A carving on a newly found artifact refers to Jesus, James, and Joseph. But is it authentic?
A newly discovered ancient limestone box with a flowing Aramaic inscription could include the earliest mention of Jesus outside the Bible and may turn out to be the most-dazzling archaeological discovery in decades.
The rough-hewn object about the size of a big toolbox appears to be a "bone box" used in 1st century burial rituals in Jerusalem. Letters etched into its side read, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
Whether it's truly from about A.D. 63 and whether it really refers to three of history's most famous family members is likely to be widely debated. But if so, it would be the first extraBiblical mention of Jesus or his relatives created shortly after their lifetimes.
If authentic, "it's high on the list probably No. 1" of the most important Jesus related artifacts, says John Dominic Crossan, cauthor of "Excavating Jesus." It is "the closest we come archeologically to Jesus."
Other than this box, a papyrus scrap from 100 years after the crucifixion is the earliest mention of Jesus outside the Bible.
While potentially rife with import for archeology, the bone box won't necessarily transform mainstream views of Jesus: Religious tradition has long connected him to James and Joseph. And for many Christians, archaeological finds don't create epiphanies of faith.
Ultimately, the box's biggest impact may be to stoke interest in James and his relationship to Jesus and to remind millions that Jesus is more than the abstract icon so often pictured high above a pulpit. "Sometimes Jesus just drifts off into the clouds," says Dr. Crossan. But "we're not just dealing with mythical characters who are being theologically assessed. These were real people in real situations."
Indeed, bone boxes or ossuaries were used between the 1st century BC and AD 70.