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.

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About Adam Lee

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


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