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Fabulous Finds or Clever Forgeries? (2003)

In my last column I added a last minute report of a discovery shown on TV, said to be a dedicatory inscription documenting the renovation of the temple in Jerusalem by Jehoash (or Joash), King of Judah in the 9th century BCE. A vague and badly focused picture showed the inscription engraved on a black stone, which looked a little like the Mesha stele—a famous inscription found in the 19th century in Jordan, documenting the acts of Mesha, King of Moab in the 9th century BCE. The most intriguing part of the short TV presentation was the analysis by the Israel Geological Institute.

In time, any antique erodes and acquires a patina. This is impossible to forge—as far as we know. The geologists stated that the patina on this item is genuine and is about 2500 years old. Furthermore, they found a microscopic amount of gold on the stone, and speculated that it was added to the stone incidentally when the temple was demolished by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. According to their theory, some of the temple golden objects melted during the fire that demolished the temple, and particles of gold became attached to the tablet. The stone was buried within the destruction layer, and so was never looted and subsequently developed its patina.

With such results, no wonder the inscription was presented on the TV news program. If it is genuine, it is an amazing match to an event documented in the Bible, the renovation of the Temple by King Jehoash: Jehoash said to the priests, ‘All the money of the dedicated gifts that are brought into the  house of the Lord—each man’s census money, each man’s assessment money—and all the money that a man purposes in his heart to bring into the house of the LORD, let the priests take it themselves, each from his constituency; and let them repair the

damages of the temple, wherever any dilapidation is found’” (2 Kings 12:4,5). “Then they gave the money which had been apportioned, into the hands of those who did the work, who had oversight of the house of the LORD; and they paid it out to the carpenters and builders who worked on the house of the LORD, and to masons and stonecutters, and for buying timber and quarried stone to repair the damage of the house of the LORD, and for all that was paid out to repair the temple.” (vs.11,12) “.. for they dealt faithfully” (v.15).

Dome of Rock Jerusalem

TRANSLATION OF THE INSCRIPTION

My tentative translation of the Hebrew words on the inscription appears below. Many of the words and expressions are similar to those in the Bible text: the use of the words “dedicated gifts” (line 7 and 2 Kings 12:4) and the fact that the work was done “faithfully” (line 10 and 2 Kings 12:15). If the match is so perfect, and the geologists state the patina is genuine, here is a clear inscription from the days of Solomon’s temple, an exhilarating piece of evidence from the Biblical temple, a reason to rejoice!

translation of the Hebrew words on the inscription

TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE

The only painful fact suppressing the excitement is that the origin of the inscription is uncertain. It was not found in a scientific excavation, but presented by an antiquity dealer. And it is this antiquity dealer which makes the whole story of the find so suspicious. The history of the inscription upon which everyone agrees is as follows: In 2001 Professor

Y. Naveh, a leading expert on ancient Hebrew inscriptions, was invited to the Kings Hotel in Jerusalem to check this inscription. He brought with him Professor DuduShenhav, former head of the labs in the Israel Museum. At the hotel they got a message to take a taxi and go to the nearby Larom Hotel instead. At that hotel two people presented the inscription to them. One, an Israeli, called himself Isaac Zur. The other, an Arab, was silent and nervous through the whole meeting. Isaac said the Arab represented the owners.

Isaac himself did not seem to be interested in the inscription, or know much about antiquities. With the inscription, he presented a printed page describing the inscription and providing supposed information about its origin— from the Muslim cemetery east of the Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem.

The cemetery next to the Eastern wall of the Temple Mount.

The cemetery next to the Eastern wall of the Temple Mount. Could the "Yoash inscription" come from there?

Naveh and Shenhav examined the inscription and concluded that it was impressive, but that it was “too good to be true”. Naveh advised Isaac to consult with another scholar. The next time the inscription appeared was when it was published by the Israel Geological Institute. At that stage both the Israeli police and the Israel Antiquities Authority started investigating the inscription. Isaac gave Professor Naveh a mobile phone number. The police found out that indeed the phone number belonged to a man named Isaac Zur, a former employee of the Israeli secret service. He was returning from abroad at the time of the investigation, and so was stopped at the airport, but after 24 hours of investigation, he proved to be the wrong man. Somehow the police did reach the man who presented the inscription to ProfessorNaveh. His real name was Zaki Zuriel. He was in Paris, but alerted the police to another man behind the inscription—Oded Golan.

LINKS TO THE JAMES OSSUARY

Oded Golan is now a famous man. He is the owner of the “James Ossuary” that stunned the world last year when it was published, because it could be the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. (I reported upon the find in Feb/Mar 2003). The “James Ossuary” was also from “the antiquity market.” Golan claimed he had owned it for years, but only acknowledged its importance recently.

Bazaars of Jerusalem

At first Oded Golan was not willing to state that he is the owner of the “Jehoash inscription” as well, but he did agree that he represents the owners. He was not willing to reveal their identity, and stated he was only helping the owners as a favor. Since being published, the inscription has been examined by more scholars. Leading Paleographers Frank Moore Cross and Kyle McCarter concluded it is a forgery. Paleographer and antiquity dealer Robert Deutch added “It’s a poor forgery”. But others, such as archaeologist Gabi Barkay, Historian Shmuel Safrai, and paleographers Ada Yardeni and André Lemaire, are less certain. Since its publication, the Israel Antiquities Authority demanded they inspect the inscription too, wanting to run further chemical tests. It was sent to the Israeli police, but when the box was opened recently, the police were surprised to see it broken into two pieces. One thing is now certain— Oded Golan does not know how to wrap his artifacts well enough. The “James Ossuary” also broke on its way from Israel to Toronto. Journalist Boaz Ga’on of the Israeli Newspaper Maariv, undertook further research on Oded Golan and his connection with valuable antiquities. He linked Golan with other valuable antiquities that were all very important, and all came from “the antiquity market”. One was an inscribed pottery shard (ostracon) documenting a contribution of King Yoshiyahu [Josiah] of three shekels to the temple. Another was a golden signet inscribed as belonging to “Menashe [Manesseh], son of Hezekiah, King of Judah”.

The ostracon, published in 1996 by Robert Deutch, ignited much debate. The golden signet was only presented and examined recently, but after some experts expressed serious skepticism, it disappeared. Golan says he does not have it any more. Ga’on, in fact, persuaded Oded Golan not to deny that he is the real owner of the “Yehoash inscription”.

So is the inscription genuine or fake? Time will tell. Notice also the following interesting point: in 1998 Professor Nadav Ne’eman of Tel-Aviv University published an article about the repair of the temple by King Jehoash. Based on the unique textual nature of the passages describing the moves by King Jehoash to renovate the temple,Ne’eman concluded the scribe editing the Bible based his knowledge of this event on an inscription made by order of the king to boast about repairing the temple. And this is exactly what the “Jehoash inscription” is about. So how do you reconstruct the history of this inscription? I suggest two possible scenarios:

A. The “authentic” scenario

In the 9th cent BCE King Jehoash decided to repair the temple. He collected money from the people of Judah, repaired the temple, and erected an honorific inscription to document this event. The inscription was partly broken at the top and covered with the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE.

About 2500 years later it was found in the nearby Muslim cemetery, or according to other versions—by the Muslims while renovating under the El-Aqsa mosque at theTemple Mount. Either way, it was bought by Oded Golan, a clever, fast, and lucky antiquities dealer, who always manages to own the most valuable looted antiquities found in this region.

B. The “forgery” scenario

Oded Golan, an antiquity collector and dealer develops a specialization in creating fake antiquities, or selling fake antiquities made by an anonymous forger. The forger’s biggest achievement is the ability to fake the patina over the item he wishes to sell.

Golan’s first famous success is fooling a geological lab in 1995 and selling fake ostraca of King Yoshiyahu (Josiah) to a private collector in 1995. He may have sold other fakes before and/or after this deal, but there is no documentation of it yet. In 2002 he becomes known as the owner of the “James Ossuary”, and again succeeds fooling geological labs that the inscribed ossuary is genuine. Motivated by proven success, he goes on to create a new Old Testament age forgery. Seeking an object known from the Bible, but not too obvious, he finds Ne’eman’s article hypothesizing a royal inscription made by King Jehoash after repairing the temple. Not wanting to raise additional suspicion to the authenticity of the inscription, he declines to purchase the inscription and sends a friend to present it to scholars and the Israelgeological institute. With time, however, journalists reveal that he is connected to this artifact as well, and he does not deny it.

So which scenario would you follow? Or is there a third scenario?

If you choose the second scenario and judge all of Golan’s antiquities as forgeries, keep in mind the following story: In the late 19th century an

ntiquities dealer in Jerusalem named Moses Wilhelm Shapira, a Jewish convert to Christianity, became famous for offering Moabite statuettes for sale. Although a museum in Berlin bought most of them, many scholars condemned them as forgeries, and finally Clermont-Gennau actually found the workshop in eastern Jerusalemwhere the “Moabite” forgeries were made.

However, Shapira continued to deal in antiquities, and in 1883 he traveled through Europe trying to sell an ancient scroll containing the book of Deuteronomy. He tried first in Germany and then to the British Museum in London. Known as a forger, the scholars condemned the manuscript as as a forgery, and refused to purchase it. Broken hearted, Shapira left the manuscript at the British Museum and committed suicide in a hotel in Holland. Some 60 years later, the first Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Scholars redeveloped an interest in the scroll Shapira once tried to sell, but it was too late. In 1886 the British Museum sold it for pennies to an antiquity dealer. The antiquity dealer sold it to Sir Charles Nicholson, and the scroll most probably burnt to ashes when his house burned down in a fire in 1899. Did the scholarly world lose a genuine scroll from the Dead Sea because of prejudice against the owner?

Could it happen again with antiquities put on sale nowadays by Oded Golan?