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An Update on the James Ossuary (2004)

Like many others, I am fascinated with the publication of the ossuary (bone box) inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. The possibility that the bone box of James, the leading figure of the early Christian church, has been found, is more then another archaeological find. It is a dramatic discovery that evokes emotional and religious feelings for many Christians.

The crucial problem with the find is that the ossuary was not found in a proper archaeological excavation, but came from the “antiquities market” and is now owned by Mr. Oded Golan, an Israeli antiquities collector and engineer living in Tel-Aviv. Mr. Golan claims he has owned the ossuary for over 25 years and never realized its importance.

An Israeli who claims to have owned an ancient artifact for more then 25 years may have a special motivation. An Israeli law of 1978 ruled that any antiquities bought after that date could be confiscated by the state, if the antiquities had special national value.

Could Mr. Golan be “faking” the period that he has owned the ossuary? And coming from the “antiquities market”, can we be absolutely sure the inscription is genuine? That is what the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) examined when they appointed an investigative panel of leading experts from different fields. After weeks of various tests the committee concluded the inscription was – a forgery.

Some said only the last part (“brother of Jesus”) was fake, but no one said the whole inscription was valid.

Both Andre Lemaire, who first published the ossuary, and Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review that published Lemaire’s article, have battled the IAA conclusions and brought arguments in favor of the authenticity of the ossuary, as well as shown up the flaws in the work of the IAA committee. A Dutch journalist and I interviewed Oded Golan a few months ago. Mr. Golan was very pleasant and spoke at length about many issues, saying many things –  except what I wanted to hear.

He did not have a picture of the ossuary to prove it had been in his possession for 25 years, nor did he provide names of witnesses from his childhood who could verify his ownership. He did not answer my question whether he was willing to be checked by a lie detector. The interview was reported in Archaeological Diggingsand concluded with my opinion that I found Mr. Golan’s statement not very convincing, but I cannot disprove the authenticity of the ossuary.

A few weeks later, in a symposium in Jerusalem dedicated to the “James ossuary”, more scholars, including former members of the IAA committee, stated they too could not disprove the authenticity of the ossuary.

Two months ago Israel TV’s Channel 2 drew attention back to the “James ossuary” when they aired an enlightening documentary on the “industry of fake antiquities”. The program revealed that the police have the testimony of an Egyptian artisan who has been producing fake antiquities for Oded Golan for several years. According to the TV program, Oded Golan sold these fakes to rich collectors by using Arab intermediaries who stated they had found the “antiquities” in their back yard or near their village. It is claimed that the IAA found tools, sketches and drafts of the fakes made by Golan. The only problem is that neither the police, nor the IAA, have presented any of this incriminating evidence. Channel 2 did not interview or show the Egyptian artisan, nor show any of the alleged sketches of the fakes. The program only showed some dental tools and chemicals. These can hardly be the “smoking gun” of an antiquities forger since they are commonly used for repairing or improving the appearance of antiquities.

The latest episode in the “James ossuary” saga is the recent testimony of two scholars to the Israeli police, stating they saw the ossuary in the early 1990’s in an antiquity shop in the Old City of Jerusalem. According to them, at that time the ossuary was inscribed with only the first half of the inscription: “James son of Joseph”. Both scholars are of high reputation. One is Joe Zias, a former IAA employee and an expert in physical anthropology. The other scholar would not reveal his identity. Although their testimony appears to be convincing proof that the ossuary is fake, Hershel Shanks expressed serious doubts over their claims, asking the most important question: Why have the two scholars only now come forward with their testimonies? Why didn’t they provide this important information when the item was first published, or when the IAA committee was appointed? Could it be that one of the scholars is uncomfortable with a find that may contradict his theological belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary? And should the fact that Mr. Zias is currently unemployed be mentioned in this context? A wide range of world media would probably want to interview a person giving such a statement, and would probably pay him for his time and trouble.

I sense the debate over the authenticity of the “James ossuary” is far from over. Perhaps it has just begun.

kokhim grave

Archaeological highlights of 2003

In April 2004 the Israel Archaeological Conference was held in the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. The papers given included an interesting collection of recent archaeological activities throughout the country, detailing the latest digs and trends in archaeological research. The first paper discussed the new north-south highway that is being constructed.

Because of construction, large-scale salvage excavations at various sites had to be carried out as quickly as possible. Special teams from the IAA were assigned to the excavations, but due to the large scale of the work, teams from various universities also conducted digs. As a result, the project has changed local archaeological policy since it has broken the IAA monopoly on conducting salvage excavations. The papers presented some of the results of these excavations. Teams from Ben-GurionUniversity in Beer-Sheba found sites from various periods, including the agricultural surroundings and cemeteries. Perhaps the most interesting result is the possible identification of one site, Tel Hamid, with the Biblical town of Givton. One of the IAA teams reported on the excavation of a large village near the planned intersection of the new highway with the Tel-Aviv–Jerusalem highway. The village is one of the largest settlements from the Second Temple period (2nd century BCE to 1st century CE), but so far, its identity is unknown. Another paper reported on the impressive number of churches found in the excavations along the planned highway. A total of six ancient churches were found, three or four of them possibly attached to local monasteries. Other papers presented new discoveries at sites where ongoing excavations are being conducted by different universities—sites include Hazor, Hyppos-Susita, Akko, Beth- Shemesh, and Dor. The noon session was devoted to antiquity forgeries in general, but really focused on the “James ossuary”, and the “Joash inscription”. Uzi Dahari, deputy manager of the IAA, spoke about the James ossuary and the Joash inscription, together with other famous forgeries such as the Shroud of Turin and the Moabite forgeries from the 19th century. He demonstrated how forgeries “contaminate” academic research.

Next, several chemistry and geology specialists spoke, all condemning both the James ossuary and the Joash inscription. They advised increased skepticism to any object originating in the antiquities market. Although also favoring the condemnation of the antiquities trade, Professor I. Efal of the Hebrew University tried to balance the arguments of the previous speakers by admitting that there are occasions where flexibility is required. Some very important finds, such as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls and the recent discovery of dozens of Idumean ostracae (inscribed pottery shards) were all purchased from antiquity dealers.