Zias’ story was thoroughly examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority and by the Israel Police and later was examined by the District Court of Israel and was found to completely baseless. The Court concluded that Zias’ testimony was not reliable and that Zias’ testimony could not be used to determine that the James Ossuary was one of the two ossuaries that were in Abu-Shakra’s store in the 1990s. Even the prosecution gave very little weight to Zias’ statement at all in its closing arguments.
By Oded Golan
In an article by Joe Zias, recently published on The Bible and Interpretation website, Zias repeated the following story he recounted in August 2003: In the mid-1990s, he visited the store of antiquities dealer Mahmoud Abu-Shakra in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he saw the James Ossuary. To support his statement, Zias also states that the renown scholar Emile Puech, of the École Biblique, also saw the James Ossuary in that store. His article is accompanied by a photograph that was allegedly taken in Abu-Shakras store in late 2003.
1. Zias story was thoroughly examined by the Israel Antiquities Authority and by the Israel Police and later was examined by the District Court of Israel and was found to completely baseless. The Court concluded that Zias testimony was not reliable and that Zias testimony could not be used to determine that the James Ossuary was one of the two ossuaries that were in Abu-Shakras store in the 1990s. Even the prosecution gave very little weight to Zias statement at all in its closing arguments.
2. Mr. Zias has made not one, but several versions of his story and has contradicted himself several times: There were several major inconsistencies between Zias 2003 statement to the police and his 2007 testimony in court. His statements to the State Prosecutors Office, which were made several days before his testimony in court and filed with the court, were also substantially different than what he testified in court. The court mentioned this in the final decision.
3. Mahmoud Abu-Shakra, the antiquities dealer in whose shop the ossuary was allegedly observed according to Zias, categorically denies ever having had possession of the James Ossuary or of having ever heard of or seen any other ossuary that bore the words Yaakov Bar Yosef. His statement to that effect was given to the IAA, and Amir Ganor of the IAA testified to the statement in court. The IAA concluded that Abu-Shakra was telling the truth and decided not to summon him to testify in court.
4. It is interesting that of all the thousands of people, including collectors, antiquities dealers, and scholars who visited the shop, which was centrally located on Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem, as well as IAA officials also visited the shop regularly, Zias was the only person who allegedly saw the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakras shop.
5. On the other hand, several people (including Wolf-Lebidinsky and Mor-Yosef) remembered seeing the James Ossuary in the Golan Family apartment in Tel Aviv in the mid-1970s, twenty years before Zias allegedly encountered the ossuary in Jerusalem. These individuals were questioned and testified in court. Their testimony was not refuted and the court found no reason to doubt them.
6. Photographs submitted to the court, showing the James Ossuary in the Golan Family flat in Tel Aviv in the mid-1970s (not later than 1976), when I was a student in the Technion, bearing the entire inscription, were examined by the former head of FBI photography laboratories in the USA. Prof. Gerald B. Richards (who testified in court) found them to be original photographs that are consistent in all aspects with photographs taken no later than the 1970s, based on all possible parameters. These photographs are conclusive unequivocal evidence that the ossuary could not even have theoretically been in the possession of any antiquities dealer in the 1990s. Consequently, they are sufficient to determine that Zias story is inaccurate.
7. Scientific texts and reports prepared by a large number of scholars in the fields of stone, patina and geo-biological patination processes, archaeometry, microscopy, stone preservation, and others (including Prof. Krumbein, Dr. Ilani, Dr. Rosenfeld, Prof. Feldman, Mr. Dvoracheck, Orna Cohen, Dr. Ed Keal and Dr. Rahimi of the ROM Museum) unequivocally point to the fact that the words Brother of Jesus could not have been engraved in our generation since biogenic patina was found in the depths of several letter grooves and the minimal period of development of such patina (varnish) is many decades and there is no way to artificially accelerate the process or simulate mature patina. Even the prosecutions key witness, Prof. Yuval Goren, when he was summoned by the State to give his testimony for the second time (in 2007), admitted that he had, in his subsequent examinations of the inscription, identified natural biogenic patina beyond any reasonable doubt, and such patina had with certainty developed in the depths and sides of the groove of the letter ayin and apparently in the letters het and shin of the words Ahui dYeshu (Brother of Jesus), in a process of many decades and probably thousands of years, similar to the patina that developed on all the sides of the ossuary.
Important scholars of paleography, language, and archaeology, including Prof. Lemaire, Dr. Yardeni, Prof. Misgav, Prof. Ronny Reich, Prof. Ahitov, Prof. Barkai and others, supported the authenticity of the entire inscription in their testimony as well.
8. BAR was lenient with Mr. Joe Zias when it noted in an article published in the recent July/August 2012 edition, that the story Zias told to the IAA in August 2003 that he had seen the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakras store in Jerusalem may be the result of Zias confusion, and when he stated that the James Ossuary was in the store, he in fact meant a different ossuary that was in the store (an ossuary inscribed Yosef Bar Yehuda Bar Hadas was in the store at the time).
However, in his article, Mr. Zias categorically and justifiably so rejects the possibility that he forgot or became confused at all. In truth, it is not plausible to confuse the James Ossuary (a relatively small and light ossuary with no engraved ornamentation, a flat lid, and no rosettes visible in ordinary daylight) with the other two ossuaries that Mahmoud Abu-Shakra had had in his store: one, a red ossuary with very deeply incised rosettes, with no inscription and an awkward pyramid-shaped which many visitors to Abu-Shakras store, including Puech, the scholar, remembered and a second ossuary which was large, heavy, white, devoid of any decoration, complete with an inscription: Yehosef Bar Yehuda Bar Hadas. These two ossuaries are in fact very different in character from the James Ossuary, on almost any parameter and cannot be confused with the James Ossuary.
Comparing Mr. Zias statements in November 2012 on the website The Bible and Interpretation with a photograph of the interior of Abu-Shakras shop, which showed the two ossuaries (the photograph was taken in the 1990s and only recently given to Zias) indeed indicates that it is not likely that Zias forgot or confused the ossuaries. If Zias does not suffer from pathological delusions and I do not think he does then, these statements are inconsistent and Zias statement to the police is false. He has also tried to implicate his colleagues and acquaintances (Prof. Puech and Prof. Eric Meyers) as well. Zias has attempted to defend these statements, primarily on various websites, using a combination of questionable tactics (this is not the first time Zias has used these methods he is now being sued in Israel by AP for USD 700,000 on another matter).
9. In fact, nothing in Zias article in The Bible and Interpretation even suggests that Zias ever observed the James Ossuary or any other ossuary bearing the words Yaakov Bar Yosef in Abu-Shakras antiquities store.
10. Abu-Shakras shop was very small there was no way to hide any ossuary in it. Therefore, the fact that IAA inspectors never saw an ossuary in this shop that bore the inscription Yaakov Bar Yosef, and never found any evidence of Zias allegation in Abu-Shakras store records speaks for itself and also shows that Zias story is totally unsubstantiated.
11. Furthermore, it is inconceivable that a licensed antiquities dealer would keep a rare and valuable ossuary (allegedly Abu-Shakra called the ossuary his pension) in his store without reporting it to the IAA, since he would be at risk of losing his license and having the item confiscated. This also indicates that Ziasv story is fictional.
12. Zias discusses the history of the James Ossuary, the alleged role of Herschel Shanks, and Abu-Shakravs current ownership status but all these issues have nothing to do with Zias dubious account. As far as I remember, the dealer who sold me the ossuary told me that it had been discovered close to Silwan village in East Jerusalem, and I have consistently given this information when questioned. Ziasv claims that Mr. Shanks has made a lot of money from the story are also irrelevant and seem to be designed to divert the readers attention from Ziasv bizarre tale. The issue lies in the fact of whether Abu-Shakra opened his new store in late 2003 or on another date irrelevant to the question of whether the James Ossuary was ever in Abu-Shakravs possession.
14. To support his story, Zias tells the readers that the famous scholar, Prof. Emile Puech (an expert in Aramaic and Hebrew of the Second Temple period), also observed the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakras store. Prof. Puech reads both Hebrew and Aramaic fluently. Following Zias statement, Prof. Puech was questioned by the police, and he made a statement to the police, in which he categorically denied ever having seen the James Ossuary in Abu-Shakras store. Moreover, he clearly remembered that Abu-Shakra had a different ossuary in his store, which was decorated with deeply incised rosettes and was a pinkish color, which is rare for an ossuary (the James Ossuary has yellowish-white hue).
15. In the 1990s, Zias worked at the IAA as an assistant to Rahmani, who, for many years, documented the inscribed ossuaries discovered in Israel (he later published the entire corpus of such ossuaries). Rahmani would have undoubtedly been very interested in hearing about such an ossuary and studying it. Zias never told Rahmani or anyone else that he supposedly saw an ossuary inscribed with the inscription Yaakov Bar Yosef. Is it conceivable that Zias would have kept the sighting from his boss, whom he highly admired, especially in view of the rare combination of names that Zias allegedly observed and since Zias himself testified that he was aware that Jesus of Nazareth had a brother with the name Yaakov (James).
16. When the ossuarys existence became known in the world media in October 2002, no one in the world, including Mr. Zias, claimed to have previously observed the ossuary in any place other than the Golan family apartment (with the exception of the son of an antiquities dealer from East Jerusalem, who claimed that his father admitted to him that he had sold it in the 1970s in his shop in Silwan). It was only in August 2003, almost one year later, and after the ossuary had been exhibited and seen by over 100,000 people in Toronto, and after the IAA-appointed committee of inquiry to examine the inscription published its conclusions, and after Zias himself participated in several Internet forums that discussed the authenticity of the ossuary that Zias told the IAA that he had observed the ossuary in the 1990s in Abu-Shakras shop. He was immediately summoned to the police to give his statement and there he said that he was not able to read the words Yaakov Bar Yosef since he neither reads Hebrew or Aramaic and therefore asked the shop owner to read the inscription out loud to him. Isnt it strange that Zias, who has lived in Israel for several decades and has also worked in the IAA for several decades says that he could not read any of the words, even though the writing was clearly legible and one of the words was his own first name (Yosef)?
17. In the court decision, the Honorable Judge Farkash wrote: After Zias gave his version to the police, Zias participated in numerous discussions on the Internet about the ossuary. Zias expressed his opinion on the authenticity of the ossuary and also with reference to the statements of the experts who had examined the ossuary, and nonetheless, he mentioned not a single thing about what he saw in Abu-Shakras [shop]
The Judge finds it very strange that Zias used scientific arguments to prove that the ossuary should not be attributed to the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, instead of stating very simply that he knew that the ossuary was a forgery because he personally saw the ossuary only several years earlier, with only one-half of the inscription.
18. The Court also found it strange that Zias had many opportunities over a long period of time to speak about what he had supposedly seen in Abu-Shakras store, but he refrained from doing so. The judge says: The question of why, for so many months since the ossuary was published in the media, did Zias no give his version to anyone in the IAA, is very disturbing and that Zias found it appropriate to turn to the IAA only after the publication of the results of the IAA committee is also a disturbing fact.
Zias also testified that he saw Golan go on the stage at the Cinemateque when the movie on the ossuary was being shown (early 2003) and say that he purchased the ossuary in the seventies, yet Zias knew that he had seen it in Abu-Shakras shop in the nineties and yet he said nothing .
19. Zias testimony was full of contradictions and paradoxes. To the police, Zias claimed that he cannot read Hebrew or Aramaic and that was the reason that he didnt look at the inscription. In the courtroom, however, he came up with a different excuse for not having looked at the inscription. He said that he couldnt read the inscription because of its location on the ossuary.
When he was being prepped for his testimony by the prosecution (a day or two before testifying), Zias told the prosecutor that he remembers the James Ossuary because of its rosettes. But anyone who has ever seen the ossuary, including the 100,000 visitors at the exhibition at the ROM in Toronto, knows that the James Ossuary does not have any engraved rosettes (on the side of the ossuary there is a very faint outline of a circle, which appears to be a mark to the engraver intended to use to probably engrave rosettes later), and even this circle is hardly visible to the naked eye (see photograph below). In fact, the markings of the circle can be seen only under a special light and certainly were not visible in the ordinary lighting of the interior of a shop, from the distance and at the angle (1 meter looking downward) that Zias testified to. Therefore it is not conceivable that these markings could be taken as the decisive characteristic of the ossuary (see attached images below).
20. When questioned why he never reported to Rahmani the inscription on the ossuary he supposedly saw, Zias replied that the combination of names Yaakov Bar Yosef is a common combination on ossuaries. In fact, the opposite is correct: Based on 150 years of study and the excavation of dozens if not hundreds of burial caves, no such inscription or combination of names (Yaakov/Yosef), has ever been discovered. Zias is not a scholar in archaeology and has actually no formal professional training in this field. However, as an administrative person of the IAA and as Rahmanis assistant, who registered all the ossuaries, Zias was in a good position to know this.
24. Based on all the above it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that Zias story is erroneous from beginning to end.
Four examples of ossuaries with engraved rosettes. This motif is absent from the James Ossuary and yet Zias claims that he remembers having seen the ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store with rosettes on it.
This is the non-engraved face of the James Ossuary (which Zias claims was visible to visitors in Abu-Shakra’s store). When asked by the prosecution how Zias is certain that the ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store is the James Ossuary, Zias responded that he remembered the ossuary because of its engraved rosettes. See for yourself – are engraved rosettes a characteristic feature of this ossuary? (Image from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto).
1. The photo taken inside the dealers shop was not just recently in my possession, rather it was close to 10 yrs that I have it. When I offered it and additional evidence to the authorities I was told that it wasn't necessary as the evidence for it being altered was overwhelming. It was only when Shanks decided not to let 'sleeping dogs lie, and get the last word, that I felt obligated to produce it. His refusal to provide details as to its size, etc is telling in terms of his lack of good faith. Are you willing to provide details, in good faith ?
2. As for AbuShakra opening his shop in 2003, I believe he had already left the country by then, permanently.
3. As far as my credentials I am a trained archaeologist as well as a trained anthropologist and have numerous IAA excavation licenses to that effect. I always preferred to be known primarily as an anthropologist but I am both. Confused ? For over four decades, in the West the prevailing wisdom was "Archaeology is anthropology, or it is nothing". Sorry Oded, but I am both.
When Oded Golan’s article first appeared, due to technical problems it was without photos, later when the problem was eventually fixed photos of four ossuaries with rosettes appeared with Oded claiming that this is what decorated ossuaries look like. However these four examples are ossuaries with no signs of weathering; in pristine condition. I ask readers to ignore this evidence for a minute and have a look at the James ossuary which is pitted, weathered to the point that the rosette on the right is difficult to see. It’s but another attempt to fool the unsuspecting public, akin to comparing a coin freshly out of the mint with one in circulation for decades and suggesting that they are the same. They may look different, but to experts they are one and the same. Furthermore, Oded writes in relation to rosettes appearing on the ossuaries:
“This motif is absent from the James Ossuary and yet Zias claims that he remembers having seen the ossuary in Abu-Shakra’s store with rosettes on it”. I ask the reader to have a look at the photo which he publishes here as proof of the above, as one can clearly see here a faintly engraved rosette or two on the heavily weathered facade. Is it really absent as Oded claims, or are my eyes deceiving me? On the basis of Oded’s remark, it would appear that he is actually following in the footsteps of Andre Lemaire, the BAR epigrapher who claimed that the ossuary was, aside from the inscription, unadorned! Within a short time this absurd claim was proven inaccurate. Joe Nickell, along with several others immediately observed rosettes on the facade during its exhibition at the ROM.
Just when the reader thinks it can’t get any worse in terms of their non-compliance with our demand that they act in ‘good faith’, do note the second photo of Golan’s ossuary on exhibition at the ROM. It appears to have been photographed with the ossuary sitting behind a protective glass pane as the woman in the background can be seen viewing the box behind the glass. It’s no surprise that it’s a bit difficult to see the two faintly inscribed rosettes, but if we remove the glass, and then get back to readers regarding the ‘missing’ rosettes, the situation changes. When they wish the reader to view the inscription, it’s without the glass as seen in the excellent opening photo, but when one wishes to obscure contradictory evidence, the viewer is presented with a second class photo, behind glass, with visitors in the background.
Oded Golan correctly makes a point to which I freely admit, of not reading the ossuary inscription, which demands a reply here as it relates to ‘the BAR Crowd’ and our ability to notice something which other colleagues have for centuries missed. In 2000, before the James ossuary story appeared, a close friend asked me to translate an architectural feature appearing above the door of the tomb of Absalom, one of the most photographed monuments in the entire region. I did the translation and remarked that there is a faint inscription on the lintel as well. She, like many others, initially was skeptical as I am not an epigrapher. We called the photographer who replied, ‘if Professor Mazar, Professor Barag and a host of other prominent scholars, having studied the monument did not see it, it simply does not exist’. I might add here that this tomb is probably the best known monument of its type in the country and the recently discovered tomb of Herod at Herodian bears a striking resemblance
We went to the tomb and closely looked at the weathered façade and not even one letter appeared. Comparing it with the photograph the photographer replied “it’s probably there and one can only see it only when the summer sun is at the correct angle, before sunset, which is why it has gone unnoticed for centuries”. Naturally few believed that a non specialist discovered an inscription atop such a well known, studied and photographed structure. Consequently, funding further investigation was nearly impossible and the idea was dismissed by colleagues. For several months I sat next to the tomb for hours at least once a week waiting to see if I was correct or mistaken. Finally after one hot summer day the faint inscriptions suddenly appeared. I took new photographs and eventually was able to receive financial support from the municipality, for scaffolding and along with a colleague from the Israel Museum made a cast from which Emile Puech made a ‘squeeze. The inscription which several epigraphers were unable to read, now was ‘read’ by Puech of the Ecole Biblique, within an hour or two. We also noticed that there were more badly weathered inscriptions to the right of the door and as funding was now impossible because of the new Haredi mayor of Jerusalem, S. Bishop from the Foundation for Biblical Archaeology stepped in and provided partial funding which enabled us to continue with phase two, in which we discovered the earliest NT inscription written in stone.
As this was an important find I asked the Christian Embassy here for financial support to bring Professor Puech, a Roman Catholic priest to the SBL meeting where it would be first reported to the public. They refused the request, but naturally wanted the story which I gave them gratis, so I contacted Hershel Shanks telling him that it was a very important find and Emile needed funding to attend. He refused and S. Bishop who has come through time and time again, funded Puech’s trip to the SBL meeting.
Upon hearing the paper, Shanks now realized that it was very important to the Christian as well as the archaeological community and asked permission to publish the new discovery. We politely refused and immediately published it in the ASOR journal after peer review. Within a short time, our article appeared in BAR, re-written by H. Shanks.
I would like to emphasize peer review, perhaps the most important contribution to the world of science. Without proper peer review, the value of research is problematic or in many cases worthless. When it comes to nearly all the films and books of ‘the BAR Crowd’ the last ten years, none have undergone proper peer review. Instead of submitting their work to peer review, they hold press conferences at which colleagues are unaware of until the article appears in the media, hence the somewhat derogatory, yet apropos term, ‘press conference archaeology’. One of the ways in which this is circumvented is to add a very prominent figure as producer, which they have done on several occasions, beginning with Lantos in Canada, and later James Cameron.
After decades of experience we are at times able to discover, remember and publish what others may have failed to see, particularly inscriptions on tombs, scrolls, ostraca and ossuaries. The IAA may have failed to prove beyond a doubt that the inscription was altered. And the mystery of the appearing, disappearing, reappearing rosettes on the facade may not have been solved, but I’ve had my say and it’s time for me to move on.
While Joe Zias gives a long response to Oded Golan, he simply ignores the following points (among others) made by Golan:
"1. Zias’ story was thoroughly examined by the Israel
Antiquities Authority and by the Israel Police and later was
examined by the District Court of Israel and was found to
completely baseless. The Court concluded that Zias’
testimony was not reliable and that Zias’ testimony could
not be used to determine that the James Ossuary was one of
the two ossuaries that were in Abu-Shakra’s store in the
1990s. Even the prosecution gave very little weight to
Zias’ statement at all in its closing arguments.
2. Mr. Zias has made not one, but several versions of his
story and has contradicted himself several times: There were
several major inconsistencies between Zias’ 2003 statement
to the police and his 2007 testimony in court. His
statements to the State Prosecutor’s Office, which were
made several days before his testimony in court and filed
with the court, were also substantially different than what
he testified in court. The court mentioned this in the final
Did the court indeed conclude that Zias testimony was not reliable? Did he contradict himself several times?
Zias prefers to remain mum.
One of the main issues regarding the controversial
'brother of Jesus' ossuary is whether the inscription was
authentic, especially these words. Joe Zias was among
those who claimed that these words were a modern forgery.
As for the relevance or irrelevance of Joe Zias's position
on this crucial point, the following will shed light.
These are his answers, marked as "A." in the transcript
of the recently concluded trial:
" Q. Is the word Yosef an Aramaic name?
A. I have no idea. That is not my area of expertise. I am
not an epigrapher.
Q. I ask you again: You said to the police—perhaps
incorrectly, perhaps erroneously, perhaps you may wish to
correct your testimony – that you did not read [the
inscription] because it was written in Aramaic and you do
not understand Aramaic.
A. I did not read it, he read it to me. He told me what
Q. You said that because it was Aramaic, which you don’t
understand—these are your words—“I do not read
Aramaic”—you asked him.
Q. You asked him to read the inscription to you because
do not read Aramaic. That is what you said.
A. Look, you know that most of the inscriptions are in
Aramaic or Hebrew, and that’s it.
Q. The word “Yosef”—is that an Aramaic name?
A. I have no idea, no idea, for that is not my field—I
am not an epigrapher."
(translated from the original Hebrew)
Note: as I mentioned before I have no opinion about the authenticity of the inscription on the ossuary.
My first question: when you cite Dr. Kempe as having claimed to have seen the James ossuary, on the only day in his life when he was in that shop, the day he took that photo, do you think it is possible Dr. Kempe might have been mistaken?
My second question: in your earlier article you rather smear Abushakra and and his wife gratuitously with some charges and street gossip that have nothing to do with the ossuary identification issue. Those poor people did nothing to you--and here you have publicly trashed their professional reputations. Is that the right way to treat people?
My third question: are you absolutely sure you yourself could not be mistaken concerning the ossuary you claim you saw, when the story on its face makes no sense: as you have it, Abushakra the antiquities dealer, is showing you, a former senior long-term official of the Israel Antiquities Authority, a black market, unregistered and highly illegal, ossuary and bragging to you about how it will make him rich, before he adds the forgery that will do that. If you were planning to make a million bucks on a forgery, is that how you would go about it? The alternative is he showed you the Joseph ossuary, which according to BAR he was trying to sell for $20,000 (1997 dollars = $28,700 today) before he eventually did sell it for $5,000, and he told you it was his pension, which would be within the range of dealer talk for a $20,000 item. You're absolutely certain from this time distance that he showed you an illegal third ossuary and told you it said "James son of Joseph" instead of "Joseph"--you're certain he told you "James son of Joseph" and not "Joseph"--which no one else can corroborate, and that this isn't some reconstructed memory of you remembering him showing you and telling you the inscription on his Joseph ossuary--the one he had that was registered, legal, and for sale, the one in Dr. Kempe's photo?
"The IAA may have failed to prove beyond a doubt that the inscription was altered."
Now that is news. The judges decision read that forgery was not proven.
I still want the 1970's photo chemically tested for ageing after the picture was taken since it was only dated according to it's manufacture date. I am sure you have all seen photo's faded quickly when exposed to direct sunlight. This would give a new photo the appearance of age if it was left out in direct sunlight or a sun lamp.
One still has to come up with a plausible way that the Yaakov ossuary has the same elemental pattern as the other ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb. That can't be faked either. If indeed the photo was taken in the 70's before the excavation in Talpiot, there are other ways it could have come from the Talpiot Tomb, perhaps being only a partially robbed grave.
The authenticity of the ossuary is directly connected to your credibility.
Even though you were spectacularly acquitted, it appears to me that your credibility has been most damaged by the reports that when your apartment and warehouses were raided, officials found bags of soil from different sites of excavation, tools typically used for forgery, and figurines and half-finished seals which all suggested that they had found a 'forgery lab'.
I have not been able to find your testimony with regard to these claims.
The photographic evidence for your early ownership of the ossuary, as powerful as it was, is largely undermined by the strong suspicion that you are an experienced forgerer and therefore could have also 'forged' the photograph.
Can you address the 'forgery lab' issue for the public, please, if you have not done so yet?
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