James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus

In October, 2002, an extraordinary stone box was announced to the world. It’s a small bone-box, less than two feet long, but it bears the remarkable inscription in Aramaic: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

If you’re like most people, the first thing you asked when you heard the news was: James, Brother of Jesus? You mean . . . that Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, the son of Mary and Joseph? The Jesus who had a brother named James?

Good question. Nobody knows for sure, but the answer might possibly be “Yes, that Jesus”.

Analysis of the Inscription

The Inscription: In Aramaic, the inscription reads “Yaakov bar Yoseph akhui d’Yeshua.” Aramaic was the language of first century Jerusalem. “Yaakov” means “James” and “bar” means “son.” “Yoseph” is obviously “Joseph” and “akhui” is a rather unusual but legitimate spelling for “brother.” Of course “Yeshua” is “Jesus.” And the “d” in front of Yeshua is an Aramaic prepositional form indicating “belonging to.”

Stone bone-boxes (“ossuaries”) of this type were used from about 20 B.C. to A.D. 70. The box is made of limestone of exactly the type that was quarried in first-century Jerusalem for many purposes. And the style of the letters on the box are typical of those used in the first-century in Jerusalem.

The bone box is about 20 inches long, 12 inches high, and 10 inches deep — big enough to hold the bones after the flesh decayed away. In first-century Judea, it was customary to leave the body in a burial cave for about a year, and then “gather the bones”, putting them into an ossuary of exactly this type. The box has a patina typical of 2000 year old limestone. “James,” “Joseph,” and “Jesus” were all common names of first century Judea and the spellings used are each typical of this period. The letters used are also typical of the first century. Thousands of such ossuaries from the first century have been discovered over the years. An ossuary that probably held the bones of the high priest Caiaphas was discovered in Jerusalem in the 1990s. Generally, ossuaries bore the formula “XXX son of YYY.” One other ossuary has been found that uses the formula “XXX son of YYY brother of ZZZ” but that’s an unusual form for the inscription.

The scholar Andre Lemaire, who published the announcement of the ossuary, calculates that there were perhaps 20 men in this era who would have been named James, had a father named Joseph, and had a brother named Jesus. This is a reasonable calculation based on reasonable assumptions. But there is no way to prove with certainty that this ossuary belonged to James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

However the appended name “brother of Jesus” does scream for explanation. Two suggestions have been put forward:

  • Maybe the brother, Jesus, paid for the funeral of James.
  • Maybe the brother, Jesus, was an unusually famous person.

Well, there’s no arguing that Jesus of Nazareth was a pretty famous guy in the first century. Based on this, a few scholars have argued that the odds are good that this box once held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.

A book on the James ossuary came out in March, 2003, making this case. The title is The Brother of Jesus. The authors were Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, and Dr. Ben Witherington III, a well-known scholar who’s an expert on the historical Jesus.

However, note that in the summer of 2003, after months of studying the issue, the Israel Antiquities Authority pronounced the bone box a forgery and arrested an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem and the owner of the box, on suspicion of creating a fake. The forgery trial dragged on for years and finally finished in March of 2012 with a verdict of not guilty.

Remember that “not guilty” does not mean the box is not a forgery. It means that the prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Many scholars think it’s a forgery, and most have at least serious doubts that the ossuary belonged to the brother of Jesus.

Whether the bone-box is authentic or not, there is no doubt that the man referred to by the box was real. Which leads us to our next topic . . .

About James the Brother of Jesus

Who was this man James? We know about him from a number of different sources — the gospels, the letters of Paul, the book of Acts, the book of James, and the works of Josephus. Not to mention some second-century sources of rather more dubious value.

The gospels tell us that Jesus had four brothers, “James, Joses, Simon, and Judas.” (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) These are the English versions of four very common Hebrew names — Yaakov, Yosi, Shimon, and Yehudah. Likewise, Jesus is the English form of a very common Hebrew name — Yeshua. Apparently, Mary and Joseph didn’t have a very big book of baby names.

We know that none of the brothers of Jesus became a follower of his before he died. According to Paul, after the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter, the Twelve, some 500 others, and to James. (1 Corinthians 15:7) Only then did James become a follower of Jesus. It seems clear that he rapidly rose to become a leader in the growing Jesus Movement, but there was never any question of him replacing Jesus, of becoming an alternative messiah.

Instead, James spent the rest of his life telling people that his dead brother was the messiah, the conquering hero who would overthrow the order of things and sit on David’s throne. We can’t know for sure what the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus were like. But it seems clear that whatever James saw was convincing to him.

The apostle Paul tells us in the book of Galatians about his return to Jerusalem, three years after his own extraordinary experience with the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. He met with Peter and with “James, the Lord’s brother.” (Gal. 1:19) Fourteen years after the experience, he went to Jerusalem again, meeting with “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars.” (Gal. 2:9) The order here is significant. James is now, and will be for the rest of his life, the head of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. Later, Peter came to Antioch to meet with Paul and some of the believers, including Gentiles. But when “certain men came from James” (Gal. 2:12), Peter backed off on his friendliness with Gentiles, and Paul had to confront him.

The book of Acts mentions James on a number of occasions. When Peter escaped from prison in the early 40s, (Acts 12) he told his comrades to notify James that he was leaving the city. At the Jerusalem Council in about A.D. 50, (Acts 15) it was James (not Peter or Paul, although both were at the council) who made the final decision on how Gentiles would be treated within the movement. A few years later, about the year A.D. 57, (Acts 21) it was James who confronted Paul about certain rumors of Paul’s behavior in the Diaspora.

The book of James, according to church tradition, was authored by this James. There is plenty of room to  question this tradition, because the book of James is written in Greek in the classical style of a Cynic-Stoic diatribe. Would a Galilean from a poor family have written in this sort of Hellenized rhetorical style? It doesn’t seem likely. Some scholars have suggested that the book was originally written in Aramaic and then rendered into Greek by someone else, possibly years later. Whatever the case, the argument of the book seems very thoroughly Jewish and very much in line with the outrage with which a prophetic Jew of Jerusalem would have spoken shortly before the Jewish revolt. I can see no reason to believe that it could not have originated as an Aramaic sermon of James. But there’s no way to prove it did, either.

The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that James, the brother of Jesus, was tried and executed about the year A.D. 62 in Jerusalem. You can read all about it if you have a copy of Josephus. It’s in Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chapter IX, Section 1. If you have the common orange-striped copy of Josephus translated by William Whiston, look on page 423, the right column. If you don’t have a copy handy, I’ll quote it for you. Since Josephus can be a mite tricky to understand, I’ll insert my own explanatory comments in red text and parentheses directly in the text. William Whiston has his own notes in square brackets. This episode is dated to approximately A.D. 62:

And now Caesar (that is, Nero), upon hearing of the death of Festus (that is, governor Porcius Festus, who served from about A.D. 59 to 62 and died in office), sent Albinus into Judea as procurator (that is, the new governor Lucceius Albinus, who was hastily appointed by Nero and dispatched to Judea as soon as news of the death of Festus reached Rome); but the king (that is, king Agrippa II, who had the right to appoint and depose high priests at will) deprived Joseph of the high priesthood (that is, Joseph Kabi, who was high priest for a short time, roughly A.D. 61-62), and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus (this “Ananus” is identical to the “Annas” of the New Testament. Both spellings are Greek transliterations of the Hebrew name “Hanan”). Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests; but this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who were very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority.] Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or some of his companions;] and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned; (note that this death sentence on James, the brother of Jesus, was illegal, since only the Roman governor had the right to pass a death sentence) but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, (Josephus probably means the Pharisees here) they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa,] desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified: nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria (Albinus was probably already a Roman official in Egypt when he received his appointment to the governorship of Judea), and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent: whereupon Albinus complied with what they had said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. (Note that “Jesus” was a very common name, held by two high priests of this time period, not to mention the man Josephus refers to as “Jesus, who was called Christ.”)

Josephus was a Jewish aristocrat, about 25 years old at this time, and living in Jerusalem, so he was very well-informed of the events. Josephus was a family friend of another high priest of the era, “Jesus, son of Gamaliel,” who was a protege of the “Ananus son of Ananus” who did the dirty deed. So the incident recorded above is probably very close to the truth.

And what was the charge against this man James and his comrades? It’s not clear. Josephus says merely that Ananus accused James and his men of being “breakers of the law”. This is pretty broad. Apparently, they didn’t observe the Torah in the same way Ananus did. Of course, neither did the Pharisees; the Talmud tells of many disputes between the Sadducees and their upstart opponents, the Pharisees. So it is very plausible that the Pharisees were the folks who got up in arms after the murder of James. James was quite friendly with Pharisees, and many of the followers of Jesus during this time period were Pharisees. This is clear from several references in the book of Acts. So the general charge was “law-breaking.”

In my opinion, the specific charge was that James was a “messianic” — he preached that his brother Jesus was the messiah. Note that “Christ” is Greek for “messiah,” and James is identified as the brother of “Jesus, who was called Christ”. Virtually all the Pharisees of this period were messianic — they were looking for a messiah, a deliverer from Rome. Even though most of them did not agree that Jesus of Nazareth was precisely the looked-for messiah, they did at least agree that a messiah was needed. Whereas the Sadducees did not agree with this notion. They were perfectly happy to let Rome rule them in peace, so long as they could keep running the Temple in accord with their own traditions. For the Sadducees, preaching a messiah was a political statement, and it met with a political response — death by stoning, the traditional Jewish method of execution.

A further note: Ananus came from a family with a long tradition of pursuing the followers of Jesus. His father, Ananus the Elder, had once served as high priest years earlier and was the power behind the throne in the gospel stories of the trial of Jesus. Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Ananus the Elder, and he was high priest when Jesus was executed. Another son of Ananus, Jonathan, is the “John” mentioned in Acts 4:6, who was present at the trial of the apostles Peter and John. This Jonathan son of Ananus was in fact the captain of the Temple, the officer in charge of Temple security, and he became high priest a few years later. Another member of the clan, Matthias son of Ananus, was high priest in the early 40s when James the son of Zebedee was beheaded by king Agrippa I. In view of all this, it looks very much like there was a family vendetta against the followers of Jesus which culminated with Ananus the Younger executing James, brother of Jesus.

More About James

There are some legends recorded about James in second century documents, in which his trial and execution are told in almost operatic form. Eusebius, one of the early church fathers, records the story as told by Hegesippus, a second-century Christian writer. I have to doubt the authenticity of this tale. It makes James out to be a man who freely wandered into the innermost sanctuary of the Temple. Since James was not a priest, this is simply impossible — he would have been prevented by the Temple guards. One point that I do believe accurate, however, is the nickname given to James. It is usually rendered “James the Just” or “James the Righteous.” Both of these are defective renderings, though. One has only to translate them back into Hebrew to see what James was actually called: “Yaakov HaTsaddik.” Tsaddik is a term meaning “righteous one,” but it signifies a rare and charismatic Jewish holy man. The term is used to this day in Hasidic circles. All sorts of legendary and miraculous powers are attributed to such men. And who knows? Maybe some of these legends are true.

“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is a fascinating historical person, and he is a central character in my novel Premonition, which was published in 2003. When I started the book, I didn’t know they were going to find the ossuary. I was just looking to write an interesting sequel to my novel Transgression.

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