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Carrying Bones Into The Future

Religion in Daily Life

By the Rev. Edward Chinn, D.Min.

Rector, All Saints’ Church


“James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is the Aramaic inscription on a first century bone box recently discovered in Israel. The Jews practiced bone box (ossuary) burials only between 20 B.C. and A.D. 70. According to the earliest Christian gospel account (Mark 6:3), Jesus of Nazareth had four brothers (James, Joseph, Judas and Simon) and some sisters. Though some explain away these siblings of Jesus as children of Joseph by a previous wife, or as cousins of Jesus, both the Aramaic and Greek languages did have terms for cousin, if that was what was meant. Naming the brother as well as the father on a bone box was very unusual (Richard Ostling, AP, Oct. 23, 2002).

This first century bone box of James, the brother of Jesus, was empty. Bible expert Ben Witherington III explains the absence of the bones. He says, “I conjecture that the reason the bone box contained no bones when found is because the Jewish Christians who fled to Pella (according to church tradition) probably took the bones with them, so James’s remains would not be desecrated by the Romans. The bone box was probably too heavy to flee with, especially if the city was left in haste” (http://www.beliefnet.com, “The Most Important Extrabiblical Evidence of Its Kind”, Oct. 23, 2002).

Once before, the Bible talks about carrying a man’s bones away. In the written Torah it says: “Then Joseph had the sons of Israel make a promise. He said, ‘Promise me that you will carry my bones with you out of Egypt'” (Genesis 50:25, NCV). The Torah states that over 500 years later, “Moses carried the bones of Joseph with him, because before Joseph died, he had made the Israelites promise to do this” (Exodus 13:19, NCV). What is the lesson we can learn from those who carrying bones with them? A wise man summed up the meaning in this way: “Unless some things are carried from the past into the future, there will be no future worth having.”

I see those bones of Joseph and James as symbols of important matters we need to carry with us into the future. The bones stand for the sense of responsibility. This is the attitude that says “Yes” to Cain’s defensive question to God, “Am I supposed to take care of my brother?” (Genesis 4:9). The bones stand for the sense of respect for our fellow humans. The bones stand for the sense of reverence before the mystery of creation, the marvel of human consciousness, and the presence of the world of Spirit.


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