You may remember the stir caused a few years ago by the “James ossuary,” an ancient stone box discovered in the home of an Israeli antiques collector, which many speculated might have been the final resting place of the bones of James, the brother of Jesus. The story took a dramatic turn when the ossuary’s owner, Oded Golan, and a prominent antiquities dealer and professor at Haifa University, Robert Deutsch, were arrested and charged in 2004 with the forgery of the ossuary and several other ancient artifacts. The ossuary continued to be a subject of controversy and even playing a co-starring role in other archaeological controversies, such as that of the so-called “Jesus family tomb.”
Now after a trial more than five years long, Judge Aharon Farkash of the Jerusalem District Court has just cleared the defendants, Golan, and Deutsch, of all forgery charges. His opinion in the case, handed down on March 14, is 474 pages long.
Does this mean that the ossuary is genuine? Hershel Schanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeoloy Review, who has followed the case from the beginning, writes:
All agree that the ossuary itself is authentic and ancient. The question is whether the inscription is forged—or more specifically whether the phrase “brother of Jesus” was added in recent times to an ancient inscription “James, son of Joseph.”
The first stop in any investigation of this question would be at the door of paleographers, scholars who can date and authenticate inscriptions of particular periods based on the style and stance of the letters. In this case, the inscription has been authenticated by two of the greatest world authorities on the paleography of this period, as referred to previously, Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of Hebrew University. What is even more significant is that no paleographer of any repute has even suggested that this inscription might be a forgery. There is no other side paleographically.
Scientifically, however, there is. Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University found what he called “James Bond” covering the inscription in order to hide evidence of forgery. The James Bond was, he said, a mixture of ground-up limestone and hot water that formed a fake patina. But it turned out there was no way to make the mixture Goren hypothesized stick to the surface of the ossuary without the addition of an acid, traces of which would be found—and it wasn’t there. This so-call James Bond could be removed with a toothpick; it was hardly “bonded.” Goren even admitted that his “James Bond” could be the result of cleaning the ossuary (something dealers customarily do to make inscriptions stand out).
More important, after treatment, original ancient patina could be seen in several letters of the inscription, including one of the letters of the word “Jesus.” Before the trial, Goren had denied that there was any ancient patina in the inscription. When he was presented on cross-examination with new pictures taken by one of the defendant’s experts, Professor Goren became flummoxed and asked for a recess to allow him time to examine the box itself, rather than the pictures. He returned the next day and admitted in court that there was indeed original ancient patina in some of the letters. However, he sought to explain this, suggesting that the forger had incorporated ancient scratches with naturally formed patina as strokes of the forged letters of the inscription.
(If anyone believes that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell them—very cheaply.)
Actually, this original ancient patina had been observed much earlier by Orna Cohen, one of the members of the Israel Antiquities Authority committee that examined the ossuary before the trial, but no one paid any attention to this; the IAA knew where it wanted to go.
Despite all that I have said, the inscriptions I have discussed will be considered forgeries in the public mind for at least a generation—never mind the acquittal of the defendants and the evidence of authenticity. The reason is that these inscriptions have been declared forgeries, supposedly unanimously, by two committees of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
There is much more here.
The defendants speak out here.
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A few years back in 2003, I wrote an article for Our Sunday Visitor on this subject. I interviewed Mr. Shanks, and also noted Biblical scholar Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, one of the first to see the ossuary after its discovery. I’ve posted it here.
I am happy for this verdict; I think the defendants were obviously not guilty. The IAA had a clear agenda to crack down on antiquities dealers. There is a sense in which artifacts that are not recovered from their original site and are without any known provenance, can create difficulties. The fact that there are dealers who will pay for antiquities may even encourage unauthorized removal from site (in other words, theft). But to trump up charges to punish someone just for being a collector or dealer is a bit much.
I hope it will be possible to discuss the authenticity of the James Ossuary and other relics with greater calm. If I can I’ll publish something more on this in the future.