A Forger’s Conspiracy or “The Word Made Visible”? The Continued Controversy over the James Ossuary

Indiana Jones never found as much drama in archaeology as has developed over the limestone ossuary with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” discovered in Jerusalem last year. A team of scholars commissioned by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) declared it a forgery this June, but the controversy has not ended. An American geologist has disputed the finding of the IAA team, at the same time that Israeli officials are investigating a “conspiracy” to forge the inscription. Now there are calls for new scientific testing.

When the ossuary was discovered in the home of Oded Golan, a Jerusalem antiquities collector, it caused a media sensation. The James referred to in the New Testament as the “brother of Jesus” was the first bishop of Jerusalem, and thought to be the author of the New Testament Epistle of James. He was condemned to death by stoning by the Sanhedrin in 62 A.D.

Both André Lemaire, the Catholic paleographer (expert in ancient writing) who published the discovery in the November/December 2002 Biblical Archaeology Review, and the journal’s editor, Hershel Shanks, contend that the IAA’s conclusions are “deeply flawed.” In an interview with OSV, Shanks noted that two previous scientific teams who examined the ossuary, from the Geological Survey of Israel and the Royal Ontario Museum, still stand by their conclusion that the ossuary contains an authentic first-century inscription. Shanks is now calling for re-examination of the ossuary by “an unbiased international team of the highest repute.” He admits that this may be difficult, since the IAA must agree to allow the ossuary to be exported for testing, and the IAA is “irritated with us . . .because we published an analysis of their report which is very condemnatory.”

Joseph Fitzmyer, S. J., a renowned Biblical scholar and expert in Aramaic, who was one of the first people to see photographs of the inscription after it was found, also believes that new testing is in order. He says that one archaeologist on the team, Ronny Reich, who had originally declared the inscription authentic, changed his mind after the committee studying the patina said it had been forged. Fitzmyer says the IAA tried “to give the impression that the committees that were set up came out with a unanimous decision, and it’s not unanimous at all.” So far the IAA team has not published its results in a scholarly journal.

“Flawed Geochemistry”

In an upcoming article in the January/February Biblical Archaeology Review, James Harrell, a geologist with the University of Toledo says that the evidence the IAA team relied on “does not support the conclusion that the inscription is a forgery.” He attacks the conclusions of two IAA team members, geochemist Avner Ayalon and microanalysis specialist Yuval Goren. They studied the ossuary’s patina, a coating formed when stone reacts with water and then re-crystalizes. They found that the patina over the inscription had a different composition of oxygen isotopes than on the rest of the box, meaning that the patina in the inscription was formed by much hotter water than occurs naturally in caves in Jerusalem. They concluded that this imitation patina was made by dissolving chalk, perhaps scrapings from the ossuary itself, in hot water and rubbing it into the inscription.

Harrell disputes this conclusion: “First, ground calcite will not dissolve in hot water. Second, undissolved calcite immersed in hot water will not exchange oxygen isotopes with the water and so will not have a d18O value reflecting the water’s temperature.”

Shanks points out that the IAA team members found ancient patina inside one of the letters, which means that the inscription is ancient; they even admit that the imitation patina may simply be residue from the cleaning of the inscription.

A Forgers’ Conspiracy?

Shanks has repeatedly stated his belief that the IAA team was biased, since the Israeli government has been trying to stop antiquities collectors who deal in items, like the ossuary, which do not come from authorized archaeological excavations. He adds that now the IAA is determined to prove there was a conspiracy to forge the inscription. “They’ve questioned a hundred people and Uzi Dahari [Deputy Director of the IAA], told me personally that there’s a conspiracy and that it included ‘an honored Israeli archaeologist.’” In fact, Israeli authorities arrested Golan on suspicion of forgery in July but then released him: to date he has not been charged with any crime. Shanks says that if Golan’s claim that he has owned the ossuary for several decades is true, he is unlikely to be a forger. “Forgers do it mainly to raise money. A forger doesn’t forge it and let it sit for two decades without anyone knowing about it.”

“The Word Made Visible”?

The ossuary has continued to fascinate Christians of all denominations. Ben Witherington, a Protestant Biblical scholar who wrote a book along with Shanks, The Brother of Jesus (Harper San Francisco), says that because of its possible close physical connection with Jesus, the ossuary can be called “the Word made visible.”

Though Fitzmyer believes that the ossuary’s inscription may be authentic, he says there would be great difficulty proving that it refers to the New Testament James. He says that the inscription might be interpreted to mean that it was Joseph who had a brother named Jesus. He adds that other ossuaries have been found reading “Jesus, the son of Joseph,” names that were common in Jerusalem at the time. The spot where Golan says it was found, the village of Silwan, on the lower slope of the Mount of Olives, is very close to the traditional burial place of St. James. Fourth-century monks claimed to have discovered his body there and built a chapel over it. But Fitzmyer cautions: “You have to remember, that hill was the burial place for ancient Jerusalem and hundreds of ossuaries have come from there.”

Shanks says that new scientific tests that should be done on the ossuary, including chemical testing of the patina and microscopic examination of the weathering inside the inscription. He also thinks that depositions should be taken about Golan’s claims of ownership. He says he’s not defending the authenticity of the ossuary as much as he is the principle of unbiased scholarly research. “It’s obviously of enormous significance if it is authentic, and we should make every effort to determine that, whatever it takes. But don’t set up a committee like a court to make a decision.”

Lori Pieper writes from New York.


James the Son of Joseph?

For Catholics, an authentic ossuary of James would certainly be an important historical find But there is a crucial difficulty: how James could be the “brother of Jesus,” given Catholic teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary? In fact, Witherington claims that the ossuary is a blow against this Church teaching.

That James is the “brother of Jesus,” is nothing new, as the designation occurs several times in the New Testament. Father Fitzmyer says: “Our whole [Catholic] tradition would be against [brother] meaning “blood brother.” He says that “the word adelphos in Greek (and ah in Aramaic) has all sorts of different meanings, sometimes it can even mean a compatriot.” The real difficulty then, is with the “son of Joseph.” Does this also mean James was a son of Mary?

Fr. Fitzmyer says that there have been three Christian traditions: Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that Joseph was a widower and that the “brothers of Jesus” were children of his first marriage. Catholics traditionally believe they were cousins of Jesus (a theory developed by St. Jerome), while Protestants tend to see them as children of Joseph and Mary born after Jesus.

Louise Bourassa Perrotta in her St. Joseph: His Life and His Role in the Church Today, published by OSV Press, notes that “most Church Fathers in the East as well as some in the West adopted the idea of Joseph’s earlier marriage,” as do some Catholic and Protestant theologians today, and that the perpetual virginity of Joseph, while largely accepted in the Western Church since the fifteenth century, is not an article of faith for Catholics. So authentic ossuary would not necessarily harm Catholic doctrine.

This article was originally published in Our Sunday Visitor, January 27, 2004.


A Forger’s Conspiracy or “The Word Made Visible”? The Continued Controversy over the James Ossuary — 2 Comments

  1. Jesus was never, in his life-time, referred to as “son of Joseph.” There was scandal among the Jews over Jesus’ birth, and for this he was always called “son of Mary.”
    Certainly, no one of his immediate family would make this mistake.

    We have found forgeries before that are quite old. Heresy has a long lineage. A man might have a forgery sitting around for 20 years, and no one knowing about it, if the forgery was made in antiquity in support of some other cause. Also, for some forger’s techniques, time is required for a more authentic look. Besides, one could sit on something a long time in hesitation if one was not of one mind for instituting something false. Furthermore, There are all sorts of different motives for falsifying history– especially in the service of religion. Even the concupiscent do not live on bread alone.

    All of this is not to say that I believe absolutely that this is a forgery. I don’t think people have even decided what they have found, so it seems premature to make assertions. I just think it is likely, and even if it was carved at about the right time, (which ever frame would be appropriate for it’s authenticity) would not guarantee it was what it is presumed to be. As is mentioned in the article, both Joseph and Jesus were not uncommon names. If it were after Christ’s entombment, chances are there would be even more men named Joseph and Jesus respectively.

  2. Yes, Jesus was called “son of Mary,” not “Son of Joseph, but then the ossuary doesn’t call him the son of Joseph. It says that James is the son of Joseph. As pointed out in the article, this would not necessarily contradict Catholic doctrine, since many from the second century onward accepted the idea that James was the son of Joseph’s first marriage (though the view that he was a cousin of Jesus is more common among Catholics).

    As for the question of forgery, Oded Golan and his fellow defendant were acquitted of all charges in 2012.


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