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FIRST CENTURY 'BONE BOX' IS ON DISPLAY

A 2,000-year-old stone container said to be the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus, went on exhibit Saturday in Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

The 40-pound ossuary, which means "bone box" in Latin, sparked international excitement last month when it was discovered that the Aramaic inscription read "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

Historians say that if the inscription is authentic, the likelihood that the bones belonged to someone other than Jesus' brother is about 1 in 20 based on the common use of those names in that region during the first century.

While it may never be known if the box contained the bones of Jesus' brother, much work has been done to confirm its ancient heritage.

After examining the limestone box, Ed Keall, the Royal Ontario Museum's senior curator, said the box likely spent a century buried in a cave before being emptied of its original bones -- possibly those of an unknown relative of Jesus -- and rededicated to James.

"I believe that the inscription is genuine and it was inserted onto an older box," he said.

What Keall noticed was two six-pointed stars surrounded by circles, roughly the size of compact discs, on the reverse side of the box, indicating that may have been the side originally meant for public display. These stars were carved into the rock after it had been painted with red ochre, tiny flecks of which remain visible on the light brown stone.

It was common practice at the time for a family to bury a body, wait until it was reduced to a skeleton, and then place the bones in an ossuary, Keall said. Sometimes, he added, ossuaries may have been reused.

Like many artifacts from the Holy Land, this one comes without any trace of its history.

Oded Golan, a 51-year-old engineer and antiquities collector from Tel Aviv, bought the ossuary 25 years ago in Jerusalem for a few hundred dollars.

Because Jesus was a common name in ancient Israel and Golan had sold other ossuaries before without stirring any excitement, it was not until a French scholar was examining another burial box in Golan's apartment several months ago that the potential importance of James' ossuary was discovered.

Since then, the ossuary has undergone intensive examination of its inscription, the patina, traces of coloration and remains of plants to determine whether all its components derive from the same period.

Some skeptics question the difference in inscription style between the first and second half of the wording, and others question whether James would have been identified so simply.

But most scholars believe the ossuary is an authentic bone box from the first century.

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