An inscription in the Aramaic language--"James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"--appears on an empty ossuary, a limestone burial box for bones.
Andre Lemaire said it's "very probable" the writing refers to Jesus of Nazareth. He dates the ossuary to A.D. 63, just three decades after the crucifixion.
Above: Artists' rendering of the ossuary inscription.
Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions at France's Practical School of Higher Studies, published his findings in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
The Rev. Joseph Fitzmyer, a Bible professor at Catholic University who studied photos of the box, agrees with Lemaire that the writing style ``fits perfectly'' with other first century examples. The joint appearance of these three famous names is ``striking,'' he said.
``But the big problem is, you have to show me the Jesus in this text is Jesus of Nazareth, and nobody can show that,'' Fitzmyer said.
Lemaire writes that the distinct writing style, and the fact that Jews practiced ossuary burials only between 20 B.C. and A.D. 70, puts the inscription squarely in the time of Jesus and James, who led the early church in Jerusalem.
All three names were commonplace, but Lemaire estimates only 20 Jameses in Jerusalem during that era would have had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus.
Moreover, naming the brother as well as the father on an ossuary was ``very unusual,'' Lemaire wrote. There's only one other known example in Aramaic. Thus, this particular Jesus must have had some unusual role or fame - and Jesus of Nazareth certainly qualified, Lemaire concluded.
However, Kyle McCarter, a Johns Hopkins University archaeologist, said it's possible the brother was named because he conducted the burial or owned the tomb.
The archaeology magazine said two Israeli government scientists conducted a detailed microscopic examination of the surface and the inscription, reporting last month that nothing undercuts first century authenticity.
Lemaire's claim was attacked by Robert Eisenman of California State University, Long Beach, who unlike most scholars thinks that ``Jesus' existence is a very shaky thing.'' Since Eisenman is highly skeptical about New Testament history, he considers the new discovery ``just too pat. It's just too perfect.''
Virtually all that is known about Jesus comes from the New Testament. No physical artifact from the first century related to him has been discovered and verified.
James is depicted as Jesus' brother in the Gospels and head of the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts and Paul's epistles.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus recorded that ``the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James by name,'' was stoned to death as a Jewish heretic in A.D. 62. If his bones were placed in an ossuary the inscription would have occurred the following year, around A.D. 63.
There are numerous surviving manuscripts of New Testament portions from later in that century. Jesus was mentioned by three pagan authors in Rome in the early second century and by Josephus in the late first century.
The ossuary's owner required Lemaire to shield his identity, so the box's location was not revealed. Nor is anything known about its history over the past 19 centuries, one reason for McCarter's caution.
Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks said skepticism is to be expected. ``Something so startling, so earth-shattering, raises questions about its authenticity,'' he said.
Shanks said the owner bought the box about 15 years ago from an Arab antiquities dealer in Jerusalem who said it was unearthed south of the Mount of Olives. The owner never realized its potential importance until Lemaire examined it last spring.
Lemaire, who was raised Roman Catholic, said his faith did not affect his judgment, since he studies inscriptions only ``as a historian - that is, comparing them critically with other sources.''
The archaeology magazine is negotiating to display the box in Toronto during a major convention of religion scholars in late November, and possibly in the United States.