The James Ossuary is a 1st-century chalk box that was used for containing the bones of the dead. The Aramaic inscription: Ya'akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua (English translation: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus") is cut into one side of the box. The inscription is considered significant because, if genuine, it might provide archeological evidence of Jesus of Nazareth.
The existence of the ossuary was announced at an October 21, 2002 Washington press conference co-hosted by the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society. The owner of the ossuary is Oded Golan, an Israeli engineer and antiquities collector. The initial translation of the inscription was done by André Lemaire, a Semitic epigrapher, whose article claiming that the ossuary and its inscription were authentic was published in the November/December 2002 Biblical Archaeology Review.
The authenticity of the inscription has been challenged. The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) determined in 2003 that the inscriptions were forged at a much later date. In December 2004, Oded Golan was charged with 44 counts of forgery, fraud and deception, including forgery of the Ossuary inscription.
The trial lasted seven years before Judge Aharon Farkash came to a verdict. On March 14, 2012, Golan was acquitted of the forgery charges but convicted of illegal trading in antiquities. The judge said this acquittal "does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago". The ossuary was returned to Golan, who put it on public display.
An ossuary is a stone depository for storing bones of the dead. The dead would lay in a cave for a year, then would be collected and placed in an ossuary. It was a common practice to write the name of the deceased on the exterior of the ossuary. If the inscription on the James ossuary is genuine, the inscription may indicate that the ossuary was that of James the Just, the brother of Jesus, the founder of Christianity.
Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University stated that, of the thousands of ossuaries found, only one has been found with a reference to a brother, concluding that "there is little doubt that this [naming a brother or son] was done only when there was a very meaningful reason to refer to a family member of the deceased, usually due to his importance and fame." He produced a statistical analysis of the occurrence of these three names in ancient Jerusalem and projected that there were 1.71 people named James, with a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus, living in Jerusalem around the time at which the ossuary was produced.
The James ossuary came from the Silwan area in the Kidron Valley, southeast of the Temple Mount. The bones originally inside the ossuary had been discarded, which is the case in nearly all ossuaries not discovered by archaeologists. The first-century origin of the ossuary is not in question, since the only time Jews buried in that fashion was from approximately 20 BC to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The dispute centres on the date of origin of the inscription.
According to Dr. Andre Lemaire, the Parisian epigrapher initially invited by antiquities dealer Oded Golan to view the ossuary in Golan's apartment, the cursive Aramaic script is consistent with first-century lettering. He determined that the inscription was not incised with modern tools, as it contains no elements not available in the ancient world. The first part of the inscription, "James son of Joseph," seems more deeply incised than the latter "brother of Jesus." This may be due to the inscription being made at a different time, or due to differences in the hardness of the limestone.
The fragile condition of the ossuary attests to its antiquity. The Israel Geological Survey submitted the ossuary to a variety of scientific tests, which determined that the limestone of the ossuary had a patina or sheen consistent with being in a cave for many centuries. The same type of patina covers the incised lettering of the inscription as the rest of the surface. It is claimed that if the inscription were recent, this would not be the case.
On June 18, 2003 the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) published a report concluding that the inscription is a modern forgery based on their analysis of the patina. Specifically, it claimed that the inscription was added in modern times and made to look old by addition of a chalk solution. In 2006, Wolfgang E. Krumbein, a Professor of Geomicrobiology from Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany, having analyzed the ossuary, concluded that the Israeli Antiquities Authority's conclusion "...originate[s] from a series of errors, biases, mistaken premises, use of inappropriate methodology, mistaken geochemistry, defective error control, reliance on unconfirmed data, disregard of information such as the cleaning and preservation actions performed [on the ossuary], and the use of a comparative isotope methodology despite the fact that the [James ossuary] inscription fail[s] to meet the cumulative prerequisite conditions for such tests and comparisons."
The Discovery Channel's 2004 documentary James, Brother of Jesus shows the examination of the inscription's patina by the Royal Ontario Museum using longwave ultraviolet light, and they concluded there was "nothing suspicious" about the engraving.
In 2007 Matti Myllykoski summarised the current position thus: "The authenticity and significance of the ossuary has been defended by Shanks (2003), while some scholars—relying on convincing evidence, to say the least—strongly suspect that it is a modern forgery."
A 2014 study supported the authenticity of the engravings. It found that patina on the ossuary surface matched that in the engravings, and that microfossils in the inscription seemed naturally deposited.
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Limor Livnat, Israeli Minister of Culture, mandated the work of a scientific commission to study the suspicious finds. IAA began an investigation into the affair. The James Ossuary was authentic—albeit unusual in shape—but they claimed the inscription was a fake.
However, in an external expert report, dated September 2005, W. E. Krumbein entered the controversy. His conclusions contradict those of the IAA stating "Our preliminary investigations cannot prove the authenticity of the three objects beyond any doubt. Doubtlessly the patina is continuous in many places throughout surface and lettering grooves in the case of ossuary and tablet. On the other hand a proof of forgery is not given by the experts nominated by the IAA."
The Israeli Antiquities Authority has failed to offer any report explaining why it concluded the ossuary is a forgery. Unsurprisingly, international experts are unable to give their opinions on the ossuary's authenticity until the IAA allows scholars to review its findings.
Ed Keall, the Senior Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Near Eastern & Asian Civilizations Department, continues to argue for the ossuary’s authenticity, saying "the ROM has always been open to questioning the ossuary's authenticity, but so far no definitive proof of forgery has yet been presented, in spite of the current claims being made."
The Biblical Archaeology Review also continued to defend the ossuary. In articles in the February 2005 issues, several paleographic experts argue that the James Ossuary is authentic and should be examined by specialists outside of Israel. Another article claims the cleaning of the James Ossuary before it was examined may have caused the problem with the patina. On June 13, 2012 a Biblical Archaeology Review press release announced the first major post-trial analysis of the ossuary, discussing the plausibility of its authenticity and using statistical analysis of ancient names to suggest that in contemporary Jerusalem, there would be 1.71 people named James with a father Joseph and a brother named Jesus.
Trial of Oded Golan
Oded Golan claimed publicly to believe his finds were genuine. Hershel Shanks declared that he did not believe the evidence of forgery and launched a personal complaint against IAA director Shuka Dorfman. Lemaire supported his original assessment when Frank Cross regretted Shanks' attitude. The Royal Ontario Museum, in its statement about Oded Golan's arrest and the validity of the so-called James Ossuary stated, "There is always a question of authenticity when objects do not come from a controlled archaeological excavation, as is the case with the James Ossuary." The Israel Antiquities Authority desires to limit the trade in Bible-era artifacts, which they believe encourages grave robbers, who smuggle the choicest finds out of the country.
On 29 December 2004, the Israeli Justice Ministry charged Golan, three other Israelis, and one Palestinian, with running a forgery ring that had been operating for more than twenty years. Golan was indicted in an Israeli court along with his three co-conspirators: Robert Deutsch, an epigraphy expert who has given lectures at the University of Haifa; collector Shlomo Cohen; and antiquities dealer Faiz al-Amaleh. They were accused of manufacturing numerous artifacts, including an Ivory pomegranate which had previously been generally accepted as the only proven relic from the Temple of King Solomon. Golan denied the charges.
In February, 2007, at Golan's trial, the defense produced photographs taken in Golan's home that were dated to 1976. In these photographs, the ossuary is shown on a shelf. In an enlargement, the whole inscription can be seen. The photographs were printed on 1970s photographic paper and stamped March 1976. The photo was examined by Gerald Richard, a former FBI agent and an expert for the defense. Richard testified that nothing about the photographs suggested that they were produced other than in 1976 as the stamps and paper indicated. These photographs undermined the prosecution's theory that the ossuary was a recent forgery by Golan intended to be sold for profit. Golan's attorney, Lior Beringer argued, "The prosecution claims that Golan forged the inscription after the beginning of 2000. But here is a detailed report from an FBI photo lab that states that the inscription existed at least since the 70s. It is unreasonable that someone would forge an inscription like this in the 70s and suddenly decide to come out with it in 2002."  However, it would also be necessary for some time to pass for a forgery to acquire the characteristics of an authentic patina. Later under oath, the government's chief scientific witness, Professor Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University admitted on cross-examination that there was original ancient patina in the word "Jesus."
Two paleographers, Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne and Ada Yardeni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pronounced it as authentic in the trial. No paleographer of repute has challenged their analysis. By 2009, many of the world's top archaeological experts had testified for both the prosecution and defense. Judge Aharon Farkash, who has a degree in archaeology, indicated difficulty in making a judgment regarding the objects' authenticity if the professors could not agree amongst themselves. In the second week of October 2010, the judge in the case against Golan and others retired to consider his verdict.
On March 14, 2012, Jerusalem Judge Aharon Farkash stated "that there is no evidence that any of the major artifacts were forged, and that the prosecution failed to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt." He was particularly scathing about tests carried out by the Israel police forensics laboratory that he said had probably contaminated the ossuary, making it impossible to carry out further scientific tests on the inscription. On May 30, 2012, Oded Golan was fined 30,000 shekels and sentenced to one month in jail for minor non-forgery charges related to the trial. As he spent time incarcerated at the start of the case, he did not have to serve any time in prison.
Discovery Channel documentaries
On February 26, 2007 a news conference was held at the New York Public Library by director James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici to discuss their documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which discusses the 1980 finding of the Talpiot Tomb, which they claim is in fact Jesus' family tomb. In the film, they also suggest that the so-called James ossuary is actually the "missing link" from the tomb (at the original discovery of the Talpiot Tomb, there were ten ossuaries, however one has since been lost—Jacobovici suggests the James Ossuary could be the tenth from Talpiot). According to the film, "recent tests conducted at the CSI Suffolk Crime lab in New York demonstrate that the patina (a chemical film encrustation on the box) from the James ossuary matches the patina from the other ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb."
Following the 4 March 2007 airing of The Lost Tomb of Jesus on the Discovery Channel, Ted Koppel aired a program entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Critical Look, whose guests included the director Simcha Jacobovici, James Tabor (a consultant and advisor on the docudrama), Johnathan Reed, Professor of Religion at the University of LaVerne and co-author of Excavating Jesus Beneath the Stones, Behind the Text, and William Dever, an archaeologist with 40 plus years experience in Middle Eastern archaeological digs.
The Washington Post in an article of 28 February 2007 quotes Dever as saying, "I just think it's a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated" and "all of the names [contained in the tomb] are common." In fact, two of the names found in the tomb are unique among known ossuaries, and Jacobovici's argument does not in any case rely on the commonness or uncommonness of individual names, but on the statistical probability of finding a set of names in a single tomb.
Alan Cooperman, writer of the Washington Post article also states:
- "Similar assessments came yesterday from two Israeli scholars, Amos Kloner, who originally excavated the tomb, and Joe Zias, former curator of archaeology at the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Kloner told the Jerusalem Post that the documentary is "nonsense." Zias described it in an e-mail to The Washington Post as a "hyped up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest."
In the docudrama The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Simcha Jacobovici claims:
- concerning the ossuary marked Jesus and the one believed to be that of Mary Magdalene: because "the DNA did not match, the forensic archaeologist concluded that they must be husband and wife";
- that testing showed that there was a match between the patina on the James and Jesus ossuaries and refers to the James ossuary as a possible "missing link" from the tomb of Jesus;
- and that an ossuary that became missing from the tomb of Jesus had actually been the infamous James ossuary.
During Ted Koppel's critique, The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Critical Look, Koppel stated he had denials from three people Simcha Jacobovici had misquoted in the documentary.
- Koppel had a written denial from the forensic archaeologist asserting that he had not concluded that the remains of Jesus and Miriamne showed they were husband and wife.
- Koppel had a written denial from the Suffolk Crime Lab Director asserting that he had not stated the James ossuary patina "matched" that of the Jesus ossuary. Jacobovici had a written denial of Koppel's written denial saying that the term "match" had a legal meaning that could not be applied to the patina tests; however, the patinas corresponded closely enough to meet an evidentiary standard of admissibility.
- Koppel had a verbal denial from Professor Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who had supervised the initial 1980 dig of the tomb of Jesus, with whom he spoke on 4 March 2007, asserting that the ossuary that later turned up missing from the tomb could not have been what is now known as the James ossuary because the ossuary he had seen and photographed and catalogued in 1980 had been totally unmarked, whereas the James ossuary is marked with the name of James and a rosette.
Additionally, Simcha Jacobovici's association of the ossuary with the 'Tomb of Jesus' seems to be excluded by the 1976 photograph of the ossuary presented at trial. The assertions of The Lost Tomb of Jesus are not supported by the overwhelming majority of scholars.
- Jehoash Inscription
- Biblical archaeology
- List of artifacts significant to the Bible
- Archaeological forgery
- Nebra sky disk
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- Biblical Archaeology Society
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- Jonathon Gatehouse, "Cashbox", 'Maclean's' magazine, March 2005
- Ryan Byrne and Bernadette McNary-Zak, Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
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- Israel antiquities forgers charged (BBC)
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