If, as seems probable, the ossuary found in the vicinity of Jerusalem and dated to about A.D. 63 is indeed the burial box of James the brother of Jesus, this inscription is the most important extrabiblical evidence of its kind. It would confirm that James existed, was someone important, and was the brother of another early Jew who was very important--Jesus.
Above: Artists' rendering of the ossuary inscription.
Could the inscription be a forgery?
The inscription in cursive Aramaic sets a limit on the period when it could have been written, and the careful checking of the characters suggests the inscription is from the appropriate time period, not a later forgery.
The inscription reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus", not "James, brother of Jesus, son of Joseph." We might have expected the latter if this was a forgery. Also, if we had the latter inscription it would raise some questions about Jesus' relationship with Joseph. As it is written, it simply tells us James' relationship to two of his close relatives--his father and his brother.
Could it be another Jesus and James? Weren't the names common?
What is unusual about the inscription is not the patronymic "son of Joseph," but the reference to James's brother. This alone suggests that the Jesus in question was someone well known and important, since it was not the usual practice to put one's brother's name on one's own ossuary.
[Biblical Archaeology Review on the frequency of the names: "The names James (Jacob), Joseph, and Jesus were all fairly common among Jews at the turn of the era. ...Rachel Hachlili has studied names used at this time in all types of inscriptions. Joseph appeared in 14 percent, Jesus in 9 percent, and James/Jacob in 2 percent of the cases. ...in Jerusalem during the two generations before 70 C.E., there were therefore about twenty people who could be called 'Jacob son of Joseph brother of Jesus.'" --Editor's note]
Do the Aramaic words for "brother" and "son" confirm that Jesus was a blood relation of both James and Joseph? Does the language leave room for the interpretation that they could have been half-brothers or stepsons?
The Aramaic word used on the ossuary, 'akhui,' certainly means brother. The order of the words in the inscription does not indicate that Jesus was the son of Joseph. The inscription intends to make clear the two closest male blood relatives of James. It is not commenting on Jesus' relationship with Joseph, but on James' relationship to Joseph and Jesus.
There is some evidence, for example in Tobit, that occasionally the word 'brother' might mean something other than full brother, but without any qualification in the inscription the presumption must be that James was related to Jesus in the same way he was related to Joseph.
On a related note, some scholars say the Greek word for "brother" used in the New Testament-- adelphos --can mean "relative." Adelphos is the word used in Matthew 13:54-5: "Is not this the carpenter's son? ...Are not his brothers James and Jospeh and Simon and Judas?"
The Greek word adelphos has pretty much the same specific meaning as the Aramaic term, though it can occasionally be used in a wider sense. But since there was both a Greek and Aramaic term for cousin or a more distant kin, there is no good reason why such a term could not have been used in the Aramaic inscription on James' ossuary.
What are some important New Testament references to 'James the brother of Jesus'?
Our earliest references to James are in Galatians 1 ("But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother" and in 1 Corinthians 15 ("After that, [Jesus] was seen of James; then of all the apostles"). Both make clear he is the brother of Jesus.
How does he fit in with other biblical 'Jameses'?
This James was not one of the twelve apostles. New Testament references distinguish between "James, the brother of the Lord," "James, the son of Zebedee," and "James, the son of Alpheus." The latter two were of the Twelve.
James "the brother of Jesus" was the head of the Jerusalem church, as is very clear from Acts, especially Acts 15 and 21. Galatians 1-2 also confirm this to have been the case. Paul considers him one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem church (the others being Peter and John).
Is this the James credited with writing the book of James?
Indeed, James the brother of Jesus is credited with the biblical book of James. It's interesting how many of the sayings in that book echo the teaching of Jesus and are in the same aphoristic form.
James did become a believer. In the 1 Corinthians passage, Paul confirms that the risen Jesus appeared to him. After that we find him in Acts 1.14 and afterwards as a leader in the Jerusalem church.
Does the rest of James' life--and death--match up with the ossuary evidence?
Acts 21 informs us that Paul met with James in Jerusalem on his last journey to Jerusalem. This dates to the time when Festus and Felix were the proconsuls in Judea. This places this event to the period A.D. 58-60, probably the earlier end of that period. This confirms that James was still alive at that time, and since Paul and Luke left Jerusalem in A.D. 60, it is probably significant that Luke does not mention the death of James. This is because it did not occur when he was there, and he apparently did not know about it after they went to Rome and Luke wrote Acts.
The Jewish historian Josephus suggests that James lived and died in Jerusalem, and now we know he was buried there as well, not in his home region of Galilee. Josephus also says that James died around A.D. 62, which fits the evidence of the ossuary.
What else does the ossuary tell us?
1) The language of the Holy family and the earliest Jewish Christians in Jerusalem was, as we have long thought, Aramaic, not Hebrew or Greek.
2) This burial, if it took place around A.D. 63, suggests that the Jewish Christians had not yet fled the city, though the Jewish War with Rome was already percolating.
3) I conjecture that the reason the bone box contained no bones when found is because the Jewish Christians who fled to Pella (according to church tradition) probably took the bones with them, so James's remains would not be desecrated by the Romans. The bone box was probably too heavy to flee with, especially if the city was left in haste.
4) The bone box is not ornate, and does not suggest that a well-to-do person was buried in this ossuary. It is far less ornate, for example, than the ossuary of Caiphas.