Our Blessed Mother & The Saints

James, Joseph, and the "Brother of Jesus"

by John Pacheco

This past month, the Biblical Archaeology Review announced that an ancient ossuary (a box which contains the bones of a deceased person) had been discovered with the inscription on its side reading: "James, the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". Some scholars believe this ossuary to have held the bones of the New Testament James, the so-called 'brother of the Lord', also known as James "the Just". Since stone ossuaries were common during Jesus' time among the Palestinian Jews, this gives further credence, these scholars say, to the possibility that the James inscribed on this particular ossuary could very well be the one mentioned within the pages of the New Testament.

Catholic Apologist, James Akin of Catholic Answers, reports the events this way:

"James, Joseph, and Jesus were very common names in first century Palestine, and Lemaire estimates that there may have been as many as twenty individuals in Jerusalem who were named James and who had fathers named Joseph and brothers names Jesus. Nevertheless, Lemaire and other experts believe it probable that the James to whom this ossuary belonged very probably was the one referred to in the New Testament as "the brother of the Lord" (Gal. 1:19).

It is extremely uncommon for brothers to be named in ossuary inscriptions. Of the hundreds of such ossuaries that have been found, only two name a brother as well as the father. The fact that this one does so suggests that the brother was considered very important. It is unlikely that there were other men named James who had fathers named Joseph and who had brothers named Jesus that were so important that they warranted mention on an ossuary.

Following the announcement of the discovery, many were quick to ask its potential apologetic significance...Some non-Catholics were quick to tout the box as evidence against the perpetual virginity of Mary, however this does not follow. The ossuary identifies its James as the son of Joseph and the brother of Jesus, it does not identify him as the son-much less the biological son-of Mary. The only point that Catholic doctrine has established regarding the "brethren of the Lord" is that they are not biological children of Mary."

This discovery has particular impact on my work since I am still doing research (although at a snail's pace, admittedly) for my book on the Blessed Mother. A section of the book will be devoted entirely to the dogma of her perpetual virginity. I have already written a preliminary paper on the subject.

As can be expected, our opponents on the other side of the Church aisle are rather tickled at this announcement because of the supposed mileage this will take them in advancing the Helvidian view of Mary's virginity (i.e. that she had lost it). This find, they believe, will come at the expense of the traditional Roman Catholic view espoused by St. Jerome (called the Hieronymian position) that both Our Lady and St. Joseph remained chaste all of their lives. (Now all of this salivating by our opponents is quite humorous since this find will be, in the end, a vindication of the Catholic view. The work and study that will come out of this find, if authentic, will make our opponents look rather foolish in their rush to offer us why 2,000 years of patristic and Church witness is bunk and they know better. We shall see in time.)

The third possibility, the choice which has been favored in the East, is called the Epiphanian view. This view suggests that the brothers of the Lord were his step-brothers, the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. While the Epiphanian view has some historical support (i.e. the early second century apocryphal work, the Protoevangelium of James, for instance, favors it), and it used to be, and in many cases still is, the preferred position among the Eastern churches, it is rather disappointing to read that some Catholics are so easily willing to abandon the traditional Catholic and Hieronymian view when there might be some possible reconciliation with the new discovery. Although it is possible to hold to either the Epiphanian or the Hieronymian view as a Catholic since it does not impugn a dogmatic teaching, it is first prudent to consider some alternatives before jettisoning an ancient tradition.

The following represents some critiques and reconciliations to the new discovery:


In the New Testament, James is never referred to as the "son of Joseph". Rather, he is referred to as the "brother of the Lord" (Cf. Gal. 1:19). In order for there to be real proof for the Helvidian side, our opponents need a firm and unequivocal connection between the James listed in the New Testament and the one inscribed on the ossuary. One source says that he was the 'son of Joseph' (the Ossuary); the other does not (the bible). The Helvidian must resort to relying on the weight of adelphos/ach to necessarily rule out a non-uterine possibility. But that only begs the question and puts the focus of the discussion back on to the meaning of adelphos or ach, does it not? Hence, the fact that the ossuary says that this particular James had a father named "Joseph" really does not mean as much as our Helvidian friend wants it to mean. It only means he must pound his "adelphos-can-only-mean-uterine-brother" drum a little louder, that's all.

In fact, we could easily turn this evidence around on our opponents.

Ya'qoov bar Yoosif, akh-ooee d-Yeshoo'

"James, the Son of Joseph, his brother of whom (was) Jesus"

The inscription was written in neither Greek or Hebrew, but rather in Aramaic with the script that is popular with Hebrew Block letters. The point that many people seem to be missing is that not only are we not talking about the Greek adelphos which is allegedly used to designate only a uterine-brother in NT times (a claim which I will be challenging in my book), but we are talking about a language (Aramaic) which has no word which distinguishes between a "brother" and another near relation, like "cousin". Since ach can mean either "brother" or other near relation - a fact acknowledged by our opponents - then the only thing this does is beg the question of just what kind of 'brother' this 'James' was. Indeed, if anything, all this inscription does do is remove any pretencious restrictions that Helvidians wish to place on adelphos by adopting the wider semantical range of ach. Ach, by itself, brings us no closer to confirming the biological nature of the relationship between James and Jesus, and having a Father with a name like "Joseph" is, as we shall see, something akin to the chance of your Muslim neighbor being named "Muhammed".

The Mere Mention of a Brother

The strongest argument for the identification of this James with the one found in the New Testament concerns the mere mention of a brother on the inscription, for, the argument goes, there would really be no point in doing so unless this person had some notoriety. Yet, the fallacy here is in insisting that "brother" necessarily means a uterine one which begs the very question at hand. In fact, if the notoriety of this relation was significant enough, one could just as well suggest that the relationship could extend beyond the nuclear family to the extended one. In the case under discussion, for instance, it is just as easy to suggest that James was the son of a certain "Joseph" and a maternal cousin or uncle of Jesus. There is no way of determining just how far the family of Jesus would have gone in identifying themselves with Him.

Furthermore, as has already pointed out others, the inscription does not call James by his popular title of "the Just" or "the Righteous" or "brother of the Lord, and Jesus is not "of Nazareth" or "the Christ" or "the Lord". Presumably, one could argue that if this Jesus was so famous, then an indicator of this fame would have been most fitting and appropriate to be inscribed on the ossuary. Yet, we see no such indication. In fact, the New Testament goes out of its way to assign Jesus his rightful titles, and James is never referred to as the "brother of Jesus" but rather the "brother of the Lord" (Cf. Gal. 1:19) among the Faithful.

As far as James himself goes, there is very little said about him either. If the claim can be made that the dual-identifier inscription (son of Joseph and brother of Jesus) indicates some fame on this James' brother, then why is the person who is being touted as the New Testament James not also recognized as such according to his numerous identities? He was known by several of them James "the Just", James "the Righteous", James "the Brother of the Lord", James "of Jerusalem", James "Protepiscopus" (first bishop of Jerusualem) and possibly James "the Less"? After all not all ossuaries follow the "X son of Y" path.

In fact, the High Priest whose name is recorded as "Caiaphas" in the New Testament (Cf. Matthew 26:3) was his family and not his father's name. "Both rabbinic sources and the recently discovered ossuaries show that the name Caiaphas was the designation for this whole family. The Tosefta speaks about the house of Caiapha (Yevamot 1:10), and Josephus refers to Joseph surnamed Caiaphas (Antiq. 18:35, 95). The surname kaˇyaˇFA (Caiapha) appears on two of the ossuaries discovered in the tomb, and one of these is inscribed with the name yeˇhoˇSEF bar kaˇyaˇFA (Joseph bar Caiapha). Josephus speaks about him as Joseph surnamed Caiaphas (Antiq. 18:35, 95). Tosefta, Yevamot 1:10, mentions the "house of Caiapha." Thus, as the "bar Cathros" inscription (see N. Avigad, "Excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, 1969-1971," in Jerusalem Revealed [Jerusalem, 1976], p. 49) shows, the name Caiapha designated all the members of the family. Therefore, Joseph bar Caiapha is the same as Joseph Caiapha (Caiaphas). For examples of similar variants, see M. Stern, p. 191 (n. 75) and p. 192 (n. 83)." (4) The significance of this for our purposes is simply to point out that while "bar" in Aramaic normally means "son of", it is not necessarily always so. In the case of "Joseph bar Caiaphas", it meant that the High Priest came from the Caiaphas family and not necessarily that the father was named "Caiaphas". Likewise, the technical meaning of "James bar Joseph" is "James of Joseph", which may indicate something other than a biological fathering.

Brotherly Presumptions

Another point which should be stressed involves the presuppositions involved in indiscriminately identifying the Jesus in the inscription with Our Lord. The ossuary in question has been dated around 63 A.D. which is approximately 30 years after the death of Our Lord. Yet, people assume that the Jesus in the inscription did not survive his brother and bury him. This would explain, as archaeologist Kyle McCarthery of John Hopkins University noted, why Jesus is inscribed on the side of the ossuary. "It's possible", he says, "the brother was named because he conducted the burial or owned the tomb." Moreover, the identity of James as the "brother of Jesus" does not necessarily mean that the brother had to be "famous" per se, but only that his identity distinguished between other persons named "James" who had a father named "Joseph" but no brother named Jesus. This is particularly plausible given the commonality of these names.

Tom, Dick, and Harry

Another point which has already been acknowledged is that the none of the names in question (James, Joseph, or Jesus) were exactly rare commodities in those days. Far from it. In fact, Tal Ham is one of Israel's foremost experts on Jewish and early Christian history, having catalogued all ossuary names from 2nd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. She states: "Mary is the most common name for women. Joseph is the second most common name for men, after Simon. Jesus is also one of those very typical names." (2)   (In fact, an ossuary inscribed with "Jesus, son of David" was discovered in 1931.) Eric Meyers of Duke University jokingly remarked, "You have to remember that the three names mentioned are equivalent to Tom, Dick, and Harry. They're everyday sort of names in the first century." Moreover, not only to the pages of the New Testament make it clear that Joseph and James were very popular names, but in regards to the name 'James', the New Testament identifies as few as two, perhaps three, possibly four, and as many as eight persons named 'James'. The name 'James' was extremely popular among the Jews because it has its roots with the Patriarch Jacob in the Old Testament, the English name "James" being a variant of the name "Jacob". The "Jacob-James" distinction which has developed in Latin and English has no relevance to the biblical languages for which there is no such distinction.

Tom, Dick and Harry...again

Back in 1996, the notoriously liberal British BBC was just drooling over another little limestone box purporting to house the bones of another famous figure. The inscription reads: "Jesus, son of Joseph" (Limestone Box, Catalogue Ossuary No. 80.503). And that is not all to this story. You see, there were other ossuaries and other famous people's inscriptions on the side of them. And they were all housed in the same tomb. "The caskets bearing the names were discovered in an Israeli museum warehouse - owned by the Israel Antiquities Authority - by the makers of the BBC's Heart of the Matter programme. The caskets bear the names Jesus, son of Joseph, Mary, Joseph, Yehuda son of Jesus, Matthew and Mary. They had all been found in the same tomb but contained no bones because of vandalism...Dr Wright said: 'These were very common names at the time and it would be like someone in 2000 years time claiming to have found the tomb of the royal family because it contained the names Charles, son of Philip, Andrew and Diana. 'This is no more than an interesting coincidence.'" (5)

In point of fact, there have been two such "Jesus ossuary" discoveries - one in 1926 and the one above in 1980 whose story was broken by the London Sunday Times on March 31, 1996, 16 years after the discovery. And these ossuaries are authentic too, at least according to the following source:

Author: Rahmani, L. Y.
Title: A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel Place
Jerusalem Publisher: The Israel Antiquities Authority,
The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities
Date: 1994
Collation 1 volume (xii + 307 pages + 135 plates)
ISBN 965-406-016-7

The Jesus ossuaries noted above are listed as #9 and #704.

The last time I checked, I did not see any Protestant accepting this archaeological find as evidence that Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were identified with the Holy Family. Bearing in mind that the son of Jesus above may be referring to another Jesus other than the one in the tomb, why must Helvidians demand that we accept that the most recent discovery of James, Joseph, and Jesus are nothing more than, as Dr. Wright rightly says, "Charles, son of Philip, and Andrew"?

Adopted Relation

Here is a selection from my piece on Mary's Perpetual Virginity:

Whenever the issue of Our Lady’s Perpetual Virginity comes up, Catholic Apologists constantly remind their opponents that nowhere in the bible does it say that Mary had other sons. There is not one place in the New Testament where Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters’ are also referred to as Mary’s sons or daughters. Of course, the Protestant rebuttal is that this is not completely valid argument since it is, for the most part, an argument from silence. The Catholic is begging the question, the Protestant argues, by insisting that the Bible must say that Mary had other sons or daughters in order to conclusively prove that Mary did have other children.

Let us take this line of argument to its consummation, therefore, to see if the Protestant objection holds any merit. Let us suppose, for the sake of our Protestant antagonist, that Mary and Joseph did, in fact, have other ‘sons’ (and daughters). The question then becomes: Does that mean that they were necessarily her biological sons? No, not at all.

Saul had two daughters named Merab and Michal (1 Sam. 14:49). The older daughter, Merab, was promised to David as a wife, but she was given to Adriel the Meholathite instead (1 Sam. 18:17-19). David married Michal, the younger daughter of Saul (1 Sam. 18:20-30), but she was given to Phalti after David had fled from Saul (1 Sam. 25:44). When David returned to recapture the kingdom, however, he claimed Michal back as his wife (2 Sam. 3:13-16) . After capturing the kingdom, David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and danced in jubilation before the Lord. Here is how Scripture recounts the event and the mockery of Michal, his wife:

"And it was told King David, "The LORD has blessed the household of O'bed-e'dom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God." So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of O'bed-e'dom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the horn. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, "How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' maids, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!" And David said to Michal, "It was before the LORD, who chose me above your father, and above all his house, to appoint me as prince over Israel, the people of the LORD--and I will make merry before the LORD. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes; but by the maids of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honor." And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death." (2 Samuel 6:12-23)

Scripture therefore says that Michal died childless. She had bore no children to David as a consequence of her mockery. Yet later in 2 Samuel 21:8, Michal is reported to have five sons:

"But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal* the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite." (NIV)

* Most Hebrew and Septuagint MSS use ‘Michal’; two Hebrew manuscripts and some Septuagint manuscripts and Syriac MSS use ‘Merab’.

In other words, then, there appears to be an apparent contradiction. In searching to resolve this inconsistency, the Jewish Talmud, which consists of the Gemara and Mishnah, provides a very interesting answer. "Now as to R. Joshua b. Korha, surely it is written, And the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul whom she bore to Adriel. - R. Joshua [b. Korha] answers thee: Was it then Michal who bore them? Surely it was rather Merab who bore them! But Merab bore and Michal brought them up; therefore they were called by her name. This teaches thee that whoever brings up an orphan in his home, Scripture ascribes it to him as though he had begotten him." (Talmud Mas. Sanhedrin 19b) A similar passage occurs in the midrash, where the question arises about what Hebrew name to use for a woman raised by a foster father. The decision is to use the foster father's name, because "he who brings up a child is to be called its father, not he who gave birth." (Exodus Rabbah 46:5)

Incidentally, the second part of the Talmud, the Mishnah, was the oral law, an augmentation of the written law. It was passed down orally by the scholars and scribes in each successive generation. Orthodox Jewish scholars believe that on Mt. Sinai, an oral law was given by God in addition to the written law (so much for sola scriptura even under the Old Covenant). Both parts of the Talmud are sacred; both comprise what is referred to as the Torah. The Talmud is therefore universally accepted as an authentic account of Jewish religion and culture. The Talmud resolutely confirms that there is no difference between an adopted child and a natural one. Furthermore, the genealogical tables in the Bible do not attempt to distinguish between an adopted child and a natural one. There is no such thing as an adopted child. Consider this further proof from 1 Chronicles:

"And the sons of Ezrah were, Jether, and Mered, and Epher, and Jalon ... And his [Mered's] wife Jehudijah bare Jered the father of Gedor, and Heber the father of Socho, and Jekuthiel the father of Zanoah. And these are the sons of Bithiah the daughter of Pharaoh, which Mered took." (1 Chr. 4:17-18)

According to the Talmud, Jehudijah and Bithiah were one and the same person [(Talmud Mas. Megilah 13a, (Talmud Mas. Sanhedrin 19b). She was the daughter of Pharaoh and a Jewish proselyte who took Moses out of the bulrushes and looked after him. In the above passage, Jered is considered to be the Mother of Moses, and it says she [Jehudijah/Bithiah] "bare" him, even though she only looked after him.

As might be gathered from the above information, if James were adopted into Jesus' family by Joseph, he would become his legal, putative father and be known as such in life. (I have subsequently confirmed this fact with a Jewish rabbi). The inscription's mention of James being the 'son' of Joseph, conceding for the moment that it was Jesus' family, does not rule out him being adopted, and therefore, not being the biological son of St. Joseph.

In my forthcoming article, I will be proposing that this is, in fact, why not only is James "the Brother of the Lord" but also Our Lord's cousin as well (along with Joses).


Another interesting fact is that the Biblical Archaeology Review's on-line article confirmed that "Laboratory tests performed by the Geological Survey of Israel confirm that the box’s limestone comes from the Jerusalem area", but it does not (presumably) rule out it coming from some other area outside of Jerusalem. The reason why this is significant is that, unlike other ossuaries, this one was not found in a tomb as part of an archaeological discovery, but rather it is owned by a private collector who lives in Jerusalem. As such, if the ossuary was not taken from a tomb in Jerusalem but in some other part of Palestine, then the likelihood of it being the ossuary of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, is slim. The other little problem, conceding for the moment that the artifact was found in Jerusalem, is that it is still important to know which tomb the ossuary came from and with what other ossuaries it was found. Remember the "Jesus, Son of Joseph, Joseph and Mary" ossuaries alluded to before? What if some collector had presented all three of these ossuaries and left out the "Yehuda, Son of Jesus" ossuary. Would not the picture change somewhat? Yes, it would. Likewise, without seeing the tomb where this ossuary was located, how does one know it was not beside the ossuary of a member of the Sanhedrin, thereby gutting the whole Helvidian case?

Two Josephs

If James was truly the biological son of St. Joseph, then presumably (and consistent with the typical Helvidian claim), the "Joseph" (3) listed in Mark 6:3 as one of the 'brothers' of Jesus would also be the son of St. Joseph. Yet, there are few (if any) instances in the bible where a father would name his son after himself. In fact, that is why the sister of Mary in John 19:25 and Mary the wife of Clopas are not commonly identified by scholars as being the same person because if that were so, you would have two sisters named 'Mary' in the same family - something which is very unlikely. Likewise, it would be very rare for St. Joseph to name one of his sons after himself. Therefore, if this militates against the Jesus' 'brother', "Joses", being the son of St. Joseph, then we must also jettison the idea of James being one either since both of them are included in the list that describes them as being the brothers of Jesus:

Tick Tock

The Biblical Archaeology Review's on-line article on the find observed: "The Aramaic words etched on the box’s side show a cursive form of writing used only from about 10 to 70 A.D., according to noted paleographer André Lemaire of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (popularly known as the Sorbonne University) in Paris, who verified the inscription’s authenticity. The ossuary has been dated to approximately 63 A.D. Lemaire details his full investigation in the November/December 2002 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, the leading popular publication in its field."

Now, let's think about this for just a moment. Suppose Dr. Lemaire were to have ignored the identities of the individuals inscribed on the ossuary, and based his opinions on the dating of the inscription solely on the intrinsic nature of the handwriting. Would he have calculated, with such pin point precision, that indeed the year of inscription was 63 A.D.? I think not. In fact, I think it would be extremely difficult indeed to prove with any degree of certainty that the year of inscription was precisely 63 A.D. and Lemaire admits as much since the article says that this dating is "approximate". What can be known about the ossuary with a reasonable amount of certainty is the range of 60 years (10 A.D. to 70 A.D.), yet this hardly helps the Helvidian cause at all since their whole case rests with the ossuary being inscribed in 63 A.D. to coincide with James' death one year previously. Lemaire would likely also agree with the suggestion that any number of proximate dates (i.e. 53-60 or 64-70 A.D.) would also be possible. But, as already intimated, if any of these dates were the authentic dates of this inscription, especially before 62 A.D., the "jig" would be up for the new Helvidians.

An Alternative Attribution

James Son of Joseph Brother of Jesus

1) James is the Son of Joseph and the brother of Jesus.

2) James is the Son of Joseph who is the brother of Jesus.

Everyone has been assuming Alternative #1 without considering Alternative #2 (which effectively guts the Helvidian "two-punch" argument). Why is that? Is there some grammatical impossibility to it?

Catholics should never fear new archaeological discoveries since IN THE END it provides yet another confirmation for our Faith. I have every hope that this discovery will not detract from, but greatly enhance, the traditional Catholic view about Our Lady and St. Joseph. Catholics should therefore rejoice, and be patient for the fruits of genuine scholarship to come forth.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
October 30, 2002


(1) Jewish Funerary Inscriptions -- Most Are in Greek," BAR, Sept.-Oct.1992, p.48.

(2) http://orion.mscc.huji.ac.il/orion/archives/1996a/msg00156.html

(3) The Greek "Joses" is a variant of Joseph. They are equivalent. Compare Mark 6:3 with Matthew 27:56.

(4) http://www.jerusalemperspective.com/articles/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=1462

(5) http://orion.mscc.huji.ac.il/orion/archives/1996a/msg00155.html