So here’s a religious question

For 2,000 years, pilgrims and archaeologists have hunted for physical evidence of Jesus and his family, without success.

But now an ancient burial box claiming to contain the earliest reference to the Christian saviour is about to go on public display in Israel after its owner was cleared of forgery. It has not been seen in public since a single, brief exhibition in Toronto in 2002.

The modest limestone burial box, known as an ossuary, is typical of first-century Jerusalem, and is owned by Oded Golan, an Israeli antiquities collector. Chiselled on the side are the words “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

James the Just was the first leader of the Christians in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion. He was executed for apostasy by the local rabbinical court.

There’s various bits and pieces about whether Jesus had brothers and so on. Whether Mary had more than the one child etc. And no, I’m not worried about all of that.

Instead, a different question. The name Joseph was very common in that time and place. James too. John, etc.

Jesus…..is that a unique name? Is it even a name at all or is it more like a title?

38 comments on “So here’s a religious question

  1. Jesus (Yeshua) James (Yaakov) and Joseph were really really common names. This James might indeed be the brother of The Lord, but there’s absolutely no other evidence to support that. The ossuary has been the subject of a lot of discussion on Christian and archaelogical blogs, the conclusion of which is that the inscription, if really 1st century AD, is not conclusive evidence either way. Interesting but not conclusive.

  2. Yes, a fairly common Hebrew name, of which Jesus is the Greek/Latin form. For instance, it is also the given name of Barabbas, the criminal who got let off his crucifixion instead of Jesus of Nazareth (where “of Nazareth” functions like a surname).

    “Jesus” is an appropriate name, though, for the Redeemer, as St Matthew observes, because it has a meaning “God saves” or “God is salvation” or “God’s salvation”, or some variant of that. But it’s not a title.

    More like a title is the “Christ” part (which means “anointed” – for a sacred purpose – in Greek) and which gets added as a nickname by Jesus of Nazareth’s disciples. (The Hebrew would be Messiah).

    Most people at the time seem to have broadly functioned with two names: a “main” name and some sort of nickname/surname. But the latter might very in different contexts and over one’s lifetime. And the stock of “main” names was fairly limited in most languages/cultures, and were often shared by e.g. fathers and sons, so that the surname/nickname might be more commonly used to distinguish individuals.

  3. If I saw a gravestone with “Here lies Fred, relative of Brian, son of Mike” inscribed on it I would think it very unremarkable and probably wouldn’t spend the next ten years verifying its authenticity.

  4. “For 2,000 years, pilgrims and archaeologists have hunted for physical evidence of Jesus and his family, without success.”

    2,000 years? No. The Gospel of Mark was written ~ AD 70. There is no prior reference to the Jesus of Christian fame before that.

  5. “Bar abba(s)” means “son of the father”. Jesus described himself as the son of God the father. So the crowd had two fellows called Jesus, son of the father, to choose from. It’s all a bit peculiar.

  6. Speaking of anagrams, Jesus Christ is an anagram of I Crush Jests, so maybe the Puritans were on to something after all.

  7. It’s also worth noting that apparently, all women in Judea at the time were called Mary. Hence the famous John 19:25-

    Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

    This is particularly problematic because it seems that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a sister called Mary, the wife of Clopas. Apologetics argues that the sister and Mary Clopas are different women, but this is quite difficult to justify as the writer does not offer a name for Jesus’s aunt, and neither of these women plays any other narrative role. Further, the apocryphal Gospel Of Phillip offers this-

    There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.

    -in which this mystery Mary converts from an aunt to a sister of Jesus between sentences. What we are left with is an astonishing abundance of Marys.

    I quite like one idea I’ve seen that “Mary” wasn’t a name, but an honorific title for women in the Galilean group (who may have been Essenes, or not). So, any woman who was accepted into the group was a “Mary”; like all women in Australia are Sheilas and all British soldiers are Tommy Atkins.

  8. Jesus existing is, in my view, a great deal more likely than a lot of the stuff made up a century or two later about his followers – e.g. the stuff about Peter going to Rome and becoming bishop, and then being crucified there.

    As for the object, I’ll assume it bogus until I hear good reason to assume otherwise.

  9. Ian B’s speculations are intruiging, and the one about Barabbas certainly commended itself to Origen, among others.

    The Greek of the comment about all the Marys at the cross is rather unnatural, and it’s difficult to untangle. It certainly backs up my point about the restricted corpus of names in the first century, but I rather like Ian B’s theory of an honorific title of “Mary” which would certainly have been quite natural to the early Christians – making the “main” name (in my description above) of Jesus’ mother into an acquired “nickname” for his later female disciples.

    Another possibility is that a good number of manuscripts give the second name as “Mariam” (the Hebrew form of “Mary”) and it’s just possible that the Greek and Hebrew forms were considered distinct enough names that they might be given to two sisters. That seems odd, but compare, for example, the brothers Crispin and Crispinian, Indeed, in both examples the “main” names given may have been identical patrononics (or matronomics), relying on contextual “nicknames” to distinguish them. Our modern custom that the “main” name should be the *individual* one was certainly yet to come.

  10. The inscription is highly unusual not because of the names in and of themselves but because of “the brother of”. When news of the ossuary first came out, they pointed out there was only one other example of an ossuary with this sort of inscription. Therefore the Jesus in the inscription is someone famous. We don’t have evidence of two famous Jesus’s in Judea at the time. Ergo the Jesus of the ossuary is the Jesus of the Gospels.

    That is, if the ossuary is not a forgery.

  11. It’s really nice, from my standpoint well-known to regular contributors, to see a cordial debate on the subject.

    From a statistical point of view, how many of these ossuarys have been discovered, and how many of them have such relevant inscriptions? Is the information even helpful? If the answer is “not many”, then given the massive incentive to forge such a relic it can easily be written off as such. If the answer is “thousands” then the combination of three of the top, what, ten, masculine names is not surprising and the find is not informative anyway.

    This also raises the question of the flexibility of the definition of “brother”. Jesus having related (half?) brothers would go against the teaching (dunno if it’s official Catholic theology) that both Mary and (somewhat less plausibly) Joseph kept their pants on for the remainder of their relationship.

  12. It is considered that the “of Nazareth” often applied to Jesus is a mistranslation. Nazareth may well not have existed at the time, and Jesus was likely known as a Nazorene (various spellings) hence the mistaken association with the place.

    Jesus is not attested in any texts except for disputed and probable/possible interpolations to Josephus, but James as James the Just is certainly well attested in Josephus and is referred to in other early texts either directly or as part of references to other early but now lost documents. And although the. Gospels are said to originate as early as 70 AD I don’t believe that there is any evidence for their existence before c150-180, the earlier texts may be the theorized missing “Q” text that the Synoptics are thought to have been derived from.

    On names generally, the gospels appear to deliberately obfuscate names, the apostles are given a variety of names and references. Robert Eisenmann postulates that this was deliberate and an attempt to obscure the fact that at least three of Jesus’ brothers were apostles and this was in conflict with the “Virgin birth” doctrine. Eisenmann is generally a. Very interesting read on this entire early Christian period, take what you will of his theories about James and the Dead Sea scrolls. He certainly seems very convincing on the relationships of the early texts and the historical happenings.

  13. “We don’t have evidence of two famous Jesus’s in Judea at the time.”

    We don’t have evidence of any famous Jesus in Judea at the time.

  14. Fr Simon-

    I can’t claim credit for the honorific Mary idea, I got it off the internet somewhere or other. But I think it makes some sense at least as a speculation, and may explain why John and the author of Philip seem to have made a point of telling us about Marys. They’re saying that these aren’t any old women, they’re righteous women of the pre-church group.

    It seems to me that at this stage, there isn’t a church, there isn’t even a “sect”. It’s basically just a family, expanding by attracting new members both male (disciples) and female (our hypothetical “Marys”). We get a hint of that at the Wedding at Cana, which is a family story. Why are they all there- Jesus, Mary, the disciples? Why does Mary think it’s Jesus’s problem that the wine’s run out? Is this really an early “Christian” wedding- i.e. a wedding of “Jesus Family” members?

  15. Ian B – ““Bar abba(s)” means “son of the father”. Jesus described himself as the son of God the father. So the crowd had two fellows called Jesus, son of the father, to choose from. It’s all a bit peculiar.”

    Yes and no. It looks like they had two people to choose from. But then the boc is probably a fake so actually it looks as if they don’t. The Jews often claimed Jesus was a bastard son of a Roman soldier so the Son of the Father formulation may have been common enough for those who did not have an identifiable father.

    Ian B – “This is particularly problematic because it seems that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a sister called Mary, the wife of Clopas.”

    Why is it problematic? Like many other cultures the NT uses kinship terms to describe close friendships that are not actually blood relations. The obvious example being Jesus’ brother.

    “Further, the apocryphal Gospel Of Phillip offers this-”

    In other words it is bullsh!t. There is a reason they are apocryphal.

    “What we are left with is an astonishing abundance of Marys.”

    Which is perfectly normal in Hispanic societies where every other girl is called Mary and half the boys too. I don’t see it is so odd for Roman Palestine.

  16. Aachen Cathedral supposedly contains the relics of Jesus’s swaddling clothes, the loin cloth he wore during his crucifixion, a robe of the Virgin Mary and the cloth on which John the Baptist’s head was placed after his decapitation, all collected by Charlemagne.

    They only put them on display every seven years and the next time happens to be 20 to 30 June 2014 should anyone be keen.

    I know this because I’ve attended a couple of conferences at the university and took the opportunity to visit the rather spectacular cathedral. It is certainly a city worth visiting. The market place is dominated by the Rathaus and has a number of reasonable pavement bars and eateries dotted around it. It has always been sunny when I’ve been there so the bars and restaurants were made good use of.

  17. The Bar-Abbas thing makes me wonder if the entire thing wasn’t just the most monumental case of mistaken identity in history.

  18. “There is a reason they are apocryphal”

    Yes, they didn’t fit with the political agenda of the church leaders when the gospels were edited into the orthodox version.

    That said, I’m pretty convinced there was a historical Jesus. He wouldn’t be the first person in history to have tall tales told about him. I’ve heard the virgin birth myth described as the most long-running and consequential excuse for adultery in history.

  19. JamesV – “The Bar-Abbas thing makes me wonder if the entire thing wasn’t just the most monumental case of mistaken identity in history.”

    You mean someone else of the same name was nailed up and then allegedly got up and wandered off?

    Matthew L – “Yes, they didn’t fit with the political agenda of the church leaders when the gospels were edited into the orthodox version.”

    Not entirely sure if it makes sense to talk of Church leaders at the time the gospels were written down. But why not? Go for the childish pop-Marxist conspiracy theory. Ignore the fact that most of them are entertainingly and spectacularly daft.

    Although it does raise the interesting question – by the time of Saint Augustine, the issue of the canon is closed. It had been going on for some time before that. What is the specific political issue that led to the exclusion of the non-canonical gospels?

    “That said, I’m pretty convinced there was a historical Jesus. He wouldn’t be the first person in history to have tall tales told about him.”

    It would be hard to think of a reason why anyone would invent anything so spectacularly absurd as the gospel stories about Jesus.

    “I’ve heard the virgin birth myth described as the most long-running and consequential excuse for adultery in history.”

    I am sure we all have.

  20. You mean someone else of the same name was nailed up and then allegedly got up and wandered off?

    Alternatively, it may have recorded the crowd calling for a singular Jesus, Son Of God, which was subsequently elaborated in the telling into an edition of “I’m A Condemned Prisoner, Get Me Out Of Here!”.

  21. There’s rather good bit in The Name of the Rose where Nicholas of Morimondo, newly installed as cellarer, shows Adso and William round the crypt containing the abbey’s treasures. Amongst them are fragments of the True Cross, a piece of the crown of thorns, the purse of St Matthew, St Anne’s arm bone, the engagement ring of St Joseph and a scrap of the Virgin Mary’s wedding dress. There’s some ash from Sodom, some manna from the desert and a bit of mortar from Jericho. William says that in Cologne cathedral he saw the skull of St John the Baptist at the age of twelve. Adso quibbles, saying the Baptist was executed when he was much older. William replies, sardonically, that his other skull must be somewhere else. That’s the way I feel when I hear about these sorts of artefacts being dug up: if they’re not outright frauds then their provenance is so shaky as to make them worthless except perhaps as archaeological curios.

  22. SFMS, why go to the trouble of pretending thatJesus had no brothers ? As a historical person, I’m rather inclined to the view that since many of the non-canonical stories about Jesus do provide him with up to 3 brothers why not accept them as such ? Unless you want to claim that the virgin birth is verified ?

  23. @SMfS
    “Which is perfectly normal in Hispanic societies where every other girl is called Mary and half the boys too.”
    Er…that does seem a case of the cart preceding the donkey. But you do have a point. Given names being culturally ‘fixed’ (along with their obvious contractions) is very much recent Brit. Can’t think of a one of my grandparent’s generation was known by their given forename but seem to have acquired alternates. And in the culture, here, most of the people I know go around under names different from the ones they were given. The reason’s possibly how they get given. They get a surname from each parent & a forename from each family, often again the parent’s So it’s not hard to imagine you can get a whole load of Josés & Marias after a few generations. Maybe the reason you’re having the discussion is not so much the peculiarities of Judean naming practices but the peculiarity of recent Brit ones & the arrival of Wayne & Brittney.

    “It would be hard to think of a reason why anyone would invent anything so spectacularly absurd as the gospel stories about Jesus.”
    We seemed to swallow Bliar’s WMD’s, hook line & sinker.
    But more seriously, the Christ figure is roughly conforming to the expectations of any prospective Jewish messiah . And the Orthodox would say there’s a contender born for that role in every generation. It’s the one coincides with the red calf & the rebuilding of the Temple gets the prize

  24. Ed – The canonical gospels also say Jesus had brothers (try Mark 6:3).

    David G – Martin Luther’s got a similarly sardonic quote or two about the relics that kept turning up in the middle ages.

    As for 1st century Judean names, the more common ones in the New Testament seem to have a descriptor added to them (e.g. John the Baptist or John son of thunder, Simon the Zealot or Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot or Judas son of James) whereas the less common names don’t bother with it. There’s an interesting (I thought so anyway) argument for the early authorship of the gospels from how they deal with names – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5Ylt1pBMm8

  25. There I was enjoying a civil and cordial discussion about unusual things among those of respectfully differing views and along comes the fundamentalist Christian SMFS to shit on it all from a great height because he can’t bear the thought that some people are unconvinced that a poorly-documented person rose from the dead, promised to come back within the lifetimes of his colleagues, failed to do so, but is still somehow going to keep that promise. Proof if ever there was any needed that there is no God – or at least He has no sense of humor.

    SMFS, mistaken identity in terms of the wrong person getting picked to get let off crucifixion.

    And you’re just wrong about the canonical new testament. It was still open until the council of Trent. In 1546. Not a lot of people know that.

  26. Technically, of course, if the traditional accounts are correct then it is James *half* brother of Jesus.

  27. >And you’re just wrong about the canonical new testament. It was still open until the council of Trent. In 1546. Not a lot of people know that.

    Hmmm. Question that.

    The Council of Trent only involved the Roman Catholics talking to themselves, and was more about “we are NOT Protestants and they are NOT Catholics”.

    And was it not about the Deuterocanonical (Apocrypha) rather than the Canonical books. That distinction was established well before that point and maintained.

    The interesting one for me is that Chapter and Verse didn’t appear until medieval times.

  28. Ian B – “Alternatively, it may have recorded the crowd calling for a singular Jesus, Son Of God, which was subsequently elaborated in the telling into an edition of “I’m A Condemned Prisoner, Get Me Out Of Here!”.”

    You can see a process of myth building in mediaeval accounts of Saints. But they tend to comform to a type. What is actually interesting is how hard it is to build such a tradition from new. The Communists created Cults of Personality in which Stalin/Mao/YUncle Ho/Whoever could do all but walk on water. But ascribing miracles to them was a little limited.

    I would tend to see Jesus as part of a long Middle Eastern religious tradition which had time, a long long time, to build up to such a final story.

    David Gillies – “That’s the way I feel when I hear about these sorts of artefacts being dug up: if they’re not outright frauds then their provenance is so shaky as to make them worthless except perhaps as archaeological curios.”

    The Church has probably noticed this. In fact I think they even have a theology of it. Which presumably says it does not matter if they are real or not. Given Christians are not worshiping said items. It only matters if it makes Christians think about God.

    Ed Snack – “SFMS, why go to the trouble of pretending thatJesus had no brothers ?”

    Who – me or the early Church? No idea. It seems important to the story and it has been part of the Christian tradition for as long as records go back. So it was important to them.

    “As a historical person, I’m rather inclined to the view that since many of the non-canonical stories about Jesus do provide him with up to 3 brothers why not accept them as such ? Unless you want to claim that the virgin birth is verified ?”

    They claim he made pigeons from clay and brought them to life by breathing on them too. I am not sure that we want to go down the path of believing what the non-canonical gospels say. The point is two-fold. One is that they are absurd. The other is that for the past 2000 years roughly 100 percent of Christians believed that Jesus had no brothers in the literal sense. I would require a pretty convincing reason to accept they were all wrong.

    bloke in spain – “Er…that does seem a case of the cart preceding the donkey.”

    It does. I admit it. But we have one society in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition where a very small number of names are being used. It is not unreasonable to think that Palestine way back then might not have been the same.

    “So it’s not hard to imagine you can get a whole load of Josés & Marias after a few generations.”

    Even in the English speaking world it was not reasonable to call every Mary Mary because there were so many of them. And in the Spanish speaking world, well, if you’re talking to a Pilar or any one of a dozen other names, you are talking to a Maria. Even some of the boys. I always liked it that one of Napoleon’s generals, the officer who presided over the execution of the Royal heir, and eventually a much feared Minister of Police was called Anne Jean Marie Rene Savary. Presumably he was such a bastard because he got teased a lot as a child.

    “Maybe the reason you’re having the discussion is not so much the peculiarities of Judean naming practices but the peculiarity of recent Brit ones & the arrival of Wayne & Brittney.”

    It is a measure of the breakdown of society. We no longer follow traditional naming practices. Much like Freakonomics claimed African Americans do.

    “We seemed to swallow Bliar’s WMD’s, hook line & sinker.”

    But was that absurd? Everyone believed it and it was logical. We believed in Satanic Child Abuse, Recovered Memories and Split Personalities – that was more of a stretch.

    “But more seriously, the Christ figure is roughly conforming to the expectations of any prospective Jewish messiah .”

    Some of it. Some of it does not appear Jewish. The odd attitude to sex for instance.

    JamesV – “There I was enjoying a civil and cordial discussion about unusual things among those of respectfully differing views and along comes the fundamentalist Christian SMFS to shit on it all from a great height because he can’t bear the thought that some people are unconvinced that a poorly-documented person rose from the dead, promised to come back within the lifetimes of his colleagues, failed to do so, but is still somehow going to keep that promise. Proof if ever there was any needed that there is no God – or at least He has no sense of humor.”

    You know, I could point out how childish this is, especially given you know nothing of my religious beliefs whatsoever, but in the spirit of general good will to all men, I won’t bother. If you think that is being shat on from great height you have not ever been shat on have you?

    “And you’re just wrong about the canonical new testament. It was still open until the council of Trent. In 1546. Not a lot of people know that.”

    I agree. Not a lot of people know that. The Protestants re-opened the question by insisting on the word of the Bible. Which meant they had to double check to make sure all of it was sensible. Which they decided it wasn’t. So they threw out a handful of books.

  29. I think a lot of this discussion is confused because the commentators ^^^^ are mixing up Protestant and Catholic traditions.

    Catholics go for more books in their Bible (although all their extras are pre-Jesus), for relics (the plausibility of which has been known to be a fraction questionable), and for various wacky beliefs about the virgin Mary (e.g. that she and Josepth never consummated their marriage after Jesus’s birth – despite the plain text of the n.t. fairly clearly stating otherwise!).

    Protestants tend to more mild and plausible beliefs (although it’s worth remembering that Protestants are a much less homogeneous group than Catholics, and thus can’t be assumed to all believe the same stuff!)

    As far as the question goes of “was there a real Jesus”, I think it’s fairly clear that something happened around a.d.33 that caused the development of Christianity (as opposed to Judaism), and which saw it spread rapidly over the next few hundred years.
    I think it’s unlikely it was all just an invention of the apostles – if it was, they could quickly have been shouted down by the established religious and political leaders pointing out the was no such figure.

  30. Maybe it’s my background, but I tend to find Calvinism a sight easier to swallow than some of the relics, to say nothing of the concept of papal infallibility…

    Note also that I did say “tend to”, not that they always were.

    To be fair, as someone who would happily wear the label, I understand your general dislike of “Calvinists”. However, I feel you blend them too closely with neo-puritan. There are plenty of ‘vices’ from which I abstain, but unlike historic puritanism, I would not seek to ban.

    Take for example smoking and drinking to excess. I do neither, and would rather all men did the same – however I don’t see it as the state’s businesses to rule on matters moral – that is between men and God. You might say I’m a libertarian Calvinist – and while that is unusual, I think it is becoming more common, certainly within contemporary evangelical Christianity.

  31. They were all common names. Christ is a title.

    However, in Acts, Paul acknowledges James as Jesus’ brother. Since he was on the other side, theologically, over whether people with foreskins could be Christian, & Paul was not reticent about attacking those he disagreed with, this acknowledgement is persuasive.

  32. the Prole – “I think it’s unlikely it was all just an invention of the apostles – if it was, they could quickly have been shouted down by the established religious and political leaders pointing out the was no such figure.”

    There is a plausible case that Muhammed did not exist. He is not mentioned for about 200 years after he supposedly died.

    And yet Islam is a lot more historic than early Christianity.

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