Copyright © 2002 Terry Joseph
Thinking outside the box
By Terry Joseph
November 02, 2002
Among the significant items that last week competed with sensational revelations for media space was the discovery of a burial box said to once contain bones of James, identified as the younger brother of Jesus Christ.
Even as an opening bid, that admission makes St Jude, self-described brother of James, another sibling of Jesus; broadening Christianity's first-family configuration in a way not often contemplated by the faithful.
Brought up to believe Jesus was an only child, a theory strengthened by emphasis on The Virgin Mary's immaculate conception, any query about his family tree not extinguished by sheer finality of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost dogma, invited accusations of blasphemy or worse, suspicion of demonic possession.
Assuming authenticity of the inscribed burial box (and this issue will be revisited), we need to appreciate James-stoned to death in 63AD-for providing this new plateau of proof about a more fleshy Jesus than previously advertised.
Let us also note his magnanimity. After all, even back then it must have been predictable that Jesus would be forever popular. Jimmy's other sibling, St Jude, also enjoys a continuing presence, as evidenced by ads in the press "thanking him for favours granted", as if all patron saints take out newspaper subscriptions.
Of the three, it was therefore James (with only a five-chapter epistle in Bible credits) who most urgently needed history's imprimatur. Yet, it took nearly 2,000 years for us to discover his roots.
Let's face it: being the younger brother of Jesus Christ has its drawbacks. If we are to believe contemporary criminal psychologists, but for the Grace of God, sibling pressure could have resulted in Jimmy's name being better remembered as a housebreaking implement than founder of the Christian Church.
Their age difference is not clear but we may cautiously assume a long concurrent period before the crucifixion of Jesus in 33AD, during which James undoubtedly lived another variation of personal hell; particularly when his elder brother disappeared from biblical reference for more than a decade.
For years he was referred to as "Just James", a noble sobriquet but one clearly screaming for revision, unless the bearer planned a career in espionage. And even where he stumbled upon conspirators in some hidden alcove of a labyrinthine temple, the sentry would likely reassure the plotters, saying: "Think nothing of him... It's just James."
If only for entertainment purposes, close friends must have pestered James to perform minor marvels during the long absence of Jesus, albeit conceding diminished responsibility in a younger brother of the official miracle man.
Picture this: James in Canaan at a wedding of depleted bar stock. Stories quickly circulate about how Jesus solved a similar problem at recent nuptials in the same village. Thirsty guests remonstrate, saying: "Thou art not the younger brother of The Lord, or mercifully, ye would have brought us some relief. Thou art just James"; strong emphasis being placed on the penultimate word.
Moneychangers at the temple would defiantly ply their prohibited trade on the Sabbath if "just" James happened by. Relatives of Lazarus would need him for nothing more than information on the whereabouts of his elder brother.
It is therefore to the credit of astute undertakers that they remembered his real name at all, since he must have been introduced as "Jesus li'l brother" more often than not. It is probably the origin of the saying: "O ye of ‘little' fate", spin-doctors later reworking its phonetics into a Christian castigation.
Renaming him "James the Just" in the latter day was therefore a marketing masterstroke, one later vindicated by his role in founding the church.
So after a lifetime in the shadow of Jesus' halo, James and Christians of the day must be commended for highlighting on the box's Aramaic epitaph: "Ya 'akov bar Yosef akhui deYeshua" (James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus).
But that brings us back to the question of provenience.
For openers, the burial box has long been in the possession of an unidentified antiquities dealer who, by way of establishing its authenticity, offers nothing but his word that it was looted from an archaeological site in Jerusalem near The Mount of Olives.
Now, although a custom of Jews in that era, early Christians were not known to practise the burial box ritual. Of equal importance is the fact that the names Joseph, Jesus and James were as common then as is Mohammed in today's telephone directories.
Consequently, the box may be genuine, but not necessarily that of James the Just. The dealer's story is however corroborated by findings of French paleographer Andre Lemaire who, in the current issue of Biblical Archeology Review, confirms the inscription uses a form of Aramaic writing peculiar to the latter half of the first century.
Israeli investigators also agree the box is made of limestone from the Jerusalem area and the patina developed on its surface compatible with something stored over that period in a cave environment.
The Discovery Channel plans a documentary on the full range of testing, a two-hour piece to be aired next March but the debate may achieve closure well before that time. Negotiations are under way to exhibit the box at the American Academy of Religion meeting, which takes place later this month in Toronto, Canada.
But in the absence of definitive denial, or at least while the debate continues, we must rely on the dealer's word, a disclosure that implies centuries of religious instruction may have been flawed -if not manipulated.
Ironically, our most reliable information on the subject comes to us from a source whose integrity is no more sacred than that of any self-confessed looter.
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