Finding Jesus: The Remarkable Story of the James Ossuary

Posted on March 16, 2015

Our book, which takes six venerated objects connected to Jesus and looks at them through the lenses of theology, history, and science, really began more than a decade ago, in the chilly January of 2003, when we went to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto to film the “James Ossuary” for our first CNN Presents documentary, “The Mystery of Jesus”.

Everyone wanted a piece of the “James Ossuary” because it had such a compelling tale; one that fills a chapter of Finding Jesus, with its many twists and turns and a cast of colorful characters. At the time, however, the relic seemed much more straightforward, the most stunning Jesus artifact the world had yet seen. Its inscription, in Aramaic, declared that the bones once contained within this 1st century CE Jewish burial box were those of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If true, it would be the first physical evidence from the time of Jesus that was directly connected to the man from Galilee. Jesus of Nazareth is mentioned in the Gospels and the New Testament writings, but nothing else that we knew of recorded his existence.

The James Ossuary on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. Image is in the public domain via

The James Ossuary on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. Image is in the public domain via

No wonder crowds lined the cold streets of Toronto to catch a glimpse of blockbuster religious history.
But was it genuine? The curators at ROM certainly thought so. After all, they had to put the “James Ossuary” back together when it arrived in Toronto packaged so casually – as if a piece of desert rock rather than a 2,000 year old potentially priceless artifact – that it had broken apart while in transit.

Ed Keall, the senior curator at ROM, told us that the broken ossuary was really a gift, for it allowed him and his team to look inside the fractured limestone box, and to study its archaeological provenance. The limestone was of the type found around ancient Jerusalem, where ossuaries were used well into the 2nd century CE, due to limited burial space. The dead person would desiccate in a stone tomb, and then their bones would be buried in this box, about the same size as a toilet cistern.

What made this burial box capture the imagination of the world was its Aramaic inscription, the one declaring that the bones within were related to Jesus, who, for the world’s nearly two billion Christians, is the Son of God.
Aramaic was the street lingo of Jesus’ time, a remnant of the Jews’ captivity in Bablyon for most of the 6th century BCE. The Aramaic writing on the “James Ossuary,” however, was inscribed by two different hands. The phrase that raised suspicions was “with brother of Jesus.” Scholarly skeptics said this scribal discrepancy was evidence of fraud. Other experts said, no, it was simply evidence of shift work, of one scribe beginning the job and another finishing it – days, or maybe even years later, when James’s brother’s fame had spread throughout the Roman Empire. Or, said the skeptics, it was done centuries later, by Byzantine monks committing divine fraud – a fake for the salvation of souls.

Ed Keall, however, a man who had looked directly into the fissures of history, judged the “James Ossuary” genuine. To him and to many scholars, the ancient bone box was the real deal.

For us, the debate only deepened the mystery surrounding Jesus, and our film’s mission was to find out as much as we could about what we truly knew about this humble rabbi from Nazareth, who was only out to reform his own Jewish faith, and not begin a brand new religion. Indeed, he didn’t become a brand at all until centuries after he had died, when the cross on which he was executed became a symbol of his divinity (and we explore that story in Finding Jesus in our chapter on the “True Cross.”).

As we were finishing “The Mystery of Jesus” we learned that the Israeli Antiquities Authority had seized the ossuary, and arrested its owner, Oded Golan, whom they would later put on long and complex trial for forgery.
But the larger issue raised by the “James Ossuary” was the one we encountered in 2003, and have pursued ever since: just what did the most famous man in history leave for us to discover? And could we ever really know for certain?
Perhaps we could not, but our method has been to try to discover the most convincing evidence, one way or another, connected to relics and artifacts. And then, by presenting that evidence, to let our audience – be they viewing or reading or listening to our work – decide whether or not we have succeeded.

The “James Ossuary” was in its way a gift to us as well, for if it had not been such a spectacular – and such a disputed – artifact, then it and the entire world of biblical archaeology might have not been so fascinating. But we went down that biblical archaeology rabbit hole, if you will, thanks to the “James Ossuary”. It has led us to some surprising and compelling places, which we share with you in Finding Jesus.

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