JERUSALEM – Israel's Antiquities Authority began studying an ancient stone box on Wednesday to determine whether it was used to bury a man who some Christians believe was Jesus' brother. If authenticated, the box could be the oldest archaeological link to the biblical figures.
The box arrived in Israel on Wednesday from Toronto, where it had been on display at the Royal Ontario Museum.
The Antiquities Authority set up two commissions of archaeologists, geologists and language experts to study the box, which bears the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," and which Israeli and French scholars believe dates to between A.D. 50-70.
The words were engraved on the burial box, or ossuary, which was the form of Jewish burial until about A.D. 70. The New Testament identifies James as Jesus' "brother" and the leader of Jerusalem's early Christians, although different faiths vary on how closely the two were related.
It was unclear where the box was found. Its Israeli owner, Oded Golan has said he doesn't remember the name of the antiquities dealer he bought it from for $200 in the 1970s in Jerusalem's Old City. Golan showed the ossuary to a French scholar, Andre Lemaire, who revealed the finding in November in the Biblical Archaeological Review magazine.
Since then, experts have raised the possibility the inscription did not refer to Jesus of Nazareth or that the phrase about Jesus might have been forged. Israel's Geological Survey found that the patina on the stone indicates the letters were engraved in ancient times and were not tampered with.
The mention of a brother on ossuaries was very rare and could indicate this particular find was very important, Lemaire believes.
Protestants traditionally read the New Testament as meaning Mary gave birth to Jesus as a virgin and then had James, three other sons and at least two daughters with Joseph.
In accord with church fathers' writings after the New Testament era, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics teach of Mary's "perpetual virginity," which means she and Joseph never had marital relations.
The Orthodox think Joseph had James by his first wife, and after she died he married Mary -- whose only child was the virgin-born Jesus. Thus, James was Jesus' half brother.
Catholics commonly hold that James was merely Jesus' close relative, perhaps the son of Joseph's brother Clopas or a cousin on Mary's side.
Meanwhile, Israel's Antiquities Authority also is trying to obtain an ancient stone tablet detailing repairs to be made to the Jewish Temple of King Solomon that could be an extremely rare confirmation of biblical narrative. The existence of the tablet was disclosed in January.
The unnamed owner of the tablet had given it briefly to the Geological Survey, which dated it back to the 9th century B.C. and said it could have actually been a part of Solomon's Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The owner of the artifact has since taken it from the institute and police are investigating its whereabouts.