The ossuary that was found with the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” on it has been declared a fake. But a tomb that has been known for centuries has now been identified as the burial place of Jesus’ brother James.

Megan Goldin writes that the tomb was assumed to be the traditional burial place of King David’s villainous son Absalom, who actually died 1,000 years before it was built, in the first century AD. But now an inscription has been found on the tomb that indicates it may belong to John the Baptist’s father Zacharias instead, and maybe even to James, the brother of Jesus. “It could be the most exciting discovery in absolutely decades,” says archeologist James Strange.

Early Christian writings refer to a tomb in Jerusalem where the bodies of Zacharias, James and Simeon, who is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, were buried. People used to throw stones at the tomb and, “The stones wore away the surface, especially the inscription,” says Joe Zias, who discovered the inscription. “It was no wonder people couldn’t read the thing.”

The Greek writing on the tomb is so faded from centuries of stone throwers that nobody noticed it until Zias saw the letter alpha in an old black and white photograph taken 30 years ago. Now the area has become the hangout of drug dealers and criminals, and a squatter is even living inside the burial chamber. But this didn’t scare off Zias, who sat in front of the tomb for months until just before sunset in the summer, when, due to the right combination of sun and shade, he could finally make out some of the letters in the inscription. This was the same time of year when the old photograph was taken.

Zias worked with Father Emile Puech, one of the world’s experts on ancient writings, to decipher the inscription. “I think the people were maybe bilingual. Maybe they thought in Aramaic and then translated it into Greek,” says Puech. He’s dated the inscription to 350 AD. It was once painted in large black letters that could be seen from across the valley and reads, “This is the funerary monument of Zacharias, the martyr, the very pious priest, father of John.” Puech believes it was carved by monks shortly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

While no one can be sure Zacharias is buried there, Strange says, “In the fourth century they had at least somebody to talk to who knew something.” Zias and Puech are now trying to decipher another inscription on the side of the tomb. The only word they can read so far is “Simeon,” who is also mentioned in Luke.

Zias now hopes to find an inscription linking James to the tomb, because according to tradition, Zacharias, Simeon and James were buried together. He says, “There is room for three people (in the tomb). There are three burial niches so it certainly fits.”

Many religions have secrets that only a few people know how to decipher.

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