The Supporting Cast

The discovery of James' bone box could shed light on Jesus' family--but may complicate the beliefs of some Christian groups.

BY: Laura Sheahen


What was Jesus' family like? The discovery of an ancient bone box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" could shed light on some of the gospel's most intriguing secondary characters. If the ossuary is genuine, it may also complicate the beliefs of certain Christian groups.


Despite her prominence in some Christian traditions, the gospels say relatively little about Jesus' mother. Luke 1:26 says Mary was a young girl or virgin (scholars debate the meaning of "parthenos," the Greek word used) when she conceived Jesus. However, both Luke and the first chapter of Matthew relate that Mary conceived Jesus "by the Holy Spirit." This is the basis for the traditional belief, shared by virtually all Christian denominations, in the virgin birth.

The common Protestant view is that after Jesus' birth, Mary and Joseph had natural children, who would have been Jesus' younger siblings. In Matthew 1:25, Jesus is called Mary's "firstborn son," an expression which many contend was used only if other children were born after the first one; otherwise, "only son" would have been used.

Several New Testament passages refer to Jesus' siblings. In Matthew 13:55-56, villagers are skeptical of Jesus' powers, saying: "Is not this the carpenter's son? ...Are not his brothers James and Joseph Simon and Judas? Are not his sisters with us?" The first-century Jewish historian Josephus also refers to James, the brother of Jesus.

However, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches teach that Mary remained a virgin all her life, even after the birth of Jesus. Catholics in particular have carefully scrutinized scriptural accounts that might imply Mary gave birth to additional children. The discovery, which adds strong evidence that Jesus had a brother, could spur debate among Catholic scholars. Historically, some Catholic scripture experts have contended that the Greek word "adelphos," used in the New Testament passages which describe Jesus' brothers, can mean a cousin or other relative, not necessarily a blood brother--and therefore, mentions of James did not contradict the belief that Mary remained a virgin.

Others, such as John Dominic Crossan, one of the leading scholars of the liberal Jesus Seminar, read the scripture differently. "In Mark's gospel, Jesus has brothers, four of them in fact. And two sisters," Crossan says. "And his father is Joseph and his mother is Mary....And the normal meaning for brother--well, you mean brother."

The Aramaic inscription on the ossuary of James uses the word "akhui" for brother. According to Protestant scholar Ben Witherington III, both the Aramaic word "akhui" and the Greek word "adelphos" usually refer to a blood brother. Both languages have other words for male cousins.

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