The announcement last month that a limestone box thought to have once held the bones of Jesus’ brother is a forgery seemed to put dispute over the so-called “James Ossuary” to rest.
But the debate is anything but over, as some scholars say they are unconvinced by findings of the Israel Antiquities Authority. And a few question whether declaring the artifact a fake had as much to do with politics as science.
The box’s owner, Oded Golan, told Religion News Service that he believes many on the seven-member panel issuing the report had already made up their minds about its authenticity.
“What is surprising is the fact that the conclusions of the committee are much more definitive than the findings themselves,” Golan said in an interview with the news service. “There are many interpretations and conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence.”
Herschel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, which first published pictures of the box and labeled it potentially “the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology,” says he is still not convinced it is a forgery.
One reason, he says, is that Shuka Dorfman, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “hates” antiquities dealers and wants to put them out of business. “In short, Shuka Dorfman would like nothing so much as to see the ossuary inscription declared a forgery,” Shanks wrote in a article on his magazine’s Web site.
Edward Keall, senior curator at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, said the IAA has been in a public squabble with Golan since November, when Golan allowed the ossuary to leave Israel for an exhibit at the Toronto museum.
Keall told ABC NEWS that a “political agenda” may have prompted the IAA to release its statement as a way to discredit Golan’s ossuary.
“There’s a vendetta against Oded Golan,” added Ben Witherington, a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary and BeliefNet columnist who defends the ossuary as authentic. He said tests by the Toronto museum showed “absolutely no evidence of modern tampering” alleged by the IAA.
The IAA is concerned about looting of ancient artifacts and suspicious of antiquities dealers who acquire their finds by dubious means.
Golan, an engineer from Tel Aviv, claims to have purchased the ossuary for $200 in an antiquities shop in Jerusalem’s Old City in 1978. The date is significant, because a law in Israel says any artifact discovered after 1978 is property of the State of Israel. Golan was 16 years old in 1978, and some doubt a teenager would have made such a purchase. If not, and the purchase took place after that, Golan could be guilty of breaking the law.
If authentic, the ossuary has been valued at $1 million to $2 million. And Golan isn’t the only one getting a piece of the action.
The Biblical Archaeology Review’s Shanks wouldn’t tell an EthicsDaily.com columnist who viewed the box in Toronto last year what financial arrangements were made for its showing there.
Shanks declined to say how much the Toronto museum paid, or to whom, to display the artifact. He also wouldn’t discuss how much advance money he and others would receive from Harper Collins for a book about the ossuary or who would be collecting insurance claims for damage suffered to the box while it was being moved from Israel to Canada.
Last October, the Review published an article describing the find of an inscription “James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus,” scratched on a stone box dating to the first century.
If authentic, scholars said the container, a burial box known as an ossuary, likely once contained the bones of James, a founder of the early church in Jerusalem described in Scripture as “the Lord’s brother.”
It also would be the earliest reference to Jesus outside the Bible and the only physical evidence yet discovered to support biblical and other writings that such a person actually lived.
On June 18, however, a committee of the IAA said the ossuary—a box used in ancient times to inter a person’s bones after the body decomposed in burial tombs–was real, but the inscription was a fake, added later by someone seeking to turn it into a religious relic.
The inscription, the IAA scholars said, cuts through the patina, a coating or film that develops on a surface over time. The patina covering the inscription didn’t match the rest of the box, they said. The scholars identified a concoction apparently meant to fake a centuries-old patina as a mixture of powdered chalk and microfossils (which shouldn’t be found in the type of rock used to construct the box) dissolved in heated water, possibly modern tap water.
Another scholar, Rochelle Altman, said earlier that the inscription contained two different types of script that were probably added at different stages. The box may have originally read “Jacob son of Joseph” she said, but the second half of the inscription, “brother of Jesus,” is a “poorly executed fake” added centuries later.
Another theory for the discrepancy is that someone might have used a computer program like Photoshop or PageMaker to copy ancient words from authentic images and put them together to fake an inscription.
Shanks says that if it is a forgery he hopes the forger is caught and put in jail, but he isn’t yet convinced.
He claims the conclusion of the IAA panel is “essentially the view of one person,” Tel Aviv University professor Yuval Goren, who convinced the subcommittee of scientific conclusions about which they had no expertise.
That prompted an angry response from Goren, who described Shanks’ assertion as a “vulgar, personal and unjustified attack against me.”
Keall, meanwhile, who mended the box after it broke into five pieces last fall, said he believes the inscription has been over cleaned, but not necessarily forged, and explained the uneven patina as the result of natural weathering.
Another scholar who doubts authenticity, however, termed earlier studies of the ossuary “fairly slipshod examinations” by people who “really wanted this to be true.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Bob Allen was the managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, writing more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure. He is currently the news editor at Baptist News Global.