An extended description of the death of James, brother of Jesus, appears in the Ecclesiastical History of the church Father Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260–339). Eusebius quotes a passage from a now-lost work by Hegesippus, a Christian writer who lived in Palestine in the second century. Hegesippus said that James was holy “from his mother’s womb,” never drinking wine, eating meat or bathing himself and kneeling in prayer so often “that his knees became hard like those of a camel.” He was therefore called “the Just” and, in Greek, Oblias, “Bulwark of the People.”

Following the crucifixion of Jesus, James became leader of the early Christians in Jerusalem. Preaching that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah, he won many converts, including some from the ruling classes. According to Hegesippus, his preaching alarmed the scribes and Pharisees, who ordered him to stand at the Jerusalem Temple before a large crowd and retract his statements. James went to the top of the Temple, but instead of recanting, he confirmed that Jesus was indeed the Christ. Then, writes Hegesippus,

They [the scribes and the Pharisees] went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, “Let us stone James the Just.” And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall, but he knelt down and said, “I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head.

And thus he [James] suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple.

James’s gruesome death is depicted in sequence on a 13th-century mosaic in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. From left to right, James is shown standing before a crowd of Jews; he is then pushed from the top of the Temple and beaten to death by the fuller while several Pharisees look on; finally, he is buried beneath the Temple.a

Hegesippus’s account of James’s demise, though dramatic, is not entirely reliable. His claim that James’s knees were as hard as a camel’s, for instance, sounds like an exaggerated detail rather than an historical fact. A similar, but pithier, account appears in the Antiquities of the Jews by the first-century historian Josephus. Josephus writes (Antiquities 20.9.1) that a hot-headed high priest named Ananus accused James and others of breaking the law and summarily sentenced them to death by stoning. When citizens protested at the men’s execution, King Agrippa stripped Ananus of the high priesthood.

Although brief, Josephus’s account is important in two respects. First, Josephus refers to James as “James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ/Messiah.” This reference, which clearly identifies James as Jesus’ brother, is one of only a few ancient allusions to Jesus. Josephus also mentions Jesus elsewhere in his Antiquities, in a controversial passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3.3), which scholars believe contains a number of later Christian interpolations.b The Roman historian Tacitus also refers to Jesus, recording his execution by Pontius Pilate (Annales 15.44.3).

Second, Josephus dates James’s death to the administration of the Roman procurator (governor) Festus, who held office in the year of 62 C.E. If Josephus’ dating is correct, then James’s death would have occurred within the 90-year period (20 B.C.E.-70 C.E.) during which ossuaries like the one André Lemaire describes in the accompanying article were in common use in Israel.