An article appeared recently at Ancient Origins concerning the James Ossuary – an artifact thought to be the bone box of St. James the Just.* It contains an inscription (“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”) that makes it the earliest non-scriptural archeological evidence for Jesus Christ.
The article explained that the Ossuary has managed to overcome the accusations of forgery that have been leveled against it since its discovery in 2002. Unfortunately the article also claims that,
“If the ossuary is indeed the container of the apostle James’ bones, one of Jesus’ brothers, this undermines the Catholic dogma of … the ever virgin Mary.”
This is simply not true.
The Church teaches that Jesus did not have any full siblings, because his mother Mary had no other children. Now, Jesus did have family relationships that the New Testament writers describe using the Greek term “adelphoi” – a word that can refer to siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, cousins, countrymen, or fellow believers. Hebrew also Aramaic (Jesus’ spoken language – and the one used on the Ossuary) has the same kind of catch-all term for these relationships (“aha“).
So what does it mean?
Jesus did not have any “full siblings” as all Christians acknowledge. The “half-sibling” translation is ruled out by the Church and the earliest textual and traditional evidence. While adelphoi can refer to “cousins,” there is a more specific Greek term available and there is no Aramaic term for “cousin.”
It is therefore most likely that Jesus had what we would call “step-brothers” related to Jesus by marriage (e.g., Gen. 37:4). This traditional understanding is not only linguistically possible, it is also in agreement with early evidence that St. Joseph was a widower who became Mary’s guardian (e.g., The Protoevangelium of James – A.D. 120).
The Bible does not always use very precise terms when it comes to family relationships (examples), and context here is unhelpful because it does not really narrow down usage. The word’s translations, then, are interpretive. Thus, the James Ossuary inscription does not undermine Catholic teaching whether it is genuine or not.