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Author discusses ossuary's biblical significance

March 27, 2003

By Elvia Aguilar

Dr. Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Canada, spoke to a group at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary Wednesday to explain the history of ossuaries and the potential significance of the James Ossuary found about a year ago. In fall 2003, Baylor University Press will publish Evans' book Jesus and the Ossuaries.

On Oct. 21, the Bible Archeology Society announced the discovery of an ossuary believed to include the bones of James from the New Testament. The unusual box was found in the home of Odded Golan of Tel Aviv, Israel. Archeologists found that the ossuary dated back to the first century. Geologists then examined the limestone and verified that the carving of the inscription is also valid.

'The way they died tells us about the way they lived,' Evans said. 'I am glad this box was found because it opens our eyes to the importance of archeology.'

Ossuaries are part of the Jewish reburial tradition in which bones of the deceased are put into a box in hopes of resurrection. Archeologists have found about 900 cataloged ossuaries, in which 233 have included inscriptions. The James Ossuary contains an inscription that reads 'Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Yeshu'a' that can be translated to read 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.'

Golan told archeologists he purchased the ossuary from an antiquities dealer in the 1970s. He believes he paid about $200 for the box and vaguely remembers being told that it was found in an area of Jerusalem called Silwan.

Thousands of ossuaries were made by stonemasons that worked on rebuilding the temple during Herodian days, between 20 B.C. and 70 A.D. The stonemasons would make about two ossuaries a day for townspeople as a means for extra money.

The James Ossuary is about 22 inches in diameter and 15 inches wide. Two decorations called rosettes, which are common ossuary decorations, still can be seen. Geologists believe the inscription was not weathered because the box was faced down, and only the rosettes were damaged.

Golan has not been willing to part with the ossuary but did allow archeologists to display it at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

On the way to the museum it was broken into five pieces.

The pieces were expertly reassembled.

Archeologists believe the themes for inscriptions and epitaphs included phrases such as 'good luck in your resurrection' or 'this is the tomb of Rabbi Gamaliel,' so they were not surprised by the inscription in the James Ossuary.

Evans said there are many potential significances of the James Ossuary.

'This could prove that James and his family spoke Aramaic, which means that Jesus spoke Aramaic as well,' Evans said.

Evans added that it also shows that James, originally from Galilee, continued to live in or near Jerusalem, and that he probably died in or near Jerusalem.

Another significance, according to Evans, is that secondary burial according to Jewish burial custom implies that James, though a follower of Jesus and part of a movement that was beginning to drift away from its Jewish heritage, continued to live as a Jew, and so was buried a Jew.

Evans was asked to give a lecture on archeology and Jesus for a conference one month after the scientists publicized the James Ossuary discovery.

'I basically had one month to learn everything I could possibly learn about this ossuary because my presentation would not have been effective if I didn't know about it,' Evans said.

After the presentation, Evans decided to write a book about his findings.

Dr. Carey Newman, director of the BU Press, heard about Evan's plan to write a book and asked him about the possibility of having the BU Press publish it.

'It is a privilege to be publisher of Jesus and the Ossuaries, for in this book, Evans successfully weds the very best of scholarship to contemporary questions and a historic faith,' Newman said.

Jesus and the Ossuaries can be pre-ordered by contacting the BU Press at 710-3522.