James Ossuary

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The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003.

The James Ossuary is a 1st-century limestone box that was used for containing the bones of the dead. An Aramaic inscription in the Hebrew alphabet meaning "James (Jacob), son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" is cut into one side of the box. The ossuary attracted scholarly attention due to its apparent association with the Christian holy family.[1] However, while the ossuary itself is accepted as authentic to the time period, the inscription itself could be a modern forgery.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4][5]

In 2003, The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) argued that the inscriptions were forged at a much later date.[6][7] In December 2004, Oded Golan was charged with 44 counts of forgery, fraud and deception, including forgery of the Ossuary inscription.[8] 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.[9] 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".[10] The ossuary was returned to Golan, who put it on public display.[11]


Text יעקוב בר יוסף אחוי דישוע
Transliteration yʿqwb br ywsf ʾḥwy d yšwʿ
Romanization Ya'akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua
Translation Ya'akov son of Yosef, brother of Yeshua


An ossuary is a stone (usually limestone) depository for storing bones of the dead, considered a luxury for the elite. The dead would lie on a loculus in a tomb for a year of decomposition, and then the remains would be collected and placed in an ossuary. Depending on the wealth and taste of the family, the box would sometimes be inscribed with decorations or the name of the deceased.[12] The James Ossuary measures 50.5 by 25 by 30.5 centimetres (19.9 in × 9.8 in × 12.0 in), which is slightly smaller than average compared to other ossuaries of the time.[13] Owner Oded Golan said 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.[11]

Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University stated that, other than James Ossuary, only one has been found so far in thousands of ossuaries, which contains 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.[14]

Announcement and exhibition[edit]

The existence of the James Ossuary was announced at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on October 21, 2002. It was organized by Hershel Shanks, founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society. He presented it as the first direct archaeological link to the historical Jesus.[15]

Shanks also announced that the ossuary would be featured at an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario, opening the following month. The opening was to coincide with meetings of scholarly groups like the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion that were to take place in the city in November.[16]

Scholarly analysis[edit]

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 André 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.[7][17] 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.[citation needed]

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.[18][page needed]

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 Elisabeth Krumbein, a world's renowned expert in stone patinas called by the defense counsel, analyzed the ossuary, and concluded that "the inscription is ancient and most of the original patina has been removed (by cleaning or use of sharp implement)".[19] He further noted in his report, "any forgery of three very distinct types of patina, if ever possible, requires the development of ultra-advanced techniques, in-depth knowledge and extensive collaboration of a large number of experts from various fields".[19] According to his analysis, the patina inside the inscription took at least 50 years to form; thus, if it is a forgery, then it was forged more than 50 years ago.[20]

In 2004, an analysis of the ossuary's petrography and oxygen isotopic composition was conducted by Avner Ayalon, Miryam Bar-Matthews and Yuval Goren. They compared the δ18O values of the letters patina from the James Ossuary, with the patina sampled from the uninscribed surfaces of the same item ("surface patina"), and with surface and letters patinas from legally excavated ossuaries from Jerusalem. Their study undermined the authenticity claim of the ossuary.[21] However, Dr James Harrell, professor of Archaeological Geology at the University of Toledo, provided an explanation for this δ18O discrepancy. He suggested that a cleanser may have been the source of the low δ18O readings, which antiquities dealers and collectors often use to clean the artifacts to increase value. He tested the most popular cleanser sold in Israel and confirmed that the δ18O value of the cleanser was consistent with the δ18O value of the patina in the inscription.[22]

A later study done with a different isotope found that the δ13C values of the surface patina and the inscription patina were almost identical.[22]

In 2007 Finnish theologian Matti Myllykoski (Arto Matti Tuomas 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."[23][24]

In 2008, an archaeometric analysis conducted by Amnon Rosenfeld, Howard Randall Feldman, and Wolfgang Elisabeth Krumbein strengthened the authenticity contention of the ossuary. It found that patina on the ossuary surface matched that in the engravings, and that microfossils in the inscription seemed naturally deposited.[25]

Israeli investigation[edit]

Close-up of the Aramaic inscription: "Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua" ("James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus")

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, Wolfgang 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."[26]

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.

Edward John 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."[27]

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.[24] 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.[28]

Trial of Oded Golan[edit]

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."[27] However, the museum's decision to rush the ossuary into an exhibition was criticized by scholars. Eric M. Meyers called the ROM "reckless", and Joe Zias said, "They saw the opportunity to make a fast buck and they did it."[29] 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.[24][8]

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-defendants: 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.[30] 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, however, there 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." [31] 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."[14]

Two paleographers, André 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.[14] In fact, Yardeni, who is considered a household name in the field, testified that the inscription is no doubt of ancient origin inscribed by a single individual, and stated, "If this is a forgery, I quit."[32] 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.[33] In the second week of October 2010, the judge in the case against Golan and others retired to consider his verdict. Epigrapher Rochelle Altman, who is considered top-notch, has repeatedly called the second half of the inscription a forgery.[34]

On March 14, 2012, Jerusalem Judge Aharon Farkash stated "that there is no evidence that any of the major artifacts were forged, and the prosecution failed to prove their accusations beyond a reasonable doubt."[9] 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.[35] 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.[36]

Discovery Channel documentaries[edit]

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."[37] In fact, two of the names found in the tomb are unique among known ossuaries,[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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."[37]

In the docudrama The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Simcha Jacobovici claims:

  1. 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";
  2. 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;
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Legon, Jeordan (22 October 2002). "Scholars: Oldest evidence of Jesus?". CNN. Retrieved 2 November 2016.
  2. ^ Harper, Kyle (11 November 2018). "The Emperor and the Empty Tomb". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 14 November 2018.
  3. ^ Rose, Mark (January–February 2003). "Ossuary Tales". Archaeology. Vol. 56 no. 1. Archaeological Institute of America. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
  4. ^ Silberman, Neil Asher; Goren, Yuval (September–October 2003). "Faking Biblical History: How wishful thinking and technology fooled some scholars—and made fools out of others". Archaeology. Vol. 56 no. 5. Archaeological Institute of America. pp. 20–29. JSTOR 41658744. Retrieved 2011-04-27.
  5. ^ Shanks, Hershel. "Related Coverage on the James Ossuary and Forgery Trial". Biblical Archaeology Review. Archived from the original on 2011-09-07. Retrieved 2012-02-27.
  6. ^ Dahari, Uzi. Final Report Of The Examining Committees For the Yehoash Inscription and James Ossuary (Report). Israel Antiquities Authority. Archived from the original on 8 April 2014. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  7. ^ a b Tabor, James D. (2006). The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. Simon and Schuster. pp. 6–36. ISBN 9780743287234.
  8. ^ a b Kalman, Matthew (5 October 2010). "Judge Mulls Verdict in Jesus Forgery Trial". AOL News. Archived from the original on 8 April 2014.
  9. ^ a b "Breaking News: Golan and Deutsch Acquitted of All Forgery Charges". Bible History Daily. 14 March 2012.
  10. ^ Friedman, Matti (14 March 2012). "Oded Golan is not guilty of forgery. So is the 'James ossuary' for real?". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  11. ^ a b Kalman, Matthew (25 December 2013). "Ancient burial box claimed to have earliest reference to Jesus". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 April 2014.
  12. ^ Byrne & McNary-Zak 2009, pp. 4–6.
  13. ^ Byrne & McNary-Zak 2009, p. 21.
  14. ^ a b c Biblical Archaeology Society (13 June 2012). "'Brother of Jesus' Proved Ancient and Authentic". Bible History Daily. Archived from "brother-of-jesus"-proved-ancient-and-authentic/ the original on 31 August 2014.
  15. ^ Byrne & McNary-Zak 2009, p. 6.
  16. ^ Byrne & McNary-Zak 2009, p. 7.
  17. ^ Paul L. Maier, The James Ossuary Lutheran Witness, 2003. p 1
  18. ^ Craig A. Evans, Jesus and the Ossuaries Baylor University Press, 2003
  19. ^ a b Wolfgang E. Krumbein, Preliminary Report: External Expert Opinion on three Stone Items, Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, 2005
  20. ^ "Krumbein's bombshell". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2016-10-28.
  21. ^ Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., & Goren, Y. (2004). "Authenticity examination of the inscription on the ossuary attributed to James, brother of Jesus". Journal of Archaeological Science. 31 (8): 1185–1189. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2004.03.001.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  22. ^ a b Fruen, Lois (February 2006). "Real or Fake? The James Ossuary Case" (PDF). American Chemical Society.
  23. ^ Myllykoski, Matti (2007), "James the Just in History and Tradition: Perspectives of Past and Present Scholarship (Part II)," Currents in Biblical Research 6:11, p.84, ‹See Tfd›doi:10.1177/1476993X07080242
  24. ^ a b c Dockser Marcus, Amy (20 October 2008). "Ancient Objects, Dubious Claims". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  25. ^ "Archaeometric Analysis of the James Ossuary". gsa.confex.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-06. Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  26. ^ Biblical Archaeology Society Archived 2006-12-06 at the Wayback Machine
  27. ^ a b "News".
  28. ^ Biblical Archaeology Society | Press Release: "Brother of Jesus" Proved Ancient and Authentic Archived 2012-06-16 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ Gatehouse, Jonathon (25 March 2005). "Cashbox". Maclean's. Rogers Media. Archived from the original on 11 December 2006. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  30. ^ "Collector accused of forging 'James ossuary' says old photos prove authenticity". Haaretz. 2007-02-08. Retrieved 2016-10-28.
  31. ^ "Collector accused of forging 'James ossuary' says old photos prove authenticity".
  32. ^ "Ancient James Ossuary and Jehoash Tablet Inscriptions May Be Authentic, Say Experts". Popular Archeology. Retrieved 2016-10-11.
  33. ^ "The Burial Box of Jesus' Brother: Fraud?". Time. 2009-09-05. Retrieved 2010-05-05.
  34. ^ "The Bible and Interpretation".
  35. ^ "Search". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. May 21, 2012.
  36. ^ "Judge Announces Forgery Trial Sentence". Biblical Archaeology Society. 30 May 2012.
  37. ^ a b Alan Cooperman, "'Lost Tomb of Jesus' Claim Called a Stunt; Archaeologists Decry TV Film," The Washington Post, p. A3, February 28, 2007

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]