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Joseph A. FitzmyerNovember 18, 2002

An ossuary is a stone box used in ancient Judea in the first centuries B.C. and A.D. to store the bones of a person who had died and whose flesh had decomposed. It served as a second burial. Hundreds of ossuaries have been recovered in the last century. Many of them are preserved in Israeli museums today—for example, in the Israel Museum and the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. They are often artistically adorned, but some of them are simply plain. Both kinds sometimes bear an inscription, written in either Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic, or even in two languages, Greek and a Semitic language. Usually the inscription is merely the name of the person whose bones are within, often supplied with a patronymic, or father’s name. In 1994 an Israeli scholar, L. Y. Rahmani, published A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, in which he described 895 of them, supplying photographs and details about their provenience, artistry and inscriptions.


A new ossuary, however, has come to light recently with a remarkable Aramaic inscription that has already stirred up much discussion. Its exact provenience is not known, because it was bought from an antiquities dealer and has been in the possession of a private Israeli citizen for about 15 years. He has now allowed its existence to be made known.

The Aramaic inscription reads: Ya‘aqob bar Yoseph ’ahui deYeshua‘, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” or literally, “his brother, of Jesus.” The name Ya‘aqob is translated either as Jacob (in the Old Testament) or as James (usually in the New Testament).

The inscription is remarkable because no one would have expected the names of three persons well known in the New Testament—James, Joseph and Jesus—to turn up all together in an extrabiblical text from ancient Judea. If the Jesus mentioned here is Jesus of Nazareth, then this is further extrabiblical evidence, dating from about A.D. 62-3, of his historical existence. But does the name on the ossuary refer to Jesus of Nazareth?

Authentic or Fake?

The first question that comes to mind immediately about such a discovery concerns its authenticity. Is it possibly a modern forgery? Although I have seen photographs of the ossuary and its inscription and also the facsimile of the inscription produced by the highly competent and noted Israeli epigrapher, Ada Yardeni, it is impossible to answer that question from such photographs and the facsimile alone. One would have to see the ossuary itself.

The French scholar André Lemaire, who published the inscription in the recent issue of The Biblical Archaeology Review (28/6 [2002] 24-33, 70-71), is convinced of its authenticity. He quotes scientists of the Geological Survey of the State of Israel, who examined the ossuary thoroughly and reported that “the patina does not contain any modern elements (such as modern pigments) and it adheres firmly to the surface. No signs of the use of a modern tool or instrument was [sic] found.” If the inscription had been made in recent times on an otherwise ancient ossuary, the inscribed marks would differ from the rest of the surface, and the patina of the surface would be disturbed; but it is not disturbed. The script itself in which the inscription is written certainly looks like many other ossuary inscriptions that have been confidently dated to the first century A.D. Only one letter in the inscription is difficult to read, the daleth (= “of”) prefixed to the name Jesus, but there can be no doubt about its meaning. Hence, until someone succeeds in showing that the inscription is a modern forgery, we have to accept it as authentic.

The Aramaic Language

A comment has to be made about the Aramaic in which the inscription is written. The word for brother is an unusual form, and that is the reason why I supplied above the literal translation, “his brother, of Jesus.” Normally, one would have expected ’aha’ deYeshua‘, “the brother of Jesus.” Instead there is the form with a pronominal suffix meaning “his brother,” which is further explained by the daleth and the following name, “(that is) of Jesus.” The suffixal form is unusual, because it should have been written ’ahuhi, the way such suffixes usually appear in first-century Aramaic. A little research, however, has shown that the syncopated form (’ahui) is attested in one of the Aramaic texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran Cave 1, 21.34: “Lot, the son of Abram’s brother,” literally, “the son of his brother, of Abram,” which is a very similar construction (Lot bar ’ahui di ’Abram). Moreover, Lemaire discovered the same form on another ossuary in the Rahmani catalogue (§570), “Shimi, son of ’Asiyah, brother of Hanin.” Hence, even though the Aramaic wording seems at first unusual, it merely records a popular way of writing the patronymic that was not well attested heretofore. So the inscription bears all the earmarks of a genuine ancient writing.

The Three Names

The collocation of the three names in this Aramaic inscription is noteworthy. Fatherhood is ascribed to Joseph, an ascription otherwise known from the New Testament. Jn. 1:45 records the words of Philip speaking to Nathanael, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Again, “Is not this Jesus, son of Joseph?” (Jn. 6:42; cf. Lk. 4:22). Although the New Testament speaks of a Jacob as the father of Joseph (Mt. 1:16), one does not find there the inverse relationship, such as is expressed in the Aramaic ossuary inscription, “James, son of Joseph.” The New Testament, however, never speaks of Joseph begetting a son called James.

Could this James be one of those mentioned in the New Testament? Ya‘aqob was a name commonly used in ancient Judea; it is known from texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QTestament of Levi 4.1; 19.1; 29.1 [in each case, partly but certainly restored]; 4QTestament of Levi 2.12 [“my father, Jacob”]). In the New Testament, the Greek name Iakobos, usually translated James, is used of at least five different persons: (1) the Apostle, son of Zebedee (Mt. 10:2); (2) the Apostle, son of Alphaeus (Mt. 10:3); (3) the son of a Mary (Mk. 16:1; he is called “the little” in Mk. 15:40); (4) the father of the Apostle, Jude (mentioned only in Lk. 6:16); (5) James of Jerusalem. The father of the last three of these, however, is not named in the New Testament.

Of these five, the last named is called by Paul “the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19) and is said to have been in Jerusalem when Paul first visited it after his conversion (Gal. 1:18). He is often called James of Jerusalem to distinguish him from the two Apostles (the son of Zebedee and the son of Alphaeus). Paul mentions this James also in Gal. 2:9, 12; 1 Cor. 15:7. See also Acts 15:13-21; 21:18, where he is depicted as an important figure in the Jerusalem church.

The fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea repeats the Pauline title “brother of the Lord” and quotes the second-century writer Hegesippus, who recounted that James became the first Christian bishop of Jerusalem (Hist. Eccl. 2.1.2), thus building on the data of Acts.

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, narrates how the high priest Ananos brought “a man named James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ” ( Ant. 20.9.1 §200) before the Sanhedrin, accused him and others of having violated the Mosaic Law and delivered them up to be stoned. This would have been about A.D. 62-3. Eusebius also gives a more elaborate but similar account of James’s death, recording that he was thrown from the top of the Temple, stoned to death and buried in Jerusalem near the Temple (Hist. Eccl. 2.23.18). Strikingly, the ossuary inscription now preserves the Aramaic equivalent of the first part of the title used by Josephus for James of Jerusalem, “brother of Jesus.” Yet there is no evidence, either in the New Testament or in later historical records, that this James had a father named Joseph. 

Yoseph, Joseph, sometimes spelled Yehoseph, is also a name that was commonly used in ancient Judea. The Hebrew form occurs at least a dozen times, and the Greek form a few times on ossuaries in Rahmani’s catalogue. It is found also in Aramaic texts of the early second century from the caves of Murabba‘at. In the form Yehoseph, it is even more common in the Murabba‘at texts. Similarly, Yeshua‘, Jesus, is attested on ossuaries also (six times in Hebrew and four times in Greek in the Rahmani catalogue); it also occurs in Murabba‘at texts. Hence, theoretically the new Aramaic inscription could refer to any one of these persons, when the names are considered in isolated fashion. The fact that the three names appear together on the new inscription, however, is significant, but what is the likelihood that the names refer to persons with the same names known from the New Testament? It is certainly a possibility, but is it probable? Lemaire concludes that “it seems very probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament,” even though he also admitted earlier on the same page that “nothing in this ossuary inscription clearly confirms the identification” (BAR 28/6 [2002] 33).

Although it is not widely known, this is not the first time that the name Jesus has been discovered on an ossuary. In January 1931 the Israeli scholar E. L. Sukenik published an inscription from an ossuary found in what was then called the Palestine Archaeological Museum (today the Rockefeller Museum) in 1926. It read: Yeshua‘ bar Yehoseph, “Jesus, son of Joseph” (Rahmani, Catalogue, §9). If this ossuary were related to the newly published one, it might be the same Joseph, and possibly the same Jesus. Sukenik, however, was a careful scholar and did not draw a conclusion from it about any New Testament personages, realizing that Joseph and Jesus were commonly used names for Judean Jews in the first century.

The main difficulty in accepting the new ossuary as that of “James, the brother of the Lord,” is that James of Jerusalem is never said in the New Testament to have had a father named Joseph. So even if the ossuary could possibly be his, it still remains very probable that it is not.

The Meaning of “Brother”

Both Aramaic ’ah and Greek adelphos, “brother,” denoted in the ancient world of these inscriptions not only blood-brother or sibling, but also relative or kinsman. This broader meaning ofah occurs in the Aramaic texts of Tobit from Qumran Cave 4 (4QToba 6.11; 4QTobb 4 iii 2, 4, 5). Sometimes, indeed, it means “compatriot” (4QToba 2.12) and can even be used in a generic sense, when a speaker does not yet comprehend the precise relationship (4QTobb 4 iii 5). Similarly, in the Greek form of the Book of Tobit, adelphos means a relative or kinsman in 3:15; 5:6, 13, 14; 6:18; 7:1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 11. It too has the sense of “compatriot” in Tob. 1:10, 16; 2:2, 3. In 4QToba 14 ii 5, young Tobiah even addresses the angel Raphael in disguise as “my brother, Azariah.” Moreover, this meaning of adelphos is found not only in the translation-Greek of the Septuagint, but also in many secular, extrabiblical writings, as the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament of Bauer-Danker makes clear.

Consequently, the description of James given by Paul in Gal. 1:19, “the brother of the Lord,” does not necessarily mean that James was the blood-brother of Jesus. Furthermore, this James of Jerusalem might be the James mentioned in Mk. 6:3, along with other of his own siblings, Joses, Judas and Simon (also mentioned in Mt. 13:55). It is not a foregone conclusion, however, that this James is a sibling of Jesus of Nazareth, because in the same Gospel according to Mark, the Evangelist depicts a Mary standing with two other women, Mary Magdalene and Salome, at the cross (Mk. 15:40; cf. 16:1) and calls her “the mother of James the little and of Joses.” They are two of the four said to be adelphoi in Mk. 6:3. The Mary of Mk. 15:40 is scarcely the mother of the person crucified, on whom she and the other women are gazing from afar. The Evangelist would never have used such a circumlocution to identity the mother of Jesus, whom he has called already “the son of Mary” (6:3). Moreover, one cannot use the data of the Johannine Gospel, where the mother of Jesus does stand at the foot of the cross (Jn. 19:25), to identify the Mary of Mk. 15:40. The Synoptic tradition gives no evidence of the mother of Jesus standing at or near the cross. This means, therefore, that adelphos in Mk. 6:3 cannot necessarily mean blood-brother, and that it carries rather the nuance of a relative or kinsman. Thus, the problem of the meaning of adelphos is created by the data of the New Testament itself, and not from any later Christian tradition.


When one considers the new ossuary inscription, one has to show, first of all, that the Yeshua‘ who is mentioned there can only be Jesus of Nazareth. Since there is no way of showing that, it will remain always possible that it refers to a person so named who is other than Jesus of Nazareth. Second, the appearance of the three names together in this inscription could denote the same persons known from the New Testament, but how does one exclude sheer coincidence? Third, the final phrase in the inscription, “brother of Jesus,” goes beyond the usual identification of the person whose bones are within an ossuary. That was normally expressed in such ossuary inscriptions only by the patronymic, the use of the father’s name. One cannot claim, then, that the phrase has been added to stress that he was the brother of a well-known Jesus, hence of Jesus of Nazareth. The other ossuary mentioned above (§570) has the same final phrase, and no one knows who Hanin was. So one cannot say that the final phrase is indubitably a sign of notoriety. The brother may have been simply the one who saw to the second burial of the bones.

Fourth, this new inscription may affect one’s understanding of the doctrine of the continuous or perpetual virginity of Mary. Such church teaching was formulated by early Christians in the post-Apostolic era, making use of an interpretation of some passages in the New Testament that passed over others that were problematic, such as Jn. 1:45; 6:42; Lk. 4:22 (quoted above). The result was that that teaching was not universally accepted at first. Even though that teaching is thought sometimes to be implied in the second-century writing, Protevangelium Jacobi, it eventually became crystallized in the longstanding belief about Mary as aeiparthenos or semper virgo, “ever virgin,” in creeds from the fourth century on.

In light of that teaching, there grew up two different ways of understanding Paul’s phrase “James the brother of the Lord.” In the church of the East, James was regarded as the son of Joseph, who as a widower married Mary, of whom Jesus was born through conception of the Holy Spirit (see Mt. 1:18-20). Hence James would have been a half-brother of Jesus. That interpretation of adelphos is still used today in Eastern Orthodox Churches. In contrast to that interpretation, the Church of the West insisted on a broader sense of adelphos as “kinsman or relative” (and some even wrongly translated it “cousin,” for which the New Testament has a specific word, anepsios, which is never used of James or Jesus). This interpretation of adelphos persists today in the Roman Catholic Church. In the 16th century, the Reformers (Luther and Calvin) still affirmed the tradition of the West that Mary remained ever a virgin, but in time, especially under the influence of the so-called Enlightenment, Protestant tradition interpreted adelphos to mean blood-brother or sibling, so that James came to be understood as Jesus’ natural brother. The Evangelist Luke, however, gave the real answer to this problem when he wrote, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about 30 years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph” (Lk. 3:23 [RSV]).

As a result, interpreters of this new Aramaic ossuary inscription undoubtedly will read it in the way they have been interpreting Greek adelphos used of James of Jerusalem in the New Testament. Such considerations as these have to be recalled when one seeks to evaluate this new Aramaic inscription.

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20 years 10 months ago
I know Fr. Fitzmyer is bringing Church teaching into his article 'Whose Name is This?' Personally I question if it is important to our faith life if Jesus had biological brothers and sisters or if Mary needs to be 'ever' virgin. I actually like the thought of Mary being a fully human woman who is deeply, madly in love with her husband. A woman who understands true intimacy with her man. A woman who cares for their children and their home. For a married woman this makes more sense to me than a married woman who is 'ever' virgin. What an interesting role model of a married couple and holy family.

20 years 10 months ago
I know Fr. Fitzmyer is bringing Church teaching into his article 'Whose Name is This?' Personally I question if it is important to our faith life if Jesus had biological brothers and sisters or if Mary needs to be 'ever' virgin. I actually like the thought of Mary being a fully human woman who is deeply, madly in love with her husband. A woman who understands true intimacy with her man. A woman who cares for their children and their home. For a married woman this makes more sense to me than a married woman who is 'ever' virgin. What an interesting role model of a married couple and holy family.

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