Authentic faith does not emerge because of facts or evidence. The journey of faith follows paths other than the ones taken by history and science. Or as Jesus put it to an early skeptic: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
What makes this artifact so potentially significant is its inscription. Written in Aramaic on the outside of the box are the words, “James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus.”
These names are well known to Christians. James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus’ death. Joseph, of course, is the name of Mary’s husband. If these in fact refer to the well-known biblical figures, it would be the earliest historical reference to Jesus outside the Bible.
Of course, proving that the names on the box actually refer to biblical characters will not be easy. After all, Joseph, Jesus (Joshua) and James were common names in the ancient world. To immediately assume they refer to New Testament characters is a bit presumptuous. It would be like coming across a tombstone today with the inscription, “Bobby, son of Joseph, brother of John,” and assuming immediately it referred to the Kennedys.
More intriguing than the discovery itself, however, is the reaction many Christian believers are likely to have toward the find. The box is already being hailed as possible hard scientific proof of the existence of Jesus. Why would Christian believers need to prove that?
Except for a few hardcore skeptics, no one doubts that Jesus was a real person who lived and died 2,000 years ago. For that the box does not offer us much that we don’t already know.
But of course, it’s not just that Jesus was a historical figure that is important to Christians. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God and that he was raised from the dead. These ideas make Jesus unique and important. Unfortunately, simply finding a box with Jesus’ name on it does not prove these things one way or the other.
A popular bumper sticker a few years ago read, “God said it, I believe it—that settles it.” The idea was to convey the message that if something is in the Bible, its truth value is settled.
But as the Christian community grabs eagerly onto tiny morsels of history, holding them up as proof of their faith claims, it’s hard not to wonder if matters of faith are really all that settled. Their reaction could be interpreted as an anxious search for certainty—in which case we will need to revise that bumper sticker to read, “God said it, I believe it, history confirms it, and that settles it—I hope.”
No doubt some will argue that historical confirmation is necessary to convince a skeptical world of the truth of the Bible. If we could get our hands on some irrefutable historical or scientific proof about Jesus, unbelievers would have little choice but to come to faith.
But that is not the way faith works. Authentic faith does not emerge because of facts or evidence. The journey of faith follows paths other than the ones taken by history and science. Or as Jesus put it to an early skeptic: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”