The Rise and Fall of the James Ossuary

In October 2002, a dramatic find exploded onto the scene in the field of Biblical archaeology. At a Washington press conference, Hershel Shanks, editor and publisher of the Biblical Archaeology Review, presented a large audience with what he called “the first ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus.” The find was an ossuary – a stone box used in the ancient world to bury the bones of a deceased person – with an Aramaic inscription reading, “Yaakov bar Yoseph, Achui de Yeshua“, which in English is, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

The announcement caused a media sensation. In the following days, reports appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and elsewhere. Experts and would-be experts of every stripe pronounced the ossuary completely genuine, and completely fraudulent. Complex mathematical calculations were invoked regarding the probability of finding three such names together by chance. Long arguments were waged about the authenticity of the ossuary script. The implications for the mythicist view of the origins of Christianity were profound.

And yet, by the summer of 2003, the whole story had come apart at the seams. The James Ossuary stood revealed as a modern forgery, and the prestigious scholars who had supported it were publicly embarrassed. The media lost interest, the story sank from view, and the Israeli antiquities dealer who first brought it to light was facing indictment. What brought about the dramatic fall of the James Ossuary?

Despite the James Ossuary’s lacking any known provenance or history, the defenders of authenticity seemed to hold sway for the first few months. The ossuary was displayed to much fanfare at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Semitic epigrapher Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne pronounced it undeniably genuine. Together with Hershel Shanks and Oded Golan, the 51-year-old Israeli engineer and antiquities trader who had owned the ossuary, Lemaire strongly defended the ossuary against early critics, questioning the qualifications and experience of those who, unlike him, suspected a modern fraud. Other experts in Semitic epigraphy, including Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins, and Joseph Fitzmyer of the Catholic University, also pronounced it genuine. Amnon Rosenfeld and Shimon Ilani of the Geological Survey of Israel carried out microscopic tests that confirmed the ossuary was a genuine ancient artifact, its stone covered by a patina of the type known to form over centuries in rock-cut burial chambers.

The next chapter of the story came in January 2003, when there was another amazing find: the so-called Jehoash Inscription, rumored to have been discovered during building activity on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The stone slab had an inscription supposedly written by King Jehoash of Judah, detailing some repairs he undertook to the First Temple (as echoed in 2 Kings 12). Even more sensational, the stone was found to be covered with microscopic gold globules – evidence, some claimed, of the intense fire that destroyed the Temple during the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

This find, too, had an explosive impact. Right-wing Israeli groups promptly claimed the Jehoash Inscription was a sign from God that it was time to rebuild the Temple, while Muslims warned that any attempt to damage the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which now stands on the site) would provoke a holy war.

But this time, the skeptical voices were louder. The world-renowned Semitic epigrapher Frank Moore Cross pronounced the inscription a crude forgery, combining letter forms from several different historic periods. And though the tablet’s owner tried to remain anonymous, the Israeli media soon discovered that it was none other than Oded Golan. What were the odds of a single, amateur antiquities collector just happening to own two unique and priceless artifacts dramatically confirming different parts of the Bible?

Soon, more news surfaced. The Israeli Antiquities Authority had been investigating a rumored plot to defraud a wealthy collector by selling him forged artifacts, and their investigation had led them to the Jehoash Inscription and from there to Oded Golan. In March, the police raided a storehouse owned by Golan and discovered damning evidence: engraving tools, labeled bags of soil from across Israel, and numerous forged artifacts in various stages of production. A clear consensus soon arose that the Jehoash Inscription was a forgery, containing numerous grammatical mistakes and crudely combining letter forms from different historical periods. More, the tablet itself was made of a metamorphic stone common in Cyprus and points west, not in the local region.

The stage was now set for a detailed reappraisal of the James Ossuary. This time, several clues were discovered that had previously been overlooked.

The rock surface of the ossuary was covered in two coatings: a thin veneer of rock varnish – clay and minerals cemented to the stone, deposited by algae and bacteria over long time periods – and a crusty layer of patina formed by natural chemical reactions. Three weathered rosettes carved into one side of the ossuary lay underneath both of these layers. But the inscription naming James was cut through these layers.

There was more. A chalky composite material, nicknamed the “James Bond”, was bonded into the carvings that formed the letters of the inscription, but nowhere else on the ossuary’s surface. In a damp cave, calcite precipitates and crystallizes on the surface of ancient stone, forming a chalky coating of patina. But the James Bond, under microscopic investigation, was found to contain marine microfossils called coccoliths. This chalk did not originate in a cave, but in the sea. More, an oxygen isotope analysis showed that the calcite had precipitated out of heated water – about 120 degrees Fahrenheit – not the cool temperatures one would expect in a subterranean environment.

The conclusion was obvious. The forger had taken an authentic ancient ossuary, carved with rosettes on one side and blank on the other. He had carved the James inscription through the varnish and patina, probably copying the letter forms from an archaeological catalog. Then he had dissolved powdered chalk in hot water and painted it onto the carvings, trying to recreate the natural patina.

In June 2003, the Geological Survey of Israel and the Israeli Antiquities Authority officially concluded that both the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription were frauds. Frank Moore Cross also changed his mind, pronouncing the ossuary a forgery. The ossuary’s initial defenders, Shanks and Lemaire, reacted angrily, maintaining their belief in authenticity and claiming that the IAA and their other adversaries were motivated by personal bias, but much of their support had evaporated. Today, a few apologist holdouts continue to insist on authenticity, but most experts in the field seem ready to forget the whole embarrassing affair.

In a coda to this story, the Israeli authorities in December 2004 indicted Oded Golan, along with three other men, on charges of running a forgery ring. (Another item said to be forged and attributed to Golan in the indictment is an ivory pomegranate that was claimed to be the only surviving relic of Solomon’s Temple.) As far as I’m aware, no motive has been alleged other than monetary gain. Golan’s trial has not yet concluded.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from the rise and fall of the James Ossuary, it’s that we can no longer trust artifacts of unknown provenance. It’s become too easy to put together a convincing forgery, and there are too many motives for someone to do so. From now on, we must be skeptical of the authenticity of any artifact that surfaces out of nowhere in the hands of a private collector – especially artifacts that seem to bear some important corroboration of the Bible or any other story that anyone has a vested interest in proving true. The only artifacts we should accept as genuine are those that turn up in situ in the course of legitimate archaeological investigation. Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren say it best in their article “Faking Biblical History” in the September 2003 issue of Archaeology:

The very serious question of the historicity of the Bible – with all its powerful implications for religious belief and identity – is not the sort of thing to be decided by staged public presentations of isolated artifacts from dubious sources. It is only by adopting a strict and uncompromising standard of evidence and rejecting temptation to simplistically trumpet a headline-grabbing relic or promote a high-visibility museum exhibition that our understanding of the Bible – and indeed all of the human past – will be advanced.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate

    Clap clap clap.

    Very nice summing up. I remember following these cases when they came out but hadn’t heard where they went. And didn’t the forger have all kinds of supplies and equipment in his bathroom where he was caught in the act of creating more ancient thingys (like velocipedes, holy grails, and Atari consoles)?

    Isn’t it great when the religious say that all you need is “faith” to believe in god and bible but then turn handstands and shout “See, you miserable sinners!” any time something slightly plausible to prove the bible turns up? And then they ignore it again when it is proved a fake? Is that hypocrisy or some other fancy Latin word?

  • jack

    I have two thoughts on this fascinating post. First, does anyone else have the feeling that there is a media bias at work in cases like this? Specifically: The original story of the fabulous discovery of evidence of the historical Jesus got far more coverage in the popular press than did the debunking.

    Second, I am reminded of a statement by Francis Collins in the podcast interview that Ebon discussed elsewhere. When asked if he could imagine any evidence that could convince him that his religious beliefs were wrong, he said something to the effect that, if someone discovered the bones of Christ, he might have to admit he was wrong. I suspect he got this answer, like so much else in his theology, from C.S. Lewis, but I could be mistaken. In any case, it’s a pretty safe bet he will never have to be embarrassed by the discovery of the bones of Christ. If anyone did find the bones of Christ, how would be know they were really his? Does the New Testament provide Jesus’ mitochondrial DNA sequence as an appendix?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Here’s the thing that always struck me about the James ossuary debacle:

    Even if it hadn’t been fraudulent, what would it have proven?

    It might have offered some evidence — maybe — that the historical Jesus existed. Not entirely trivial, to be sure. But how would that have supported the claim that Jesus was the divine son of God, born, crucified, and risen again in three days to redeem our sins? All it supports is the idea that the words and stories in the four Gospels were attributed to a real historical figure, not a made-up composite character. It doesn’t even support the idea that those words and stories were really spoken/ done by this historical figure — much less that they were of divine origin.

    I think Corsair the R.P. is right. There’s a “grasping at straws” quality to the reaction whenever supposed “evidence” for religion arises. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.

    Oh, BTW: Can someone enlighten me on something? If archaeological evidence did arise supporting the idea that the historical Jesus lived and had a brother, wouldn’t that shoot a pretty big hole in Mary’s virginity? I know some Christian sects don’t care about Mary’s virginity after Christ’s birth… but some of them really do. Was James supposed to be adopted, or a half-brother, or what?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Well done, again. I hope all reading this contrast the different attitudes involved here with those engendered by the discovery of the Piltdown forgery. As opposed to the religious holdouts Ebon referred to, when evidence the Piltdown fraud was discovered, even those scientists lending the “fossil” credence modified their positions accordingly. That is the beauty of science; it is self-correcting.

    Greta –

    I’d always been taught that James was Jesus’s half-brother, and was fathered by Joseph and birthed by Mary. (I was raised a Southern Baptist).

    Jack –

    If there is a bias, I think it may have more to do with a bias against admitting error, rather than one based on religionism. I cannot recall having read any retraction in a newspaper on the front page, be the topic secular or religious; nor can I remember any newscast leading off its broadcast with a correction, except in the case of Dan Rather’s reportage of Dubya’s ANG service. Of course, this doesn’t preclude an additional, religious, bias, but I doubt that that is the primary one.

  • http://www.blakeclan.org/jon/greenoasis/ Jonathan Blake

    Greta, you can read ad nauseum Catholic apologetics about Mary, the ever virgin.

  • Brock

    Greta–
    I’ve heard two suggestions regarding James and the other siblings. One is that they were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage (No Biblical indications of this, are there?) The other, and this is really beautiful, is that ALL THE OTHER SIBLINGS WERE VIRGIN BIRTHS TOO!!!!!!! She had to have given birth to other children because the scripture refers to Jesus as her “first-born” son, implying that there were more. This raises a problem however, that I’m not sure how to answer. In the first virgin birth, there was a father, sort of–The Holy Spook. In the followup virgin births, who, or what was the father? And if God really places such a premium on Mary’s virginity, why did Jesus need brothers and sisters so much that a succession of miracles were provided for Mary to have them?

  • http://tinyurl.com/rotht Heathen Dan

    The basic story is already quite known, though I had hoped that you could say more about the “hold-outs” who still support the Ossuary. Shanks’ journal, Biblical Archaeology Review, still maintains that fraud is unproven and that a reexamination of the bone box is needed.

  • DamienSansBlog

    “Biblical Archaelogy Review”…I’m curious, do other religions get their own archeological sub-fields? Qur’anic Archeology, Vedic Archaeology, etc.? I know that there is archaeology focusing, for example, on India’s Vedic period, but does it get official recognition in capital letters?

    Also, Corsair, be advised that “hypocrisy” was originally a Greek word, meaning something like “to play a part as an actor on a stage”. Not very useful information, I know, but maybe you’ll find it edifiying, somewhere, somehow.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate

    Thank you, DamienSansBlog for that education. I will try and work that into my conversations with people somehow.

  • konrad_arflane

    She had to have given birth to other children because the scripture refers to Jesus as her “first-born” son, implying that there were more.

    Maybe, maybe not. I’d say it depends on the context where “first-born” appears. It’s in Luke ch. 2, of course, but does it appear elsewhere? If not, I think it is defensible to claim that “first-born” refers only to the fact that she had had no other children when she gave birth to Jesus – that is, it can be taken in the context of the of the knowledge available to the characters in the narrative, and not in the context of the knowledge available to the narrator.

    In any event, even if “first-born” appears elsewhere, it seems rather shaky ground for concluding that Jesus necessarily had siblings, in the absence of corroborating evidence.

  • terrence

    Over at http://www.russellsteapot.com, you can learn that Deviki, mother of Krishna; Celestine, mother of the crucified Zunis; Chimalman, mother of Quexalcote; Minerva, mother of Bacchus; and Prudence, mother of Hercules were all virgins. So for all of you who are constantly prattling on about relying on “evidence” — I’d say that’s pretty strong evidence that Mary was a virgin, too. :)

  • Entomologista

    My Ethiopian Orthodox labmate says the Ark of the Covenant is located in Ethiopia. Specifically, in the town of Axum.

  • OMGF

    At least there’s still the Shroud of Turin! HA!!!!!11111oneoneonepwnpwnpwn

    ….

    Oh wait…

  • OMGF

    I got this article over on Pharyngula and thought it fit in well with this post.

    This is an interesting read on the topic as well.

  • lpetrich

    terrence, you ought to be more careful.

    Krishna’s mother was Devaki, and she had 7 children, all boys, before she had Krishna.
    Who’s Celestine?
    Dionysus’s mother was Semele
    Hercules’s mother was Alcmene

    Divine impregnation was almost absurdly common in Greek mythology, to the point that such well-documented people as Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander the Great, and Augustus Caesar got stories of literal biological divine paternity told about them. However, divine impregnation is lacking from some other mythologies, notably the Old Testament.

    Try studying Lord Raglan’s Mythic-Hero profile some time — Jesus Christ fits remarkably well.


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