In Hebrew and Aramaic he was known as Jacob or Yakov. He was a son of a late Second Temple period carpenter named Joseph.
And like Robert from the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” he was the forgotten brother of a much more popular sibling.
But Jacob, better known to the world as James the Just, was actually no slouch. In Jerusalem, he led a religious congregation of observant Jews devoted to his brother’s memory and teachings until he was also put to death, in the year 63 CE.
And in a stunning archaeological find, it was announced this week that James’ burial box may have been discovered.
“May have” being the operative words here.
But if it’s true, the 2,000-year-old ancient limestone box inscribed with the Aramaic names of Jacob, father Joseph and his other brother, Jesus, would be one of the greatest archeological artifacts of all time.
It would mark the earliest known reference to Jesus, certainly outside of the New Testament. And it would also shed light on the comparatively unknown James, who could also have changed history had he won the theological battle to keep believers in Jesus as observant Jews.
Details of the burial box, known as an ossuary, are contained in the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), a magazine published by journalist/archaeologist Hershel Shanks.
“This container provides the only New Testament-era mention of the central figure of Christianity and is the first-ever archaeological discovery to corroborate the biblical references to Jesus,” the article states.
And prominent biblical inscription specialist Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris — who has analyzed the artifact — said he believes the stone box is indeed from James.
“It seems very probable that this is ossuary of the James in the New Testament,” Lemaire writes of the box, which once contained bones but now is empty.
And while he and other scholars are careful to say that it may never be know for sure, the tantalizing odds that that it is the container of the brother of Jesus has prompted major headlines around the world.
Experts said the small container, where the bones of the deceased were placed a year after death, is consistent with Jewish burial practices of the first century CE.
But what’s captured the religious imagination is the inscription etched onto the 20-inch-by-11-inch box in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the time and region. It reads: “Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yoshua,” or “Yakov, son of Yoseph, brother of Yoshua.”
While all three Jewish names were common in the late Second Temple period, experts said the statistical probability of appearing in that combination is slim.
Lemaire says in BAR that the cursive shape of three engraved letters date the ossuary to the last decades of 70 CE.
Further, it was very rare to find the name of the deceased’s brother on the ossuary — unless the brother was important, the BAR report said.
And adding to the ossuary’s potential veracity is that the Geological Survey of Israel performed laboratory tests confirming it was made of limestone from the Jerusalem area.
“It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that these three names refer to the personages so identified in the New Testament,” Shanks told reporters.
BAR said the ossuary is owned by an anonymous Jewish collector of ancient Jewish artifacts. He bought it from an (illegal) antique dealer about 15 years ago for between $200 and $700.
The collector, like many other Jews and even non-Jews, did not even know Jesus had a brother. But last spring he met Lemaire and asked him to decipher the Aramaic written on several artifacts, according to Shanks. One of them was the ossuary of James.
Professor Michael Cook, an expert in Jewish-Christian history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said he was concerned about the artifact for “a number of reasons.”
“We cannot trace its history and who preserved it,” Cook said. “I’m worried if the name Jesus was added at a later time.”
For Jewish history, James holds a particular significance.
After Jesus’ death, James became the head of the infant Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem, according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.
Lawrence Schiffman, chairman of the Judaic studies department at New York University, said James led the effort to have the new community continue strict observance of Jewish law, while also believing that his brother was the messiah.
Opposing him was Paul, who rejected the Torah principles.
“Historically, [James] is significant because he attempted to keep Christianity in the fold of Judaism,” Schiffman explained. “He failed and it split off to become another religion.”
“He was a distinctly pious Jew in a conventionally Jewish way for that time,” said history Professor Seth Schwartz of the Jewish Theological Seminary, citing the New Testament Book of Acts.
As leader of the Jerusalem church, “what he was probably trying to do is make his small band of Jews into another Jewish sect,” like other diverse Jewish groups during that period.
Schwartz said if the box is indeed from James it is remarkable in that it is “completely conventional.”
“It is a completely normal Jewish artifact of first-century Jerusalem. It shows this guy and his survivors were practicing normal Jewish burial practices.”
But James still had enemies in high places — particularly the High Priest Ananus, a Sadducean whom Josephus refers to as “heartless.”
Josephus reports that Ananus accused James of “transgressing the law” and despite pleas from other Jewish leaders, had him stoned in 63 CE.
While Jewish history has no particular tradition about James, the Christian world continues to debate who he really was. The New Testament text refers to James as the brother of Jesus.
Protestants interpret that to mean that he was the son of Joseph and Mary, who gave birth to him after Jesus’ virgin birth, according to the tradition.
The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that James is a son of Joseph by a previous marriage.
However, Roman Catholics believe the word “brother” should not be taken literally but could means a close relative.
This is not the first time BAR has revealed a major biblical find.
Several years ago it reported the discovery of an ancient artifact containing the first extra-biblical reference to the House of David.