An inscription on a burial artifact discovered in Israel is “the first appearance of Jesus in the archaeological record,” says Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. Scholars have no reason to doubt that Jesus actually lived, but no archeological evidence of his life has been found until now.

Andre Lemaire, a specialist in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), says it is “very probable” the find is an authentic reference to Jesus of Nazareth. It appears on an empty ossuary (limestone burial box for bones) and says, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Lemaire dates the object to 63 AD and says the writing style, and the fact that Jews practiced ossuary burials only between 20 BC and 70 AD, means the time is right.

While all 3 names on the box were common at that time, Lemaire estimates that only 20 Jameses in Jerusalem during that era would have had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus. Also, naming the brother as well as the father on an ossuary was “very unusual,” Lemaire says, meaning this Jesus must have had some claim to fame.

James is described as Jesus’ brother in the Gospels and head of the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles. The first century Jewish historian Josephus recorded that “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James by name,” was stoned to death as a Jewish heretic in 62 AD. His bones would have been placed in the ossuary the following year, in 63 AD.

“The script is very important for the date because the Aramaic script changed over time in ways we could measure,” says Paleographer P. Kyle McCarter. “It’s the most important criterion for dating this object, and the script is consistent with a date in the middle of the first century AD.” The box is very plain, but “Highly decorated boxes are the ones that are unusual,” says McCarter. Lemaire agrees that there is no connection between the ornateness of the design and the importance of the person whose bones they contained.

The ossuary was purchased in the antiquities market 15 years ago and has been in the hands of a private collector, who wishes to remain anonymous, ever since. Scholars knew nothing about it, and Lemaire found it by chance. While he was in Jerusalem studying paleo-inscriptions, a friend introduced him to a private collector, who showed him photographs of it. “When I read it [the inscription], I immediately wondered if it was the same James who was said to be the brother of Jesus of Nazareth,” says Lemaire.

“It means there will always be doubts about the thing,” says McCarter. “They’ve applied every possible test to it to determine its character and authenticity, but there will always be a cloud over it and there will always be those who doubt because it wasn’t recovered in a legitimate archaeological dig. But this is not an unusual situation. We get this a lot.” “This is probably going to be the biggest New Testament find in my lifetime, as big as the Dead Sea scrolls,” says New Testament scholar Ben Witherington. “Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all historical religions, and they have to be open to historical inquiry. To some extent they stand or fall on the authenticity of the historical record. This gives us one more piece of evidence outside of the Bible that these are real people, and that they’re important people, and provides a small confirmation for the claims made about James as the brother of Jesus.”

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