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Sensation and Scandal over the Ossuary of James (2003)

World media attention has focused on the recent article in Biblical Archaeology Review where Prof A Lemaire published an ossuary—a small stone coffin or bone box—from the first century AD. Inscribed on one side in Aramaic were the words: “Yaakov, son of Yoseph, brother of Yeshua”. The names correspond with James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. In the New Testament, James was the first leader of the Christian community after Jesus’ crucifixion. The newly discovered ossuary could be that of a member of Jesus’ family, and the first leader of his followers!

The main problem is its source. Coming from the antiquity market, its authenticity has to be proved, especially when it is claimed to be connected to a well-known person. My first reaction was disbelief, for several reasons. The text is too clear (usually inscriptions on ossuaries are of poor quality); the formula “X son of Y brother of Z” on an ossuary is very rare; the Aramaic dialect used is not typical for that period; and worse—the statement given by the collector that he bought it 30 years ago, and only now cared to examine the inscription, seemed very strange.

If the owner is telling the truth we must assume he was really naïve and ignorant when he bought the ossuary, and worse, that the antiquity dealer who sold it to him was equally so. Usually antiquity dealers are far from naïve. And why did the owner check the inscription only 30 years after he purchased it?

I imagined a scenario to explain all these anomalies, suggesting it was a fake. The collector bought an ordinary ossuary, many of which can be found in the antiquity market, and added an inscription of a well-known figure to inflate its value. He wrote the father’s and brother’s names, limiting the possibility of attributing it to a different James. He chiseled the inscription very clearly, so the reading would not be questionable, but used an Aramaic dialect common only later in Judaism, though most people would not realize that. And finally—he said he had it for 30 years because of the Israeli antiquity law of 1978. Any antiquity purchased after that date could be confiscated by the state if it was thought to be of national value. Furthermore, how did the ossuary get to Toronto a few weeks later? Any antiquity taken out of the country must be reported to the Israel Antiquities Authority, and can only be exported if a licence is provided. I theorised that not only is the ossuary a fake, but it was also smuggled out of the country. To verify that point I called Dr Uzi Dahari, vice-head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, and asked him how this object got toToronto. His reply matched my theory. He said the collector did ask for a licence to export the ossuary, but didn’t mention any inscription, and so was given the permission. Bingo! I had everything tied up, matching my theory about the nature of the collector and the authenticity of the object. Or did I? One thing didn’t make sense. In the geological report added to the publication of the ossuary, Dr A Rosenfeld and Dr S Ilani of the Institute of Geology of Israel verified the ossuary is indeed ancient. It was not chiselled with modern tools, and has a patina on it (a microscopic incrustation acquired over the centuries). That still didn’t disprove my theory, because I theorized the ossuary itself is genuine, only the inscription is a fake. But the report adds that the letters of the inscription also have traces of patina on them.Now that is something forgers cannot do, at least not to my knowledge. Intrigued by this verdict I sought further information. I noticed in the publication that credit was given to Ada Yardeni for drawing the inscription. Ada Yardeni is an experienced and reputable epigraphist. Having seen the original inscription, her opinion would be of great value, so I phoned her. Her answers were impressive. She said the collector told her he likes to collect antiquities of all sorts, and he doesn’t always know the basic facts on items he purchases. And as for the inscription, she was convinced it is genuine. “So what do you think? Could it really be the ossuary of the James?” I asked. She replied that since the ossuary originated from the antiquity market, an absolute answer can never be given, yet she gave it a 50% chance that it is indeed the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. Overwhelmed by her statement, I have had to reject my own critical theories. Apparently there is reason to believe the ossuary could really be that of James, the brother of Jesus. Some may claim the owner has acted dishonestly, and that he is also responsible for damage to the object. When the ossuary reached Toronto, the museum curators noticed it had developed a crack, apparently from inadequate packing or lack of care in transporting it. I consider this object should be packed by professionals and shipped back to Israel before further damage is done. It should not be in the possession of a private individual, but in the possession of proper authorities, allowing scholars to access it, and displaying it to the public. Just before sending this report I found two more articles published in the local Israeli media. One, published in Ha’aretz magazine, provides further evidence for suspecting the owner’s statement, and reveals his identity. He is Mr Oded Golan, 51, single. While Mr Golan presented himself in interviews as a manager of a high-tech company, he is in fact an engineer working from an office in southern Tel-Aviv, supervising a building project there. Secondly, he claims to be rather ignorant of antiquities of the Classical periods—indeed his antiquities collection of over 3000 objects consists mostly of Israelite and Philistine pottery. But the antiquity dealer Robert Deutsch, who knows him well, states that he is very experienced in antiquities in general, and his brother, Mr Yaron Golan, added that his knowledge in archaeology is “phenomenal”. Thirdly, Oded Golan admitted that a few months ago he purchased the contents of a looted burial cave near Jerusalem (an illegal act itself), yet, he states, the James ossuary was not part of this purchase, but was bought in 1967, shortly after the Six Day War. But in that year he was only 16!. Antiquity dealer Robert Deutsch provides the numbers that explain the owner’s strange statement: “If he can prove that he owned the object prior to 1978, he can sell it abroad for as much as two billion US dollars. If he can only sell it in Israel, the Israel museum would probably offer him no more then US$200,000.”

Stone bone boxSilwan village