A French scholar has discovered what may be the earliest archaeological evidence of Jesus a 1,940-year-old limestone burial box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The 20-inch-long box for holding the bones of the deceased, known as an ossuary, dates from A.D. 63 and all evidence suggests that it is genuine and not a forgery, said paleographer Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris, who discovered it in a private collection.
The discovery, which so far has survived the scrutiny of a variety of scholars and scientists, could be one of the most important finds in New Testament archaeology, said Hershel Shanks, publisher of the Biblical Archeology Review, which is reporting Lemaire's findings in its November/December issue. Until this find, the oldest existing text with the name "Jesus" was a papyrus fragment of the New Testament dated about a century after Jesus' death.
One of the major questions facing historians is whether the James mentioned in the inscription is actually St. James, who headed the church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death.
Although Lemaire said at a Monday news conference that it is "very probable" that the box once held the bones of St. James, P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University told the same gathering that "we may never be absolutely certain."
"In the work I do, we are rarely absolutely certain about anything," he said.
The reservations stem from the fact that no one knows where the ossuary has been for 19 centuries. The unidentified Israeli collector who owns the ossuary purchased it 15 years ago from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer. The dealer bought it from an Arab who said he found it in a Jerusalem suburb.