Wily Scholars and Detectives
Since the publication of my book, I have received a variety of messages from characters who want/believe the ossuary and tablet to be real. They consistently accuse me of having had an agenda in writing the book, which simply stated is to advance the agenda of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which faked the fakes, and then planted evidence against Mr. Golan, in the interest of destroying the Israeli antiquities trade itself.
By Nina Burleigh
Nina Burleigh is the author of four critically acclaimed nonfiction
books. Her latest, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed
and Forgery in the Holy Land (Collins, 2008), tells the story of
the unraveling of a Bible relic forgery scheme in Israel, and the
intriguing world of biblical archaeology and relic collectors.
Last year in Israel, poking around
in the dust near the Dead Sea, I
kicked over a curiously inscribed stone, carved with words in a
language I could not read. Realizing that I might have stumbled upon
an important piece of Holy Land archaeology, I took the object to a
well-known epigrapher in Jerusalem, who, after examining the piece for
some hours, concluded that it said, in ancient Hebrew:
"And lo, in the year 2008, Y____h will inflict upon you a Madoff, and
your prosperity will dry up like the earth after a hundred-year
drought; all your goats and all your wives and all your dwellings will
evaporate like water in the sun."
The epigrapher advised me that the rock was most likely a fake since
the word "Madoff" was not one commonly used by the ancients to refer
to a plague. Imagine my shock then, to read last month that a man
named Madoff did indeed, in the year 2008, cause prosperity to
Unfortunately, I left that stone behind in my hotel room in Jerusalem,
after deciding I didn't want to add its weight to my luggage, already
loaded with Herod-era coins that I had been assured by dealers might
well have been handled by the money-changers in the Temple. I suppose
my Madoff rock will soon turn up for sale in the Old City, and I
already regret my ignorance, and, especially, the skepticism of my
friend, the renowned epigrapher.
Most readers will recognize the above as an obvious attempt at a joke.
I say "most" because some consumers in the proof-for-faith market
might actually believe it. Others will not be amused, and will, on the
contrary, take it as yet more proof that I, an American journalist who
has dared to look from the outside in at the arcane and highly
specialized field of biblical archaeology and the trade in ancient
Holy Land objects, am a tool of the dreaded and mighty Israel
Antiquities Authority, in that agency's relentless and unscrupulous
effort to 1) prove the Bible false and 2) deprive the Israeli
antiquities dealers of their means of livelihood.
I first got interested in the tale of the forged James Ossuary when I
read about the case in the New York Times around the last week of
2004. The Israeli government had indicted five men for forging
archaeological objects – most famously the James Ossuary and Joash
Tablet - purported to prove various Bible characters or stories true.
The authorities were calling it "the fraud of the century."
I assumed at first that the main market for these objects was among
evangelical Christians in the U.S. As I began researching the story,
I realized that while the evangelicals were a factor in the marketing
of fake Bible proof, they were not the real marks. The real marks were
high-end collectors like Shlomo Moussaieff and other billionaires,
whose wealth allows them to indulge a voracious taste for extremely
expensive ancient stuff.
Before I got into this story, I knew absolutely nothing of the
antiquities trade or these men. I hail from Illinois, and I got my
start in journalism covering politics in Springfield, Illinois,
currently having its 15 minutes of fame as the backdrop for the antics
of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich's behavior doesn't shock me or
anyone else who spent any amount of time covering the capitol city of
the Land of Lincoln. I have lost count of how many governors of
Illinois in my lifetime have ended up wearing prison stripes – it is
either two or three – and that's only in the executive office. For
years after I left Illinois, I've read of former sources or subjects
of mine facing federal and state corruption charges, and often, doing
time behind bars.
In Illinois, I learned a pretty crucial lesson for a journalist. From
a pretty young age, I came to know that while lots of people do bad
things for ideology, or out of passion – the latter always good for a
story - a much larger class of people are motivated to break the rules
out of mundane avarice. I never studied banking or became adept at the
kind of investigative business reportage that reveals money trails,
but I did come to understand the concept of following the money.
I wrote Unholy Business out of curiosity, with the aim of describing
an intriguing alleged crime, from the point of view of the detectives
who uncovered it. I also wanted to describe the victims and the
accused. Whether innocent or guilty, their voices were integral to the
story I was telling.
Working on the book in Israel and in the U.S., I met some of the most
unusual, eccentric people I have ever met, and I entered a subculture
average Americans know nothing about. The people and the experience
inspired me, and I wrote a book that I believe captures the back story
of the world of antiquities trade in the Holy Land in an engaging way.
After writing the book, I sent a copy of the galley off to an American
publisher named Hershel Shanks. I was well aware of his keen interest
in the James Ossuary, his selling the movie rights to it, touting it
in his magazine, writing his own book about it, and following the
forgery trial closely for years in print. His magazine, Biblical
Archaeology Review, was a great source of documents for me about the
case, and I had interviewed him in Washington, and he seemed to be
open to considering all sides of the debate.
To my surprise, about a month after I sent him the galley, I received
a long email from Israeli collector Oded Golan, accused by the Israeli
government of forging the James Ossuary and several dozen other
objects. It turned out that rather than review my book, Mr. Shanks
had taken the rather unusual step, for a book reviewer, of sending the
uncorrected galley off to the accused, who in turn had written me an
email in perfect English (Mr. Golan's English during interviews had
been charming but not always fluent), and using alarmingly
professional-looking Latin legalese like sub judice.
After politely sending a few corrections to my publisher, Mr. Shanks
never mentioned my book in his magazine, even though it details the
case against the Ossuary, and, more interestingly for his readers, the
various characters involved on both sides of the case. Nor did he ever
answer an emailed question about mailing the galley off to the
Since the publication of my book, I have received a variety of
messages from characters who want/believe the ossuary and tablet to be
real. They consistently accuse me of having had an agenda in writing
the book, which simply stated is to advance the agenda of the Israel
Antiquities Authority, which faked the fakes, and then planted
evidence against Mr. Golan, in the interest of destroying the Israeli
antiquities trade itself.
My problem with this conspiracy theory is pretty simple. As a
journalist schooled in follow-the-money, I don't believe that the men
I met who worked for the antiquities authority hate the antiquities
trade enough to engineer a massive conspiracy involving faking fakes.
And I don't see how they could possibly enrich themselves by
destroying it. Nor were they strongly ideological on the issue.
The chief detective involved was a young army lieutenant, a father
with young children, being called up to fight Hezbollah in Lebanon,
in addition to trying to fulfill his charge to protect 30,000
archaeological sites from plunder. One of the chief scholars, Tel Aviv
University archaeologist Yuval Goren, struck me as a serious, sober,
and un-flamboyant man who seemed happiest looking through a microscope at rocks. To hear his challengers, Goren is an avowed enemy of Israel who hates the Bible and is hell-bent on disproving it.
Without evident motives of avarice, ideology, or passion driving the
detectives and scholars, it was and is much easier for me to believe
that people who wanted to make money off gullible billionaires had a
fake factory than to believe agents of an under-funded Israeli agency
concocted a global conspiracy.
I marvel every day at the breadth and ferocity of the global public
relation campaign underway not only to "prove" the alleged fakes are
real (and curiously, the only fakes this pr campaign ever addresses
are the three very famous ones – the ossuary, tablet, and Israel
Museum's ivory pomegranate, and not the numerous other items in the
trial) but to vilify the scholars and authorities who have opined that
the objects are fake. The campaigns always use the word "hate"—"Goren
hates the antiquities trade" (BAR, Hershel Shanks, March-April 2005,
p. 67). "Shuka Dorfman, the head of the IAA, hates antiquities
collectors and antiquities dealers and the antiquities trade."
After my own book came out, I received one email from a member of the
pro-tablet and ossuary crowd accusing me of having an affair with the
detective. Another psychoanalyzed me, writing "don't you see, Nina,
you unconsciously became the horn of the IAA?" Hershel Shanks,
responding to a piece I wrote for the LA Times, stated that because I
have a job at People Magazine, I can't possibly understand the issues
involved in the case of the ossuary. And finally, my favorite so far,
a man named Victor Sasson, who, according to Wikipedia, is an
Iraqi-born Jew and scholar in London, and who has self-published a
"novel" about the Joash Tablet and also a screed about his feminist
ex-wife called "Confessions of a Sheep for Slaughter: Memoirs of
Feminist Wolves" posted an attack on me, calling for nothing less than
God's protection: "May God protect and shield us from … third-rate,
nimble, and abusive journalists who prostitute their pens in
specialized fields about which they know nothing!" (source Jim West's
[View as HTML]
Thus I have joined the ranks of the wily scholars and detectives
engaged in an assault with ulterior motives on the trade in
antiquities in Israel.
The detectives and many of the scholars – Goren, included – have
consistently refused to get into the fray and defend themselves. But
other scholars are so upset about the attacks that they have
responded, and the results of these pissing matches are fairly easy to
follow in BAR. One of these individuals composed a heavily footnoted
paper documenting the "smear campaign" against fellow scholars. The
scholar offered me the paper but asked to remain anonymous. Here are
“The ‘smear scripts’ censor opponents indirectly by defamation and
destruction of professional standing. Here and there, censorship is
applied directly. For instance, Dr. Jeffrey Chadwick submitted his
paper on why he thought the inscription on the ‘James’ Ossuary was a
forgery to the BAR. The paper was refused and the contents were
inaccessible; however, a rebuttal of Dr. Chadwick's points appeared in
Shanks and Witherington's, The Brother of Jesus book in March 2003.
Dr. Chadwick's paper was finally published in November 2003.”
“Dr. Karen Vitelli refuses to support the ‘Free the antiquities
dealers and collectors’ lobby, a feature of the BAR for more than ten
years. In the ‘First Person’ editorial of the November-December 1999
BAR, Shanks states that Dr. Vitelli used money from collectors to
finance archaeological digs; therefore, she is a ‘hypocrite’ and 'has
no right to' say anything. Collector Shelby White states her position
against Shanks and his ‘Free the antiquities dealers’ program. In the
March-April 2003 issue of BAR, White is a ‘hypocrite’ and has ‘no
right to’... along with a revolting cartoon caricature. This ‘First
Person’ editorial is so offensive that Dr. Joe Seeger, former
President of ASOR, spoke out against it.”
"The combination of ‘amateur’ with ‘no right to’ is by far the most
common theme aimed solely at the most dangerous opponents to whichever con is being promoted. To state that a professional in a field is an
‘amateur’ asks for a libel suit. The stockyard terminology of the
"smear scripts" employs a number of different strategies to defame an
expert as an ‘amateur.’"
"In the July-August 1994 issue of BAR, Shanks claims Dr. Elisha
Qimron, granted his Ph.D. in 1976 and a world expert on the Hebrew of
the DSS, is just a ‘research assistant.’ A ‘research assistant’ is a
graduate student, someone who has done the coursework but is an
‘inexperienced amateur.’ After declaring Dr. Qimron an ‘amateur,’
Shanks asserts that Dr. Qimron has ‘no right to’ copyright his work.
This combination against Dr. Qimron appears from 1994 through the
January-February 2001 and March-April 2001 issues of the BAR. Shanks
lost the copyright violation suit anyway. Making Girling's point in
his ‘King Tut tut tut’ article, Shanks had help from the media, from
blogs, from articles on copyright, from lawyers, from panel
discussions, and from disgruntled scholars who abetted the smear
"With complete contempt for the consequences, articles absurdly easy
to prove as adhering to the designated ‘smear scripts’ that appear in
the BAR under the name of Hershel Shanks sneak into other newspapers,
journals, magazines, and books, and onto scholarly lists and web-sites
under assorted by-lines."
The mainstream news media is bored by the interminable trial underway
in what one observer called "a room the size of a broom-closet" in the
East Jerusalem courthouse. The details of the trial itself, including
really damning evidence involving numerous lesser known objects the
fakery of which is not being disputed, rarely get attention. However,
every new "expert" who comes forward for the defense to say that the
Ossuary or Tablet is real gets amplified by interested parties.
All of this is not to say that I believe Mr. Golan, who has protested
his innocence from the beginning, or Mr. Deutsch, the other man in the
dock in Jerusalem, are criminals. As far as I am concerned, they are
innocent until proven guilty. What is really on trial is the soundness
of biblical archaeology and its scholars.