The 'James son of Joseph' Ossuary

By Prof. Amos Kloner and Ronny Reich
May 2003


Discussion of the ossuary will focus on details of its sides:

1. Decorated long side.
2. Left narrow side with slot for lid.
3. Right narrow side.
4. Back side with inscription.

This ossuary closes by means of a flat lid, a method known as a pencil-box closure. A narrow groove to receive the lid was carved along the upper part of the inside rim along both long sides, and, less visibly along one narrow side, resulting in a straight, narrow ledge in the shape of the Hebrew letter het (ח).

Straight lines, parallel to the outer edge, were carved on all four sides with a fine scribe. On the left narrow side (2) such lines appear along three sides: on the right, left and bottom. On the front of this side (2) and to a lesser degree on the other narrow side (3) are thin etched lines which are not identifiable as a specific pattern.

It appears that the box was painted red on the outside, possibly with organic based color.

On the long decorated side (1) are remains of 2 thinly engraved circles. Each was drawn of two concentric circles. Their circumference can still be discerned today although parts have suffered natural erosion. The artisans used a compass with a sharp pointed edge, similar to a nail. The lines of the circles are thinner than the straight lines at the box's edges. The decoration on this long side (1) is similar to designs found on other decorated ossuaries from the Second Temple period; remains of compass-drawn leaves are discernable and each circle probably had six leaves. The leaves, superficially carved, using a method known as 'rafter' cut or a technique using a nail or similar object. This technique, known as zigzag, was used for filling areas. It appears that this ossuary was to be decorated using this technique. The 'thin' line' technique is also lacking in the filling of the band between the circle lines or the frame along the length of the sides. The technique known as rafter cut was common in ossuary decoration mainly until the year 70 CE. The thin line technique and zigzag were also common ossuary decorations and date the ornamented ossuaries to the mid first century CE and later. It has also been claimed that the majority are from the period after the year 70. They are very common in the periphery of Jerusalem and beyond such as the Judean Hills and Plain.

The back side (4) was originally without ornamentation and on it was carved the inscription 'James son of Joseph brother of Jesus'. The inscription consists of five words composed of twenty letters. It was inscribed on the right section at mid-height. The ossuary with its ornamentation lay in a burial cave or some space for a long period.

The sides of the box, including its markings and decorations, but excepting the inscription, suffered a long and considerable process of gentle erosion, probably resulting from moist and dry seasonal cycles. The results of erosion can be seen on specific sections of the sides and is not uniform. Another result of its long stay in a burial cave is a thin layer of patina that formed on the surface, on the ornamentation, and on all four outer sides. The patina is partly correlated to the erosive processes: it is less well preserved where erosion is greater. On the interior surfaces the patina is less discernible.

When compared to other ossuaries uncovered in excavations, it appears that this ossuary stood undisturbed in its burial cave until its discovery.

The Inscription

The inscription appears on the long rear side (4), on the right side, at approximately mid-height, and its two parts differ somewhat: clearly, each of the letters of the two words 'brother of Jesus' are carved less deeply than those on the right side of the inscription. It would appear that the writer was less certain or determined while writing these last two words. It doesn't seem likely to me that there were two writers, two different handwritings, or that they were written in two separate times. Similarly, it is not likely that it is a later addition with the purpose of explaining whose bones were contained in this ossuary. Only the letter ayin (') in the word YSW'(ישוע) on the left is deeply carved, similarly to the letters of the three words on the right. It can be assumed that the writer intended to render the final ayin similarly to that in the word Y'QWB (יעקוב). The lack of skill of the writer can be seen in the differing styles of the two adjacent letters bet in the words יעקב בר.

Clearly, the words were inscribed at a time other than the ossuary's original manufacture with its linear decoration along the sides and rosettes on side 1.

Inside the relatively deep letters the patina is not the same as on the ossuary's four sides, lid and decorative lines. It can be surmised that the writer tried to impart to the letters a look of authenticity, similar to the markings on the other sides of the box by filling in or spreading a liquid or other material of a brown or reddish color.

The inscription looks new. Its carving is clearly deep and lacks patina when compared to the sides, as described above. The writer tried to impart an ancient form to the letters by using contemporary examples. It is easy to see how the writer wanted to attract the attention of modern day viewers by using forms that are as similar as possible to current script. Their placement and design are 'monumental' and stand out. The vast majority of such ossuary inscriptions were carelessly written and schematic. Here, the writer was aware of his deed and purpose and wanted this inscription to make an impression at first glance and be relatively easy to read.

Remarks concerning content and Historic Context:

Ossuaries with detailed inscriptions naming three generations, emphasis on the deceased's brother, his origin etc., derive from archaeological context of family burial caves and come in groups. Single ossuaries with detailed inscriptions and unknown provenance were apparently separated from others in the cave by illicit diggers, antiquities dealers and other go-betweens, close to the time of their discovery or at the time of their sale. No ossuaries with relatively detailed inscriptions were found singly or in pairs, nor were single ossuaries with inscriptions reported from excavations. All large groups of ossuaries come from burial caves, and all inscribed ossuaries come from such groups.

The family of Jesus and James had no burial cave in first century Jerusalem and it is known that about a generation elapsed between the death of Jesus and that of James. It is not known from the details of their lives that the family moved from Nazareth to Jerusalem. It is thus not likely that in the space of thirty years the burial of a large family related to Jesus and his brother James developed in Jerusalem, that made it necessary to write the deceased's name on the ossuary in order to distinguish him from others. According to the above proposal, that such an ossuary would derive from a large group, it is unlikely that the present ossuary of Ya'acov son of Yosef originates in the burial cave of the above family. The rationalization that early Christians were buried in Jerusalem according to their own rites still lacks proof or evidence. The possibility of a sectarian burial exists, but it doesn't seem likely that an ossuary would be inscribed in this special way, that normally would belong to a family burial.

Statistical analysis of onomastica on ossuaries yields five persons with the name James (Yaacov). It should be noted that two of them originated in a site found at a distance of 100 km from Jerusalem, thus reducing the sample group even further. The statistics of this subject should be further studied.

Prof. Amos Kloner

The Yehoash Inscription

A few short comments:


Dr. Yoel Fixler studied the letters and found the following data:

There are 202 complete and legible letters.

Each letter is identical to the others nearly every time it appears in the inscription

1. 47.6% of the 202 complete letters match ancient Hebrew/Moabite ninth century writing.
2. 42.8% of the letters do not match ancient Hebrew/Moabite ninth century writing.
3. 9.5% of the letters can be dated to the ninth century since they match Phoenician letter forms in inscriptions.

General Conclusion: There is great difficulty in determining that the inscription was written in Jerusalem in the 9th century.

Type of stone:

A Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem would be written or engraved on limestone. I am convinced that this specific stone was chosed by the engravers because they wanted to have the inscription resemble that of the Mesha' inscription.


27 April 2003
Dr. Gideon Avni
Head of Excavations and Surveys
Israel Antiquities Authority

Subject: Ossuary Bearing the Inscription: 'James son of Joseph brother of Jesus

Gideon shalom,

In accord with your request, I was given the opportunity on March 16, 2003, accompanied by Ms. Hava Katz, Chief Curator of the Israel Antiquities Authority to examine the inscribed ossuary in the IAA storerooms at the Rockefeller Museum. I examined the inscription only by naked eye. I present my findings, to the best of my knowledge on the subject. I examined the inscription according to the following characteristics:

Condition of the Inscription

All the letters, with one exception are easily legible. The only unclear letter is the dalet located before the name Yeshua'. It should be noted that this letter was legible before the ossuary broke exactly at that point. I could examine the broken letter on photographs published in the media and taken before the ossuary broke. Therefore, all the letters are clear and easily legible.

The Writing Instrument:

The inscription was written with a sharp instrument (awl, nail) into the soft chalk of which the ossuary was made. This is the most common writing method found on ossuaries of the period. I did not see a difference in engraving between parts of the inscription. From my examination of the inscription with my naked eye, it appeared to me that the inscription was written in one continuum.

Still, such an inscription is better examined through a microscope to clarify whether all its parts were indeed inscribed with the same sharp tool. It seems to me that the forensic laboratory at the police headquarters is the most appropriate place for an examination of this type.

Location of the Inscription on the Ossuary:

The inscription is centered, more or less, on one of the long sides. Since the ossuary is not decorated on any side, the writer did not have to take decoration into account. Location of the inscription is reasonable.

Position of the Letters on the Ossuary:

A review of L.Y. Rahmani's catalog of ossuaries reveals that this is one of the longest ossuary inscriptions known. Letter height is uniform throughout, a relatively rare occurrence in an ossuary inscription. It is worth noting that all the letters (20 in all) are etched in a fairly straight line. It appears to me that the upper part of most of the letters, and perhaps all, are in a straight line (on a slight incline from right to left). Can a long inscription be written in a straight line freehand? I would say no. It seems to me that the writer used a wooden ruler and carved in the letters from the ruler downward. If so, he used the same method as Second Temple period scribes who hung their letters from the line drawn on the parchment downward.

The Paleography:

Each of the letters of the inscription, singly and all together, match in form and layout (direction of each letter in relation to horizontal reading direction) first century CE 'Jewish Script' and especially those of ossuary inscriptions.

The shape of all letters is very clear. It appears to me that the inscription was written by someone who not only had command of Hebrew and Aramaic, but it was his expertise, someone whose usual activity consisted of writing Hebrew and Aramaic (on more mundane media, as papyrus and parchment).

The writing appears very meticulous, like that of a scribe, who cared about the shape of each letter. The letters are of uniform height, written along a straight line (perhaps helped by a ruler). The addition of serifs to several letters (qof, bet, resh) is also characteristic. All these attributes together however, appear less in other ossuary inscriptions, where the handwriting is usually more cursive and hurried, not uniform, as though written in haste in the awkward conditions of a burial cave.

Language and Spelling:

The writer was a speaker of Aramaic, which can be seen in the words בר, אחוי, and דישוע. The full spelling of יעקוב should be noted, as found in other inscriptions of the same period.


If the inscription had read 'Yosef son of Ya'aqov brother of Yeshua'' no one would have raised an eyebrow, and the inscription would have quietly entered the statistical lists without a further thought. Of the three names, one is very common (Yosef), one common (Yeshua', Yehoshua') and one less frequent (Ya'aqov). The reference of son to father (bar) is trivial and the reference to a brother is rare.

Reference to a brother could appear for a number of reasons:

I. A reference to a well-known personality, in the hope that some of the renown will pass over to the deceased. It should be remembered that once the burial and ossilegium were complete, no one saw the ossuary any more. In my opinion, such references do not reflect boasting through family lineage, since if this were the custom, more such examples of references to high priests, other important officials etc. would have been found. These are practically non-existent.

II. For the purpose of identification within the family, since more than one person in the family was named Ya'aqov son of Yosef, and the additional reference to a brother served to distinguish between them.

III. It is possible that this Ya'aqov married the wife of Yeshua' who died childless and he, the brother-in-law, wanted to indicate this. We have no information about the other persons buried in the same cave, and therefore cannot know who, in the following generation was related to Ya'aqov or to Yeshua'.

The question of the authenticity of the Inscription

     The ossuary itself is surely an authentic item from the Second Temple period. The inscription does not show any mixture of morphological or textual aspects from different periods that could indicate forgery. It appears that each of the characteristics of the inscription, as detailed above, and all of them together, with no exception, indicate an authentic late Second Temple period (mainly first century CE) inscription.


If we overlook the religious feelings (that could arise among Christians today) evoked by this inscription, then its significance for the study of Jewish society at the close of the Second Temple period is slight. The inscription does not add any new onomastic or prosoprographic data.

Identity of the Deceased

Concerning your question as to whether the ossuary may indeed belong to Jacob brother of Jesus of Nazareth cited in historical sources ' this question was addressed through a detailed statistical research conducted by Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University. It is possible here and there to question the validity of the raw data used by Fuchs (for example, estimates of the city's population, the length of the period ossuaries were in use etc.) but on the whole, this is an important, instructive research. Fuchs' resulting statistical probability indicates that during the said time and place, there were 1.71 persons that the inscription on the ossuary may have referred to. This result is rather amazingly close to the result that the Christian world would be pleased to receive, yet still leaves a chance (at the level of probability that Fuchs indicates) that there was in Jerusalem at the time another one such person.

This possibility prevents giving the ossuary its requested lineage. One working hypothesis of Fuchs should be criticized , namely that mention of the brother's name was intended to bestow on the deceased a lineage worthy of boast, since the brother was very famous. As noted above, if this had been the custom, then we should find in the inscriptions, no few such boasts. Such mention of lineage exists only when a son/daughter refer to the lineage of their father (Nikanor's children's ossuary, Yohanna, daughter of the High Priest), but we do not find on ossuaries other references to important brothers (for example the brother of Nikanor, or the sister of the High Priest) since there was no such custom. It seems to me that this kind of noting was used only for identification inside the family, especially when collecting the bones and placing them in the bone box, because after placement, no one would see the ossuary again.


Professor Ronny Reich
Institute of Archaeology
University of Haifa


8 May 2003

Dr. Gideon Avni
Head of Excavations and Surveys
Israel Antiquities Authority

Dear Gideon,

Subject: The Yehoash Inscription

In accord with your request, I was given the opportunity, on March 16, 2003, accompanied by Ms. Hava Katz, Chief Curator of the Israel Antiquities Authority to examine the said inscription in the IAA storerooms at the Rockefeller Museum I examined the inscription only by naked eye. I present my findings, to the best of my knowledge on the subject.

Comment on the Physical Aspect

I viewed the inscription after it had already broken in two. It seems that the important detail resulting from this mishap can be found in the break itself. It appeared to me that there was a light colored patina along the entire length of the break and to a considerable depth. Even if we accept the claim that 'ancient' patina can be easily imitated, it is not likely that a forger will take the trouble to penetrate his 'patina' into the crack as well, in case the stone will break sometime.

The Writing

The Hebrew lapidary script matches that of the ninth century BCE even though there may be some slight deviations from the forms characteristic of this period. These slight deviations are reasonable when considering that the words are carved in stone and difficult to execute (as compared to a reed pen and ink), and may not be indicative of mistakes by a possible forger. It can be assumed that the inscription was carved by a stone engraver, and that the writing was perhaps not his own but copied from a text on a different media (ink on pottery, for example), and written by a professional scribe.

Of all the characteristics, it seems that the writing would be the simplest and easiest to fake. Whoever wants to forge an inscription from a particular period, say from the 9th century BCE, has only to carefully copy letters from a different inscription of the same period, for example, from the Mesha' stele.

Language of the Inscription

The inscription is written in Biblical Hebrew, but some of the technical terms mentioned in connection with the Temple building (such as בדק, יציע, שבכים, לולים, גרעות), may have originated in other languages, Phoenician, for example, since the First Temple builders for King Solomon, according to the Bible (1 Kings, 5.20, 32) were Phoenician stone and wood craftsmen, who brought building materials and techniques with them, and probably also some of their technical terms.


The inscription is in the form of Hebrew spelling known as scriptio defectiva, typical to the period, as in the word אש instead of אישin the Siloam inscription. From this point of view, the spelling is consistent and the inscription resembles others of the same period, because as expected the scriptio defectiva appears also in the Biblical parallels (יהדה, ברשם, קרת, שבכם, לולם, דלתת, ) instead of יהודה, ברושים, קירות, שבכים, לולים, דלתות) as is the use of reversing vav from future to past tense and its scriptio defectiva (ואעש instead of ואעשה).

Observations on Content

The inscription professes to be a royal commemorative inscription, marking the completion of renovations of the House ' the First Temple in Jerusalem. The name of the king responsible for the project is not mentioned, but was certain to have been written at the head of the text, which is missing. The story appears in 2 Kings 12.1'18 and deals with renovations to the Temple carried out during the reign of King Yehoash. No less important for the evaluation of the inscription, and perhaps more so than the story of Yehoash, is the story of the construction of the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 6'7). Its importance lies in the fact that most, if not all of the technical terms mentioned in our inscription (אבני מחצב, ברושים, קירות, יניע, שבכים, לולים, גרעות, דלתות) appear in 1 Kings 6'7 rather than in 2 Kings 12.

Only one technical term that appears in the inscription does not appear in the text of the construction in 1 Kings, and in my opinion only strengthens the argument for authenticity. It is the term נחשת אדמ'. This is one of three builidng materials, together with אבני מחצב and ברושים, that the inscription mentions as having been purchased.

Since the spelling is scriptio defectiva there are several ways to vowelize the words: nehoshet aduma, [i.e. red copper]; nehoshet adama [i.e. earth copper]; nehoshet (from) Edom or nehoshet (from the site) Adam. In fact, all these possibilities seem reasonable to a greater or lesser degree:

Cast copper is red although it is quickly oxidizes and turns green.

Copper was readily available from Edom, or more correctly, from the eastern region of the Arava, from the copper mines of Funon (or Feinan as it is called today) opposite the mountains of Edom.

Adama אדמה or Adam אדמ may be acceptable, referring to the geographical source of copper coming from a place with this name, and not its geological source. The copper utensils of the Temple are mentioned in 1 Kings 7.46 as having been cast 'bema'aveh ha-adama' between Succoth and Zarethan. Although in modern Hebrew the expression מעבה האדמה means a deep place in the ground, e.g. a mine, in the biblical text the expression refers to the name of a particular place, and the scriptures even specify where it is: between Succoth and Zarethan. The place is a site called Adam or Adam Ha`Ir (אדם, אדם העיר) which is close to Zarethan also according to Joshua 3.16 The name survives in the Damya Bridge over the Jordan River. While the building stones and cypress beams were worked by the qualified artisans at the construction site, the copper utensils must have been cast in a specialized foundry. Adam Ha'Ir is probably the place where foundries made metal hardware on order for the construction industry.

The inscription mentions the carrying out of a 'bedeq bayt' בדק בית. One should not, of course, try and understand the words according to their modern meaning, i.e. renovations. The term appears in the Bible a number of times, all connected with repairs to the Temple in the days of Yehoash (2 Kings, 12) except that the verb used in this connection is 'to strengthen' לחזק the 'bedeq bayt'. From this, one can understand that 'bedeq bayt' is not the action of repair and maintenance but rather the problem that needs to be repaired, i.e. the poor condition of the building with its cracks and defects, that must be strengthened. In this respect, the use of 'to do bedeq bayt' is incorrect and liable to point to an anachronistic use of the term, and thus hence to the inscription being a forgery.

But, in my opinion, this meaning of the term bedeq is not unequivocal. In the parallel text of 2 Chronicles, 34.10, the words לבדוק ולחזק הבית appears. Although this is a later text than that of 2 Kings, the verb 'livdok' here (which may have been formed from the technical term ( בדק is clearly connected with the activity of repair and not to the nature of the fault.
The term בדק appears in the Bible once more. In his lamentation over Tyre, the Prophet Ezekiel (27:9) reminds the elders of Gebal [Byblus] and its wise men that were 'מחזיקי בדקך' (27:27) and so were its sailors and sea captains. Here the word בדק cannot be understood as a fault of some kind in the ships of Tyre, but rather as maintenance activity in need of the expertise of professional workers and the wisdom of elders and men of experience in order to maintain a ship (the grammatical form hif'il as opposed to pi'el). This meaning of the word בדק allows us to understand the term בדק ביתin the Bible as a renovation of some kind. The verb בדק, a common Hebrew word today, does not appear in the Bible more than the few times cited above (the verb בחן is used to indicate an activity of careful perusal), and very possibly may not originate from Hebrew but from Phoenician, since it appears in the Bible only in relation to two topics (the Temple construction and ship maintenance) where Phoenicians played a major role in both activities.

It therefore seems to me that we cannot rely heavily on the original exact forms of the term בדק or בדק בית in our attempt to investigate the question of authenticity since it is possible that already in ancient days the Judeans added the verbs להחזיק (to hold) and לחזק (to strengthen) that do not belong together. Therefore, the expression לעשות בדק הבית that appears in the inscription is not necessarily a modern mistake but an ancient one.

Finally, I will take the role of devil's advocate and contend that it seems to me that the inscription is indeed authentic since it is difficult for me to believe that a forger (or group of forgers) should be so knowledgeable of all aspects of the inscription ' the physical, paleographic, linguistic and biblical ' to produce such an object.

Moreover, the inscription lacks a heading which probably referred to the Temple and King Yehoash. It seems to me that if written in modern times for profit, or for publicity or prestige, or political reasons connected with the Temple Mount and current events, the producer of the inscription would have left that part whole and broken or concealed a different part of the inscription.

The missing part is that which obliged the IAA to act. The scholars who examined the object have no knowledge but only conjectures regarding its authenticity. I presume that finding the upper part ' if it will ever be found whole and in its original context ' would bring us closer to the truth. Until then, let each one remain with his own degree of conviction about its authenticity. Since such a chance find is very slim, but still exists, we have no choice but to safeguard the object in the National Collections.

Prof. Ronny Reich
Department of Archaeology
Haifa University


16 June 2003
Dr. Gideon Avni
Israel Antiquities Authority

Subject: Yehoash Inscription and Jacob brother of Jesus

As you know, I submitted to you my opinion that both inscriptions are authentic. Regarding the Yehoash inscription, I asserted that it would be difficult to find a person so knowledgeable of the linguistics, content and physical aspects to produce such an object.

In the final meeting of our committee (Writing and Content) I noted to my colleagues that the method I used was to assume from the beginning that the inscriptions are authentic unless I will be convinced by my own observations, or by those of other scholars.

My committee colleagues did not convince me.

However, our committee was presented with the results of the parallel committee (the Materials Committee). Mainly, the results of the new geological study conducted by my friends Avner Ayalon from the Geological Survey of Israel and Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University, discussing the patina inside the letters of both inscriptions.

Having some knowledge of geology, and in light of the data presented, I must note that I am now convinced that the patina we have seen was produced and placed inside the letters in an artificial manner and could not have been produced in nature in ancient times, in both inscriptions. As a result, I am forced to change my opinion on the matter.


Prof. Ronny Reich
Department of Archaeology
Haifa University

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