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BW3 on the Ossuary of James


Dr. Ben Witherington III (BW3) is a prominent evangelical scholar who serves as the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has written over thirty books, has done many radio interviews, and has appeared on quite a few mainstream TV shows as an expert on matters related to the New Testament. Furthermore, Dr. Witherington frequently writes on his blog and is often among the first to respond when challenges to Christianity emerge (i.e. the Talpiot tomb, the DaVinci Code, books by Ehrman, etc.).

One of the complaints of those opposed to Christianity is that there are a shortage of historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth outside of the Bible. There are a few snippets of information that can be gleaned by looking at writings by Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Suetonius. But, if we could have archeological evidence–an inscription or something–that would significantly bolster the Christian case, especially in the eyes of these skeptics. This is precisely what Prof. Witherington thinks he’s discovered in the James ossuary.

An ossuary is a bone box used for reburial (usually made of limestone). The common Jewish burial practice in the first century was to place a deceased person in the family tomb (usually a cave) and wait a year for their flesh to desiccate. Then they would rebury the bones in a special box called an ossuary. There would typically be more than one ossuary in a family tomb. Dozens and dozens of these ossuaries have been discovered in Israel. However, one of them says, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It is extremely rare that an ossuary would mention the deceased person’s brother. However when that happens it is always because the brother is well-known. So, a first century Jew named James the son of Joseph had a famous brother named Jesus. Listen in to this intriguing audio file to hear Dr. Witherington tell you his reasons for why he thinks this ossuary is the bona fide bone box of James the brother of Jesus Christ.

This lecture was originally given as the J.B. Gay Lecture for March 24, 2003 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is titled The Brother of Jesus: James the Ossuary and James the Just (79:40).

Click here to download the mp3.

10 Responses to “BW3 on the Ossuary of James”

  1. on 26 Aug 2009 at 12:16 pmDan

    This lecture is a bit old, so I will not accuse Prof. Witherington of ill will. BUT… the so-called James Ossuary was confirmed to be a fake when its “discoverer” admitted that the inscriptions were forged. This man is now on trial in Israel for antiquities fraud.

  2. on 26 Aug 2009 at 4:47 pmSean

    Hey Dan,

    Did you listen to it? BW3 deals with many of the allegations against it. Could you point to a source that indicates that Oded Golan admitted it was a fake? I found this on wiki:

    In February, 2007, at the trial of Oded Golan, the defense produced photographs taken in Golan’s home that were dated to 1976. In these photographs, the ossuary is shown on a shelf. In an enlargement, the whole inscription can be seen. The photographs were printed on 1970s photographic paper and stamped March 1976. The photo was examined by Gerald Richard, a former FBI agent and an expert for the defense. Richard testified that nothing about the photographs suggested that they were produced other than in 1976 as the stamps and paper indicated. These photographs significantly undermined the prosecution’s theory that the ossuary was a recent forgery by Golan intended to be sold for profit. As Golan’s attorney, Lior Beringer, explained to Haaretz, “The prosecution claims that Golan forged the inscription after the beginning of 2000. But here is a detailed report from an FBI photo lab that states that the inscription existed at least since the 70s. It is unreasonable that someone would forge an inscription like this in the 70s and suddenly decide to come out with it in 2002.”

    sounds pretty legitimate to me…

    also BW3 has updates on his own blog about this matter here and here.

  3. on 26 Aug 2009 at 6:44 pmDan

    I am working from memory, sorry no sources. Oded Golan and his antiquities business partners are on trial for fraud, not just for the James Ossuary. This same group discovered the “Joash Inscription” from the Temple Mount that was used to bait antiquities collectors.

    For me, the Ossuary is immaterial; my belief in the historicity of Jesus is not dependent on an inscription.

    (On the side, I’m glad no one mentioned the whole Talpiot Tomb controversy. That was nothing but rubbish sensationalism. And way too easy to refute.)

  4. on 26 Aug 2009 at 6:48 pmSean


    For me as well, my faith does not depend on the James Ossuary’s authenticity whatsoever, I just want to know the truth of the matter. Do take a moment to listen to the audio though, if you have a chance.

  5. on 27 Aug 2009 at 6:52 amVictor

    The Biblical Archeology Review magazine has been chronicling this story and its twists and turns – here is an article from them on the trial, etc.


    Here is some news from BW3


  6. on 27 Aug 2009 at 8:50 pmJohnO

    BAR is often just as guilty of sensationalist archeology.

  7. on 27 Aug 2009 at 10:19 pmBrian

    I’d like to see some sources other than BAR (which is Hershel Shanks thing) and BW3. Since they are the one’s who wrote the book, they now have some turf to defend. I did listen to the lecture, and it was quite informative, but there is so much still up in the air and a lot of he said/he said. In the end, it seems similar, yet not nearly as hokey as someone saying they found Noah’s Ark. By the way, during the lecture, BW3 made a comment about the validity of the Shroud of Turin. I was surprised to hear that that was the case.

    For me, I enjoyed it more for learning about how burial boxes were used in 1st Century Jerusalem and how that would relate to the burial of Jesus.

  8. on 05 Sep 2009 at 6:17 pmJohnE

    Sep. 05, 2009 Times article: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1920720,00.html

  9. on 05 Sep 2009 at 10:58 pmRay

    These things are really hard to tell about. Some people claim the idea of the trinity is in the Bible. Maybe they’re right. The idea of a pipe bomb could be proved to be found in a hardware and sporting goods store.

  10. on 09 Sep 2009 at 9:13 pmRay

    We quite well know the where-a-bouts of this since the 1970’s, but what about the 1870’s and so on? How could we tell if this thing was a copy a thousand years ago? After all, it’s the same world now as it was then for the most part. I think this is why it’s
    hard to figure out.

    Isn’t this something like a title seach of land for example? If it can’t
    be traced back through it’s history, who knows who it might belong
    to? It’s something that’s of interest but how could it be proved without it’s complete history?


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