I recently had dinner in Jerusalem with my old friend André Lemaire. André, who teaches at the Sorbonne, is one of the world’s preeminent authorities on ancient Semitic languages and their paleography. It was at a dinner much like this many years ago that he told me of having seen the now-famous ossuary, or bone box, in the private antiquities collection of Israeli collector Oded Golan inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Naturally, we reminisced.
But what he told me now was that the James Ossuary was only one of three ossuaries Golan showed him that were in his collection. From André’s viewpoint, one of these others was even more important than the James Ossuary. The reason was that the inscription on the James Ossuary (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Joseph”) essentially told us nothing new; if the reference was to Jesus of Nazereth, he had a brother named James. (There was no question then about the inscription’s authenticity.a)
One of Oded Golan’s other ossuaries produced archaeological evidence of something we didn’t know before or knew only faintly: There was an important Jewish community in central Syria in Apamea and Palmyra in the time of Jesus before the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.1The second ossuary that Golan showed André was inscribed: “Box [ossuary] of mother, daughter of Samuel the priest, servant [hazan] of the assembly/synagogue of Apamea and who [is] the mother of Hananah, son of Ishaq [Isaac] the priest, servant [hazan] of the assembly/synagogue of Palmyra.”2
At the time, this inscription excited André more than the one on the James Ossuary. It verified that, before the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, a Jewish population with an assembly/synagogue lived in Apamea, south of Antioch in Syria. The inscription also confirmed a Jewish population in nearby Palmyra.
Perhaps not many of our readers will be excited to learn that there was a significant Jewish diaspora in Syria while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. But it nicely illustrates the difference between the scholarly and the popular mind. Both are legitimate and to be respected.
The James Ossuary allows us to connect with extraordinary historical events—to touch the past, as it were. The Apamea and Palmyra ossuary allows the scholar to add one more bit of information about the spread of Judaism in the first century C.E. before the fall of Jerusalem.
Sad P.S. According to a recent report, the citadel of Apamea was bombed, and heavy weapons were installed in the temple of Baal in Palmyra.
a. The claim that the inscription is a forgery was raised by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which eventually charged Oded Golan with forging it. Both Lemaire and Israel’s leading paleographer of this period, Ada Yardeni, are confident that the inscription is authentic. No paleographer has claimed otherwise. Clay expert Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University initially claimed it was a forgery, but at Golan’s trial, Goren was forced to admit that original patina could be seen in the word “Jesus.” Golan was acquitted. See Hershel Shanks, “‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription Is Authentic,” BAR 38:04. Nevertheless, the IAA has successfully raised doubt in the public mind, something that is likely to be the case for a generation. See also the Bible History Daily James Ossuary Forgery Trial Resources Guide.
1. See André Lemaire, “Trois Inscriptions Araméennes Sur Ossuaire et Leur Intérêt,” Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 147 (2003), p. 300.
2. A second inscription—poorly incised probably by an illiterate engraver—essentially repeats this one.