National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

Israeli archeologists call ossuary writing fake

Link to Jesus’ James is forgery, they say, but other experts call finding premature


An inscription on an ancient stone burial box suggesting it held the remains of James, the brother of Jesus, is a fake, Israeli archaeological experts say.

The Aramaic inscription on the limestone box, called an ossuary, was deemed genuine last October, when scholars and scientists announced the artifact could provide a link between the Jesus of the Bible and a historical figure named Jesus. If authenticated, the ossuary would have been one of the oldest archaeological references to biblical figures.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority has announced that the inscription on the so-called James Ossuary, right, is a forgery. Below, part of the inscription reads "Ya'cov," the Hebrew name for James.

The inscription, which reads, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” originally thought to date to about 63 A.D., was in fact carved over the stone’s natural fossilized sheen, or patina, the experts of the Israeli Antiquities Authority said.

Last October, scholars defending the box’s authenticity argued the Aramaic script used on the box matches the style that was popular in the first decades of the first century after the birth of Jesus.

Still, two committees of archaeological specialists in Israel announced June 18 that though the artifact is real, the inscription is a forgery.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority, a government agency, set up the committees to examine the so-called James Ossuary and another ancient tablet with an inscription referring to an ancient king.

“The ossuary is real. But the inscription is fake,” Shuka Dorfman, the director of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, said. “What this means is that someone took the real box and forged the writing on it, probably to give it a religious significance.”

The use of the ossuary was a common Jewish burial practice from the first century B.C. to about 70 A.D. At the time of Jesus and James, it was common among Jews to conduct two burials. A corpse would be laid out in a burial cave until the flesh decayed, then the bones would be placed in an ossuary and reburied.

The new team of research-ers, through chemical and microscopic analyses, said the inscription on the James Ossuary cut through the patina, a thin coating acquired with age.

In addition, the committees concluded that the inscription appeared to be new, written by someone trying to reproduce ancient written characters based on existing examples of ancient writing; they found a mixture of writing styles.

However, they said, it is possible that the word “Yeshua” -- Jesus’ Hebrew name -- is authentic.

Yuval Goren, director of the Department of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, said that through testing he was able to determine that the patina within the carved letters was not authentic but was a forged substance consisting of chalk.

In addition, he said, it was quite easy to scrape off bits of the forged patina that was found inside the letters while the authentic patina on other parts of the ossuary adhered very well to the burial box.

Other experts, however, have said that finding may be premature.

“The problem is, the report is not out yet,” said Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeological Review in Washington, adding that there may be disagreement among the scientists. “There may be some archaeological politics involved.” Shanks is also coauthor, with Ben Witherington III, of The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Significance of the First Archeological Link to Jesus and His Family.

New Testament scholar Fr. Francis Moloney expressed surprise at “the clear-cut statement from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, issued before they provided any evidence to support their claim.”

“I would like to reserve judgment on the issue until I see not only that they declare the inscription a fake (although not the ossuary), but also why they are so sure that it is a fake,” Moloney, a Salesian priest and the Katharine Drexel Professor of Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, told NCR in an e-mail. “There are some very important Christian and even Catholic scholars who regard the inscription as authentic.”

Two other groups of specialists from the Geological Survey of Israel and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto studied the stone box earlier and determined it was genuine, Shanks said. Moreover, the patina over the inscription could have been worn down because the owner’s mother scrubbed it heavily, he added.

The ossuary’s owner, Oded Golan, is currently under investigation by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Israeli police.

Golan said he bought the ossuary in the mid-1970s from an antiquities dealer in Old Jerusalem. He also owns the so-called “Yoash inscription,” a tablet from the 9th century B.C. instructing the Jews how to maintain the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Israeli Antiquities Authority said the tablet was also a forgery.

Biblical scholar Robert Eisenman, author of James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, questioned the artifact’s authenticity from the beginning because the script on the box appeared to have been written in two hands.

“I always considered the timing of the Jesus Ossuary very odd and worrisome,” he told The Associated Press. “There was a spate of books on James and his importance in 1997 and 1998, and then the box appeared.”

James, who historians say was stoned to death in 62 A.D., is often considered the first bishop of the Christian church in Jerusalem. He is also described as Jesus’ brother in the gospels. Protestants accept James as Jesus’ brother, but Catholics, who believe Mary spent her life as a virgin, say he was a cousin. Many Orthodox Christians regard James as a son from a previous marriage of Joseph’s.

Daniel Eylon, professor and director of graduate materials engineering at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said that he thought the inscription was a fake “from day one.”

Eylon was invited to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to examine the ossuary in December. “It was a childish fake,” he said June 18. “Based on my analysis, it was very amateurish.”

In his examination, Eylon said, he noticed two barely visible rosette incisions on the back of the box, which “were almost completely eroded away, as you would expect for a 2,000-year-old artifact. So it doesn’t make sense that almost the entire inscription is still sharp and fresh. … After seeing it with my own eyes, I firmly believe that someone engraved the majority of the inscription rather recently.”

The strong possibility that the ossuary’s inscription, thought to be one of the greatest archaeological finds of modern times, may be a modern forgery leaves many braced for disappointment.

“If it turns out to be a fake, whoever did it should be put in jail,” Shanks said.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: