of the letters is identical to the patina on the surface. In addition such an examination should reveal whether the patina contains particulates that should not be on the artifact given its origins. The James ossuary was subjected to a patina analysis (Hershel Shanks told the audience in Toronto that both the first two and last two letters of the inscription were tested), and the test demonstrated that the inscription is not a modern forgery. The letters at the beginning and end of the inscription have the same patina. The chemical analysis of the patina suggests that it could have come from the Jerusalem area. The report stated, “No evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.”10

Finally, Lemaire turns to a statistical projection. Assuming a Jerusalem population of 80,000, he argues that there were probably about 20 men who were named James, had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus. He argues that although James, Joseph, and Jesus were common names, it is the triple combination that narrows down the possibilities for a positive identification. 11 In addition, he notes that it was rare for a brother to be mentioned on an ossuary. Only one other example has been found with an Aramaic inscription that mentions a brother.12

Ossuaries Were Not Coffins

It is hard to visualize how small these boxes were while looking only at photographs. Seeing the box in person was very helpful. These bone boxes were not coffins! Bodies were not laid out in them at full length, but rather the bones were quite literally “gathered” and piled neatly in the box. This explains why the ossuaries could be so short. They only had to be big enough to accommodate the femur, the longest bone in the body. Although James may have been a man of small stature, the size of his ossuary does not suggest that he was shorter than normal for his day. Incidentally, the ossuary is displayed at the ROM with the lid on. I was not able to see inside, but all reports say that it is empty.

The Language is Aramaic not Hebrew

The inscription on the James ossuary is clear. It is about 7.5 inches long and reads in transliteration ya‘aqov bar yosef achui deyeshua‘. It is written in Aramaic.13 With the rise of the Persian empire at the end of the 6th century b.c. Aramaic became the common language (lingua franca) of the ancient Near East. By the first century it had, along with Greek, replaced Hebrew as the primary language of Judea. Although similar in many ways to Hebrew, Aramaic uses different grammar and syntax. This explains why some who only read Hebrew can recognize some of the Aramaic words but cannot quite understand what is going on in the inscription.

In particular, confusion surrounds the spelling of the Aramaic word achui,“brother of him” especially for Hebrew students who have not studied Aramaic. The word is a noun, “brother,” with a 3ms pronoun suffix attached to it.14 Syntactically this suffix is anticipatory, that is, it points forward to the noun that it anticipates, in this case the proper noun Jesus. Hebrew would have used a construct relationship ach yeshua‘. The whole word can be translated “brother of him” or “his brother.” Literally the inscription reads, “James son of Joseph the brother of him, of Jesus. The Aramaic spelling does not occur in biblical Aramaic, but does appear in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Genesis Apocryphon. In addition Rahmani’s Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries includes one example (No. 570) with the same spelling of achui in the same context, “Shimi, son of ‘Asiya, brother of (achui) Chanin.”15

Additional confusion surrounds the letter ד (dalet) prefixed to the name Jesus (deyeshua‘). The letter is a contraction of the relative pronoun דִּי (di) and can be translated “of or who.” In earlier phases of the Aramaic language the full particle would have been used, but as Aramaic changed over time the yod was dropped and the particle was prefixed to the word that followed. From this perspective the transliteration in the BAR article, page 28, is misleading.16 The vowel after the prefixed dalet should be a vocal shewa (דְּ), not a short i vowel. In addition the final ayin is missing from the transliteration. It should be deyeshua‘ not diyeshua.17

Easy to read, very damaged

Four observations about the inscription arose from my visit. First, reports that the ossuary was damaged are true.18 Sad to say, a significant crack runs through the inscription. In fact it extends through what may be the most controversial letter of them all. The ד (dalet) that prefixes the name Jesus is highly unusual. I had hoped to get a better look at that letter, but the crack that runs through the inscription cuts right through it.

Initial photographs of the damaged ossuary showed a hairline fracture, but this has apparently been “repaired” by a joint that almost obliterates the letter in question. The substance used to hold the edges of the crack together is very thick and the resulting seam leaves much to be desired. It has been suggested that this is a temporary repair and that eventually the damage will be mended in such a way as to minimize the crack’s visibility, but I wonder if curators will be able to restore the curious dalet sufficiently.

Second, the drawing of the inscription in the BAR article appears to be a bit misleading. According to the sketch, the vav and the yod, the last two letters of the word achui, “brother of him” are the same length. This is strange because, as would be expected, every other yod in the inscription is distinctly shorter than the letter vav. Close examination of the photographs in BAR suggest that the artist may have mistaken a light patch in the patina of the stone for an extension of the yod. This would make it appear as long as the vav next to it, when it is in fact shorter. My suspicion was confirmed while examining the ossuary in person. I suggest that the yod in the drawing should not be as long as the vav that precedes it.

A third observation relates to the suggestion by Rochelle Altman that the second half of the inscription was carved by a different individual.19 To my eyes it did in fact seem like the first half of the inscription (James the son of Joseph) looked different from the second half (the brother of Jesus). The letters of the first half simply looked more well formed, and more deeply carved. With all due respect to Professor Lemaire, the letter ayin, which appears as the second and last letter of the inscription, looks different in these places. This of course does not mean that a second individual was responsible, but it does require an explanation. Perhaps the inscriber was in a hurry. Perhaps a different person did complete the inscription but near the time the first half was completed.

Finally a last observation addresses Altman’s suggestion that the inscription is an excised inscription rather than an incised one. The difference between these two relates to how the letters were carved. An excised inscription is raised while an incised inscription is sunken. If you run your fingers over an excised, inscription you feel the letters as ridges under your fingers (think of the letters on a coin), by contrast if you run your fingers over an incised inscription, you feel the letters as grooves (think of the letters on a tombstone). This distinction is important for Altman’s argument because an excised inscription would leave a “border” around the words where the material was removed to make the letters appear raised. If, as Altman suggests, the second half of the inscription was added to the first half that “border” would have been removed, and we should be able to see the evidence of that removal. As I examined the artifact two things were plain: first, the inscription on the James ossuary is clearly an incised inscription. The letters are grooves not ridges. In fact this can be easily seen from the BAR photographs. Second, there is no evidence that any “border” was removed. This of course is to be expected because an incised inscription would leave no border.

An Unexpected Decoration

When I examined the box through the glass display case, I noticed that there was at least one inscribed rosette on the side opposite the inscription (looking at photographs after my visit I can see another fainter rosette to the left of the previous one). The first rosette looked very worn and may represent a decoration that was either never completed, or a lightly inscribed decoration that has worn away. I was surprised to see it because it is not mentioned in the BAR article. In fact Lemaire says in the article, “The newly revealed ossuary with the startling inscription bearing the name of James is unadorned, unlike numerous ornately carved ossuaries.”20 This is misleading; it looks like someone began to decorate the ossuary, but did not finish for some reason. What does this mean? It is difficult to tell. Perhaps the box was not completed for lack of time. This might explain why the second half of the inscription looks different. A different person, unable to finish decorating the ossuary, completed the inscription in a hurry. We may never know.

So Is It Really James’s Bone Box?

This of course is the $64,000 question. The simple answer is that it is quite possibly the ossuary of Jesus’ brother. More than that is difficult to tell. The letters are from the right period. The shape and style of the box places it in the first century a.d. The Aramaic fits with other inscriptions of the day. But there is so much we don’t know. Because the artifact was looted and sold on the antiquities market, archaeologists were unable to examine the evidence that often accompanies such a find. Could the tomb have contained evidence of use by early Christians? Were there other ossuaries in the tomb that bore Christian markings? What is the best explanation for the different appearance of the second half of the inscription? These are important questions to which we do not have good answers.

It is this precise issue that sparked some of the most dramatic exchanges at the SBL sponsored lecture. Lemaire’s presentation was largely a representation of his article. But the sparks flew when Eric Meyers used his time to criticize the practice of publishing inscriptions from antiquities that have been looted. This of course is a legitimate concern. Hershel Shanks responded by arguing that he too despises looting, but once artifacts have been removed from their contexts they are still worth publishing so that they can be studied.

All in all, my visit was very exciting. The box is an archaeological find that is interesting because it may confirm some of the historical realities Christians already believe. In addition it is a useful tool for raising the world’s interest in biblical studies. I would encourage every Bible student to visit museums and search out archaeological artifacts. They are worth studying if only to raise our awareness of the evidence.

For further reading:

Rahmani, L. Y. A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collection of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority; Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994.

This is the largest published collection of Jewish ossuaries. It is the best place to see their variety and stylistic differences. Pay particular attention to No. 570, which is the only ossuary with an Aramaic inscription that mentions a brother. It has the same word as the James ossuary.

Lemaire, Andre. “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 2002): 24-33, 70. (An abbreviated article can be found at www.bib-arch.org/bswb_BAR/bswbbar2806f1.html ).

This is the first place to go for information on the ossuary. Lemaire’s article is a clear presentation of the evidence for his conclusion: “it seems very probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament.”

Greenhut, Zvi. “Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family.” Biblical Archaeology Review 18, no. 5 (Sept/Oct 1992): 29-36, 76.

Ronny Reich, “Caiaphas Name Inscribed on Bone Boxes,” Biblical Archaeology Review 18, no. 5 (Sept/Oct): 38-44, 76.

These articles detail the discovery of the famous Caiaphas ossuary and analyze its inscription. Unlike the James ossuary, archaeologists uncovered this one while excavating south of Jerusalem.


1 I was in Toronto for the meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature (November 19-26, 2002). I also attended a lecture sponsored by SBL that included presentations by André Lemaire, Eric Meyers, and Hershel Shanks.

2 For a good picture of an ossuary with the bones still in it see L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collection of the State of Israel, (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority; Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994) Plate 111.

3 See the plates in Rahmani, Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, for pictures of ossuaries with striking decorations.

4 This was the case with the famous Caiaphas ossuary in which the bones of six individuals were found, including those of a 60 year old man. See Zvi Greenhut, “Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family,” Biblical Archaeology Review 18, no. 5 (Sept/Oct 1992): 29-36, 76.

5 Ibid., 21-5.

6 Ossilegium was practiced millennia earlier during the Chalcolithic period (4300-3300 b.c.). Archaeologists have uncovered interesting ossuaries from that era. See Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, Vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 80, 82-85.

7 James the brother of Jesus should not be confused with James the son of Zebedee, the brother of John, nor should he be confused with James, the son of Alpheus. Both of these men were apostles (Matt 10:2-3). The James in question here is mentioned in Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 6:3; Acts 12:17; 15:12-29; 21:18; Galatians 1:18-19; 2:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:7. This same James is mentioned in Josephus, Antiquities, 20:9.1 and Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History.

8 An epigrapher is an expert in inscriptions.

9 Andre Lemaire, “Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus,” Biblical Archaeology Review 28, no. 6 (Nov/Dec 2002): 28.

10 Ibid., 29.

11 Although he argued he was being conservative and using published population numbers, Lemaire downplayed the value of the statistical projection at the SBL lecture.

12 Rahmani, Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, 200.

13 A distinction must be made between the Aramaic language and the Aramaic script. When the Jews went into exile in Babylonia in 586 b.c., they wrote Hebrew with a script we call paleo-Hebrew script or Old Hebrew script. This writing system originated with the Phoenicians. During the exile the Jews adopted a new script to write Hebrew–the Aramaic square script. It was not until after the Persians began to dominate the ANE that the Aramaic language replaced Hebrew as the common tongue in Judea. See Angel Sáenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, trans. John Elwolde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 112-13.

14 The morphology of אחוי (achui, “brother of him”) can be explained as follows: אח + הי > אחוהי > אחוי. The singular אח takes the 3ms pronoun suffix הי, we get: אחוהי (achuhi). The suffix is normally וֹהי, but אח takes the long u vowel when the suffix is attached (like the word אב). The intervocalic hey syncopates and we are left with אחוי (achui).

15 Rahmani, Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, 200.

16 Lemaire, Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus, 28.

17 Rosenthal, Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, 21, §35.

18 At the SBL lecture Hershel Shanks mentioned and denied a rumor abroad in Israel that the owner intentionally had the artifact poorly packed so that he could collect an insurance claim. The box is valued between $1-2 million dollars.

19 http://www.jewsweek.com/myturn/320.htm, accessed 11/29/02.

20 Lemaire, Burial Box of James the Brother of Jesus, 27.

Related Topics: Cultural Issues, History