The Ossuary of James the Brother of Jesus: From Trial to Truth?
Each prosecution witness brought in by the prosecution was matched expert-for-expert by the defense. The ensuing scholarly debates were so technical and covered such a broad range of fields, from epigraphy and archaeology to geology and chemistry, that it became impossible for non-specialists to follow the debates, let alone decide where the truth lay. The judge’s verdict came as no surprise in the end.
By Paul V.M. Flesher
Religious Studies Program
University of Wyoming
The supposedly ancient inscription on the Jewish ossuary (an ancient burial box for bones) was only five Aramaic words long, “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus,” and even Bob Simon on Sixty Minutes could see the that last two words, “brother of Jesus,” had been added by a different hand. How hard could it be to prove in court of law that those two words were a modern fake?
Too hard. That was the view of an Israeli judge when he released his 475-page verdict last week after a seven-year long trial. Judge Aharon Farkash concluded “the prosecution failed to prove beyond all reasonable doubt…that the ossuary is a forgery.”
So what does this mean? Is the inscription authentic? Is it the only physical evidence of the first-century church led by Bishop James, the brother of Jesus, until his death in 62 AD?
Again, the judge’s response was a resounding negative. “This is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written 2,000 years ago.”
The trial produced no truth and indeed concluded nothing about the ossuary itself. Its primary conclusion with regard to the prosecution’s claim of forgery is that it was “not proven.” This legalese supports neither the prosecution nor the defense. It allows both claims about the ossuary to stand as they are and refuses to make a judgment. The verdict does not authenticate the ossuary (as the defense would have liked) nor does it say that the ossuary and its inscription are fake (as the prosecution wanted).
Seven years and a lot of money was spent but no judgment at all was rendered about the so-called James inscription. Our understanding did not progress one iota.
So what happened?
The limestone burial box known as the James Ossuary became an international sensation in 2002 when it appeared in a highly attended exhibit at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, timed to coincide with arrival of thousands of scholars for the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. The international media flashed the story around the world overnight. Here at last was a physical object linked to Jesus himself!
The exhibit and its media hype had purposely bypassed careful analysis by scholars. But they began to catch up. Apart from the few promoting the ossuary, most either argued it was a fake or tried to slow the rush to judgment.
Bible and Interpretation took the lead in the public sphere, publishing essays on all sides of the debate. (These are all still available.) Hershel Shanks and the Biblical Archaeology Society had sponsored the exhibition, and so they published essays promoting the inscription’s authenticity.
In 2005, after several years of study, scholars and scientists at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) decided to prosecute the owner of the James Ossuary, a wealthy Israeli businessman and antiquities collector named Oded Golan, not only for the inscription’s forgery, but also for running an international criminal ring dealing in looted and forged antiquities.
In the criminal court, the IAA’s case did not stand up well. Some key witnesses concerning the trade in looted and forged antiquities failed to appear. In particular, Egypt refused to extradite the Egyptian artist suspected of actually creating the forgery. One of Golan’s co-defendants was convicted in this matter, through a plea bargain. He provided tantalizing glimpses into what Eric Meyers has called the “dirty business” of the underground trade in looted and forged antiquities, but no smoking gun appeared.
When the academic specialists were put on the stand, matters were hardly better. Each prosecution witness brought in by the prosecution was matched expert-for-expert by the defense. The ensuing scholarly debates were so technical and covered such a broad range of fields, from epigraphy and archaeology to geology and chemistry, that it became impossible for non-specialists to follow the debates, let alone decide where the truth lay. The judge’s verdict came as no surprise in the end.
The primary focus was on the question of patina. Patina is the thin coating that limestone develops in reaction to water. It can even develop in reaction to humid air. In the early weeks following the ossuary’s appearance, Dr. Yuval Goren was one of the first people to point out that the limestone box had an ancient patina covering it, but that patina was missing in the area around the lettering and in the letter incisions themselves. Several scholars consulted by the IAA arrived at the same view from different approaches.
By this point, Goren had distinguished two types of patina, the limestone film which he continued to call “patina” and a second type which he referred to as “varnish.” This varnish is a biologically based patina rather than purely a geological feature.
In his court testimony, Goren made three main points. First, Goren made clear that there was no true limestone patina in the letter incisions as there was on the rest of the ossuary. This indicates that the inscription is either new or that it has been heavily cleaned in the modern period. (Farkash verdict, p. 47.) Second, there was a coating on the letters, but this resulted from a modern attempt to replicate (i.e., “fake”) a patina. “The coating of the inscription is not natural.” (Farkash verdict, p. 47.)
In the third point that Goren tried to establish, however, he had to backtrack on his claims and thereby damaged one of the strongest indications of forgery. In his initial testimony, Goren had claimed there was no varnish, no “biopatina,” in the lettering. Upon cross-examination by the defense, however, he was forced to admit that the ayin and the shin of the name Yeshua (Jesus) had a few spots of varnish in them in particular places. This, he admitted, would indicate that the inscription, especially its second part, is authentic. (Farkash verdict, pp. 51 and 54).
Does this mean that Dr. Goren has changed his view of the inscription’s authenticity? To date, he remains silent about whether he has changed his mind. But now that the trial is over, it is time for him to provide the scholarly community an explanation about whether he has altered his views of the ossuary, of the scientific analysis of patina and varnish, or what. (Dr. Goren, Bible and Interpretation is ready and willing to provide your views a scholarly venue!)
Another thing that went wrong for the IAA’s prosecution was the cutting-edge character of the scientific analysis of patina. The tools and the techniques used to study the different kinds of patina are in their infancy. While “cutting-edge” is often viewed as the best and most advanced science, it also has the problem that there is no history of application in a wide variety of circumstances to a large body of data. It is relatively easy to challenge the validity of results as misinterpretation. When it became clear that patina-study drew from comparisons with the geological study of stalagmite and stalactite formation, that very connection came under attack.
So in the end what do we now know about the ossuary and its inscription?
The ossuary itself is ancient, perhaps but not necessarily from the first century. Because the ossuary was looted from its buried location and sold on the black market, we know nothing else about it. Any date comes from our knowledge of ossuary use, not from the box itself. Since ossuaries were used from Judea to Galilee, from the Shephelah to Jericho and from the first century BCE to the second century CE, that leaves quite a geographical and chronological range in which it can readily fit. Analysis of patina isotopes may be able to narrow down the geographic range (see Avner Ayalon’s summary for the IAA), but no known techniques can identify chronology.
That the inscription was composed by two hands remains obvious. But the prosecution did not demonstrate that Golan forged it. So that leaves the question open on a whether it constitutes a modern forgery that cannot be proven (i.e., forgery techniques outpace scientific tests) or that it is an old forgery. The Aramaic word for James, “Jacob,” is quite a common one, and some ancient Christian could certainly have transformed the ossuary of an unknown Jacob into a more religiously relevant relic by adding the name of “his famous brother” Jesus.
Finally, even if the inscription is authentic, it cannot be linked to the apostle James, the brother of Jesus Christ and Christianity’s first bishop. If it had been archaeologically excavated in situ, from the location where it had been buried, then a great deal more information about the ossuary and its inscription would be known. Who knows, perhaps the bones would still have been in it! But as a looted item acquired on the black market, it tells us nothing. Not even whether it is real. Only human belief gives it any significance at all.
The trial’s verdict of not-proven changed few experts’ views on the inscription’s authenticity. The adversarial character of the legal process shed little light on the scholarly and scientific evaluation of the inscription and its supposed antiquity, just as the trial gained little clarity from the academic debates that took place on its stand. Law and scholarship work by such different standards that neither informed the other.
Let me make one last observation. The James Ossuary is a supposed antique object without provenience. Because the state of Israel allows the sale of some ancient objects according to a tight set of regulations (usually impossible to enforce), there is a widespread trade in looted and forged antiquities. The buyers of these items range from tourists seeking a souvenir to take home to wealthy, dedicated collectors willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for an object.
Looting robs true ancient items of all information concerning their historical context and prevents all humanity from using them to learn about our shared past. Forged objects and inscriptions mix with authentic looted items in this shadowy trade and can fool even the most dedicated and learned of experts.
Many of the scholars who have promoted the James Ossuary inscription as authentic, such as Andre Lemaire and Robert Deutsch, have published unprovenienced inscriptions. Non-scholars such as Hershel Shanks, repeatedly argue for the publication of unprovenienced objects and inscriptions. They say, how can we let all of this material be ignored? The James Ossuary makes clear why it should be ignored, because you never know when it is forged or authentic. Even if you are fairly certain of authenticity of an unprovenienced item, its date and geographic location remain unknown. If the item is published and then used in scholarship, it can distort the historical record.
Note: The Sixty Minutes episode mentioned above aired on 3/3/08 and was accessed on 3/20/12 at www.cbsnews.com. The URL for Bible and Interpretation is www.bibleinterp.com and that for BAR is www.biblicalarchaeology.org. Summaries of the analyses done for the Israel Antiquities Authority appear at www.antiquities.org. To my knowledge, Judge Farkash’s remarks are not available on the Internet.