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  Ossuary Poses Problems for Catholic Teaching
by J. Grant Swank, Pastor
20
November 2002

Was Mary perpetually a Virgin? Are Catholics right to challenge people to be virgins for life like nuns and priests?

The box of bones is exciting as a "find." But for Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox theologians, it poses a real problem that could take some of the fun out of it.

These two branches of Christendom believe that Mary was perpetually a virgin. That is, obviously, she and husband Joseph never enjoyed God’s good gift of sex in marriage.

Of course, there is no biblical support for this. In fact, biblical support states that the two had sex. Matthew 1:25 states just that; that is, that after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph enjoyed conjugal relations. Further, Mark 6:3 lists Jesus’ four brothers’ names, and mentioned that He had "sisters."

So there you have it. And when you have it, you can’t have it both ways.

Yet why is this perpetual virginity such a big deal to Catholic and Orthodox? Could it be because celibacy is such a big deal for priests and nuns? So youths are then challenged to be virgins for life like unto the Blessed Mother.

However, once again, there is no biblical backing for this. Instead, the Scriptures state just the opposite regarding Mary.

(The Orthodox believe that Joseph had James by a first spouse. After she died, he married Mary, she birthing only Jesus, thus remaining virginal for life. This is legend with no historical foundation.

Catholics footnote their Bibles by stating that Jesus had no brothers and sisters but that such scriptural statements refer to His cousins. The trouble here is that, in Greek, the terms for "brothers" and "sisters" is not the same as the term for "cousin.")

Therefore, when Andre Lemaire, a specialist in ancient inscriptions at France’s Practical School of Higher Studies, writes in Biblical Archaeology Review that there is very probably an authentic reference to Jesus of Nazareth on an ossuary—the box of bones—it sets up a major problem for Catholics and Orthodox.

The find was in Israel. It would give us the oldest archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ as an historical figure. "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" appears in Aramaic (the language of Jesus) on an empty ossuary—the limestone burial box for bones. Lemaire speculates its date to be 63 AD. He banks that the writing style sets the inscription smack in the time of Jesus and James, leader of the Early Church in Jerusalem.

He states that only 20 Jameses would have had Joseph as father and Jesus as brother in the holy city at that time. Further, inscribing the name of both father and brother on an ossuary was "very unusual." Therefore, this Jesus must have had some unusual notoriety.

Two Israeli scientists with the Geological Survey, having seen through a microscopic exam of the box, inform that there is "no evidence that might detract from the authenticity."

Josephus, first century Jewish historian, scribed that "the brother of Jesus. . .James by name" was martyred by stoning in AD 62. If his bones were stored in a box, such could date to AD 63.

The ossuary’s anonymous owner had not known the value of his possession until Lemaire examined it last spring. Mr. Anonymous says he does not want to deal with pesty reporters or the cost of insurance and protecting the artifact. We might also add that his anonymity will also keep the packs of excited theologians from his door...

Email J. Grant Swank

BIO

Joseph Grant Swank, Jr., Pastor, New Hope Church, Windham ME

Graduate of accredited college (BA) and seminary (M Div) with graduate work at Harvard Divinity School.

Married for 41 years with 3 adult children.

Author of 5 books and over 2000 articles in various Protestant and Catholic
magazines, journals and newspapers. Writer of weekly religion column for
PORTLAND PRESS HERALD newspaper, Portland ME.

Hobbies: Traveling to South America, Europe, Middle East, Canada; writing;
watercolor painting; meeting new friends.

Current occupations: Pastor; Teacher at Alternative Learning School for
at-risk youths.

Pastorates: Calgary, Alberta; Indianapolis IN; Akron OH; Fishkill NY;
Manchester CT; Walpole MA; Windham ME.

Winner of First Prize Writing Contest which yielded a three-week guided tour
of the Middle East.