by Doug Ward

APRIL 2008-Ossuaries, the limestone boxes in which first-century Jews placed the bones of loved ones a year after their deaths and initial burials, have already made headlines twice in the twenty-first century:

In 2002, it was discovered that an antiquities collector in Tel Aviv possessed an ossuary from the first century A.D. bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." All three of these names were fairly common in the late Second Temple period, but a reference to someone's brother in an ossuary inscription was much less common, implying perhaps that the brother named Jesus was someone well known. This suggests the intriguing possibility that the brother named Jesus was Jesus of Nazareth, making the James of the ossuary James the Just, leader of the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and author of the New Testament epistle of James.1

In 2007, a documentary called "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" claimed that with high probability, a tomb discovered in 1980 in East Talpiot (near Jerusalem) was the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. This documentary further asserted that the ten ossuaries found in the tomb included the "James ossuary" mentioned above as well as ossuaries for Jesus and his parents, wife and son.2

Furor over the "Jesus tomb theory" turned out to be short lived. As soon as the documentary aired in March 2007, experts pointed out a number of crucial errors in its arguments, exposing it as a series of far-fetched speculations. In early 2008, the theory was examined at a scholarly symposium on the topic at Princeton and again found wanting.


Meanwhile, controversy over the James ossuary continues. The Israeli Antiquities Authority, hoping to discourage the trade in antiquities, is prosecuting the ossuary's owner, charging that this man forged the "brother of Jesus" portion of its inscription. At the same time, a number of experts vouch for the authenticity of the entire inscription.


It is interesting to follow the latest developments in these widely reported stories.3 However, much more important than speculations about the James ossuary or East Talpiot Tomb are the valuable things that ossuaries-and ancient Jewish burial practices in general-can teach us about the Gospels. That is the message of Jesus and the Ossuaries (Baylor University Press, 2003), a fascinating book by prominent New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans. Evans, the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, presented some highlights from his book on March 29, 2008, in a lecture at Miami University.


Insights from Burial Customs

Prof. Evans began his lecture by explaining that in Jesus' time, bodies were washed, wrapped, and scented for their initial entombment on the day of death.4 The formal period of mourning lasted for seven days, a practice with ancient roots (Gen 50:10; 1 Sam 31:13). Then a year later, after the decay of the body was complete, the bones of the deceased were gathered and placed in an ossuary.


The practice of ossilegium or "secondary burial" also has ancient roots and seems to have been practiced in a number of Middle Eastern cultures.5 One biblical example is the reburial of the bones of Saul and Jonathan by King David (2 Sam 21:12-14). Ossilegium became especially popular in Israel during the late Second Temple period, probably as a consequence of Herod the Great's ambitious building program, which provided an abundance of both limestone and people who were skilled in working with it.


Evans pointed out that knowledge of the burial customs of Jesus' time can enhance our understanding of certain New Testament passages.  One example is Matt 8:21-22, where a disciple of Jesus suggests temporarily leaving his Teacher to attend to his father's burial.  Jesus tells the disciple, ``Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.''  Traditionally the phrase ``the dead'' in this passage is interpreted as a reference to the ``spiritually dead.''  But this saying becomes much clearer if secondary burial is in view.  In that case, ``the dead'' are other corpses in the family tomb.  Jesus is telling the disciple that he cannot wait for the remainder of a year to pass, even though the secondary burial of one's parents was a very important responsibility in that culture, being viewed as a primary way to carry out the commandment to honor one's parents.  The kingdom of God was at hand, and following the Messiah was the most urgent priority.


A second example is the account of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11, in which it is mentioned twice that Lazarus has been dead for four days by the time that Jesus arrives (vv. 17, 39). The significance of this detail might be explained by a tradition that the soul of a dead person stays near the body for three days, until the corpse bursts and becomes unrecognizable. In reference to this tradition, Evans cited a passage from the midrashic literature: "For three days the soul hovers over the body, intending to re-enter it, but as soon as it sees its appearance change, it departs"(Leviticus Rabbah 18.1). In light of this tradition, the resurrection of Lazarus four days after his death would have been seen as especially remarkable.


A third example concerns the rumor spread after the resurrection of Jesus that his disciples had stolen his body (Matt. 28:11-15). To put this rumor in context, it is helpful to understand that grave robbery was highly frowned upon at that time. (As evidence of this, a marble slab from northern Israel found in 1878 is inscribed with an edict from Caesar threatening tomb raiders with "capital punishment.") It could be argued, as scholar Bruce Metzger has done, that the frightened disciples would not likely have risked the possible consequences of stealing Jesus' body from its resting place.


A Rich Source of Data

Ossuaries provide archaeologists with a great deal of background information on life in first-century Israel. The bones found in ossuaries indicate that rates of infant mortality and disease were very high in that era, even among the upper classes of society that possessed family tombs. On the basis of this data, it has been estimated that up to one fourth of the population were in need of medical help at any given time. It is no wonder, then, that Jesus was in such demand as a healer (see e.g. Mark 4:1).


Evans noted that about a fourth of the ossuaries carried inscriptions, and these inscriptions contain much information supporting the authenticity of New Testament narratives. In particular, the inscriptions give us a data base of names, indicating that the names we see most often in the Gospels-e.g., Mary, Simon, Judas-were among the names that were indeed most popular in that era. Some inscriptions mention the title "rabbi", showing that the use of this title in the Gospels is not anachronistic. Some inscriptions mention Nazirite vows, showing that the book of Acts is realistic in portraying such vows as popular in the first century (Acts 18:18; 21:23). One ossuary carries the inscription, "Everything that a man will find to his profit in this ossuary [is] an offering to God from the one within it." This inscription attests to the "qorban" tradition mentioned in Mark 7:9-13.


One important ossuary, dating from the 20s A.D., contained the bones of a man in his twenties who had been crucified. This ossuary gives evidence of a formal burial carried out after a crucifixion conducted under Pontius Pilate. In those days criminals could not be buried initially in family tombs, but their bones could be moved to family tombs a year later, as was apparently the case here.


At the end of his lecture, Evans gave updates on the "Jesus Tomb" controversy and the James ossuary. After summarizing the errors in the Jesus Tomb documentary and book, he reported that the Discovery Channel was quite dismayed to learn about the deceptive way in which interview footage was pieced together for the documentary, sometimes making interviewees appear to say the opposite of what they intended. As a result, the network has produced a half-hour show correcting the misleading assertions of the original one.


With regard to the James ossuary, he reminded the audience that there is no way to tell whether the "Jesus" in the inscription is actually Jesus of Nazareth. But if in fact this was the ossuary of James the Just, then we learn from it that (1) James and his family spoke Aramaic; (2) James lived and died near Jerusalem; (3) James at the time of his death was still identified as a Jew who lived a Jewish lifestyle.


Evans concludes his book with the observation that the study of ossuaries does not prove much but teaches us a great deal. Both the book and his lecture at Miami give ample testimony to the wealth of information we can gain from the ossuaries.


1See the book The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and his Family by Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).


2These claims are detailed in the book that accompanied the documentary, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).


3One can stay abreast of these controversies by checking the website of the Biblical Archaeology Society, for example.


4In the Gospels, we read about bodies being wrapped in the cases of Lazarus (John 11:44) and Jesus (Matt 27:59).


5See Jesus and the Ossuaries, pp. 27-28.

Issue 24


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