The Stone Box

Did An Ossuary Once Contain The Bones Of Jesus' Brother?

Correspondent Bob Simon has a story about the Bible and truth. More precisely, it's about Biblical antiquities and how they can be seen to prove that the stories told in the Bible really happened.

For the last couple of years, the world of biblical archaeology was rocked to its foundations, and all because of a stone box that was discovered in Israel.

The box was an ossuary, an object used to hold the bones of the dead approximately 2,000 years ago, in the time of Jesus.

And, as Correspondent Bob Simon first reported last December, discovery of this ossuary created more excitement among Christian scholars than anything since the Shroud of Turin.

And like the Shroud, no sooner was it unveiled than it came alive, with questions.

The box is made of limestone. It's not terribly large, but it attracted a very large crowd, more than 100,000, when it was first exhibited. It made the New York Times and the cover of Biblical Archaeology Review.

New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, who wrote a book about the box, was at that first exhibit. "There was a lot of excitement. There was, you know, the atmosphere was kind of palpable, really," says Witherington. "And there were various of us just sort of buzzing around this exhibit."

Actually, ossuaries are quite common. The Israel Antiquities Authority keeps hundreds in its basement. What was so special about this one? The mysterious engraving on its side -- sort of a Da Vinci Code in stone. It's written in ancient Aramaic and it reads "James. . . Son of Joseph. . . Brother of Jesus."

Could this box have contained the bones of the man the Gospels mention as Jesus' brother?

"If it can be proven, it's probably one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the century," says Steve Pfann. He and Claire Pfann are scholars of early Christianity, based in the Holy Land. They believe the ossuary is the first firm archaeological evidence that Jesus once lived here.

"That is really a great thing just to be able to confirm, from an extra-biblical source, that a man named Jesus existed," says Claire Pfann.

The idea that Jesus had a brother at all is a bone of contention. Many Catholics believe Mary was a life-long virgin, so James could not have been a blood brother. Either way, after the crucifixion, James became the first Bishop of Jerusalem. James died, it is written, in 62 AD, when he was stoned by an angry mob and fell from the walls of the Holy Temple.

The way things were done back then, his body would have been put in a cave. And a year later, when the flesh was gone, his bones would have been placed in an ossuary. And it gets better.